Anxiety & Stress
What can be of help when I am constantly feeling anxious, stressed and panicky?
Before thinking about what you can do practically to relieve some of your feelings of anxiety and stress it may be worthwhile to take a moment and think about what constitutes anxiety as well as the kinds of fears which lead to these distressing feelings.
We know that we live in, what has been described as, The Age of Anxiety and the following reflections on Auden’s poem, although seemingly extreme, do in fact speak of the feelings and experiences which we can all, in some measure, identify with.
The Age of Anxiety
In 1947, W. H. Auden published a lengthy poem, The Age of Anxiety, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for poetry the following year. Although the poem is set in time of war, the cause of the anxiety is deeper than the occasion of the war. The four characters share some common characteristics: they suffer from loneliness, feeling unattached to any one; they have a sense that they are not of any value to anyone; they feel neither touched by love, nor capable of offering it to others. Behind all the clever talk and apparent civility, the four of them live fearful lives. However accurate, their ability to describe what is muddled and amiss with the world – ‘the clown’s cosmos’ - their insights do not lead to liberation.
The fears we know
Are of not knowing. It is getting late.
Shall we ever be asked for? Are we simply
Not wanted at all?
….this stupid world where
Gadgets are gods and we go on talking
Many about much, but remain alone,
Alive but alone, belonging – where? –
Unattached as tumbleweed
The four characters have lost any sense of faith in themselves and any faith they ever had in their fellow humans. Whilst the characters are human beings, there is little that is humane about them, none of them seem to be rooted in the community, and none of them seem to relate to anyone. They seem trapped by overwhelming self disdain, cultivating self disparagement as a virtue while defaming all around them. They no longer have any sense of themselves as worthy or dignified people. Their lives have become anxiety-ridden. For them the future is an unforgiving abyss. While you find yourself agreeing with some of the characters’ observations, even envying their ability to articulate their angst so skilfully, you end up distancing yourself from their despairing voices. These four people are frightening, perhaps because their unrelieved anxiety writes in large and bold letters the felt anxieties we all experience.
Anxiety and Fear – What is the difference?
Anxiety, admittedly in milder forms than the extreme form portrayed by Auden's four characters, is a universal phenomenon. All of us when we experience ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress’ speak about a feeling of apprehension, a discomfiting feeling of uncertainty, helplessness or agitation, which, in turn, can be experienced as a feeling of dis-ease both emotionally and physically, because a mind that is overly taxed can lead to a body that is overly taxed.
In normal everyday language people do not usually distinguish between fear and anxiety when they try to name their feelings of unease or disquiet. We can try to distinguish the difference by describing fear as being a realistic response to a real threat to the physical self, like feeling scared when we are diagnosed by consultant and told we have a serious illness, while anxiety can be seen as a threat to one’s sense of self.
What are these feelings of anxiety connected to? What is the source of this unease, and sometimes feelings of dread?
For many people the experience of anxiety and distress is connected with anticipated fear related to expectations of loss of love and approval - living in dread of being abandoned by our loved ones, apprehension about being utterly rejected by the people we respect, feelings of inferiority, or the fear of breakdown of our personal relationships as well as feelings of isolation and loneliness and feeling frightened about losing our essential values in life.
We can all add to this list because all of us have shared something of these feelings of dread at some time in our lives. They are not alien to anyone's experience of struggling to live, not just as a human being but struggling to discover what being human might mean. We all feel anxious at some times in our lives, and when there is no specified object, the anxiety can deepen, so we can end up in a circle of desperation, feeling anxious about being anxious.
Why do we struggle with acknowledging our feelings of anxiety?
What we do know is that feelings of anxiety are commonplace, and quite normal in everyone's life, but in the ideal world in which we live, for some strange reason, many people are reluctant to admit to their fears and anxieties, as if these feelings are so rare in the human household that they have to be hidden: if acknowledged, people might withdraw from us, our immediate relatives might well feel obliged to refer us to a mental institution. Many people have an inarticulate awareness that somehow they are not matching up to the standards of adequacy set by society: they do not feel strong and confident, attractive and powerful, independent and financially secure. They become aware that the world they inhabit, as opposed to that of ‘normal’ people, is full of feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, helplessness and inadequacy. Rather than question the myth of the normal, many people disguise their despair behind a pose and join the ranks of the unreal, protesting that everything is fine, really. There is little permission to talk about these feelings .For a variety of reasons people are extremely reticent about revealing their worries and vulnerabilities to others, which reinforces the view of the social world, subscribed to wittingly or unwittingly by most of us which is in fact much more of a myth than an accurate picture of reality. People are not simply careful to keep quiet about their personal fears - they are often unable even to describe for themselves what they are. It is as if we have no proper language with which to understand and describe our feelings, but must rely on ‘symptoms’ to give them some kind of communicable form.
