Anxiety is like a personal warning system that goes off when people are worried or under threat. If its setting is too high, it can be triggered all the time, but with practise, it can be turned down.
Pounding heart, trembling, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, sweating and nausea… the symptoms of anxiety can be unsettling. So, it’s hardly surprising many people do their best to prevent them, whether that’s avoiding speaking in class or turning down opportunities to hang out with friends. Pretty much everyone has fears or worries, but it’s no fun if they’re stopping you from trying new things and enjoying life.
What if you were to see anxiety as your own personal alarm system? Strange as it may seem, its job is to protect you. When it’s working effectively, it can alert you to danger and give you the energy needed to face or flee a potential threat. But sometimes this internal alarm system can become oversensitive, setting fear and anxiety as the automatic response. It’s a little like a loyal dog that is fiercely protective of its family and barks loudly when anyone approaches the house, eager to raise the alarm about a potential threat.
The dog might seem intimidating, but once it’s reassured by its owners that the person at the door is just the postie delivering the day’s mail and not a burglar, the pet settles down, content that all’s well. And after a while it recognises the postal worker’s steps and understands that there’s no reason to worry. In a similar way, it is possible to turn down the setting on your personal alarm system and tame your anxiety so that it doesn’t go off before it’s needed.
CHANGE YOUR THINKING
Thoughts create feelings, so changing what you’re thinking can help to change the way you feel. If you’ve ever tried to push a beach ball under the water, you’ll know that it always pops right back up. Trying to suppress your thoughts can have a similar effect. Instead, see if you can challenge them. It might help to ask these questions:
- What am I feeling? Notice how your anxiety or worry feels (they’re called feelings for a reason). Maybe your chest is tight or heavy, your hands are shaky, or your heart is beating fast.
- What thoughts have triggered this? Were you telling yourself how terribly you were going to do in an upcoming biology assessment, or how badly you’re bound to perform in the school play, for example?
- Can I 100 percent know these thoughts are true? Many people imagine the worst-case scenario, yet that rarely turns out to be the case.
- What is a kinder, more helpful thought? In the case of the biology test, it might be: ‘I’m going to study and do my best and ask for help where I need it.’
- How does that make me feel? Recognise the shift in feeling as you change your thoughts. Your chest might feel lighter, your breathing steadier, and you may feel more in control.
THINK ABOUT TRIGGERS
Just as anxiety can be caused by certain situations, there are also triggers that might help to calm it down. Imagine your anxiety is a person and tell them about a place where you feel calm, a day when you were totally happy, a hobby you love, or a person or pet in your life who always makes you feel safe. You might even encourage them to take action. If that hobby is cooking, for example, tell them to set aside some time in the kitchen.
In her book The Anti-Anxiety Toolkit, Melissa Tiers explains that one way to calm anxiety is to distract it. She describes the ‘play ball’ exercise – an activity that involves and keeps busy both sides of the brain, making it more difficult to keep ‘doing’ the anxiety. Here’s how it works: Grab a ball or anything you can pass from one hand to the other. Pass it back and forth between the hands making sure they cross the midline point of your body. Do this for a minute, take a deep breath, and notice if the anxiety has reduced. Keep going until the anxiety subsides completely.
FOCUS ON YOUR BREATH
If you do feel panicked or anxious, try to focus on your breathing. Think about making it calm and controlled. Breathe in through your nose to the count of four, and then out through your mouth to the count of eight. You can adjust the count to make it comfortable. If possible, try not to take big gulps of air, which brings in lots of oxygen and might make you feel worse.
CREATE A SYSTEM THAT WORKS FOR YOU
Everyone gets anxious about different things and at different times. It’s natural. And many people use a combination of exercises and thoughts to find a calmer space. You could try some of the suggestions here and see if they help.
If it feels that no matter what you do you still can’t quell your anxieties, it’s essential to talk to a trusted adult, maybe a guardian, family member, or a teacher.
If you feel unable to speak to anyone in person, you can also phone Kids Helpline in complete confidence on 1800 55 1800 or reach out for resources at headspace.org.au.