With life hitting us harder than ever before, chartered Psychologist and Coach, Suzy Reading gives us the lowdown on how to spot the signs of anxiety and what we can do to calm them.
Chartered Psychologist and Coach, Suzy Reading is a long-term friend and collaborator of The Positive Planner, having contributed to our Positive Wellness Journal. We value her expert opinion and also her story that has brought her to where she is and what she does today. This past year has been challenging in so many ways, so we asked Suzy to go into a little more detail on how to spot the signs of anxiety and what we can do to try to relieve them.
Suzy also joined co-founder Ali this month for a live talk about anxiety in children and what we as their carers can do to support them. You can catch it here over on our Positive Doodle Diary Instagram if you missed it. She’s also written an excellent blog on How to Spot the Signs of Anxiety in Children for us.
Whether it is an unexpected and confusing resurgence of anxiety, a concerning amplification of existing symptoms or an alarming first experience, anxiety has been a common experience for many people over the last 18 months, and for good reason. The global pandemic has been a very challenging time, with a real threat to collective health, safety and financial stability, extended periods of uncertainty, constant change with little personal control, triggering news stories, overstimulation of screens, social disconnection, and in the midst of all this increased burden, so many of our usual means of replenishment were inaccessible to us. The deep fatigue we are feeling is real, lockdown life reducing incidental exercise to trips to the fridge and the loo and the impact of being sedentary affects not only our bodies but our mood and quality of thinking too. Research has shown that being sedentary increases anxiety, so if this is something you are noticing, you are in good company, but there are things you can do to help.Even as lockdown eases and the threat diminishes, anxiety continues to be prevalent. This is another period of adjustment, there are still real restrictions to the way we can live our lives and even positive change, change we’ve longed for, can be challenging. Life naturally contracted while we were in lockdown and our comfort zone is determined by the things we are doing on a regular basis. It is totally normal to feel rusty, out of practice and daunted by things we used to take easily in our stride. Social interactions might feel more clunky and effortful – despite our desire for connection we might feel there’s not much to talk about and even sustained eye contact after months apart can feel exhausting. Little by little, as we dip our toe into different environments, activities and interactions, our thresholds will expand naturally. Give yourself time, pace yourself according to what you need to feel safe and healthy and factor in plenty of restorative practices to compensate for the anxiety and sensory overload you may experience as we all adjust.
What are the signs of anxiety to look out for?
Anxiety can take many different shapes and some lesser known symptoms may surprise you. Once you understand these as signals of anxiety, you can better understand what’s going on and take compassionate action. We are all familiar with the physical signs of anxiety – the feeling of agitation, stomach churning, light-headedness, racing heartbeat, increased rate of breathing, sweating, feeling hot and flushed, tight shoulders, neck, jaw and stomach, dry mouth, increased need to use the toilet, jittery legs, and shaking hands. Anxiety can also manifest in headaches, nausea, stomach cramps at the more intense end of the spectrum but also in tingling in the hands and feet, restlessness and a general inability to relax at the more subtle end.
Anxiety also shows up in our thoughts and emotions where we feel nervous, on edge, panicked, a sense of dread or impending doom, catastrophic or ‘worst case scenario’ thinking, worrying excessively about the future or ruminating about the past, needing lots of reassurance from others or over-concern that other people are upset with you, feeling disconnected from the body or the world around you and worry about worrying. Irritability, fatigue, overwhelm, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating or thinking about anything other than worry can also be symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety can be seen in our actions as well, with an increased tendency to turn to compensatory behaviours like comfort eating, scrolling social media to numb ourselves, alcohol to wind down and online shopping for a feel good buzz. Difficulty enjoying down time, putting things off, compulsive ‘double checking’, trouble falling asleep or getting back to sleep can also be signs of anxiety. If you find yourself avoiding people, situations, or places or feeling yourself socially withdrawing, anxiety could lie at the heart of these feelings too.
What is anxiety all about?
While it is natural to wish we could get rid of anxiety for good, it helps to know that anxiety serves a useful purpose and it wouldn’t actually serve us to eradicate it altogether. Anxiety is there to alert us to potential danger so we can protect ourselves. But our emotions aren’t the gospel truth - the presence of anxiety doesn’t mean the presence of a real threat, just as the presence of guilt doesn’t necessarily mean we have broken our moral code. It is our job to notice the message that anxiety has for us, to check in and assess whether there is a real threat. It is easy to interpret other feelings as anxiety – for example dehydration and hunger can lead to unhelpful thoughts and sensations that feel like anxiety, stomach bugs can upset the gut microbiome leading to low mood and overthinking, too much caffeine or screen time can create the same cascading of sensations as anxiety, poor sleep can lead to addled thinking and mind fog, and there’s a fine line between excitement and anxiety. So when anxiety pops up, make space for it, let it be there and check in – ask, is there danger at hand? Rather than pushing it away, denying it or berating ourselves for feeling it, we can even greet it with a smile and thank our anxiety for trying to keep us safe.