Professor David Smail, in his book about the experience of anxiety, wrote:
I do not believe that there can be anybody who has reached beyond the tenderest years without experiencing acute psychological pain over his or her feelings of inadequacy in relation to others, anxiety about his or her performance of socially expected functions and tasks, depression or despair at some kind of failure or loss….
There are, however, quite a lot of people who claim to live lives unruffled by such shames and embarrassments, who make a show of adequacy which is to the envy of their friends… What may start out as a need to ward off anxiety by convincing others of one’s own adequacy may end up as an ability to deceive oneself that one is totally invulnerable. Such invulnerability is, however, often bought at the cost of those who have to suffer the effect of insensitivity and egotism that such self-deception needs to maintain itself.
The story of the youth who went forth to learn what fear was
Most people's feelings of anxiety are a natural outcome of the circumstances they have lived through or are currently facing, an entirely reasonable response to episodes in their life history. Feelings of fear or anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival. To be wholly free of anxiety would be inhuman, a point illustrated by one of Grimm's fairy tales. - It is ‘The story of the youth who went forth to learn what fear was’. The story explores the bizarre adventure of a younger son, regarded as chronically stupid by every one, who sensed he would always be incomplete as a human being until he learned how to be afraid. Leaving his father, who commands him to tell no one where he comes from or who his father is, he ventures forth, and in a series of challenges puts himself in harm's way, only to remain steadfastly unimpressed and unruffled.
Eventually he comes on a haunted castle, where evil spirits guard its greatest treasures; the king promises the hand of his daughter to any man who can free the castle from the evil spirits. Our hero survives all the trials and frees the castle. The king compliments him and says: 'You have saved the castle, and shall marry my daughter.’ But the young man replies, ‘That is all very well, but still I do not know how to shudder!'
The wedding is celebrated; but howsoever- the young king loved his wife, and however happy he was, he still said always; ' if I could but shudder’. His wife is angry and becomes determined to cure him. She discusses the matter with her maid, and the two women plot a way to ensure that this young man will experience fear. The wife follows the advice of her maid. When her husband is asleep in the marriage bed, she pours a bucket of cold water, full of prickly little fish, over him and he wakes up shuddering, overcome by fear. He also wakes up human: interestingly, he learns fear not from the dark evil spirits or ghosts, but in natural surroundings, in the midst of a happy life, in the marriage bed!
The human challenge is learning to live with anxiety, accepting it as our subjective and often appropriate response to the ways we interact with people and worlds, and to be free under its pressures.
Having acknowledged that anxiety is a universal experience, we can now ask:
What do People who are feeling anxious and stressed over a period of time often speak about?
- A feeling that their mind is racing and constantly circling around certain concerns. The concerns may be seemingly mundane, but they keep recurring until they push out all the other thoughts in their mind.
This may often result in:
- Lack of sleep or sleep disturbance resulting in a feeling of tiredness and fatigue no matter how many hours sleep they have had, this in turn, adds to the constant feelings of stress and anxiety and a person may often seek medication as their first resort.
- An inability to focus on the job in hand.
- A feeling of loss of confidence or inadequacy, resulting in a fear of disapproval or even rejection
- An awareness that they have frequent clashes with partner, family or colleagues at work
- Fear of breakdown of personal relationships
- A real difficulty to slow down or relax both physically as well as mentally
- An awareness that they are becoming excessively angry at minor irritations
- A gradual lack of care for their personal appearance
- Noticing that they are frequently absent from work through sickness
What are some of the immediate simple and practical steps you can take which can be of help in easing the feelings of anxiety and stress which affect both your emotional as well as your physical wellbeing?
Perhaps what is needed here is a combination of self reflection, that is learning about ourselves and trying to understand what it is that makes us so anxious, together with some simple strategies and practical steps, which can help towards reducing the resulting physical symptoms and bring about the relief of feeling calmer and clearer in mind and more physically rested.
- Reflecting on ourselves
Carl Jung once noted:
‘One must occupy oneself with oneself; otherwise one does not grow, otherwise one cannot develop. One must plant a garden and give it increasing attention and care if one wants vegetables; otherwise only weeds flourish… Meditation on one’s own being is an absolutely legitimate, even necessary activity if one strives after a real alteration and improvement of the situation’.
- How do we do this?
If you think about it, most of us, if only for brief periodic moments, do pause to reflect, amidst the problems and contradictions that confront us, on who we are and where we are going in our lives. Some people may find these moments through a variety of seemingly simple activities which, because they are calming, can lead to a more ordinary balanced view of themselves. They may range from creative activities or hobbies to enjoying the natural beauty of a garden or a spring walk or just ‘sitting doing nothing’.
