Do you wake every morning on red alert, anxiously scanning your body, checking for signs of illness?
Does every twitch and small ache, sends you into panic? Even when a doctor has ruled out a serious underlying illness, do you remain fearful a terrible mistake has been made and all is not well at all?
Perhaps you spend hours on the internet or news each day, obsessively searching for more health information.
Maybe you are constantly asking for reassurance from friends and health professionals.
If this sounds all too familiar, you may be suffering from health anxiety. This is a common condition, diagnosed in 4% to 5% of people generally, with experts believing levels are far higher for men as well as women, particularly in this current pandemic environment.
We are advised to stay alert to save lives. For those experiencing acute health anxiety, stay alert translates into relentless hyper vigilance which can affect every aspect of their lives.
The natural symptoms of anxiety don’t help matters: a racing heart, shallow breathing, headaches, tingling in hands or feet, or stomach cramps whilst all indicators of anxiety, can be signs of other issues too. You are right to get them checked out.
What else can you do to help you start to feel more in control?
Research shows that it is the way we think about stress which affects how we experience it. If we can frame a negative situation as a challenge to rise to, rather than a threat to run from, we are moving towards having a sense of control, and any anxiety is less likely to overwhelm us.
Below are ten powerful areas for you to explore to help you gain greater peace of mind. Be curious, compassionate and kind to yourself. Which combination of approaches works best for you? What is the difference that makes the difference?
The last point gives helpful contact details if you require support from a Doctor or specialist helpline. Click here to go to this now if you need to.
1. Get Outside and Active: walk, run, cycle, dance, garden… whatever takes your fancy
Exercise is Mother Nature’s gift to us to fight anxiety and depression. The “feel-good” chemicals even gentle exercise releases, make us feel more alive, focused, productive, and motivated. It is the single most powerful action we can take to manage our anxiety.
If you can get outside and enjoy the sun too, even better for your brain! Just 5 – 15 minutes can give you a delicious boost to your serotonin levels.
2. Why routine helps you feel safe, and variety can make you feel alive!
When life is unpredictable, we stay on red-alert, burning our fuel as we anxiously scan the horizon for storms ahead.
Rhythm and routine are our life-jackets – helping us feel safe. Just like young children, we all do better with a structure to our day, with pre-agreed times and arrangements around working, eating, and sleeping.
And yet, variety is needed too. Keep mixing it up: don’t always eat the same thing every tea-time – or walk the same route every afternoon. Spice up self-isolation with the right amount of creativity, interest and dynamism for you.
3. The Joy of Goals and Purposeful Learning
Keep your mind awake and engaged by setting yourself goals. When you’re feeling fragile, start small. What would count as success, if you only achieved one thing today?
Big and little goals can help give us focus and purpose. They provide shape to the landscape ahead, and the satisfaction of achieving mini-milestones, one step at a time.
4. Eat Well and Stay Hydrated
Did you know our brains are made up of 85% water?
Lack of water can really exacerbate our anxiety symptoms: when we suffer from dehydration, we can experience reduced vigilance and memory, and increased tension, anxiety and fatigue. Aim to drink eight to ten 200ml glasses a day, and more if you’re hot or exercising.
As for food – treat yourself to a wide variety for brain-health:
- Eat a rainbow of vegetables and fruit to help support the formation of neurotransmitters, and boost your immune system.
- Enjoy whole grains, and healthy snacks such as nuts, seeds or fruit to provide you with a steady supply of energy and help balance your emotions.
- Protein found in food such as eggs, salmon, poultry, tofu, spinach, pumpkin and sesame seeds can help balance your nervous system. Protein is a source of tryptophan which has positive benefits for energy levels, mood, and sleep.
5. Make Sleep your friend
We all know we feel better after a good night’s sleep. Interestingly it’s not just the hour before bedtime which affects the quality of our sleep. How we get up and live through the whole day, impacts our night-time experiences.
- Eat a good, balanced diet with regular meals, including breakfast.
- Limit your caffeine and alcohol. High amounts of caffeine cause anxiety and agitation; and whilst alcohol can make you feel sleepy, it reduces the quality of your sleep, and the hangover afterwards is often accompanied by increased anxiety.
- Make your bedroom an oasis of calm. Tidy the clutter and remove the television, computer, tablet and phone. Black out the light and make sure it is cool – but not cold.
- Keep the hour before bedtime calm, relaxing and uneventful… boring is best. Stick to a consistent routine. Don’t flood yourself with stress hormones by sneaking in a couple of episodes of East Enders or Breaking Bad!
- Try pressing play on a relaxation track as you turn out the light.
6. Connect with family, friends and neighbours
We feel better when we connect with others. Humans are social animals – we need positive relationships as much as we need air and water to thrive. When we connect with others, our brain releases a lovely shot of the pleasure-inducing hormone, oxytocin, into our bloodstream. Whilst of course we love seeing each other in person, the joy of video calls is a wonderful bonus when this isn’t possible.
Connecting with others not only makes us feel better emotionally, it helps our blood vessels stay relaxed, and our heart cells heal from any stress-induced damage. In fact, research shows that the more we reach out to others under stress – either to help or be helped – the quicker we recover from stress.
7. Limit distressing news and media
Our brains can’t tell the difference emotionally between imagination and reality. This is why a negative news story can cause our heart to race and stomach to churn in empathy, even though we are sat safely on our sofa at home. The affects can stick with us throughout the day. One study found that individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning, were 27% more likely to report having an unhappy day, six to eight hours later. In positive contrast, 88% of those who watched transformative stories went on to enjoy a happy day.
If you are struggling with anxiety, seek laughter and inspiration from your entertainment. Don’t fuel the fear.
8. Be Kind to Your Senses
When you are anxious, you are extra sensitive to the world around you: all your senses straining instinctively for signs of trouble approaching. This is an exhausting state to live in: it’s as if everything has been turned up a notch: noises sound louder, lights brighter, smells stronger, materials rougher.
Recognise the over stimulation and be kind to yourself. Take some quiet time out to replenish at lunchtime or at the end of the day; put on soft music or enjoy the silence; turn the lights down low in the evening; fill your room with beautiful smells from flowers or essential oils; treat yourself to a warm bubble bath; enjoy the sensation of soft clothes and blankets. Treat yourself with kindness.
9. Relax and Still Your Mind
Taking time to sit still and bring your attention to the moment is an invaluable practice. It’s simple but most of us don’t find it easy to do. Taking a couple of minutes at the start and end of the day to enjoy a breathing exercise can work wonders.
- Try sitting in a comfortable position, and breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four. Keep your shoulders down, and allow your belly to expand as you inhale.
- Hold your breath for a moment.
- Then breathe slowly out through your mouth for a count of seven.
- Repeat several times. Imagine breathing in peace and calm, and as you exhale, releasing anxiety and stress.
There are some excellent apps to help support you to relax, and still your mind. Many promote the benefits of meditation, guiding beginners through to more advanced techniques. My clients’ consistent favourite apps are Calm, Headspace and Breethe. Another popular one is Smiling Mind – it’s entirely free and has good options for kids and young people, as well as adults.
10. High quality support is available to you
Finally, if you are seriously struggling right now, or are worried about a friend or family member, don’t hesitate to reach out for support.
When choosing a therapist check they are a member of a well-reputed professional body. This should mean their qualifications, training, and insurance are up to date, and they follow an established Code of Ethics. Remember too that the success of your therapy will significantly depend on your relationship with your therapist, so do seek someone you feel comfortable with and trust.