Surprising ways to control your anxiety: From chewing gum to holding ice, how you can master the fears that grip so many of us
- Clinical psychologist Dr Kirren Schnack shares tried-and-tested strategies for beating anxiety
- READ MORE: Six ways to stop your anxiety from spiralling out of control, from the Mind Doctor DR MAX PEMBERTON
Do you suffer from anxiety? If you do, you’re far from alone.
You — like approximately 284 million people worldwide (and that’s just the cases we know about) — might have general anxiety, health anxiety, feelings of panic or social anxiety.
Anxiety is an emotional, psychological and physical experience. It’s essential to our survival, and it actually enhances our performance when we need it to.
But, when it becomes a problem, it interferes with normal day-to-day life.
For many people, anxiety is troublesome when it’s persistently present in the absence of immediate danger.
Feeling anxious during certain life transitions is normal, but if the anxiety becomes overwhelming or significantly impacts daily functioning it may have become a bigger problem
The good news is that, however bad your anxiety, you can overcome it.
I’m a clinical psychologist who trained at Oxford University and, over the past 20 years of my working life, I have successfully treated thousands of patients with anxiety disorders.
One of the most wonderful things I’ve had the privilege to witness is people beating anxiety and changing their lives.
They just need to know how to do it.
The strategies I use are drawn from clinical guidance, supported by scientific evidence, and have been validated through my extensive experience with patients.
So if you want to know how to live a happier, calmer life, unblighted by anxiety, read on…
WHAT WAS THE TRIGGER?
While the origin of your anxiety — and the way in which it presents itself — is unlikely to change the way you tackle it, sometimes it can be helpful to understand that there are certain life stages that might prompt anxiety, and that there are common forms of it.
Chewing gum can be a great way to reduce anxiety. Not only does it help you feel calmer, but it can also boost your cognitive functioning
It’s unlikely that you are the only one who has ever felt this way. This should give you the confidence to believe that, like many before you, you, too, can overcome it.
Feeling anxious during certain life transitions is normal, but if the anxiety becomes overwhelming or significantly impacts daily functioning it may have become a bigger problem.
Here are some typical life stages and events that are often associated with anxiety:
- Adolescence: Hormonal and physical changes during puberty, along with the challenges of transitioning into adulthood.
- College/university: Academic pressures, social adjustments and increased responsibilities.
- Starting a career: Interviews, career uncertainties, performance expectations and office conflicts.
- Relationship changes: Starting or ending romantic relationships, conflicts, divorce or separation.
- Parenthood: Becoming a parent for the first time or adjusting to the demands and uncertainties of raising children.
- Empty Nest Syndrome: When children leave home, parents may feel grief or purposelessness.
- Menopause: Hormonal changes can impact mood and increase the risk of anxiety for some women.
- Ageing and retirement: This can introduce anxieties related to identity, health and finances.
- Significant changes: Moving, switching careers, bereavement, financial difficulties or trauma can also trigger anxiety problems.
Holding ice can be a quick, helpful way to manage anxiety. You can hold an ice cube in your hand or try running it along the inside of your elbow or wrist
IDENTIFY YOUR ANXIETY TYPE
This is the most frequent thinking pattern observed in my clinic. It involves assuming the worst possible outcome and convincing yourself that it will definitely happen, regardless of its actual probability.
Catastrophising will often lead to you using phrases such as ‘What if?’ and overestimating negative consequences.
Example: What if my child’s fever is really a fatal illness? What if this panic attack is a heart attack?
You think in extremes: you’re either completely safe and well, or you’re dying of a heart attack. Things are either completely fine, or completely awful.
When you think in this way, you’re unable to see a middle ground where you tell yourself: ‘Yes, this is hard, but it will pass.’
Example: I will never get better. This is not going to stop. Unless I’m free of anxiety everything is hopeless.
You take a bad experience and project it into your future as a never-ending pattern.
You’ve reached a conclusion based on one occurrence, and you go on applying that conclusion to every similar event or scenario.
Example: If it happened once, it will keep happening. I will always have panic attacks if I go out alone.
Catastrophising involves assuming the worst possible outcome and convincing yourself that it will definitely happen, regardless of its actual probability
Imagine having a crystal ball to see your future, and all you predict is pain and suffering.
You forecast that future events will have a specific negative outcome for you or your loved ones.
Example: I know I’m doomed to die young, and it will be a horrible, painful end. If I come across someone who is sick, I’ll be sure to catch what they have and become seriously unwell.
You make assumptions about what other people are thinking or doing in relation to you, and these are invariably negative.
Example: That person looked at me strangely because they know there’s something wrong with me.
The receptionist at the doctor’s surgery was looking at me funny because they’ve seen my test result and know it’s bad news.
You sieve out all the positives in a situation, leaving yourself to dwell on the negatives.
You remove any reassuring facts from the information you have, and focus on the one tiny thing that opposes them.
This tendency to ignore positives in favour of negatives causes you considerable distress.
