By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing.
Today I’m talking about anxiety and I’m looking at healthy ways to manage it — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…
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This podcast episode was originally released on 24 October, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 102, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about anxiety and I’ll be covering what anxiety is, why understanding it and where it’s coming from matters, and how to manage anxiety.
Before we jump into that, you might have noticed by now that I like to provide lots of practical tips and advice for how you can manage your mental health and wellbeing in a healthy way, and if you find the tips I share on this podcast helpful then you will also find the content I share on my YouTube channel, Better Mental Health, to be helpful. In my latest weekly episode I’m exploring five daily steps for better mental health and these are quick things you can easily build into your self care and wellbeing routine (or if you don’t have a routine, they’re a great place to start). Watch the video now on YouTube, and you’ll find it linked in the episode description of this podcast on whatever service you’re listening to me on.
Also a quick heads-up that I’ve recently created a free eBook called 100 Quotes for Better Mental Health which is celebrating all of the end-of-show reflection quotes from my first 100 episodes. If you would like a copy then all you need to do is sign up to my free mailing list at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe (and again, it’s linked in the episode description), and you’ll find a link to it in my next weekly newsletter (each Thursday I send out a quick round-up of a few inspiring and interesting bits of content from the week). So, if you’d like the free eBook then join my free mailing list! You also receive copies of my episode transcripts emailed to you every Sunday, for free! (And did I mention that it’s free?!)
And one more quick thing: if you’re listening to me on Spotify, you might notice that there are now questions and polls that you can participate in for each episode; it’s a new feature they’ve introduced, and I started using it on Episode 100 so I’d love it if you’d have a look and join the conversation because I absolutely love hearing feedback from all of you wonderful people who listen to my show each week! For anyone not on Spotify (or even if you are), you are also very welcome to follow me on Instagram @ltamentalhealth and you can join the conversation by commenting on my daily posts.
So, with all of that covered, on with this week’s episode about anxiety…
I’m hoping that talking about anxiety isn’t making you too anxious… because, I have to admit, most of the time I’m fine with it and then other times anxiety decides to creep up on me and makes it hard to concentrate, so I know what a pain in the backside it can be!
In case you’re new here, or just as a sort of general introduction to today’s topic, I live with anxiety and it’s something that became really bad for me in late 2011 when I had a total breakdown and could barely function. The next few years after that involved quite serious depression and anxiety, and although I managed to overcome depression a few years ago (thankfully), I still live with mild anxiety now (which I am less thankful about, if I’m honest, but still very grateful that it’s not as severe as it once was). In hindsight, anxiety is something I have lived with for most of my life… it just took a breakdown for me to realise it, so I’m hopeful that the work I do here on the podcast and over on YouTube can help other people — like you — to find healthy ways to cope with and manage the beast that is anxiety. Because — and spoiler alert here! — I most certainly did not handle it in healthy ways and that resulted in my situation becoming far worse than it probably needed to be… but more on that later. I will say up-front that I have learned how to live with anxiety and there are definitely lots of things you can do, so settle in because I’ll be sharing those throughout the episode.
As I mentioned at the end of last week’s episode, in this podcast I usually focus on one specific aspect of mental health each week (like ‘worry’ or ‘joy’), however as anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions worldwide and it is something that affects many of us (and no doubt more thanks to the pandemic), I felt it was time to give it the attention it deserves with an episode dedicated to anxiety. I’ll be following a fairly similar format to my usual approach, but this time I’ll be discussing a much broader topic because ‘anxiety’ is quite a large subject to explore.
So, why don’t we begin with some definitions, and let’s talk about…
What anxiety is
The word ‘anxiety’ broadly refers to “a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something with an uncertain outcome” (and that comes from the Oxford Dictionary). In psychology, however, it’s a broad term used to describe nervous disorders that are marked by excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behaviour or panic attacks (and again, that’s from the Oxford Dictionary).
We tend to use the word ‘anxious’ as an umbrella term for feeling stressed or worried, but anxiety is much more than just those feelings. Depending on the type of anxiety you are experiencing, you may feel overwhelmed by issues or even by day-to-day matters, or you may find yourself plagued by constant worry about the future or find it difficult to stop ruminating over past events or actions. Let’s talk about the most common types of anxiety, and I’m going to draw from an article by Beyond Blue for this, starting with:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (also known as GAD) — which is where “a person feels anxious on most days, worrying about lots of different things, for a period of six months or more.”
