We’re living in tumultuous times and many of us are experiencing anxiety that pulsing sensation in your stomach and uncontrollable, worrisome thoughts. Anxiety disrupts your day-to-day life: you might find it hard to fall asleep at night and feel jumpy. You might be easily startled by the noise of footsteps in your building or an unexpected sound. These can be symptoms of anxiety, and it’s important to learn how to spot them so you can take charge of your mental health and get back to a state of wellbeing.
When we’re stressed, that’s when anxiety can have a particularly tight grip on us. But there are strategies for dealing with anxiety and the stress in our lives, and the good news is that you can develop these techniques on your own.
How science can help us
Strategies that have come out of top universities around the world show us what we can do to lower our anxiety and take back control during stressful situations. At the University of Cambridge, we conducted a study looking at people going through really tough times, who lived in deprived circumstances. Some of these people went on a downward spiral and had high levels of anxiety, while others facing the exact same circumstances didn’t have poor mental health.
If we look at crises and global catastrophes, there are people who face the harsh reality using a calm, determined mindset, while others are struggling to cope and sink. What is the difference between these two groups? The difference is the strategies they use to deal with stress; how you swim when you’re thrown into the deep end. But there are science-based ways of taking charge of our mental health and turning things around — and we can learn these and use them to our advantage.
Regain control in your life
The first thing is to let go of the things you cannot control and only focus on the things that you can. Often, we’re frustrated because we can’t control the outcome of something, such as getting that job or receiving that text message from the person we’ve been craving to hear from. It’s this state of not knowing that can push us into mental illness territory.
You might start performing rituals to alleviate your anxiety, such as only taking 10 sips of water each time you have a drink or repeatedly opening and closing the door to your bedroom — otherwise whatever you wish for won’t come true. This is the response of a highly anxious mind that’s trying to be proactive in the face of uncertainty. Or you might become superstitious and start thinking, “If I tell others how happy I am that my boss wants to take my ideas forward, this won’t materialise anymore.” If we start to succumb to this and become a slave to our superstitious thoughts, this can be fertile ground for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Nip bad habits in the bud
As soon as an OCD-like thought takes hold of you and you want to perform a ritual, remember this: it’s much easier to nip a bad habit in the bud. Giving yourself some leeway will keep you trapped. So let go of these thoughts and superstitions, and next time you feel compelled to sip water 10 times or close the door to your room repeatedly, resist doing so.
By not carrying out your rituals, you might feel a temporary spike in your anxiety because you’re worried that your worst-case scenarios will come true if you don’t give in to your compulsions. But a few times of resisting your impulses weakens the stronghold that the disturbing thoughts have on you, and the anxiety begins to subside.
Do something you enjoy
When we’re ruminating or going over situations that make us feel anxious, scared or distressed, our mental health suffers. So instead of giving your attention to negative thoughts, do something you enjoy. It gives our minds a new focus and can calm us.
Is there a short story you’ve always wanted to write, or an online self-improvement course you’ve wanted to take? Now is the time to do it. People are busy these days, multitasking with careers and families, so finding time in the day to do something you enjoy seems like an indulgence. Let go of that guilt. It’s really important to be kind to ourselves because this is how our self-compassion grows and anxiety begins to fade.
The search for meaning
Sometimes we might be thinking, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have any responsibilities or challenges in life, or if we didn’t have to work. But you know what? The answer is no. The famous neurologist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr Viktor Frankl said: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”
So ask yourself if there’s a constructive goal that you can work towards. And it doesn’t matter if you’re only devoting half an hour each day to it as long as you’re consistent. Doing this not only helps you get things done, but you begin to feel one key thing: self-satisfaction. When you’re self-satisfied, you begin to feel happier and like you can make a difference in your life with your actions.
Create an oasis of peace
Sometimes we feel like we’re spiralling out of control and don’t know which way to turn. We might be drowning in tasks we have to do or worrying about how to make ends meet. During times of chaos and distress, it helps to know that we can turn to that oasis of peace found in mindful meditation.
There are plenty of online resources such as apps Headspace and Stop, Breathe & Think to help guide you. When your thoughts begin to quiet down, you begin to feel in greater control and ready to take on challenges. And as my research has shown, feeling this way is linked to lower anxiety and, no doubt, improved mental health.
Dr Olivia Remes is a researcher at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge, where she focuses on anxiety and depression. Twitter: @OliviaRoxann