What exactly is anxiety and why do we need it?

managing anxietyClinical psychologists Sue Knowles and Bridie Gallagher discuss what anxiety is and how, although it can sometimes feel unbearable for many people, we actually need our anxiety to make our lives work.  Their article has been adapted from their new book, My Anxiety Handbook: Getting Back on Track, which provides young people with guidance on how to recognise and manage anxiety’s difficulties.

Anxiety is what happens when our bodies think we are under threat.  It’s a feeling that most people describe as unpleasant, but the physical sensations can actually be very similar to feelings of excitement.  The difference when we’re anxious is that we also have anxious thoughts or interpret the feeling as “bad”.  Other words that are commonly used to describe feeling anxious are “nervous”, “fearful” or “worried”.

Everyone responds a little differently when they are anxious.  Some people feel anxiety mostly in their body with sensations in their stomach, chest and even sometimes their arms and legs.  Other people might say that anxiety is “in their head” because the main thing they notice is that their thoughts go very fast.  These things happen in our body and our mind because when our body notices a “threat”, it responds in the way that it has since we were living in caves.  Back then, we were threatened by predators and worried about being clubbed to death by other cavemen.  Now, we might be more worried about exams and feel threatened by new groups of people.  So, in the way that is has for eons, your brain uses the information collected by your eyes and ears to detect threats in your environment and, without consulting you, releases a number of chemicals that have immediate effects on both your body and the way you think.

These chemicals affect your breathing, your digestion, heart rate, blood flow and muscle tension.  The aim is to make you ready to get very far away from the threat quickly (flight), kick the hell out of that caveman (fight) or pretend you are dead so he goes away and leaves you alone (freeze).  So, your heart rate and breathing speed up, your blood flows away from you internal organs and towards your arms and legs so they are ready for action.  The unintended consequences can be that you feel tense and a bit sick, or get butterflies in your stomach.  You could start to sweat and feel light-headed or a bit dizzy, even though you might be sitting still.  All these reactions are clever ways ways of your brain helping you to be ready and prepared to manage threat.  However, as threats have changed significantly since this threat system evolved, these reactions are not as useful as they once were.  If we don’t understand what our body is doing, then these reactions themselves can cause even more anxiety.

Some people feel anxious every day; other people only feel anxious occasionally.  Some people’s brains will kick off the chemical reactions much more easily than others.  We think, from looking at the research, that this can be because they were either born with a sensitive threat system or because they have had more difficult and stressful experiences, or both.  There are lots of individual differences, but what we know is that everyone experiences anxiety.

When we are anxious, several things happen to the way we think.  It becomes easier to think of negative rather than positive outcomes, we get stuck on “what if” questions, and our thinking brain shuts down and our threat brain (focused solely on survival) takes over.  This means that we struggle to use the bits of our brains that usually would help us to solve problems and see the wider context, because these bits are offline whilst we manage the threat.  This is a really effective way of dealing with physical threats that were common for cavemen, but it does not serve us so well in complex social situations that we find ourselves in now.

That said, we wouldn’t want to be entirely without anxiety.  This may sound silly, especially if anxiety is making your life miserable, however it is important to remember that anxiety is useful and we wouldn’t want to be without it.  We developed flight, fight and freeze for a very good reason and although we now have more complex worries and things to be scared of, we still need our anxiety to make our lives work.

Imagine if parents didn’t feel anxious about their new baby?  Dads might not bother to baby-proof the house, mums might not bother to check that the car seats are attached properly.  None of these things work out very well for the baby.

Worrying about exams might be stressful, but is it worse than not worrying about exams?  If we didn’t have any anxiety about the future, then we would probably just sit and eat ice-cream rather than revising.  After all, which is more fun and pleasant?

In our new book, we do not aim to rid you of your anxiety.  This might sound like a blissful idea, but we really think that your anxiety is an important and useful part of your life.  It might just need some understanding, and maybe some taming, to make sure it is helping more than it is causing you problems.  We aim to provide you with information and young people’s stories that will help you to better understand your anxiety and where it might come from, and to explain a number of different approaches and strategies to help you to feel more in control of your anxiety.  The ideas that we have included come from research studies, our experiences of working with young people, and the experiences of young people and what they have found helpful.

Use code MAH for a 10% discount when you order this book from our website before the 10th February.

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Coping with anxiety at Christmas if you are on the autism spectrum

The author of bridge-bridge_autism-anxiety_978-1-78592-077-6_colourjpg-printAutism, Anxiety and Me: A Diary in Even Numbers, Emma Louise Bridge, offers advice for those with autism on how best to cope with anxiety at Christmas time.

