(Updated 21/08/2021: I originally shared this post on Medium in 2018, James' 10 Tips to Beat Anxiety). I've also added it to my blog.
As some may have seen, my last post detailed my long standing battle with anxiety. In the last two years especially, I’ve learnt a huge amount about the tools and techniques needed to overcome it. By making changes to my lifestyle, behaviour, diet; forcing myself to be exposed to situations that make me anxious, and regularly practicing meditation and mindfulness, I am beginning to feel like my old self. And it feels fantastic!
In this post, I’ll be writing about the changes that I’ve made, and the results they’ve had. Obviously, this is by no means an exhaustive list of things that help with anxiety. But these are the things that have helped me most; and I really hope that they help others who are currently suffering with anxiety or other mental health issues.
The first, and in my opinion, most important thing to beating anxiety, is just accepting that you suffer from it. That might seem like such a small thing, but it can make the world of difference.
For a long, long time, I felt really embarrassed and ashamed that I struggled with anxiety. That caused me to be really guarded about it and created huge barriers which prevented me from opening up about it. But over time, I have come to accept that it’s part of who I am and I shouldn’t feel ashamed about it. It’s not mine, or anybodies fault that I struggle with anxiety. Based on my genetics and experiences that I’ve had in my life, it’s just one of the many cards that I have been dealt. I accept it’s just one of the many personality traits I have, and that’s perfectly okay.
At its rawest, anxiety is just an emotion. And like any emotion, some people experience more of it than others. Again, that’s perfectly okay. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for experiencing a lot of happiness or excitement, so why would you beat yourself up for experiencing a lot of anxiety?
As I’ve been able to accept my anxiety, the embarrassment and shame that I once felt has gradually disappeared. In turn, this has enabled me to be far more open about it and talk to more and more people. I have also been able to show far more compassion and kindness towards myself, and this has helped me enormously.
Accepting anxiety is hard, it took me the best part of ten years! But without doubt, it has been one of the biggest things in helping me overcome it. So I really encourage all anxiety sufferers to show themselves enough compassion to just be able to accept that they struggle with it.
I won’t beat around the bush here. The hard truth is that exposing yourself to situations that make you anxious is one of the most important techniques to beating anxiety. Clearly, this can make you feel really uncomfortable so exposure is difficult. But it’s all about short term pain for long term gain.
It’s very easy to shy away from anxiety provoking situations, as it sometimes feels like doing this will protect ourselves from pain. However, unfortunately in doing this, we are actually making the anxiety worse as it just reinforces our belief that we should be anxious about the situation in question.
With exposure being so difficult, it’s important to approach it in the right way. My personal opinion is that little, and often is more beneficial than just throwing yourself in the deep end and hoping for the best. Whilst I do believe that there are times in life where it’s good to put yourself in a sink or swim situation, dealing with anxiety is not one of them. The risks of sinking are simply far too great, and you could easily end up back at square one if something doesn’t go to plan.
Instead, what’s worked for me is regularly putting myself in anxiety provoking situations and gradually increasing the ‘difficulty’ until the situation is no longer a problem. For example, at university, social situations became a major problem. So over the last two years, I’ve forced myself into more and more social situations until going for drinks, meals etc is now not a problem. I started by going for drinks with some of my closest friends every week. Once I was comfortable with doing that, we started going for meals. Once that was okay, I started going out with people I didn’t know quite so well. And so on, and so forth, until I wasn't batting an eyelid at simple, everyday situations that were previously causing me such problems. Exposure can be really hard and it takes a great amount of courage to keep forcing yourself into situations that make you uncomfortable. But trust me, it’s 100% worth it and you will definitely reap the rewards of your efforts.
First of all, there is absolutely no shame in taking medication for mental health related illnesses. If you have a physical headache, most people will take some paracetamol to help. So if you have a mental illness, why would it not be okay to take some medication for this too?
Over the years, I have been prescribed two medications for my anxiety. The first was Propranolol, a beta-blocker used to reduce the physical symptoms that anxiety causes. It helped me to get through University and was exactly what I needed at the time. The second is Setraline, an anti-depressant used to treat both depression and anxiety. I’ve only been on Setraline for about six weeks, but I’m already starting to see the positive impact that it’s having.
Whilst I personally don’t see medication as a long term fix, it can be hugely helpful in giving yourself a bit of breathing space from the anxiety and allow you to address it. This can be incredibly valuable. If you are considering medication, I gently recommend you first speak with a Doctor to discuss what medication would be best for you.
