A month before writing this I was sitting in the local town park with my wife, 2-year-old son and some family friends. The weather was beautiful and we’d got ourselves a nice little grassy spot to have a picnic and the kids were playing happily.
Perfection… until this conversation starts
B: “But Pete, there’s A LOT of people here today.”
Me “Yeah, there is”
B: “I mean, this would be the perfect target for some kind of terrorist attack; targets don’t get much softer than this”
Me “Well yeah, but that’s not going to happen, is it?”
B “How can you be so sure? These things have happened before.”
Me: “Yeah but…”
B “Are you even watching, just in case?”
Que me on high alert, ‘Who is that?’, ‘Is that an exit?’, ‘What’s in that bag?’, ‘Why are they walking so fast?’ and so on.
In case you haven’t worked it out yet, ‘B’ in that conversation is my brain. You see, I have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), an anxiety condition. And unfortunately, this is a common reality for people with anxiety. Everything is fine, you’re enjoying some quality time, and you’re content and at peace until anxiety decides to crash the party and have some fun with you.
Anxiety is the uninvited guest that can gatecrash anyone’s party, be it a teenager’s, a CEO’s, a retiree’s, or a full-time parent’s. Anxiety has this sneaky habit of intensifying with no warning, transforming a perfectly enjoyable time into an outright emotional and mental shitstorm.
Anxiety isn’t bad until it is…
Before I carry on, I just want to point out something really important. Anxiety as an emotion is a completely normal and healthy response to some kind of fear and worry. It’s the same brain process that makes you check both sides before crossing the road (even if traffic is only travelling one way). We don’t want to get rid of all anxiety. But the kicker comes when anxiety starts to take over, dictate how and when you live your life and cause issues in life. It’s that second part that I’m talking about today.
Because if I was sat in that same town park and my head said to me “We should probably keep my 2-year-old son away from that 10-foot climbing frame” then that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to feel anxious about. But it didn’t, it went further and ended up causing us issues meaning that we had to cut the day short and go home.
While anxiety issues might be a reality for a lot of people, there are things we can do to at least minimise the impact it has on us or maybe prolong the amount of time we can actually enjoy things. What I’m doing to do below is give a few ideas on what I do to help my anxiety. It’s absolutely not medical advice and there’s no substitute for professional support.
1. Breathing Magic: The Deep Dive
When anxiety has your thoughts whirling like a tornado, the most potent weapon in your arsenal is as straightforward as it gets: your breath. I’m talking good, deep belly breaths, not shallow, chest ones. It sounds stupid that something as simple as breathing can be so effective but I really can help pacify your body’s fight-or-flight response and bring a sense of tranquillity.
You see when we’re stressed or anxious, our breathing speeds up to get more oxygen to our muscles so we can fight or fight (run away). Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which – without getting too geeky about it – promotes a state of calmness. So there’s actual science behind this!
Start by getting comfortable – sit down, lie down, lean, whatever works for you. Then close your eyes (For god’s sake, don’t do this when driving!) and then take a 4-second breath in through your nose. Pause for a moment, then take a longer (6 – 10 seconds) breath out through your mouth with your lips fairly tight, as if you’re blowing up a balloon. Do this 3 – 5 times.
Personally speaking, doing this won’t stop the anxiety building completely, but it slows it down and it gives me a chance to move somewhere calmer if that’s an option. Try to make this a regular habit, because the more you do it, the better you get at it, meaning when you hit a time when you REALLY need it, you’re ready to go.
2. Come down from 40,000 feet
The sheer nature of anxiety is that our brain is anywhere but down here on earth. It’s up in the atmosphere looking at the what if’s, when’s, why’s and who’s. This means that we can easily become somewhat detached from the right here and right now and get carried away into the anxious thoughts and beliefs.
Grounding is a simple and quick method of bringing yourself back down to earth. Now there are loads of different ways of grounding yourself but I’m going to give you my technique if it’s helpful, great! If not, then have a Google and find one that works for you.
Move somewhere away from where your anxiety has been getting worse. At this point, I like to do the deep breathing I mentioned earlier but it’s up to you.
3. Movement: Your Body’s Natural Mood Booster
Exercise isn’t just about sculpting a beach body – it’s one of the best natural remedies for anxiety. Physical activity releases endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, your body’s ‘feel-good’ hormones, helping alleviate stress and enhance your mood.
There are 2 ways we can g about this. The first is general lifestyle such as trying to incorporate some form of physical activity into your routine. It doesn’t need to be a marathon or some crazy routine. You could go for a brisk walk around the block, a quick home workout, dancing to your favourite tunes, yoga or a leisurely bike ride. Notice how you feel before and after exercising – you’ll likely see a shift, a sense of release. Just remember, it’s not about the intensity; it’s about the consistency.
The second way we can go about this is in response to anxiety.
When my anxiety spikes the last thing I want to do is get active. It feels counterintuitive to get my hate rate fast when it’s already doing 120 beats per minute without me moving but it does work! Exercise at the time does all of the good shit I mentioned above but it also serves as a distraction, allows me to channel all that extra adrenaline into something besides becoming an emotional wreck and gives me a sense of achievement. Personally, I love walking and have a spinning bike in my office with a set of gym kit on it at all times, ready to go as and when needed. A quick 15-minute youtube workout later, and I’m feeling much better.
This takes a certain level of extra effort and forcing myself to do it but I’m always glad I did!
4. Get those thoughts out there!
We often tend to wall ourselves in when anxiety’s partying hard. I like to think of my brain as a vase. But something has smashed it and I’m trying to gather the pieces (my thoughts and feelings) together to fix it but there’s a storm that’s blowing the pieces all over the place.
This is a time when your brain is not your friend, so the sooner you can get those thoughts and feelings out of your brain and somewhere calmer, the better.
I have 2 ways of doing this. The first is simply to speak to other people. Especially people who get anxious. For me, other veterans with PTSD are the best as they get my brain on a deeper level than anyone else, but pick whoever works for you, my wife is my usual victim for this. Sometimes I’ll say to them, “Can I just verbally vomit everything on you, and then we’ll see what’s there?”. This means that they know I don’t expect them to say anything, and I’ll just get everything out. That in itself is often enough to be a massive help.
The second method is to brain dump. Simply grab a ben and paper and write down everything. It doesn’t need structure or coherence; you can swear as much as you want. I’ll write down thoughts I’m having, beliefs I hold onto, tasks I need to do, things I’m worried about, something that has pissed me off, and what I think about it or that person. I’ll then sit back and read this. It makes everything much easier to understand and digest and if we understand it better, we often know what we can do about it.
However you do it, don’t try to tackle the anxiety internally, I’m sorry to tell you that your brain is more powerful than you realise.
Whew, that’s it for today!
Seriously though, if you live with an anxiety condition, I know how absolutely brutal that bully can be but remember: