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Anxiety and our experience of it

This article was first published in Exult’s Tonic magazine, in October 2020 as a support resource for managing anxious volunteers.

The online Oxford dictionary defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

There has been a lot of uncertainty in 2020! Are there more people experiencing anxiety? We are a long way from having hard data on the impacts of COVID-19 on our wellbeing but anecdotal evidence suggests most people have felt a bit more worry, nervousness or unease. Yet life is actually always uncertain, we’ve been dealing with uncertainty our whole lives. Covid-19 has just rather abruptly brought a focus on uncertainty.

So what is anxiety, how do we experience it and what can we do?

Describing anxiety as a feeling is a very simple starting point. Humans are graced with the ability to access a huge technicolour spectrum of feelings and emotions. If you think about your day you might see that we ride the rollercoaster of feelings most days – from joy, to boredom, to jealousy and around the loop past anxiety and peacefulness. This is normal. When we experience bigger emotions we can either wish they would quickly end or never end.  Feelings can look like something we need to manage or control.

Our feelings are actually an expression of our thinking about our circumstances in any given moment – that is why they can (and do) change so quickly. Thought is like the fuel in our minds, it powers our feelings and experiences from moment to moment. Young children demonstrate this so (infuriatingly?!) well when they blast quickly through tantrums to sheer delight and appear to not carry any residue from one event into the next. As we age, it can start to look as if our feelings or experiences are coming from other people, external events or factors.

It really DOES look as if that driver who cut me off at the traffic lights has caused me to feel so angry and arrive at work in a huge grump! Yes, that driver may have made a bad call in cutting me off – but it is actually my thinking about the situation that caused the anger. That driver did not step out of the car, climb into my car and download anger into my mind! And if 50 random drivers were all placed in the same traffic situation, they would not all have felt anger when the other car cut them off. The breadth of emotions available to 50 people in any given situation is wide-ranging and personal – some would have felt rage, some would have felt mild annoyance, some would have felt nothing at all and some would have felt embarrassed about their own driving!


Tip 1 Get Curious

Be curious about loosening your grip on the view that circumstances can be inherently stressful or pleasurable. We will all experience life via our own unique minds – no one and nothing can put thoughts or feelings inside your head. What a relief to hear that!

So what about anxiety as a feeling? Well, if our minds are busy with thoughts and thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on our lives, there is a chance that some of that thinking will tend towards worry and it is this anxious thinking that creates anxious feeling.  Our feelings are like the shadow to our thoughts. They are always connected. Sometimes catching a glimpse of our own shadow can give us a fright, even though we realise this is nothing to be afraid of. When we realise that our feelings are merely an expression of our thinking, we are reminded that our feelings cannot hurt us, there’s no need to run away, deny or change them.

If you would like to address anxious feelings as they arise, we recommend two very simple techniques that return our awareness to the body. Breathing and grounding via the senses are excellent tools to know about, whether you are feeling fine or having a few difficulties with anxiety. The following activities work with all ages, can be done silently, at any time and are a direct way to counter the rise of anxiety as thoughts of worry begin to swirl and grow.


Tip 2 Finger breathing – take 5

Hold one hand up in front of your chest and trace the outline of your five fingers with the index finger of your other hand. Breathe in as you trace up one finger, breathe out as you trace down the other side. This simple tool gives you the chance to take five deep, slow breaths. It works very well as a paired activity with a child as well!


Tip 3 Grounding via the senses

Place the palms of your hands on a smooth surface e.g. a table, or desk. Bringing your awareness to your five senses, name out loud (or silently): 

  • 5 things you can see around you
  • 4 things you can touch or feel
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste, even if it’s the last thing you ate or drank

See how you find these techniques. Do they return you to your body, slow the breath and centre you once again? It is almost impossible to feel anxious whilst breathing deeply and slowly!

If grounding and breathing techniques are feeling a bit fluffy and new-age for you – why not take out pen and paper for some good old-fashioned planning? Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher is credited with saying this very wise observation, ‘we suffer more often in imagination than in reality’. Anxious thinking just loves to race off and take us into imagined futures and scenarios that are constructed on scant facts and information. This can be a difficult place to acknowledge – it can seem so sensible to worry about the future. Well-meaning advice will often tell us to ‘stay positive’ and ‘not sweat the small stuff’, but never in the history of humanity has an anxious person managed to calm down, just by being told to calm down! Instead, it can be powerful for us to see our anxieties on paper. A simple four-column exercise to record your honest reflections will take about 10-15 minutes but be an invaluable way to come back to reality…and action!


Tip 4 Circles of control

List your thoughts and ideas under these four headings:

  • Things I am worried about
  • What I can control about this situation, right now
  • What I cannot control, or do not know about this situation
  • Things I am going to act on, or do to help myself

But tools are not fail-safe and sometimes anxiety can paralyse us. Should you find yourself or another person in a panic attack situation, you will experience an escalating growth of anxiety and fear that might need some supportive actions to break the cycle.

Here’s our suggested course of action for an anxiety attack.

  1. Allow silence: actively listen to the person, or just be with them – no need for words.
  2. Before you speak:  take a deep breath before responding, count to three and gather your thoughts.
  3. Clarify:  make sure you have all of the information by asking close-ended and open-ended questions.
  4. Relate: acknowledge and validate their distress.  Empathise with how the person must be feeling, but avoid telling the other person that you “know how they feel”. 
  5. If their anxiety escalates:  assess the level of risk; can you manage alone or do you need assistance? Remove onlookers – or relocate to a safer place. Know YOUR local services and consider having a code word that colleagues know and understand when you say it, i.e. if I say ‘cup of tea’ it means I want you to call the Police.
  6. Don’t forget the debrief: this is an open meeting that allows responders to process the event and reflect on how it has impacted them, what went well and what can be learnt.

As we’ve seen, anxiety can present in small or large ways and can often be addressed with simple, practical steps. Anxious feelings will lead us back to an awareness of our anxious thinking – and this is a place that may feel vulnerable and raw for many of us. We all have worries, the topics will vary but to feel anxious is a perfectly normal human state. This is good to see in yourself as acknowledging our own humanity is a foundation from which we can extend compassion and empathy to others in need of support. Sometimes it can be as simple as showing someone else that you also have worries, that you have ups and downs in your thinking and feelings too. If your own anxiety is top of the list right now, please grant yourself full permission to look after yourself as a first priority.

To close, we’d like to echo some advice that Tonic has shared in previous editions and articles. It is simply to connect with those around you.

Tip 5 Connect

Anxiety can be a hard feeling for volunteers to live with, but it is often the social aspect to volunteering and the contribution to community that help to regulate the isolation and worry that can come with anxiety. Stay in touch with your wonderful teams, invest in getting to know people beyond the workload and let them see that you are a fully-fledged messy human too – worries, warts and all!

[1] https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/anxiety

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