Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress, but if left unchecked it can become a paralysing and debilitating force. If anxiety has taken control of your life, here’s how you can begin to take it back.
We live in worrying times. Rising costs, a high crime rate as well as high unemployment rates and an unstable rand all contribute to high levels of anxiety and depression. Social media piles on the pressure too, with many trying to keep up with the Jones’, the Sithole’s and the Nkosi’s – to project the image of an unblemished life wonderfully lived. However, no one is perfect and our modern lifestyle is taking its toll.
A 2014 Sunday Times investigation revealed that out of one third of South Africans who suffer from some form of mental illness, 75% will not seek help. Anxiety disorders are very common, with nearly 16% of South Africans suffering from an anxiety disorder, according to a 2009 study.
What is anxiety?
Cape Town-based clinical psychologist Thembelihle Dube says the most common anxiety disorders she sees in her practice are: generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), which is characterised by excessive worry and tension; social anxiety disorder, which is a fear of social situations and characterised by a fear being judged; and panic disorder where individuals experience a sudden sense of terror that seems to come on suddenly without warning.
In her new book The Anxiety Toolkit, Dr Alice Boyes explains that many people develop routines or rituals to try to keep their anxiety under control. These ‘routines’ can range from limiting yourself to only visiting certain places or avoiding going out at certain times, to washing hands or doing another activity repeatedly. While these strategies work in the short term, over time they diminish self-confidence and the ability to effectively perform simple, day-to-day tasks.
When to seek help
“When anxiety becomes severe, people go from seeing themselves as “normal” to wondering whether or not they’re crazy,” says Dr Boyes. “Some people believe their anxiety makes them broken or unloveable. They might question if they’re ever going to have satisfying connections with other people or if they’re destined for a life of rejection or loneliness,” she continues. None of these beliefs are true and, like any other condition, anxiety can be managed.
“When you can’t control the worry and it starts having an impact on your functioning at work, at home or in any other sphere of your life; when your worry and fear becomes excessive (you worry every day for at least six months) or unreasonable (you worry unnecessarily about everything and constantly fear the worst), then it’s time to seek professional help,” says Dube.
When anxiety has become severe, people often go from seeing themselves as “normal” to wondering whether or not they’re crazy.
An example of a symptom of anxiety are sleeping concerns – either too much or too little – because your mind just won’t shut down, your muscles are tense and you start to grind your teeth because you’re constantly on edge. Other symptoms include: heart palpitations, sweating, tearfulness and irritability.
The first step in taking back contol of your life is to contact a medical professional like your family GP in order to rule out any physical concerns. Once this has been done, your GP can refer you to a mental health professional like a clinical psychologist who will guide you discovering the root cause of your anxiety, says Dube. Your GP may also refer you to a psychiatrist if you anxiety is severe and requires medication.
Managing your anxiety and living your life
The method of treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms. Always consult with a health care professional if you are experiencing overwhelming anxiety.
- Apart from medication, therapy is the bedrock of treatment for anxiety disorders. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with a qualified psychologist has been shown to be an effective treatment for anxiety disorders, says Dube. It helps you to understand your anxiety, where it stems from and the basic steps you can take to lessen its effect on your daily wellbeing.
- Yoga, mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise also have a calming effect. A walk out in the fresh air can be remarkably therapeutic and give you time to clear your head. Exercise also releases endorphins which can give you a natural high. It also has an affect on your sleep patterns and can help you get back into a regular sleep routine.
- Joining a support group in your area can help you feel less isolated and helps you become a part of a community of others who, like you are living with an anxiety disorder. Sometimes it’s just enough to know you’re not alone and not the only person who feels this way.
- Dr Boyes highly recommends setting up your life to suit your temperament. This involves having the right level of activity to suit your preferred pace. “For example,” she say, “have enough after-work or weekend activities to keep you feeling calm yet stimulated, but not over stimulated and scattered. Having pleasurable activities to look forward to and enough physical activity will help protect you against depression, a secondary mental disorder often associated with anxiety.”
- Know your strengths and weaknesses – if change makes you anxious, work out routines and habits to keep your life as predictible as possible. Change is inevitable, however, so when it happens, be patient with yourself and break tasks down into manageable chunks.
- Write it down. Keep a notebook next to your bed. If you’re struggling to sleep because you’re obsessing over something, write down your concern so that you can deal with it in the morning when you’re fresh. This simple act can really help ease your mind if you’re worried about forgetting something.
- Reach out. People who struggle with anxiety tend to focus inward and it’s important to also reach out, says Dr Boyes. A strong support network is invaluable in helping an anxious person feel accepted and loved. These can include family, friends and partners, as well as mental health professionals.
The Anxiety Toolkit by Dr Alice Boyes (Little Brown) offers powerful and effective strategies for managing your anxiety so you can get on with your life. Whether you are simply anxiety-prone or are living with an anxiety disorder, this book is packed with easy-to-implement tips and tricks to get help you. Available for R300 at good bookshops nationwide.