- a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
“he felt a surge of anxiety”
- strong desire or concern to do something or for something to happen.
“the housekeeper’s eager anxiety to please”
What is anxiety?
Put simply, anxiety is a feeling of unease. A feeling of worry. Fear. Anxiety is, in essence, normal. Everyone experiences anxiety. And, sometimes it can be helpful. Before an exam or an interview for example, it can help you stay alert and focus.
What happens when we feel anxious?
In situations where we feel stressed or anxious, our bodies release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These cause the physical symptoms of anxiety, that we know – all too well in some cases.
Physical symptoms can include:
- a pounding heartbeat
- breathing faster
- palpitations(an irregular heartbeat)
- feeling sick
- chest pains
- loss of appetite
- feeling faint
- needing the toilet more frequently
- “butterflies” in your tummy
The body releases these hormones in response to a threat – if you feel threatened, overwhelmed or out of control. The hormones help you cope with the situation. In the face of no actual threat though, excess levels of adrenaline and cortisol build up leaving you feeling anxious.
So, too much of them can become a problem. Prolonged periods of anxiety can make you tired. Unable to concentrate – and that’s just the start of it.
As anxiety progresses physical and behavioural symptoms can include: Feeling fatigued easily; difficulty concentrating or recalling muscle tension; grinding teeth; sleep difficulties, including problems falling asleep and restless, unsatisfying sleep. While, emotional symptoms can stretch to restlessness, irritability, or feeling on edge; difficulty controlling worry or fear; dread; panic.
Can other hormones make us feel more anxious?
Unfortunately, yes. Cortisol and testosterone and oestrogen do all seem to be linked – which is why at times in our lives when hormonal changes peak, such as puberty, during a woman’s cycle and the menopause (female and male), anxiety and stresses seem to be heightened.
Changing levels of both testosterone and oestrogen can affect your social anxiety – studies are showing that low levels of these hormones are linked to anxiety. And, guess what, these hormones also have a combined affect when it comes to anxiety – they feed each other in a self-perpetuating cycle. Let’s take men as an example, when you’re stressed your body releases more cortisol. Cortisol slows the production of testosterone. The combination of increased cortisol and lowered testosterone makes you feel anxious. Testosterone also has partial control over the release of cortisol, so when testosterone is lowered cortisol is likely to increase. Anxiety essentially feeds itself. Breaking this cycle will help you overcome symptoms.
So, hormones = bad?
Actually no. For women, getting to know your cycle is key – if you know when your levels of oestrogen are at their highest during you cycle, you can use this to your advantage – this is when you are less likely to feel anxious and be able to focus clearly.
For men, just as too little testosterone aids anxiety, increased testosterone helps reduce it. Men in general have half the reported rate of anxiety disorders in comparison to women, which we may be able to put down to the part testosterone has to play in anxiety levels. Testosterone also boosts the production of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and serotonin – the happy hormone.
Then, there’s oxytocin – the love hormone. Sure to be a familiar one for anyone with children – oxytocin helps mothers and babies bond and also helps with breastfeeding. But, in terms of mental health, oxytocin in known to have an anti-anxiety affect promoting relaxation and trust in social situations.
How can we reduce anxiety levels?
Hormones come into it a lot – but they are how our bodies react. What we need to know is how we can help ourselves produce more of the good hormones while undertaking traditional treatments to curb anxiety – therapy and/or medication.
And we don’t mean self-medicating. In fact, if you reach for alcohol, sugar, or substances as a quick fix you’re likely to end up taking more steps back than forward. What you need to do is start looking towards a long-term fix.
To start with, there are things you can do to naturally increase your levels of oxytocin and testosterone. They sound simple, but require commitment.
- Eat a balanced diet
- Get regular exercise
- Minimise stress
- Get enough quality sleep
- Take a multivitamin
- Be generous towards others
- Cuddle loved ones
- Petting cats or dogs
- Try meditation and affirmations directed towards kindness
But, how do we battle anxiety ‘in the moment?’
Fortis therapists recommend:
- Breathing techniques
- Guided breathing videos – you can find them on You Tube
- The Calm App
- Circle of Control – a concept spoken about in ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R Covey
- Reducing or eliminating caffeine and alcohol
- Being active
- Unplugging from technology and recharging with less screen time
- Quality sleep
- Be mindful – what’s happening in the very moment rather than in your thoughts
- Safe/happy place – create one and go there will all your sense
Breathe – Take five deep breaths. And try circular breathing – breathe in for four, hold for four and out for six. Try and do this for between 3-5 minutes. Breathing techniques can help enormously when you’re gripped by anxiety, they do work best if you incorporate them into a daily routine.
Fresh air – Get some shoes on and step out of your front door. A change of scene and crisp, fresh, winter’s air will do wonders. If you also incorporate your breathing exercises whilst outside, you’ll find the overall experience more effective due to the increased level of oxygen in the air. Stepping outside during an episode will also provide a distraction allowing you to focus less on what your body is doing and override your anxiety.
Reframe the picture – Think about what you can change in the situation you’re in and what you can’t. It’s all about a shift in perspective, knowing how to shift your focus to see a situation from a different point of view. It can not only help you feel better about a situation but help you manage a problem. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees – looking at the broader picture helps us pick out that forest.
Gratitude diary – Focus on the positives to come out of your day, every day. Whether you opt to buy a gratitude diary or use a little notebook, it’s been proven that writing down the things you’re grateful for daily reduces stress and anxiety due to an increased positive mindset. They may sound like a gimmick but – whether you use a dedicated journal or not – gratitude diaries make us dedicate time to feeling grateful. What’s more, there’s a growing body of research which shows the benefits of gratitude. Studies are finding that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep better, lower stress and improve relationships. As recently as this year, another study found that keeping a gratitude journal decreased materialism and emphasised generosity among young adults. On the flip side you could also create a journal to help with worry management. Somewhere that you write down your worrying thoughts to revisit once you’re feeling more rational.
Top three apps to try
CALM – The world’s number one app for sleep, meditation, and relaxation, CALM is a wonderful resource to help manage anxiety and stress too. Combining videos, imagery, music and masterclasses to help you achieve relaxation focus or restfulness.
HEADSPACE – Headspace has always had one mission, to improve health and happiness in the world. It now has millions of users in more than 190 countries. Learn the essentials of meditation and mindfulness, daily mindfulness exercises, and hundreds of meditations to help with sleep and stress.
INSIGHTTIMER – A free app, for sleep, anxiety and stress, InsightTimer people who use this, tend to spend three-times longer using it than any other app. There are more than 3000 speakers, the world’s best teachers, involved with InsightTimer who deliver 1hr talks daily, for free. There is also more than 70k free guided meditations as well as yoga, talks and music aimed at improving your quality of sleep.