Ask Val is a weekly advice column where questions about personal issues are given compassionate, no-nonsense answers by Auckland-based counsellor Val Leveson.
Reader: I’m a man of 26, and I am really embarrassed to say that I suffer from anxiety.
I find it difficult to go out and do things that others seem to find easy – like taking public transport or attending work meetings, even meeting up with friends.
I overthink everything and keep thinking that everybody thinks I’m ridiculous. I often stammer in conversations because I’m so anxious about saying something wrong. Are there tools or techniques I can use to help?
Val: I think you’d be surprised about how many people suffer from anxiety. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. If you’re feeling embarrassed about being anxious, that’s only going to cause more rather than less anxiety.
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Anxiety can come about for various reasons. It could be about emotional neglect in your childhood, bullying when you were young or past trauma. People with PTSD often struggle with anxiety.
It could be simply because that’s how you’re made up. For example, if you’re an HSP (a Highly Sensitive Person), you may find regulating your emotions and outside stimulation to be difficult, especially if you were told by your early caregivers and friends that you were too sensitive, too much or just seeking “attention” with your emotions.
It may be a good idea to explore what’s causing your anxiety through counselling. Once you know the root causes, it will be easier to deal with them with understanding and self-compassion. The more you beat yourself up and call yourself ridiculous, the more anxious you’ll feel.
That said, you’ve asked for some tools to combat your anxiety.
Firstly, be gentle with yourself. Try not to get anxious about being anxious. It’s good to remember that anxiety (and even anxiety attacks) won’t kill you.
It’s good to notice it, focus on where it is in your body, accept that you’re feeling anxious and then distance or distract from it by focusing on something that’s going well.
The more you accept your anxiety, the less noise it will make.
All emotions, particularly unwelcome emotions, demand to be felt before we can truly move on from them.
Notice your body – how are you holding yourself? Do you notice tension? Perhaps do a quick body scan and relax any areas that feel tense. Our bodies send messages to our brains about whether we’re safe or in danger.
If our bodies (say shoulders or fists) are tight, the brain and heart are being told that there’s a problem and they will react.
Breathing is the remote control of your brain – use it. If you’re feeling anxious, notice your breath – are you breathing fast and in your chest rather than in your abdomen? If so, your brain may not be getting what it requires.
Slow your breathing. One way of doing this is to time yourself for a minute and breathe in and out just five times in that time.
Another effective breathing exercise for anxiety is to breath out double the count of breathing in. For example, breath in by three counts, out by six. Find your comfort level – for some it may be in by six, out by 12.
You mention that you overthink. If you notice that checking on your breathing isn’t helping, it may be good to first distract yourself. A good and simple exercise is to go to the alphabet and pick a topic, say, fruit and vegetables, and say to yourself: A is for apple, B is for banana, C is for carrot and so on. It’s an exercise you’ll need to focus on, and therefore it will take you away from those thoughts that keep going on and on in your brain.
It can be good too to write down those thoughts – that tells the brain that you’ve done something about them, so the need to keep thinking them goes away.
Another thing to consider with anxiety is sleep. Are you getting enough sleep and is the sleep you are getting quality sleep? There are plenty of apps available that can help you work that out – if you discover that you often seem to jerk awake, it’s important that you get that checked out.
Exercise can also be extremely helpful for people with anxiety. Walking in nature (what the Japanese call “forest bathing”) can be especially helpful – particularly if you’re really focused and noting what’s around you (being mindful).
And that brings me to mindfulness, which can really be about coming to your senses. If you’re feeling anxious, notice what you can smell, what you can taste, see and hear. This is a very good way to become present and anxiety is often about the opposite – worrying about the past and particularly fears about the future. There are lots of courses, apps and books available on mindfulness. They could be really helpful.
If there’s a particular event that your anxious about, question yourself on what you’re picturing – and if the picture is scary and grim, change it.
For example, picture going into a meeting. If you’re picturing people looking dour and cold, change the picture. Make the people’s expression be warm, smiling and inviting, and the meeting room inviting in your mind’s eye.
Anxiety is a trick that our brains play on us and there are many ways we can bring ourselves back to calmness and comfort.
Not all these techniques will work for you, so try them out to find what does work. Also, remember that sometimes a particular technique will work, and sometimes it won’t, so don’t throw anything out. Something what didn’t work this time may the next.
Of course some people who have severe anxiety choose the route of medication. I am not against that as for some it can be a game changer. All I’d suggest is try these other things first.