 

The shopping, the crowds, the parties, and the art of present giving… it is easy not to feel quite so wonderful at this most wonderful time of year. However as much as Christmas is one of those times of year that is just unavoidably stressful, it doesn’t mean you can’t plan ways to survive the holidays. At best you can have lots of fun, and at worst, well you can at least make it through.

The first step in holiday survival is planning. I personally like to do this with lists; even-numbered of course. Even if you’re not hosting the in-laws or planning a party, you will be surprised how much at Christmas can be thought out beforehand to save zig-zags in blood pressure. To provide a more in-depth example let’s take present-giving; something that I find far more stressful at Christmas than any other time because it is reciprocal. So, first plan out the details.

  • Who do you have to buy for?
  • Who will probably be buying for you?
  • What is your budget?
  • What you are going to buy?

Now I love surprises but at the same time I don’t, mostly because the need to make sure that all my gifts are either of an equal monetary or emotional value as those given to me is too great. The easiest way to ease this stress is to introduce wish lists. Ask everyone what they want. If you want to choose something then ask them for a list of different options. On the same principle you can produce a list yourself. Even if no-one asks, produce a list of things you really want and just offer it as a suggestion. Even if other people weren’t expecting it hopefully they will respect it as a way to make Christmas a little easier – after all everyone should be able to have fun.

Other lists can include:

  • Anything you need like decorations or advent calendar
  • Any parties you are invited to / hosting
  • Who is coming or where you’re going over the holidays
  • Any events such as carols or services that are going on
  • Food you need to buy


Planning, planning and more planning!!!

The second step to surviving the holidays is the guide to surviving parties. Christmas parties generally involve a lot of food, a bunch of being social and loud super cheerful music. So first things first: know you’re going to eat more over Christmas. It just seems to be inevitable, so plan ahead for that. Also if you know you’re going to go to a party where you might not be able to eat anything – because your entire family are on special diets – but you’re going to be super hungry because there is food everywhere… putting something in your handbag or pocket for emergencies is a seasonal must.

The other thing that stresses me out at parties is the number of people who are going to ask how life is going, what my plans for the New Year are, how my job is, how much I have grown etc. Now the answer to some of those questions never changes – ‘nope, still the same height’ / ‘yes it has been years’ / ‘happy Christmas to you too’ – but there are some conversations where stock phrases won’t do. This can be tough especially if your life isn’t necessarily where you want it to be or you don’t have much to talk about. The answer is simple and something I have learned over the years of trying to master the art of surviving in society. People love to talk about themselves, so bring the conversation back around to them every time you feel uncomfortable and you’re on to a winner. Even better, join a group where there are a couple of people who love to talk and happily be a background listener for as long as you can get away with it.

Also keep in mind that you’re bound to not be the only person in the room who isn’t exactly where they want to be at that point. Doesn’t mean you won’t ever be.

So my final surviving the holidays tip is this – don’t be worried about asking for help. It’s okay to not feel brilliant even if the world is covered in Christmas cheer. It is okay if it is hard or emotional. There could be a hundred reasons why. I know it is really easy to feel you have to shove a smile on your face and fake it ‘til you make it. And sometimes trying to tough it out is the right decision. But sometimes you just have to sit down and admit to yourself, or to someone you trust, that you could use some help. Or even just that you could do with being cut some slack. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else… you survive the holidays the best way you know how.

In conclusion:

  • Lists are awesome
  • Parties are survivable – just go in prepared
  • Survive Christmas the best way you know how – don’t let anyone tell you how you have to be

 

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Yoga breathing exercise for foster carers, adopters and their families – Andrea Warman

Lark-Warman_Caring-with-Vit_978-1-84905-664-9_colourjpg-printYoung Royals Kate, William and Harry promoted the Heads Together charity earlier this week with a campaign encouraging people to talk about mental health and to find practical, everyday ways to help. During Foster Care Fortnight it seems fitting to think about the wellbeing of carers who risk  becoming stressed, anxious or depressed. Yoga and other mind/body practices can help – and they don’t all require being super-fit or flexible. It all begins with good breathing, so try this simple exercise from our book Caring With Vitality – Yoga and Wellbeing for Foster Carers, Adopters and Their Families.

Breathing holds the key

‘If you breathe well, you will live long on the earth.’

Yoga is not just about the physical asanas (postures). In fact, it is learning and practising a different way to breathe that will revitalise you even more than doing the poses.

All too often we become used to taking quick, shallow breaths (into our chests rather than our bellies), without making full use of all our breathing muscles, or our full lung capacity. If we carry on with this ‘bad’ breathing, the result can be physical tension and a whole range of other health problems. Continue reading