My son also has anxiety. He gets terrible headaches and stomach pains for no physical reason, and worries about things way beyond his 10 years of life. I know how hard it can be living with anxiety, and also trying to support someone close to you who has it too.
And so, the five techniques below are what I have learnt on my journey as a person with anxiety, a Mental Health Nurse and a mother of a child who gets anxious. Different things work for different people, but by sharing them I hope that they may help and work for you too.
‘This too shall pass…’
It’s a little phrase I say to myself repeatedly when I get anxious. It helps remind myself that everything passes, everything changes – that this state is not permanent and it will pass.
First I breathe normally and count up to 10 slowly – I find this a calming exercise in itself when my thoughts are racing. Then I take a breath in before slowly breathing out. I usually start counting back from 10 as I do this to make sure I’m breathing out slowly. If you try this, don’t worry about getting all the way back down to zero; if it’s more helpful, try counting back from four or five, and work out what’s good for you.
I do this breathing exercise with my son when he starts having a panic attack. The physical reactions to anxiety include sweating, a faster heart beat (palpitations), nausea (feeling sick), headaches and pains. Getting some oxygen into your bloodstream helps your body calm down, as does concentrating on slowing down your breathing. For me, it’s a way of reconnecting my mind and body.
I find when I am anxious, being around people I feel safe with really helps. Contact with others helps keep me grounded and connected to other lives.
It can help to reach out and speak to someone you trust, such as your friends, family, colleagues or GP. Having someone listen to you and care about you can be a source of comfort and relief. Or you can call a helpline (such as The Samaritans) if you’d rather speak to someone who doesn’t know you.
If you were to ask a Mental Health Nurse their greatest technique in managing a mental health crisis, I think it would be the use of distraction. We can all find ourselves being too focused on something that’s worrying us sometimes to the point where we shut everything else out – including reality. I use distraction a lot with my 10-year-old son to draw him away from those all-consuming thoughts. He listens to music, reads a book, or talks about his latest football game.
Distraction techniques can be very simple, such as drawing shapes, but I’ve found that choosing something I love to do helps absorb my energy and gets me away from anxious thoughts. I have worked with lots of people who have found things like walking, music, painting, singing, talking, and playing board games all useful distractions for when the fearful thoughts take over.
I find that if I am brave enough to venture outside during my anxious moments, that looking up to the sky and out to the nature around me can really help ground me. I often work in the heart of London; however there is always a small green area within walking distance and this is all I need.
I like to take a quiet 10-minute walk around a park or nature area and retune my senses to the world around me. I like to look at the colours in the sky, the trees and the flowers. I listen for the quiet sounds of the birds, the hum of the traffic, and even the chatter of other people. I focus on each sound in turn, and smell the environment I am in.
If my mind wanders back to my worries, I just notice when that happens and take my mind back to focusing on my environment. This mindfulness technique may not work for everyone experiencing anxiety but for some people – myself included – it helps to calm and soothe.
I have worked with lots of people in the past who have used nature as a coping strategy for their most difficult times. My son is never happier than when he is outside, so there must be something of value there!
Other techniques for managing anxiety include keeping a diary, setting aside specific time to work through your worries, and looking after your physical health. Getting enough sleep, exercise and eating well is really important. If you’re finding anxiety difficult to manage then make an appointment to see your GP for help and support. There are treatments out there that can help.