For many people who have experienced trauma or sustained stress, the body can become caught in high alert mode, feeling a constant sense of danger even when the threat has passed. Working with an experienced, trauma-informed therapist can help dial down the physiological response so that we can feel safe in our body again. If this feels resonant to you, please know that you are not broken, you are just stuck, and there are people that can help you feel at home in your own body again.
How can we support ourselves?
While anxiety can feel overwhelming, there are simple practices that can make a real difference. The best way to use these tools is to practice them first in calm moments, build up to moments of minor and then in times of more intense anxiety. It is commonly understood that working with the breath can be a powerful way to dial down anxiety, but if you’ve found that breathing practices agitate you even more, you’re not alone! The key is to pair breath with movement so you are focusing on your body moving rather than the breath. There are a few options to try, each can be used in different circumstances or at different times of day, all will help you breathe better and when you breathe better, you feel better.
The Mountain Breath – the perfect morning ritual or alternative to caffeine after midday.
Stand tall with your feet hip width apart, arms down by your sides and your gaze forwards. Notice how it feels to be standing, the sensation of your feet against the floor, the strength of your legs and core, the elongation of your spine and the buoyancy of your head. Now begin moving with your breath, where you will breathe in and out through your nose unless you are congested. On your next inhalation slowly raise your arms out to your sides and up above your head, looking up to your hands, palms touching when you finish breathing in. Allow a tiny pause here and then enjoy a long, slow exhalation, gazing forwards again, palms reaching your outer thighs when you are ready to finish breathing out. Repeat this mindful movement in time with your breath 5 to 10 times.
Breathe with your hands – for when you’re waiting in the post office queue.
There are times when you can’t just break out into a random mountain breath, it calls for something more subtle and less obvious. We can still move our hands with the breath. As you inhale, stretch your palms open wide and as you exhale, make a gentle fist. Repeat as many times as necessary and notice how it is a great distractor for unhelpful thoughts.
Lying down bellows breath – your pre-bedtime wind down routine.
Lie down with your legs outstretched, inner ankles and inner knees together, arms by your sides with the palms facing downwards. As you breathe in, raise your arms straight up towards the ceiling and to the floor behind your head and simultaneously point your toes. (Note, you are not taking your arms out to your sides like your standing mountain breaths). As you breathe out, flex your heels and slowly lower your arms back down by your sides. Aim for 5 to 10 repetitions, allowing your breath to be slow and spacious.
It’s more than just having tools in the moment though, when we build healthy habits into our day we tend to feel less triggered. So often we feel guilty about taking time for ourselves but when we see it as proactive health-care, it makes sense. Think about the scaffolding that you need in your day to function well and see how you can make these a daily feature – hydrating and feeding your brain so you can think straight, move for your mood, sleep for sanity, and rest for resilience. Be mindful too of anything that makes you more prone to anxiety and minimise or avoid them - caffeine, alcohol, an overstimulating visual or auditory diet, late nights. Prevention is most certainly better than cure and self-kindness might just be the best medicine.
Where to reach out for help
If anxiety is making it difficult to navigate the demands in your day, if you’d like to give voice to your experiences or just need a few new tools in your back pocket, reach out and talk to someone. Check in with your GP, refer yourself for free CBT therapy on the NHS, call the Samaritans on 116123, seek some peer support via Mind or try the online community apps available via the NHS here.
(You’ll also find a wide selection of useful links on our Mental Health Resources page here.)
Suzy is a mother of two, an author, Chartered Psychologist and Coach. She specialises in self-care, helping people manage their stress, emotions, and energetic bank balance. It was her life experience of motherhood colliding with the terminal illness of her father that sparked her passion for self-care which she now teaches to her clients, young and old, to cope during periods of stress, loss and change and to boost their resilience in the face of future challenges. Suzy is on the editorial board for Motherdom Magazine, the Psychology Expert for wellbeing brand Neom Organics and is a founding member of the ‘Nourish’ app. She figure-skated her way through her childhood, growing up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and now makes her home in the hills of Hertfordshire, UK. Her first book ‘The Self-Care Revolution’ published by Aster came out in 2017, 'Stand Tall Like a Mountain: Mindfulness & Self-Care for Children and Parents' and 'The Little Book of Self-Care’ came out in 2019. ‘Self-Care for Tough Times’ and her first children’s book ‘This Book Will (Help) Make You Happy’ by Wren & Rook are both hot off the press.