I first became aware of mindfulness and meditation during Cognitive Behaviour Therapy whilst at University. Initially I was pretty dubious of the benefits they could offer, but over time I’ve realised how powerful they are and the positive impact they can have. Essentially, both mindfulness and meditation aim to bring more awareness to ourselves and the world around us, and help us live more “in the moment” (I’m cringing at that phrase!).
Anxiety is essentially a habit. The mind becomes stuck in its ways and develops negative thought patterns that become automatic in certain situations. So no matter what we do, we find ourselves feeling anxious because it’s a reaction that we’re not in control of. Mindfulness and meditation work by breaking these patterns and instead, create new neural pathways in the brain for us to follow. There is scientific evidence to support this.
Ever got so lost in thought in your own head, that you forgot what you were doing? Mindfulness is all about bringing yourself back to the present moment when your thoughts start to spiral. I currently have three main activities where I practise mindfulness; on my walk to/from work, whilst I’m having a shower, and when I’m brushing my teeth. I’m lucky that my commute to work is a 20 minute walk by the River Ouse and through a park. I put my phone on ‘Do not disturb’ and really focus on the sights, smells, sounds and physical sensations of walking. I’ve realised how much has been passing me by, and now appreciate the beauty of the world around me so much more. Naturally, my mind sometimes gets distracted. But I’m not self-critical, I just gently bring myself back to the physical sensations of my breath and focus on the world around me. It sounds so simple, but it’s really powerful.
Similar to mindfulness, meditation is now part of my daily routine. Even if I only manage to spend ten minutes a day meditating, I notice it makes a huge difference to my anxiety levels and mood in general. I currently use Headspace as my meditation guide and have apparently spent 38 hours meditating with it this year. Now I’m not going to lie, to start with, I often found that I was thinking “What a load of rubbish this meditation lark is!”! But the more I’ve practised it, the more I’ve seen the huge positive impact that it can have. I’ll write a future blog post about my tips to practising meditation. Like many people, I am incredibly busy and often find that free time is of the essence. Naturally, I want to make the most of it and do fun things, so I sometimes find myself thinking “How can I afford time to meditate?”. However, after seeing the benefits that meditation offers, I quickly rephrase that question to be “How can I afford not to meditate?”.
Similar to exposure, talking about anxiety and mental health can be really hard, particularly if you feel embarrassed or ashamed of how you feel. But also like exposure, it’s one of the most important tools to beating anxiety.
Unfortunately, there is currently a stigma associated with mental illness that contributes to making it really hard to talk about. This can sometimes mean that we feel like we’re the only person in the world that suffers with it. But in fact, it’s incredibly common. Since I’ve started being more open about my anxiety, I’ve been amazed by the number of people I’ve opened up to, who also struggle with anxiety. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to talk openly with someone who truly understands what suffering from anxiety is like. It feels really good when somebody says something that you can truly resonate with, and it makes you realise that everybody is fighting their own inner battle.
I was very guarded about my anxiety, and whilst I don’t regret that because I was doing what I thought was best at the time, I can now see that being more open about it would have been more beneficial. As I’ve gradually opened up to more and more people, my anxiety has got better and better. That definitely isn’t a coincidence. I was always very concerned about how people would react. Naturally, it made sense to avoid doing it, but unfortunately this just made matters worse. Since I’ve started talking about it, 99% of people have been incredibly supportive and understanding. This has helped enormously. Naturally, you do get the odd person who just doesn’t get it, but that’s not your fault in the slightest. It may be that the person doesn’t know how to deal with it themselves. So think of yourself as doing them a favour as they’ll know how to deal with it better next time.
Opening up to people is a hard. Similar to exposure, it requires a great deal of courage but it’s 100% worth it. I’d really encourage anyone who is bottling up their problems to share them; it can really make a huge difference.
Struggling with anxiety can be really tough. At times, it can be tiring and distressing so it’s important to recognise when things are starting to get a bit too much and that you need to take some time out. In these moments, you want to be doing activities that give you the most enjoyment, and most importantly cause you no anxiety. Whether that be watching your favourite TV show, playing your favourite sport or reading a book, it needs to be something that gives you a bit of space and time to just relax.
For me, if I notice that I’m feeling particularly anxious, I’ll take an evening off and just spend some time chilling in my flat. I’ll turn my phone off, watch a TV series and cook my favourite meal (or grab a takeaway if I can’t be bothered!). I’ll practise some meditation and just reflect on how far I’ve come on my anxiety journey. I’m compassionate to myself and just feel how I feel.
