Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry or fear.
It is a normal and often necessary emotion but when a person regularly feels a disproportionate level of anxiety, it then becomes a problem. Anxiety can lead to excessive nervousness, fear, apprehension, worry, situation avoidance and more often or not stress. All of this can become life-changing.
How does this stress and anxiety build up? Every negative thought you have gets converted into stress/anxiety and is stored (we say its stored in a stress bucket).
Whether it’s something major like redundancy, grief or trauma or minor things like an argument or a meeting you have coming up, it all accumulates and builds up. (And here I should point out that what is major and minor for the individual is entirely variable to the each individual… confrontation or public speaking can be major stressors too).
When our stress bucket fills up and overflows, the primitive mind will take over. The primitive mind’s proper name is the limbic system (amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus). When this part of the brain takes over it responds with the primitive opt out clauses of fight, flight or freeze (anger, anxiety or depression)… or a combination of all three.
We empty our stress bucket during REM sleep. REM takes up enormous amounts of energy in processing everything we experience during the day and is restricted to around 20% of our sleep patterns. Sleep is often one of the first indicators that we are suffering from stress/anxiety etc. We can often struggle to get to sleep or when we do get to sleep we can wake several times during the night and it becomes a real issue if we can’t get back to sleep again.
So how do we improve things? The key to improving your general well-being is receiving a good dose of serotonin. We all know that when we’re in a good place, we find it so much easier to cope with anything. If you stub your toe when you’re rested and happy it’s just a passing inconvenience that you swiftly forget about - when you’re tired, anxious, stressed or depressed we may well respond in a much angrier or volatile manner.
So, what can we do to create a flow of serotonin that will keep us feeling positive and better able to cope?
We have to focus on the 3 P’s. Positive actions, Positive interactions and Positive thoughts.
Exercise, self care (incredibly important and often overlooked), creative pursuits, hobbies etc are all positive actions, but also anything that can make you feel more positive and motivated. Even small achievable goals can be very important when really struggling. Just getting dressed can be enough sometimes. When you’re stuck in traffic it always feels better to take a detour, even if it’s a longer journey, because feeling like you are moving and that constant progression always feels better, even if those milestones are incremental initially.
Seeing friends, doing social things, going to events are obvious positive interactions. Connecting with people is important.
Positive thought is often something people find harder. The primitive brain will automatically take note of negatives that happen. We have to train our brains to take notice of positive things. Far too often we gloss over these and dismiss them but it’s important we acknowledge them in order to maintain a balanced view of our lives. I ask my clients to keep a journal of positive things every night, just 3 things. The more we practice doing something the more we develop that area of the brain and the more natural it becomes. And these positives can be anything, depending on where you started from – it could be a great conversation with a friend, something that made you smile, when you made someone else smile, a really nice meal, or even I managed to get out of bed today. Acknowledge all those small achievements – they are all important.
There is a 4th P too - Purpose. Having goals, objectives and things you want to strive for and achieve. Feeling like you have a direction and that you are making progress towards it. Finding things you are passionate about. These all will help with motivation and improving our enjoyment and quality of life.
Change can feel uncomfortable and is sometimes scary but breaking things down into small achievable goals and targets makes it all less daunting. When we are doing our 3 Ps and achieving our goals, we will receive a constant flow of serotonin and all the other happy hormones and when that happens we feel happier, more confident and more able to cope with whatever life throws at us.