- Social anxiety — which is where “a person has an intense fear of being criticised, embarrassed or humiliated, even in everyday situations, such as speaking publicly, eating in public, being assertive at work or making small talk.”
- Specific phobias — this is where “a person feels very fearful about a particular object or situation and may go to great lengths to avoid it, for example, having an injection or travelling on a plane. There are many different types of phobias.”
- [And] Panic disorder — this is where “a person has panic attacks, which are intense, overwhelming and often [involve] uncontrollable feelings of anxiety combined with a range of physical symptoms. Someone having a panic attack may experience shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness and excessive perspiration. Sometimes, people experiencing a panic attack think they are having a heart attack or are about to die. If a person has recurrent panic attacks or persistently fears having one for more than a month, they’re said to have panic disorder.”
And the link for that article is in the transcript (https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety/types-of-anxiety).
There are other conditions where anxiety can be present as well, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), to name just two.
So you might be wondering what some of the common symptoms of anxiety are? According to the Black Dog Institute, they can include some or all of the following:
- feeling very worried or afraid most of the time
- feeling tense, on edge, nervous or scared
- feeling irritable, agitated or panicky
- feeling as though you may vomit
and other symptoms (and the link for that article is also in the transcript — find it here: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/resources-support/anxiety/). You might also experience difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, and physical symptoms like stomach aches or a churning feeling in your gut, lightheadedness, dizziness, trembling, sweating or even excessive thirst. These symptoms on their own don’t necessarily point to anxiety but when there are multiple signs present then it may be anxiety related. For a lot of people, anxiety shows up physically before there’s even an understanding that something is going on emotionally — before my breakdown, I had quite a lot of severe stomach issues and it was only when I admitted to my doctor that I had been dealing with excessive stress at work that we started to explore all of my symptoms and realised it was actually anxiety and depression (so please be completely open and transparent about everything that you’ve been dealing with when you’re speaking with your doctor because it makes it easier for them to diagnose your situation correctly!).
Speaking of depression, probably the main thing I want to highlight here is that it is quite common for people with anxiety to also experience depression, or for people with depression to also experience anxiety; this is not the case for everyone, but they do often go hand-in-hand and, once again, if you’re experiencing symptoms of either or both conditions then it’s best to speak with your doctor and discuss your situation.
According to the same Black Dog Institute article I mentioned a moment ago, anxiety can be caused by a number of different factors such as: genetics, ongoing stress, changes to your brain chemistry, pregnancy and childbirth (including post-natal anxiety), trauma, medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease, personality traits like perfectionism, high sensitivity, shyness or low self esteem, substance abuse, and more. That’s why it’s important to understand what the contributing factors are for yourself; which is actually a nice transition into the next part of this episode…
Why understanding anxiety matters
And it matters for a whole bunch of reasons, not least of which is that symptoms very rarely just ‘go away’ on their own and for many people they can actually become worse over time if not addressed. To give you a broad perspective of just how prevalent anxiety is in the world, here in Australia it is the most common mental health condition and, on average, one in four people — 25% of the population — will experience anxiety at some stage in their lives (and that data comes from another article by Beyond Blue, which is linked in the transcript https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety). Those numbers vary slightly from country to country, but in general it is a fairly large chunk of the population dealing with this stuff… so, if it’s any comfort at all, you’re not alone if you’re experiencing ongoing anxiety symptoms (on behalf of all of us, hello and welcome to the club!).
Continuing on from that point, understanding anxiety matters because it’s about having awareness of your situation so that you can make changes and take action to address it, since it is very unlikely to just magically resolve itself. The way I look at it is this: anxiety is a sign that something needs to change. Whether that’s in terms of your physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social or financial health, or more broadly to do with your work or your relationships… whatever it is, anxiety is telling you that you need to do something different.
Let me clarify here that anxiety can be caused by a number of factors, either internal or external (or both), and so it’s rarely ever just as simple as, for example, saying, “I’m anxious because of my job” or “my physical health issues are making me feel anxious”. You may recall from maybe one or two previous episodes (in other words, most of them!) that I often discuss taking the time to identify the root cause of issues rather than just responding to the symptoms… well, anxiety is a symptom. Yes it can be caused by a specific disorder, like GAD, but the actual feeling of anxiety or worry (or whatever) is just one symptom of a broader condition, so it’s important to (a) have a proper diagnosis (and that means from an actual doctor, not from Dr Google!) and (b) to develop a deeper understanding of where it’s coming from for you and what your triggers are (which I’ll come back to in a minute).
