Let’s be honest. Anxiety is a nightmare. However it shows up for you, the rising panic, sweaty palms, hyperventilating, the torrent of mental chatter, 3 am pacing. It’s horrid to deal with and it’s utterly debilitating. It undermines our self-confidence, our ability to make decisions and to move forward. What’s more, anxieties grow. We start by panicking about a situation with our job and before we know it, we’re worrying about every aspect of our lives. I want to help teach you to manage your anxiety, with some helpful and powerful techniques to help.
To my mind, it is also the unspoken pandemic of our time. Even before Covid, the incidence of anxiety was dramatically on the rise. Our lives are phenomenally stressful. Employers can be quick to remind us that there are 1000’s who would be grateful for our positions. The heavily photoshopped social media posts inform us that everyone is doing so much better than us in every area (wellness, wealth, relationships, money, status). And they’re having so much fun doing it (#makingmemories). Our 24/7 access to international news reporting on the difficult and challenging issues of our time, all leave our bodies and minds in a constant state of high alert.
Add in Covid, 3 lockdowns, the possibility of a third wave and all the financial, emotional and psychological pressures the last year has brought (not forgetting the joys of home-schooling) and frankly, it’s amazing that we are functioning at all.
Anxiety is also phenomenally bad for our health.
Leaving aside the sleepless nights and persistent queasiness, anxiety has significant long-term effects on the body. When we perceive a threat the most primal parts of our brain, the hypothalamus, kicks in and triggers the well-known “fight or flight” response. This prompts the adrenal glands to release adrenalin and cortisol which make our hearts beat faster pushing our blood away from our core functions like digestion and the immune system out to the limbs. All the better to flee or turn and fight. Which is just what’s needed in response to an immediate and physical threat but not when the fear is more nebulous.
Adrenalin and cortisol are great for the body in small doses, but they are designed to dissipate quickly once the danger is over. When the threat is a long-term worry like financial or emotional concerns, those stress-chemicals remain in the body and become toxic. Digesting our food or keeping our immune system functioning is not a high priority when we are facing an intruder. But it is when we are trying to keep our finances on track or indeed, fighting a virus.
As good parents we want to be emotionally open with our children, demonstrating all emotions can be safely expressed, no matter how uncomfortable. But worry is the one emotion that we do not want to share. It’s contagious and the last thing we need is to pass it on to our children.
It’s absolutely possible to manage your anxiety.
Before we start talking about he powerful techniques that can help you manage your anxiety. We need to understand that anxiety is a natural part of life. Everyone feels it to differing degrees and to some extent it can be helpful – whether it’s facing that real, physical threat, or getting hyped up before an exam or performance. The aim is not to get rid of anxiety altogether (we never can). It is just to come back into balance.
Use your body.
You can’t think your way out of a panic attack. But thankfully just as the mind affects the body, so the body affects the mind: and in this case that’s the best place to start. We can use the body to tell the mind that the threat is over and its safe to allow the adrenalin and cortisol to dissipate; there’s no need to fight or run away anymore.
Breathe. Just the process of slowing the breath will signal to the mind that the threat is over and it’s safe to start to relax. Googling breathing techniques will produce 1000s of options. Personally, I like box breathing (where you imagine tracing a page or box with your breath to the count of 4 – inhale, hold, exhale, hold); frankly if it’s good enough for US Navy Seals it’s good enough for me. If even that seems hard though, just start by increasing the length of your exhalation and watch your body start to relax.
Move. If you can, move. That’s what your body is telling you to do, so give it the reaction it’s expecting. Go for a run, dance or just allow yourself to shake. When you watch an animal who has outrun a predator, you’ll see it shakes violently – that’s the adrenalin leaving the body. Forcibly do the same. Dancing may not seem natural but if there are small kids around, grab them for an impromptu boogie – you’ll have fun together, Physically distracting yourself can help you manage your anxiety, and doing it with your kids means they won’t know that daddy was struggling.
Deal with the voice in your head.
All through our lives, we gather messages from others – parents, teachers, mates at school, celebrities and our culture as a whole. We get told what is normal or how things ought to be. Then, we internalise those messages (often without realising), and we end up with a running commentary in our heads. We all know it – “why did you say that? You’ve blown it now…trust you to muck it up… “
When it comes to anxiety, that voice can take us to some dark places. Our brains are hard-wired for negativity. We are wired to survive, not to thrive. Our subconscious minds are always looking for risks so that we can mitigate and avoid them: by telling us the worst that can happen now, we can head it off in the future, right?
