You are not alone in experiencing anxiety — we all do sometimes. Anxiety can be helpful — when it flags up something that you feel is important or dangerous and therefore requires your attention. However, anxiety can become unhelpful. It may send false alarm signal when there is no actual danger. Anxiety may also highjack your attention and leave you space for little else, for example making it difficult to find solutions and take action. Here are some tips that many young people have found helpful in coping with their anxiety.
“Breathing in, three times, really deep, and then you look around the room and you name the five things you can see.”
Breathing and grounding techniques can act as a distraction when you are feeling acutely anxious. Focussing on your breath and on what is going on around you – what you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel – can help to break the cycle of anxious thinking. Check out the Young Minds website for more ideas. However, these techniques do not prevent anxiety from coming back again! The same is true for absorbing activities or hobbies. That’s why the other strategies described below are also very important.
“Making sure I’m on top of my fitness because it makes me feel a lot more comfortable in my body.”
Taking care of our bodies can help us take care of our minds. Almost all types of movement help to reduce anxiety levels by getting rid of stress hormones. The key is to find something that you enjoy and can have a go at a couple of times a week, whether this is yoga, strength training, or dancing in the kitchen to your favourite song (see NHS advice)!
It’s important to give your body the nutrients it needs, which means eating enough and regularly throughout the day. Try to eat a variety of foods if you can (see NHS advice) and avoid consuming too much caffeine or alcohol, which are likely to trigger your anxiety.
Poor sleep can increase arousal and, therefore, anxiety. Try to wind down with good sleep routines and avoid LED light (including from computer and phone screens) before going to bed (see NHS advice).
“I find that writing down my worries helps me with my anxieties.”
Simply avoiding a situation that makes you anxious or finding distractions is only going to help in the very short term. The worries will come back.
To strip worries of their power, accept that worrying is normal and that you can learn to manage it. For example, you can write down your worries before going to bed to see if this helps your mind to let go of them. You can also find a “worry time” – a 15-minute period at the same time every day. Then try to postpone any worries during other times of the day to your “worry time” so you are in charge.
“It’s facing it, staring it down, and not shying away from it.”
Try to challenge yourself to take action. Fears can make us avoid important activities or situations. Sure, avoidance might reduce the feeling of fear in the short term, but it often makes the fear worse in the long term and also limits our lives. To break this cycle, you can try to face your fears one step at a time, starting with an action that makes you only mildly or moderately uncomfortable and taking bigger steps as you build up your confidence.
The same is true for worries. Sometimes we keep worrying because the idea of taking action feels even worse. What if we are unable to find the best solution? What if we fail to achieve the perfect outcome? What if…? But not taking action really is the worst outcome, as time and opportunities may slip away.
Of course, taking action can be very difficult, particularly when problems seem too big to be solved. You can try breaking them down into smaller pieces. For example, you can think about a set of possible solutions. Pick one that has the most advantages in comparison to disadvantages, even if it is not perfect. Try it out – even for just 2 minutes at a time – and see if it works. If the first solution does not work, you will have others to try. Just keep going and you will find a strategy that suits you.
“It’s a process that takes a while.”
Finding what works best for you in reducing anxiety can take a while. The first step is learning to recognise anxiety symptoms like worries and fears. Then you can choose how you want to respond to the symptoms - using some of the strategies above instead of worrying or withdrawing.
Changing the way you think and behave in relation to anxiety can feel uncomfortable at the beginning, and using these new strategies always takes practice. However, anxiety can get better if you find things that work for you. This might take a while, and it is important to find others who can support you in this journey.
Read more about the KeepCool project and find out more about coping strategies for sadness and anger.
If you are in crisis, please contact your GP or one of the following organisations that can offer advice:
- Call Samaritans at 116 123 (lines open 24/7) or visit their website at www.samaritans.org.
- Call Childline at 0800 1111 (lines open 7.30am to 3.30am Monday to Friday, and 9am to 3.30am Saturday to Sunday) or visit their website at www.childline.org.uk.
- Call Mind at 0300 123 3393 (9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, except for bank holidays) or visit their website at www.mind.org.uk.
Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
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