At the end of the day, you should prioritise your health very highly. And if that means taking some time out to chill, then it’s 100% worth it.
Exercise is a massively powerful tool in helping to reduce anxiety. Not only does it improve our physical health and keep us in good shape, but it also has a really positive impact on our mental health, mood and stress/energy levels. Participating in sports also offers the chance to play in teams and make some really good friends.
I’m lucky that I’ve always been very sporty so have always found exercise easy to come by. At the moment, I play tennis, squash and football most weeks with a bit of golf thrown in every now and again. After a tough day at work, there’s nothing I love more than running round a football pitch for two hours, or hitting a tennis ball as hard as I can! After about an hour of intense tennis, I really feel the endorphins kicking in and it feels amazing. Any problems of the day just seem to drift away and you can’t help but feel good (even if you have lost the match!). I’m also usually shattered, so I’m pretty much guaranteed to get a good nights sleep that night!
In my opinion, there are literally no downsides to exercising and playing sports. I’d really encourage anyone thinking of starting to just go for it, it will have a big, positive impact on your mental health.
It’s important to recognise that the food and drink you put in your body have an impact on anxiety. Whilst I’m the first to admit that I could eat far healthier, I do make a conscious effort to try and eat a (relatively!) balanced diet. Also for some reason, if I feel hungry, I notice that my anxiety levels increase, so I try to make sure that I eat plenty in order to keep my energy levels high.
One of the biggest changes I’ve made is massively reducing my caffeine intake to the point at which I’m basically caffeine-free (ish!). Whilst I may have the odd diet coke in a restaurant, the rest of the time I don’t drink any caffeine. Whilst that does mean waking up in a morning can be (traumatically! 😉) difficult, it’s really improved my anxiety and I feel far less jittery without it. If there’s one diet change I would recommend, it would be this one.
Whilst I’ve never been a big drinker, there’s no doubt that excessive alcohol does have a large, negative impact on anxiety. Whilst it’s always good fun to have a few drinks and enjoy yourself, I’ve always found that my anxiety levels are always a lot higher the next day. Sometimes, it can even take a few days to settle back down again. And in my opinion, it’s just not worth it. Whilst I still like going out for drinks with friends, I usually limit myself to 3 drinks so I always feel just as good the next day, as I do when I’m out with friends.
Getting enough sleep is really important for reducing anxiety. Having to face anxiety on its own is difficult enough, let alone if you’re constantly tired. So if that means sleeping in until 11am every now and again, then that’s perfectly okay.
As I’ve mentioned above, since starting work, my free-time is of the essence. So it’s often tempting to stay up that little bit longer to make the most of the time after work. But that extra 30 minutes stuck in a YouTube loop always comes back to bite the following morning, when I’m trying to drag myself out of bed at 7am!
One of the most simple, yet effective techniques for dealing with anxiety is to establish a regular daily routine. Whilst it might be considered a bit boring, having a routine brings familiarity when the mind is agitated, and also helps to alleviate any surprises that might trigger higher levels of anxiety. By no means does this mean doing the same thing every day, but a general structure can be really helpful. It can also be really beneficial for productivity and prioritising things that are most important to you.
For me, like most people, the working week offers a lot of routine and has been one of the biggest factors as to why I’ve improved so much over the last two years. The familiarity can be really comforting, particularly when my anxiety levels are high.
Whilst the weekend offers less structure, I still try to plan out what I’m going to do. I then put it in my phone calendar and try to stick to it. I find that I’m so much more productive and this stops me from just sitting in front of the TV all day! Over time as my anxiety has improved, I’ve also found that doing more and more spontaneous things is less of an issue, and I really hope this trend continues!
Suffering from anxiety can be really tough, but beating it is by no means insurmountable. By adopting some of the techniques I’ve mentioned, and making small lifestyle changes, you can start to make huge inroads into overcoming it. Naturally, there may be a few setbacks where things don’t go to plan. But then again, nothing in life worth having comes easy.
I really encourage everyone reading this to care for their mental health as they would their physical health, it’s just as important. But if you are ever feeling down, then that’s perfectly okay. You’re a human being, and it’s okay to not be okay.
As I’m writing this, the festive season is rapidly approaching. Whilst Christmas can be one of the happiest times of the year, it can also provoke a lot of tension for anxiety sufferers. Going to family occasions, work Christmas parties and everything else can sometimes get a little bit too much. If this is the case, then that’s perfectly okay. Just take some time for yourself and show yourself the same compassion as you would to a friend, if they were suffering with the same problem.
Lastly, I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, and a happy, anxiety-free New Year!