Wrong. Whilst it’s important to take account of risks, anxiety doesn’t keep us safe. This is why it’s so important to manage your anxiety. With anxiety we look into the future, see the worst possible outcome and then act as if it’s already happened. It doesn’t keep us safe from possible future misery, it just makes it feel real now.
Acknowledge the voice.
So start by acknowledging that the voice in your head isn’t there to tell you “the truth”: it’s trying to keep you safe. Then have some fun with it. Give it a name and an identity. Whether it’s Nervous Nick peering over his wire-rimmed specs or Grumbling Gertrude with her lanky hair and clipboard, taking time to get to know this voice of anxiety and personifying it allows you to start to distance yourself from it and to see it as just another opinion rather than the truth.
Once you’ve identified Anxious Alan, there are a several different ways of dealing with him to manage your anxiety. Try them and see what works best for you.
- Give him a stupid voice. Think Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. It’s hard to take the words “you’re mucking up again” seriously if they’re accompanied by a quack.
- Thank him but tell him nicely to be quiet. “Ok, I hear you. I know that you’re trying to protect me. No need to worry, I have this covered”
- Tell him to “**** off”.
Whatever you do, don’t seek to argue with him. You won’t win, but will just get worn down. Rather, tell him to have a cup of tea outside whilst you handle the details.
Ask yourself: “What’s the worst that can happen?”
When we worry, we’re trying to steel ourselves for the possibility of heartache and disappointment, but in doing so, we often avoid actually looking at the cold hard facts. We catastrophise (“and then everyone will hate me”) but in a vague manner. Really looking down the barrel of the gun can be scary but ultimately enormously liberating.
Let’s say that you feel insecure in your work. Perhaps it hasn’t been satisfactory lately or the company’s under financial pressure. The tendency is to jump to “they’ll fire me and then we’ll be homeless and life will be over…” Even if the worst-case scenario is a real possibility, work through the ramifications step by step (without trying to make yourself feel better or diminish those fears). After each step, say “and then?”
- “The boss has been down on me a lot lately, I think he doesn’t like me” And then?
- “I think he might be looking for an excuse to fire me”. And then?
- “I’ll be out of work”. And then?
- “I’ll have to try and find another job and there aren’t many in this economy.” And then?
- “We won’t be able to pay the rent and we’ll have to move out. We might end up back at Mum’s” And then?
Breaking things down in this way has a number of benefits:
- You get to realise that even if the worst thing happens, you’ll still be able to survive even if it’s not going to be comfortable.
- You can acknowledge that there are opportunities for you to head off the problem before it gets any worse. Why doesn’t your boss like you? Is it your work ethic or are you simply the wrong fit for this company? What can you do to change things?
- You can take steps now to prepare (sensibly) for the worst-case outcome. A lot of anxiety stems from feeling overwhelmed or powerless. Don’t get obsessive, but polishing up your CV and contacting recruiters will help you feel more in control of your destiny and more prepared for whatever might come.
- You will see that the worst-case scenario is highly unlikely. There’s a long way to go from having a difficult time with your boss to finding yourself out on the street.
- Finally, it allows you ask yourself a very powerful question: “is it true?”
Just as the voice is our head rarely speaks the truth, often our perceptions of reality are distorted. Does your boss really not like you or is he just stressed and worried about the impact of the pandemic? Is he really looking for an excuse to fire you or is he uncommunicative because he has too much on?
Ask other people.
Ask yourself the question “is it true?” and then look for evidence on both sides is powerful. But don’t just take your instinctive answer (which will be “yes”) at face value.
Enquire. Ask trusted friends or family members for different perspectives. Reach out to your trusted parenting community for their opinion. You might be proved right, but the chances are that there’s an awful lot going on that you just haven’t seen and that have nothing to do with you at all.
Because ultimately that’s the problem with anxiety – it distorts our reality so that we live in fear of dangers that often don’t exist and are unlikely to ever come to pass, rather than enjoying the present moment.
That’s not what you want for your kids – and it’s not what you want for you. Find ways to manage your anxiety now means when the time comes you’ll be able to help them manage theirs too (which makes you an even cooler dad than you already are…)
f you’d like to watch and listen to Saleema talking about this subject don’t forget you can check out her guest appearance on Dad Chats Live. Our Weekly parenting chats hosted on our Instagram Account.
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