For many of us, when we’re feeling anxious we might find that we have lots of nervous energy and feel tense, both physically and emotionally, and that is just a physical manifestation of what is going on inside our brains (in fact, that’s your body’s way of preparing you for a perceived threat by triggering your instinctive fight/flight/freeze response — which is great when you’re being chased by a hungry, hungry hippopotamus but not so much when you’re standing in the supermarket on a Tuesday afternoon feeling triggered because they’ve moved all the stock around for the 14th time that month!).
So, as I often say, self awareness plays an enormous role here in terms of seeking to understand where the anxiety is coming from (and I explored self awareness in Episode 62 if you’d like a guide on how to be more self aware), and that is an important step to take in terms of identifying how to address anxiety if you’re dealing with it.
And speaking of “how to”, that sounds like it’s time to get into the how-to part of this episode! So, let’s talk about…
How to manage anxiety
And I’m going to be a bit cheeky here today and start with how not to manage anxiety — you don’t manage anxiety by drinking or eating or snorting your way through it! Look, I’m not your Dad so I’m not going to lecture you, but I’m also not going to shy away from saying what needs to be said. I tried drinking and eating my way through it (thankfully I didn’t try snorting it away), and I can tell you from first-hand experience that it didn’t work… like, at all. Alcohol is a depressant, so you can imagine how well that turned out when mixed with actual depression and anxiety, and as for food… well, you can eat your feelings all you like but you’ll just keep on carrying them around with you (physically and emotionally) until you eventually deal with them, and until then you’ll be dealing with all the physical effects of those unhealthy behaviours (if you go back and watch my videos on Better Mental Health from January  when I launched the channel, you can see just how huge I became until I finally started working on my emotional eating with a therapist a few months ago and now I feel like it’s actually under control, and you can see the physical effects of that — in terms of weight loss — in my more recent videos [October 2021]). So my point here is that unhealthy coping mechanisms have unhealthy results; those types of behaviours might seem to make you feel better in the short-term, but in the long-term you’ll find they do way more harm than good (physically and mentally). So, with that rant over, my next point is…
Get a proper diagnosis — and I know, I know, I said this before… but now I’m saying it again, this time in more detail! Because it’s important to be aware that stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand; it can show up as feelings of mental stress combined with physical symptoms, like your heart racing or becoming sweaty or even panicked. If you’re experiencing these sort of symptoms together on an ongoing basis for a prolonged period of time — generally two weeks or more — and you’re not finding that the situation is improving, it’s best to talk with your doctor about what you’re experiencing; please don’t self-diagnose because those symptoms can also be related to other situations, and so a proper and accurate diagnosis is important. You can also complete an online tool called the K-10 anxiety and depression checklist (it’s available for free from lots of different sites, and I’m going to link it in the episode description as well as the transcript — find it here: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/anxiety-and-depression-checklist-k10) and it can help you to identify if you might need to have a chat with your doctor or another healthcare professional, so it’s worth taking a few moments to do if you’re not completely sure about what’s going on. A little self knowledge will pay enormous dividends, and it’s better to know what is going on than to stay in the dark (because these things can get out of hand quickly if left untreated; in my case I went from mild panic attacks to being suicidal in the space of just two weeks, so please make your wellbeing your number one priority). OK, so my next point is…
Address the root cause or causes — and, again, I say this on the basis of having a proper diagnosis first, and then beyond that the piece here is about taking the time to identify what is contributing to your situation. By that I mean what’s going on inside you (your thoughts, feelings and emotions) as well as your external circumstances (like work, home, family, financial, etc.). Again, this is that self awareness bit I discussed before (and in Episode 62) and if you’re struggling to identify what the contributing factors are for you, then you may find it helpful to work through it with a counsellor or therapist. And please bear in mind that dealing with the root cause may mean needing to come at it from multiple angles; depending on your situation, it might be a combination of medication and therapy as well as your own daily actions (including the things I’m covering in this episode); each situation is unique, so you need to find what is right for you. The main point here is: don’t just leave it; do something about it.
