What to do when fear and anxiety feel overwhelming
Right now in Britain feelings are running high. People are scared, shocked, angry, frustrated, upset, and confused. Following the vote to leave the European Union many people feel uneasy with the reaction and unsettled by how little is known of the country’s future.
I’m not going to write about the vote or politics or parties. I’m going to write about what to do when these feelings of fear, uncertainty, upset and anxiety become overwhelming. When it seems like every other thought is a worry and it’s impacting your relationships and conversations with others, your concentration at work, your sleep and essentially how you’re going about your life.
I’ve experienced anxiety all my life and a few years ago I would have found the last few days overwhelmingly frightening and a struggle to deal with. Through research into positive psychology and practising what I’ve learned I’m better able to cope when the world around me feels unknown and frightening.
So, if you’re feeling anxious, unsettled or fearful, and you want to do something to ease those feelings in that moment, here are six actions you can take:
Limit your time on social media
There are many plus points to social media and I enjoy scrolling through my Instagram and Facebook feeds several times a day. But when emotions are running high and rumours, accusations, hearsay and harsh words, often all fuelled by fear, are filling the timeline it’s hard to see the facts and get a balanced view. Everyone has a right to express themselves, of course, but you choose whether to give them your attention. If scrolling through social media makes you feel stressed rather than informed, it’s time to step away for a while. Whether that’s a couple of hours or a couple of days is up to you but I know that taking a break will help you get perspective.
Take a few deep breaths
When we’re feeling anxious we tense up, often without realising it. Take a moment right now to check in with what you’re body is doing. Are you frowning? Are your shoulders lifted? Is your stomach tense? Put one hand on your stomach and one on your chest to discover where you’re breathing from. If only the hand on your chest moves you’re breathing shallowly which tells your mind and body there’s a threat so to be on high alert, ready to fight or flee. You can tell your mind there’s no immediate danger so it can take the stress levels down a few pegs by taking a few deep breaths. Picture your lungs as you breathe in through your nose, pushing out your stomach so that you can bring oxygen in to the bottom of your lungs. As you breathe out pull your stomach in so that you’re expelling all the air out through your mouth. Do this a couple of more times, noticing your shoulders relax downwards with every exhale. Any time and anywhere you realise that you’re tensing up take a couple of deep breaths in and out.
Challenge your thoughts
When thoughts are racing through your mind with worse case scenarios or what ifs they can quickly lead you to feel anxious and afraid. Noticing you’re having these thoughts and challenging them can help you to realise that they are thoughts not facts. Take a fearful thought and look for the evidence to back it up. Who says that X is going to happen? Where’s the evidence to prove how likely it is? What do you know for certain will be the outcome? And if the answer is you don’t know, then you don’t know. Something bad could happen but something good could happen too. Or nothing could happen. If you don’t know the answer then you don’t know that the answer will be negative.
Go for a walk
To get out of your head, and out of your worrying thoughts, get outside. If at all possible find a patch of nature to spend some time in. A study by Stanford University shows that being in nature reduces stress levels and the amount you ruminate – going over and over the same thoughts. So whether you’re in a park or a forest, wander around paying attention to what you can see, hear and smell. Notice what plants, flowers and trees are growing. Can you hear wind rustling in tree branches or birds chirping? If the sun is shining look for the shadows it’s casting. If it’s raining notice the sound of the rain on your umbrella, watch it bounce in puddles and droplets land on petals. What you’re experiencing right now, in this moment is real. This present is what you can be sure of, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but where you are right now, what you can see and hear, is real.
Spend time with others
Face to face rather than online. When we’re feeling anxious it can be tempting to withdraw and hide away where we can protect ourselves from the frightening outside world. But this can contribute to our fearfulness, making us feel isolated. Instead, meet up with friends or interact with people in your neighbourhood. We are surrounded by good, kind people and you’ll see them when you look around your local community. I’m not suggesting you strike up conversations with strangers but smiling at someone as you pass them on the street or exchanging a few pleasantries with the person on the supermarket checkout are little moments of human contact that benefit you and the other person. You can take it a step further and commit an act of kindness. Research has shown that doing something for someone else, without expecting reward, increases feelings of positivity and joy. Not only will you make them feel a little happier, you’ll help yourself to feel more positive too.
If you’ve been through the actions above and still feel anxiety gripping you, do something to distract your mind. Find a complicated activity or task that needs your concentration. Play a game with your children that requires you to focus fully on them. Watch your favourite comedian, sing along to your most uplifting tunes, read a book – whatever will help you quieten your mind, breathe more deeply and relax your body. Then, try the actions above again.
And don’t forget the basics – eat well and take it easy on alcohol and sugar-laden comfort foods that will spike and crash your mood along with your blood sugar level, and get as much sleep as you can so you have the energy to deal with life.
Above all, go easy on yourself. Telling yourself to get a grip, to not be so silly, or to toughen up and get on with things won’t help at all. You’ll just feel worse. Recognise that you’re feeling overwhelmed and know that you’re allowed to feel like that. Imagine a good friend was feeling the same way and think how you’d treat her. Extend that same kindness and gentleness to yourself. Take it one hour, one day at a time.