It can be easy take our mental health and wellbeing for granted. But with the added pressures and challenges of Covid, more people are struggling with anxiety than ever before. Here we discuss the signs and symptoms to look out for and how to manage anxiety if it becomes a problem.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion that we all experience when we feel threatened and when our brains tell us something bad is happening. Anxiety is part of the fight/flight response, which is our body’s way of preparing us to deal with the threat, whether this is to stand and fight, flee or freeze.
We have evolved to be vigilant for threat as this protects us from danger, enabling us to anticipate challenges and problem-solve to manage them. This vigilance is adaptive and helpful when used appropriately and in moderation.
But when we get hooked into hypervigilance, constantly looking at news and social media stories, or being on high alert for signs of danger, we end up feeling worse not better. Our perception of threat increases and so does our anxiety, leading us to take unhelpful coping measures that can make it harder for us to manage. Sometimes we just feel frozen, unsure of what to do to cope. We might avoid things, stop engaging in the activities we love, or try to escape difficult emotions with behaviours that temporarily numb them. These responses might have short-term benefit, but over the longer term can cause us more problems
Symptoms to watch out for
If you’ve not been feeling yourself since the pandemic hit, check out these symptoms and find out if you need to take action to look after your mental wellbeing.
Typical symptoms of anxiety
- Feeling nervous or on edge
- Worrying too much about different things
- Trouble relaxing
- Being so restless that it is hard to sit still
- Becoming easily annoyed or irritable
- Feeling afraid as if something awful may happen
If any of these symptoms have been troubling you for several days or increasingly over the last 2 weeks, it might be time to consider seeking some help or advice. In particular, if the difficulties you have identified make it hard for you to engage with work, take care of things at home or get along with other people, then it is important that you take positive action.
Looking after your mental wellbeing
1. How to manage anxiety
Often when we experience anxiety, we perceive a threat, but feel unable to change the situation or take control of it. This is very much the case at the moment with the challenges and threats we are all facing with the Covid pandemic. But if we can’t change the situation, we can still find ways to change our reactions to it. This will help us to manage our anxiety.
Learning a strategy known as slow rhythmic breathing will help to calm arousal, regulate the heart rate and rebalance the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. This very quickly starts to relax our bodies and our minds.
Although it seems simple, it can take some practise to learn.
The key to success is to teach yourself to:
- breathe out for longer than we breathe in
- keep to a regular rhythm or ratio of in-breath to out-breath
- pause briefly at the end of the out-breath.
You can try it now by breathing along with this video
If the out-breath seems too long, try imagining you are breathing out through a straw. This will help to release the breath more gradually, making it feel more manageable. Alternatively, you may want to adjust the ratio of in-breath to out-breath by reducing the length of both breaths. But make sure you retain a longer out-breath, as this is key to calming physiological arousal.
Practicing this technique daily for 5 minutes will help you get the hang of it. Using it as soon as you start to feel anxious will quickly help you to feel calm again. You will be able to think more clearly, put any fears into perspective and find ways to solve the difficulties you are facing.
Recognise and reduce unhelpful coping
We can help to prevent anxiety from escalating by recognising and reducing ways of coping that either maintain or worsen our threat response.
Try reducing hypervigilance. If you are spending lots of time ruminating over your worries and concerns, overfocusing on potential signs of threat or danger, see if you can limit this. Perhaps allow yourself half an hour to look at concerns or worrying news stories every day. Setting aside a time each day to do this means you are not avoiding or ignoring your worries, but also allows time for enjoyable or distracting activities.
Let go of unproductive worry. Writing down your worries and sorting through them once a day can help. For productive worries, or those situations you have some control over, try brainstorming solutions, talk to friends or your partner about what you can do. If the worry is unproductive, or about things that you can’t change or influence, screw it up and throw it away.
If you are using avoidance or numbing through gaming, drugs or alcohol, you may not be getting an accurate picture of what’s at the core of your anxiety. These behaviours can reduce your ability to find solutions or experience more positive emotions. Ensure you notice when these unhelpful coping strategies are becoming a problem and try setting limits around them.
Keep things in perspective
It is easy to think catastrophically when events are happening beyond our control. When we notice ourselves doing this it can help to take a moment to step back and reflect on whether there are other ways of seeing the situation. How would someone else see it? How might you see this situation in 5 years’ time? Remember, there is always more than one way to look at a situation. Anxiety makes us focus on the risks. But when we evaluate the evidence for and against, the risks often do not seem so likely. Thinking flexibly in this way helps to keep things in perspective, reducing the likelihood that anxiety will take hold.
2. How to access help & support
Talk to friends or family
Sometimes we are reluctant to talk about our worries and concerns with people we care about. We might fear upsetting or burdening them. However, the support that we offer one another is crucial to our wellbeing. A good place to start is to open up with the people you trust. They may have a different perspective that is helpful to you. Or they may support you to access professional help.
See your doctor
Make an appointment to speak to your family doctor. Sharing your concerns with a professional will help you make sense of what is going on for you and will bring some initial relief. Your doctor will know what to do and will make suggestions. They may ask you to keep in regular contact with them, offer you self-help materials or guidance, or refer you to an organisation offering specialist counselling or talking therapies.
In the UK you can access some key NHS services via self-referral. These services, known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies services, draw on a number of evidence-based therapy models to help people manage and overcome common mental health difficulties. These approaches are useful for developing positive coping strategies to make anxiety manageable again.
Remember, around a third of us will experience an anxiety disorder within our lifetime, but anxiety is an emotion that is familiar to us all. Sharing our experiences with one another will reduce shame and stigma, and increase our ability to cope.