Some people, at certain difficult, confusing and anxious times, may also choose to make their own reflective journey through counselling or psychotherapy.
Whatever variety of ways a person may choose; these become, with time, both life-enhancing and restorative, deepening their sense of connectedness and self-respect, enabling them to think about, discuss and begin to address the underlying issues which may be causing their feelings of anxiety.
Some of the day-to-day practical ways you may choose to build on which can help your physical wellbeing.
Getting enough restful sleep at night is one of the most important conditions for reducing stress. By taking a few simple steps you can begin to change your habits and promote a more restful and nourishing night’s sleep.
Preparing for a more restful night’s sleep
- Aim for 6-8 hours sleep. The hours before midnight are known to be more rejuvenating than those after. If you are in the habit of going to bed at 11:30 p.m. or later. Try to aim for going to bed a half an hour earlier each week until you are in bed by 10:30 p.m...
- To the extent possible, minimise exciting, aggravating or mentally intensive activities after 8:30 p.m...
- About an hour before bedtime run a hot bath with a few drops of essential oils, such as lavender, and afterwards have a warm drink. It can be a cup of milk with nutmeg and honey or some camomile or valerian root tea. Try and avoid alcohol which, instead of promoting nourishing sleep, induces a stupor.
- If your mind is still overly active journal for a few minutes before bed, ‘downloading’ some of your thoughts and concerns, so that you don't need to ruminate about them when you shut your eyes. Nancy Mair, an American housewife, once wrote: ‘I will write myself into wellbeing’.
- Wait until you are feeling really sleepy before actually going to bed. Once in bed, close your eyes, and simply feel your body, focusing on your body wherever you notice tension consciously relaxing that area.
- Do not watch TV, or do any work in bed thus changing your old habits and relearning a natural habit that bed is for restful sleep.
- If you still have trouble falling asleep, try putting something warm on your belly in the area of the solar plexus, a hot water bottle or heat pad to both soothe your body and calm your mind.
- Try sleeping on your stomach with your feet hanging over the edge of the bed. On cold nights wear socks so your toes stay warm.
- If you are still struggling to sleep. Get out of bed and go into your sitting room and sit and read with some quiet music, or even do something simple like the ironing, until you feel sleepy again and only then return to bed.
Restful sleep accelerates healing of mind and body.
Practical tips for reducing stress in your daily routine.
- Daily exercise either early morning or evening or a lunch break walk is a recommended way of helping to relieve tense and stressful feelings. This may include any exercise which you enjoy either alone or with others. When you exercise routinely you are more aware when you are awake and you sleep better at night.
- Putting aside 20 - 30 minutes morning and evening to go through a relaxation exercise, with the help of a relaxation tape or CD, will help you to learn the difference between how your body feels when it is tense and how it feels when it is relaxed. You will also learn how to breathe in a way which will help you relax during the day when you notice that you are feeling tense. (CDs on the art of relaxation can be obtained from: www.talkinglife.co.uk, a website related to the NHS)
- Some may find that Yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi are beneficial as a way of slowing down and placing your mind in the present moment, thus giving your brain a chance to relax.
- Equally important is your diet: by putting the right nutrients into your body you will be feeding the brain as well as the muscles, and you will be able to think more clearly and concentrate more effectively. A good diet of fruits, vegetable and whole grains, through natural sugars, will help you to have more energy and be less susceptible to fatigue.
- Try to eat a relatively light dinner no later than 7:30 p.m., so you do not go to bed on a full stomach. If you are at work eat your lunch away from your desk if possible.
By making the time to take some simple and practical steps to reduce your feelings of anxiety and stress you will begin to feel better, work better, be more sociable and able to address prevailing issues as well as enjoy improved health.
One difficult form of stress to cope with and manage is, what may sometimes be called, a generalised feeling of anxiety, which is often triggered by a traumatic event or a secondary long-standing underlying problem. Many people often experience this as:
- A feeling of severe emotional strain which prevents a person from thinking clearly.
- Flashbacks to earlier memories
- An inability to concentrate, a feeling of fatigue, and even memory problems.
- An increased sense of moodiness.
- Bouts of emotional stress which leaves the sufferer feeling lost and alone in their own cycle of emotion.
Whilst the practical tips for reducing stress can help and give some relief, people suffering from continuous bouts of emotional stress, often consider speaking with a trusted friend in the first instance. However, when these difficulties remain confusing and unsettling, people, at these times, may seek help through counselling or psychotherapy, which can provide a helpful space for them to think about, understand and learn to manage the underlying issues which may be triggering their feelings of distress.
Carl Jung “Depth psychology and Self Knowledge” in the Collected works of CG Jung
D. Smail “Illusion and Reality: The Meaning of Anxiety”
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
D McBride Waiting and Anxiety
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