Example: I know the doctor said my bloods were normal, but that one slightly elevated reading means I’m ill.
Mind readers make assumptions about what other people are thinking or doing in relation to them, and these are invariably negative
You define yourself wholly in a particularly extreme and negative way.
This should really be known as ‘mis-labelling’ because that is what people are doing when they get stuck in this thinking pattern. They take a single attribute and turn it into an absolute.
Example: Because I felt dizzy in the car, I have a problem with fainting. Because I was anxious when driving, I should give it up.
You believe that you’re responsible for bad things that happen, even if, factually, they are out of your control or aren’t even that bad.
You may also feel guilty if you don’t do things to prevent an imagined catastrophe.
Example: Your child catches a stomach bug and you blame yourself for not being more careful.
You believe that you’re doomed, and that everything always goes wrong for you and always will. If you note something concerning, you exaggerate the meaning of it.
Example: If you hear about a link between eating raw fish and developing parasitic infections, you assume that, because you’ve eaten sushi at one point in your life, you already have the parasite in your body.
By exaggerating like this you don’t pay attention to important details, such as the fact that the type of fish and how it is treated, stored or prepared are contributing factors.
Exaggerators believe that they’re doomed, and that everything always goes wrong for them and always will
HOW TO MANAGE ANXIOUS THOUGHTS
Whatever form your anxiety takes, an essential aspect of overcoming it is to address and manage the thoughts associated with it.
And this all starts with identifying them.
This will also help you to see that your anxiety doesn’t just come out of the blue, and you will learn that it isn’t as out of control as it may seem.
You may already know the kinds of thoughts that set off your anxiety. If you do, then take note of these, either in a notebook or on your phone.
You will come back to these recurrent thoughts time and again, because it is these that we are aiming to overcome.
If you don’t know what your anxious thoughts are, these eight questions will help you to identify them:
1. When I feel anxious, what is going through my mind?
2. What was I doing or noticing before I started to think this way?
3. What triggered this spike in anxiety, and what did that situation make me think about myself?
4. What is my worst fear, and why?
5. What do I always worry about?
6. What do I keep predicting will happen?
7. What types of conclusions am I jumping to?
8. What am I thinking about when I feel strong anxiety sensations?
You won’t necessarily need to answer all of these questions — and if you do, you may find that the answers are quite repetitive. That’s because anxious thoughts often fall into patterns.
Examples of anxious thoughts might be: ‘I’m terrified that I have a neurological illness’, ‘I think I’m going to die today’, ‘I’ll say something stupid and everybody will hate me’, ‘A heart attack will strike me out of the blue’.
Very frequently people will have these threatening thoughts for a significant period of time without them actually materialising, and yet they still cling to them.
This is what an anxious mind does — but you need to help it filter through these repetitive thoughts.
One technique that I use to help people do this takes noting down your anxious thoughts, and the threats that they represent, to the next level.
Create a table in your notebook, or on your phone, with the following columns: the date you had your anxious thought, the threat it represented, whether the threat came true or not, and what actually happened.
Your table might look a bit like the illustration below.
Once you’ve made a table like this, keep adding thoughts, recording a ‘yes/no’ response and noting down the actual reality of the situation.
You’ll soon notice that there is a very clear distortion between your anxious perception and the reality.
TRY QUICK-FIX DISTRACTIONS
While you’re working on longer-term strategies like the anxiety table, it’s worth having some clever distractions up your sleeve to pull your attention away from your anxious thoughts. Here are some that might sound odd, but really work…
Chew on this!
Chewing gum can be a great way to reduce anxiety. Not only does it help you feel calmer, but it can also boost your cognitive functioning. This can be especially helpful when it comes to managing anxious thoughts.
When you chew gum, you give yourself a physical outlet for the nervous energy created by anxiety. It can also help relieve tension in your jaw and neck.
It also increases blood flow to the brain, which can enhance your concentration, memory and recall.
Make sure to opt for a sugar-free and caffeine-free version, to avoid adding any unnecessary stimulants to your system when you’re already feeling anxious.
When you chew gum, you give yourself a physical outlet for the nervous energy created by anxiety. It can also help relieve tension in your jaw and neck
Holding ice can be a quick, helpful way to manage anxiety.
You can hold an ice cube in your hand or try running it along the inside of your elbow or wrist.
The intense cold sensation can be very grounding, bringing you into the present moment and away from anxious thoughts.
Count to calmness
Counting backwards from a high number, for example between 500 and 5,000, can be a useful tool for diverting your mind away from anxious thoughts.
By focusing on counting, you are giving your mind a break from engaging with imagined future catastrophes.
Counting backwards can also be beneficial for regulating your breaths. By timing your breath with each number, you can slow down your breathing, which will help you feel more relaxed.
- Adapted from Ten Times Calmer: Beat Anxiety And Change Your Life by Dr Kirren Schnack (£16.99, Bluebird), which is out on Thursday. © Dr Kirren Schnack 2023. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to September 18, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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