I think you would be amazed by the number of people seeking psychological help for anxiety. Wonderful campaigns have raised awareness about depression. The comparative lack of coverage regarding anxiety is surprising given that a national survey found anxiety to be the most prevalent mental health problem across all age groups. In fact, it showed that a whopping 14.4% of Australians had an anxiety disorder within the last year.
So next time you’re in the bank, a cafe or on a bus with 20 other people, three of you, on average, have distressing anxiety which interferes with daily life.
You are not alone! I certainly empathise with sufferers of anxiety – it can be excruciating and sometimes disabling. Personally, I can relate to this as it has been part of our family inheritance and I’ve had my share of sleepless nights and crazy-making anxiety. However, empathy alone is insufficient treatment for anxiety. So what actually helps?
The first step is understanding anxiety. Basically, it is a dysfunction of a truly wonderful psycho-physiological mechanism which helps to keep us alive - fear. Without fear we might drown in heavy seas on a hot day or wander off a cliff with a wonderful view. However, under certain conditions the anticipation of a feared event can take over our lives; it can limit choices, severely diminish enjoyment, and destroy relationships.
Anxiety can be focused on a wide variety of things including social situations, performance, creatures, one’s body, situations, and imagined future or past traumatic events, and can involve experiences such as rumination, panic, sleep difficulties, compulsions, depressed mood and isolation.
Developing the skill of intentionally invoking a deep state of relaxation is a key step. This is important in reducing general stress as well as being an integral part of certain psychological treatments for phobias, stress disorders, and other conditions. There are a number of resources online to help you relax; some free some paid, some based on scientific evidence, others not. You could even try Googling 'ASMR: Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response', if you dare! Now that's a rabbit hole - make sure to finish reading this article first!
I have a number of downloadable audio files that I recommend my clients use to train their nervous system. These are evidence-based practices (which means psychologists have used scientific methods to work out that they actually work). You can get these from my downloads page. Remember that like any new skill it will take time to develop but in the end you will be able to invoke a peaceful and relaxed state of mind at will. That has to be worth investing in!
Another critical ingredient in overcoming anxiety is moving from unconscious reacting to awareness and intentional responding. It involves discovering the thoughts, beliefs and assumptions that are leading to overwhelming emotion and developing the ability to rethink these. In psychobabble it's called cognitive restructuring, but I prefer 'intentional responding'. I intend to develop a short course on how to do this, so stay tuned. This is not something you do once; rather it is both a skill and a way of being that is developed. It can be used in specific moments to immediately reduce overwhelming emotion and, over time, allow you to live a more balanced, positive and rewarding life.
This guide is nowhere near comprehensive and everyone’s situation is different. Different anxieties require different treatments. For example, panic attacks are helped by a particular breathing technique, phobias by the techniques above in concert with an empathetic, systematic approach to reducing avoidance, and post-traumatic stress by a mix of these and skilful, trauma-informed therapy. There's nothing better than getting a thorough assessment and customised treatment by a trained and experienced mental health professional; however, everyone will benefit from the strategies above when implemented properly.
As always, discuss any concerns with your GP and feel free to email me with any questions.
Dr Jack Dunphy, Clinical Psychologist
NB: This is based on an article that appeared in a Rozelle Total Health newsletter.