So, assuming that you know what your situation is or if you’re self-managing your way through mild or occasional anxiety, let’s talk about some general ways you can manage it in the moment (bearing in mind that all the stuff I shared before was my way of saying how important it is to be proactive and stay on top of your overall mental health, so please create a daily self care plan — you’ll find specific tips on how to do that in Episode 101, which was all about the basics of good mental health). OK, so some anxiety management techniques that may be helpful include:
Journalling — and this is about writing out your feelings as a way of expressing them, and as I say quite a lot on this show if you keep your emotions bottled up then they stay bottled up (which can do a lot of harm in the long run) so channel them out in a healthy way. Actually, my next point is a continuation of this one and it is…
Use an anxiety journal or mood tracker — and this is about having something specifically designed to either capture those anxious thoughts (so that you can get them out and channel them into their own designated space, rather than a journal that might be a more broad way of reflecting on your day) or even just having a mood tracker where you can keep an eye on how you feel several times throughout the day, because that then allows you to come back later and look at patterns over a few weeks to see if there are specific triggers. Next…
Pause and breathe for ten seconds — when we’re in a heightened emotional state, our instincts often kick in and we run on pure emotion for the first few seconds… and if you just react to your emotions, it can sometimes send you into a spiral of anxiety. Pause, gently breathe, and count to 10; this allows time for your rational, logical mind to catch up with your emotions so you can then make more thoughtful and considered decisions about how to respond. There are also other focused breathing techniques that you might like to explore as well, so see what works for you. Next…
Focus on what is within your direct control — many of the things we worry about are outside of our direct control. You have no control over other people or events outside of yourself; all you can control is what you choose to do and say (as well as what you choose to do with your feelings). When you accept that it makes it easier to let go of the stuff that is out of your control. This is where that anxiety journal I mentioned before might come in handy. I talked about control in Episode 48 if you’d like to explore the subject more. By the way, I’ve talked about a few related topics in past episodes: I covered stress in Episode 8, worry in Episode 95 and overthinking in Episode 4, so check those out for more advice. OK so next…
Identify your triggers and address them — and this is about really taking the time to understand what is going on and then dealing with the root cause or causes. Again, you may find it helpful to work with a professional like a therapist, counsellor or coach (depending on your needs and situation); talking with friends and family is great and that support is important, but you’ll find that your loved ones aren’t great at being completely objective because of their emotional connection with you, whereas a professional can help you to see things from a different perspective. I covered triggers in Episode 91, so that may also be helpful. Next…
Have a proactive focus on your overall wellbeing — and this is about recognising the connection between your physical health and mental health. Make your wellbeing a priority and do things every day to look after yourself (which I discussed last week in Episode 101 about the basics of good mental health).
And, finally, know the signs — when you get to know your anxiety you can begin to identify the difference between stress versus anxiety versus panic attacks (for example, anxiety attacks tend to build gradually whereas panic attacks usually come on suddenly and are quite extreme in nature). Spend a little time each day to just sit quietly and connect with yourself so you can become aware of your emotions and begin to understand the different things that are happening for you each day. For more on how to do this, check out Episode 83 about being present (and I also have a video coming out on November the 3rd  on my YouTube channel about healthy coping mechanisms for stress, so keep an eye out for that as well).
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to anxiety and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Anxiety can be caused by a number of different factors, but regardless the result is usually the same; feeling ‘on edge’ and having difficulty finding calm and peace of mind. Even though it’s unpleasant to deal with, I promise you that it’s something you can learn to manage with time, effort, perseverance and support. As with all things, it comes down to how you look at it; rather than letting anxiety manage you, it’s up to you to manage it… and when you choose to do that, you can take it and use it to identify aspects of your life that need to change in order to contribute in more positive ways to your general sense of calm.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“Do not believe the things you tell yourself when you are sad and alone.”Unknown
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about calm. For me, one of my main priorities in life is to find and maintain calm and peace of mind (and you’ve probably heard me mention that a few hundred times before!), and I thought it would be a natural progression from this discussion about anxiety to explore the idea of calm in more detail. So next time I’ll be talking about what calm is (and what it isn’t), why it matters, and how to cultivate a sense of calm for better mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 31st of October, 2021. And on Wednesday, catch the latest episode of Better Mental Health on YouTube, or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my free mailing list for podcast transcripts and my weekly newsletter. You’ll also find the link in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re listening to me on.
Follow me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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