One of the things that makes my job as a clinical hypnotherapist so stimulating is the variety of issues clients contact me for help with.
In a typical week I can find myself working with clients experiencing problems with IBS, migraines, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, panic attacks, chronic pain, phobias and even weight gain.
You would be excused for thinking that each of these issues has a very different cause, however in each case significant improvements have been achieved by working to address one single common factor. Anxiety.
It still surprises me just how many ways our bodies find to tell us that there is something wrong in our minds.
Anxiety is a strange thing – we may not even realise it’s there as it creeps up on us gradually and we adjust to it as a new “norm”. Put simply we learn to cope. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t taking its toll on us, as associated stress hormones build up to chronic levels and upset the balance of our whole body.
Often the only way our bodies have to tell us that this balance is at risk is through a physical reaction – stomach cramps & tummy upsets, the urge to overeat, headaches, backaches, tiredness, dizzy spells, irritability, sweating, nausea….the list goes on.
Once we have one (or even a combination) of these anxiety related symptoms it can be almost impossible to see a way of getting things back under control – after all, feeling unwell or out of balance creates a whole new level of anxiety all by itself. This is especially true if symptoms are impacting on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities and it feels like things are just piling up!
There are, however, some positive steps you can take for yourself to help get things back into balance. Here are some of my top tips.
Tip 1 – Get good sleep
Sleep is not just about resting, there’s actually a bit more to it. The advice “sleep on it” is well founded as good quality sleep genuinely does give us a different perspective on things – and here’s how.
While we’re asleep we move through a repeating cycle of REM (dream) sleep and deep sleep, and in the REM part of the cycle we are actually processing the events of the day.
The result of that processing is that our memories are changed from being emotional memories (memories with emotions attached) to being narrative memories. Emotional memories are still very real to us – we “live” them and they still contribute to our anxiety load.
Narrative memories are memories that we have a bit of distance from – we describe them rather than “living” them. Once this processing has take place we have control over the memories, they no longer have emotion attached and they don’t contribute to our anxiety load.
If we skimp on sleep, or do things that impact on the quality of our sleep (for example drinking alcohol or using electronic devices at bedtime) we limit our mind’s natural ability to deal with our anxiety. We end up carrying yesterday’s anxiety forward into the next day, where it is added to any new anxiety generated, making the job of processing twice as hard the next night. This cycle repeats and anxiety simply accumulates.
By making time for sleep and avoiding things that we know affect the quality of sleep we can take the first step towards controlling anxiety.
Tip 2 – Focus on achievements
It’s a fact isn’t it – we’re spend more time thinking about the things we need to do than the things we’ve already done?
Running this kind of mental ‘to do’ list leads easily to beating yourself up each day for not getting enough done. A head full of loose ends and uncompleted tasks is in itself a significant anxiety generator.
We often can’t do much about the number of lines on our to-do list, that’s just life. What we can do is change our mindset and allow space in our minds to recognise what we have achieved, not just what we haven’t (yet!).
Each day find time to review the day and find 5 things you have achieved. They needn’t be big things, they could be things as simple as changing a light bulb, emptying the dishwasher or arranging to meet a friend. A little mental pat on the back makes a huge difference to our outlook and ability to cope with our busy lives.
Tip 3 – Allow yourself to dream
By that I mean day dream.
We’ve been perhaps taught to regard day-dreaming as a bad thing – as waste of time, but it can actually be quite a good thing.
It’s something that our modern day lifestyles don’t allow for – we don’t do the repetitive tasks (hand washing clothes, scrubbing floors, ploughing a field) that were commonplace 100 years ago and which would have given our ancestors important mental down-time. We have gadgets and machinery that do these tasks for us, and then we compound the problem with our mobile phones and 24 hour culture.
Making time to let your mind wander is far from lazy (actually you’ll be burning quite a lot of energy doing this), it can contribute greatly to mental health. Positive Day Dreaming can help to lower your stress hormone levels in quite a significant way. There’s a catch though – it really does need to be positive day-dreaming, no day-mares allowed or you’ll be achieving the opposite effect!
Tip 4 – Smile
It sounds stupid doesn’t it, but it works.
When you smile there’s an important part of the brain that senses the change in configuration of your facial muscles. It searches in your mental files for examples of the times when that particular configuration has been used before and uses this information to decide, based on previous experience, what its response should be.
The response that it finds actually triggers the release of two “feel-good” chemicals in your brain – serotonin and dopamine. These “happiness” chemicals begin to improve your mood. Genuinely a case of fake it til you make it. Try it yourself…when no-one’s looking if you prefer!
Tip 5 – Keep a “good things” journal
This is not so much an exercise in counting your blessings, rather a case of training your brain to think in terms of what things, people or activities make you happy rather than things that you don’t like or that worry you.
Think of your brain a little like a muscle. If you only ever use it in one way (to worry) it can only ever do one thing (worry). Making a conscious effort to think about different things actually exercises the brain in a different way.
To start with this can feel as difficult as lifting weights or using the cross-trainer at the gym. Eventually though it does get much easier – you can lift bigger weights or complete more repetitions with ease…or in the case of your brain you can halt those anxiety-generating thoughts and instead focus easily on the positives instead.
In your diary or notebook every morning when you wake up write down 3 things that would make you feel good if you did them during the day. During the evening on the same page write down three things that happened during the day that made you feel good. The two lists don’t need to match – it’s not a test. As you look forward to or remember those good things each day you’ll be exercising and strengthening a very important part of the brain.
In time this simple activity will give you a different mindset and tools to control those stress hormones, reducing anxiety and its unpleasant side effects.
Tip 6 – Do more of what you enjoy
How often do we actually stop to consider what we enjoy most in our lives? How often do we just keep going, following the old routines, doing things we don’t enjoy because that’s just what we’ve always done?
Taking the time to do a conscious audit of our daily activities can often be quite an eye-opener!
Those things you don’t enjoy or which you find excuses to drop to the bottom of your to-do list (from where, incidentally, they can actually contribute to your anxiety load!), is there a different way of getting them done?
Those things you do enjoy, how can you create more opportunities to do them? What’s your first step towards making that happen?
It’s not self-indulgent, it’s actually chemically necessary. Science has proven that by carrying out activities that we enjoy or that give us a sense of achievement we stimulate the release of an important chemical in the brain – called Serotonin. A good level of serotonin in our system is associated with a feeling of well-being and balance, helping us to cope with whatever life throws at us. Most importantly serotonin can help us fight back against those anxious stress hormones, putting us back in control.
With so many different physical and mental symptoms, anxiety can be difficult to pin down as the cause. If you are suffering any form of ill-health it is important that you visit your doctor to obtain a diagnosis, however, once any medical cause has been ruled out, you could consider whether anxiety is at the root of your problem.
Just as anxiety takes a while to build up, calming it down again can take a little while – unfortunately there’s no overnight fix. You may find it reassuring to know that hypnotherapy offers a gentle way to address underlying anxiety so that many symptoms can be either significantly reduced or even eliminated completely – often in a very short space of time.
If you’re not feeling quite right, don’t accept it as the “norm”. Why not try some of my top tips or even give hypnotherapy a try?