Five years ago, Penny started eliminating all her anxiety triggers, starting with an overly demanding job. ‘That set me off on a kind of quest,’ she says. The first real breakthrough was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which introduced the idea that she was in control of her feelings and not the other way around.
‘It was like creating a guest list on the door of my brain: I could decide which thoughts to let in and which to discard,’ she says. The other game-changer was meditation, which is proven to lower anxiety levels. ‘My brain used to feel like a radio that was never quite tuned in. But meditation brings me to a point where I’m calm and can almost go blank.’
Each person I spoke to who suffers from pervasive, low-level anxiety had their own solutions – usually a combination – worked out through trial and error. (Mine, for the record, include my morning dog walk, cycling, omega-3 fish oils and saying no to the things I don’t want to do.)
CBT helps many, although recent research points to longer therapy as being more effective in the long run. Put simply, identifying the underlying cause of anxiety (often obscured and difficult to trace) tends to alleviate many of the symptoms, as it did for Penny.
Therapy, says Bristow, can actually alter brain chemistry and create calmer neural pathways to replace those laid down in childhood, but it takes time and commitment.
Before this, there is a simple first step, she says, which is to just be aware of your anxiety. This awareness is crucial, which is often why, in studies, practising mindfulness gets good results – as that is the basis of it.
Bristow concludes, ‘I would say the sum of human misery could be greatly reduced if people could sit with their anxiety for a minute and try to calm themselves down.’
The Anxiety Survival Guide
Those whose anxiety levels tip over into a debilitating disorder need to see a GP – although Lynn Frederick, spokesperson at charity No Panic, suggests trying these self-help methods before it reaches this point, if possible
Diet This can have a profound effect on mood, so cut back on processed and sugary food. Unstable blood-sugar levels can worsen the symptoms of anxiety, so try to eat a regular balanced diet.
Exercise Running, walking, yoga, whatever. If exercise is combined with nature or being outdoors this can be especially soothing. Exercise has been shown to alter brain chemistry in a positive way.
Pressing pause Anxiety levels are automatically reduced by stopping and breathing slowly and calmly.
Relaxation The body gets used to being tense; relaxing the muscles helps to calm the central nervous system and switch off the production of adrenaline.
Omega-3 oil There is growing evidence that this can help with mental health issues (particularly depression).
… And what doesn’t
Alcohol May alleviate symptoms in the short term, but too much can ramp up anxiety long term, so it’s only a very temporary reprieve. Ditto cigarettes.
Caffeine Gives the jitters short term, and affects sleep. High caffeine intake is now linked to panic attacks.
Recreational drugs Are to be avoided. MDMA, for instance, depletes serotonin (the feel-good chemical) in the brain. Cannabis is often used to alleviate anxiety, but this is a mistake: some studies suggest that it increases it in the long run.
*Names have been changed