How many anxious thoughts did you have before you even got out of the bed this morning? Quite a number, if you're like most people. There may have been the immediate panic that you've slept in (even though you haven't) followed by remembering an unpleasant meeting scheduled with your boss later, for which you're not really prepared.
Sound familiar? The bad news is that anxiety is an unavoidable part of life that can be triggered by myriad situations from social situations to work stress. The more positive way of looking at it is that it's a natural, necessary in-built reaction and its beneficial effects are that it focuses you, keeps you alert and helps you problem-solve.
This is good in moderation but not so if it veers into territory where it takes over your life, in which case you may need to speak to a professional. But there are steps you can take to limit anxious ways of thinking.
When you're faced with a situation that makes you anxious, it's easy to project to future scenarios that are unlikely to happen. You have to accept an award on behalf of your company at a large event, for example, and you start to believe that you can't do it; that you'll trip on the way to the podium and lose the power of speech once you get up there - cue the entire audience pointing and laughing. This could theoretically occur, but it probably won't. And even if it did, what would be the worst possible outcome?
Anxiety is the fear of the unknown but that doesn't mean it's irrational and that there aren't things you shouldn't be concerned about. "Plan ahead to cope with it," advises counselling psychologist Dr Daragh Keogh. "Anxiety tells us that something about a situation doesn't make us feel safe. It might be to do with competence; whether or not we're going to be accepted by other people, whether we'll do well or not, so it's important to do anything we can to build our self-confidence, self-esteem and self worth."
Several studies have indicated social media isn't so good for anxiety levels. There's FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), whereby looking at the lives of 'the beautiful people' on Facebook makes your own feel inadequate and boring, even if you realise nobody could be having that good a time, all of the time. Other studies have indicated that posting an upbeat status update when you're actually feeling miserable contributes to anxiety levels. A 2011 study from Edinburgh Napier University even found the more friends a person had on Facebook, the more stressed and anxious they were likely to be, with the amount of actions and activities that Facebook users have to do creating a psychological strain.
A healthy diet is one of the cornerstones of well-being and it can also help reduce anxiety. An important thing to avoid is fluctuations in blood sugar. These can leave you feeling shaky and anxious so steer clear of refined sugars and carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index, which can cause you to crash and burn. Look to complex carbohydrates instead - wholegrain pastas and breads, quinoa, porridge - which will provide a slow release of energy and which also increase the amount of serotonin in your brain, which has a calming effect. Dark chocolate is said to help too because it reduces cortisol, the hormone that causes anxiety symptoms.
In the same way to-do lists can help you feel you're getting a handle on things, journalling is a well-documented method of dealing with anxious thoughts. "Journalling can help when it's focussed on making sense of how to understand things and looking at what you need and what productive steps you can take," says Dr Daragh Keogh. Writing everything down helps get things clear in your head and the act in itself can be a cathartic experience. It also helps identify anxiety triggers and then to examine the who/what/where/why of your thoughts.
'I can't do this. I can't cope. I'm going to mess up. I'm going to be fired. He's going to break up with me. Everybody thinks I'm useless…' When feeling anxious it's easy to get stuck in this rut of negative thinking, but it's unhelpful. Think back on past achievements or previous situations where you thought you wouldn't survive, but you did. Look to other areas in your life where you are successful - family, relationships, and friends - for reassurance.
Caffeine, tobacco and indeed illegal hard drugs are not good news when it comes to coping with anxiety. They put huge stress on the system and exacerbate anxious feelings while interfering with the body's natural coping mechanism. If you're reliant on double espressos to get you through the day, replace the ritual with something more soothing such as green tea. Of course this isn't a strategy that will work for everyone - if you need the reassurance of your morning latte, there's no harm in that but certainly excessive consumption should be avoided.
A problem shared is a problem solved is a well-known maxim. When you talk to family or friends about your fears - perceived or otherwise - it can give you some perspective and some much-needed encouragement. Knowing you're not alone, or reaching out to others who may have experienced similar feelings is reassuring.
Extensive research has shown that exercise is helpful with dealing with anxiety. Regular exercise increases feel-good chemicals in the brain and that raised body temperature can have a calming effect. The psychological reasons are even more extensive. It's difficult to focus on your anxieties when you're working out and it's also a healthy coping strategy, as opposed to ignoring your anxious feelings or turning to alcohol. It's good for social interaction, again helpful in reducing anxiety and gaining confidence.
Feeling anxious can manifest itself in physical signs such as a racing heart, dizziness, dry mouth and sweating. Breathing techniques can help with these, and induce a sense of calm any time, any place, helping you feel more peaceful and in control of your anxiety. Try the measured breath. Firstly make sure you relax your body, your shoulders are dropped and your jaw isn't tense. Then breathe in slowly, through the nose, keeping your shoulders down and expand your stomach as you breathe in. Hold that breath for a minute before letting it go slowly and counting to seven. Do this for a couple of minutes. A good guide is on iTunes, Breathe: Anxiety Relief Breathing Exercises by Anxiety Slayer, Shann Vander Leek and Ananga Sivyer.
"Anxiety is our body and our mind alerting us to the idea that there's something we're not comfortable with," says Dr Daragh Keogh. "Listen to your body, it's telling you something. Try and make sense of what you're feeling anxious about and what can you do about that. It's a normal part of everyday life.
The natural reaction when faced with situations that make you anxious is to avoid them. But what can be empowering is if you embrace them instead, learning how to cope with them and discover that you can indeed succeed at them. That's not to say that you embark upon a new career as an after-dinner speaker if public speaking terrifies you. But you might start practising speaking in front of a very small group of supportive people, where it won't matter if you mess it up, and get used to the idea.
We all know we should be chugging on water but the link between dehydration and anxiety can't be underestimated. Studies have shown that by being under-hydrated by half a litre of water can cause an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, and that results in anxious feelings. Sleep loss also increases anxiety. A study from the University of Berkley, California, found lack of sleep plays a key role in activating parts of the brain that contribute to excessive worrying. Getting your six to eight hours sleep, or doing your best to facilitate that can assist in alleviating excessive worry.
It's necessary to remember why something is important to you. If it's a work presentation, you're anxious because your job is a core part of your identity and you want to be respected and acknowledged at work. If it's a wedding you have to attend solo and you're fretting because you won't know anybody else, you want to go because the bride is a good friend of yours and would be disappointed if you didn't attend. It's easier to tackle challenging tasks when we know the value of them and how much they mean to us, which will then hopefully take priority over any anxieties.
Financial problems are a huge contributor to anxiety, and money anxiety disorder (MAD) affects a substantial amount of people. It could be caused by job insecurity, redundancy, debt or an inability to cope with day-to-day living. Financial woes impact strongly on health, both mental and physical, and anxiety is a very normal response. Something that's important to do is to stay connected with the world and not withdraw. The second is not to ignore bills or mounting debts. Drawing up a plan of action, whether that's a daily budget or cancelling your credit card, will give you a sense of control.
According to a new Harvard-led study, the secret to extending your life could be as simple as eating a bowl of porridge for breakfast every morning. Researchers found that every one-ounce serving of whole grains, such as oats, reduced a person's overall risk of early death by 5pc. But porridge isn't the only way to extend your lifespan.
Health & Wellbeing
The sound of bells jingling just over the horizon tells us Christmas is almost here. In addition to ushering in several weeks of peace on earth and goodwill to all (apart from that person who's just skipped the queue on you in Arnotts), December is, of course, a time of glorious over-consumption.