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What the research says about combating anxiety

 

Do you have anxiety? Have you tried just about everything to get over it, but it just keeps coming back? Perhaps you thought you had got over it, only for the symptoms to return with a vengeance? Whatever your circumstances, science can help you to beat anxiety for good.

Anxiety can present as fear, restlessness, an inability to focus at work or school, finding it hard to fall or stay asleep at night, or getting easily irritated. In social situations, it can make it hard to talk to others; you might feel like you’re constantly being judged, or have symptoms such as stuttering, sweating, blushing or an upset stomach.

It can appear out of the blue as a panic attack, when sudden spikes of anxiety make you feel like you’re about to have a heart attack, go mad or lose control. Or it can be present all the time, as in generalised anxiety disorder, when diffuse and pervasive worry consumes you and you look to the future with dread.

Most people experience it at some point, but if anxiety starts interfering with your life, sleep, ability to form relationships, or productivity at work or school, you might have an anxiety disorder. Research shows that if it’s left untreated, anxiety can lead to depression, early death and suicide. And while it can indeed lead to such serious health consequences, the medication that is prescribed to treat anxiety doesn’t often work in the long-term. Symptoms often return and you’re back where you started.

How science can help

The way you cope or handle things in life has a direct impact on how much anxiety you experience – tweak the way you’re coping, therefore, and you can lower your anxiety levels. Here are some of the top coping skills that have emerged from our study at the University of Cambridge, which will be presented at the 30th European Congress of Neuropsychopharmacology in Paris, and other scientific research.

Do you feel like your life is out of control? Do you find it hard to make decisions – or get things started? Well, one way to overcome indecision or get going on that new project is to “do it badly”.

This may sound strange, but the writer and poet GK Chesterton said that: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” And he had a point. The reason this works so well is that it speeds up your decision-making process and catapults you straight into action. Otherwise, you could spend hours deciding how you should do something or what you should do, which can be very time-consuming and stressful.

People often want to do something “perfectly” or to wait for the “perfect time” before starting. But this can lead to procrastination, long delays or even prevent us from doing it at all. And that causes stress – and anxiety.

Instead, why not just start by “doing it badly” and without worrying about how it’s going to turn out. This will not only make it much easier to begin, but you’ll also find that you’re completing tasks much more quickly than before. More often than not, you’ll also discover that you’re not doing it that badly after all – even if you are, you can always fine tune it later.

Using “do it badly” as a motto gives you the courage to try new things, adds a little fun to everything, and stops you worrying too much about the outcome. It’s about doing it badly today and improving as you go. Ultimately, it’s about liberation.

Just jump right in …
The National Guard via flickr, CC BY

Forgive yourself and ‘wait to worry’

Are you particularly critical of yourself and the blunders you make? Well, imagine if you had a friend who constantly pointed out everything that was wrong with you and your life. You’d probably want to get rid of them right away.

But people with anxiety often do this to themselves so frequently that they don’t even realise it anymore. They’re just not kind to themselves.

So perhaps it’s time to change and start forgiving ourselves for the mistakes we make. If you feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself in a situation, don’t criticise yourself – simply realise that you have this impulse to blame yourself, then drop the negative thought and redirect your attention back to the task at hand or whatever you were doing.

Another effective strategy is to “wait to worry”. If something went wrong and you feel compelled to worry (because you think you screwed up), don’t do this immediately. Instead, postpone your worry – set aside 10 minutes each day during which you can worry about anything.

If you do this, you’ll find that you won’t perceive the situation which triggered the initial anxiety to be as bothersome or worrisome when you come back to it later. And our thoughts actually decay very quickly if we don’t feed them with energy.

Find purpose in life by helping others

It’s also worth considering how much of your day is spent with someone else in mind? If it’s very little or none at all, then you’re at a high risk of poor mental health. Regardless of how much we work or the amount of money we make, we can’t be truly happy until we know that someone else needs us and depends on our productivity or love.

This doesn’t mean that we need people’s praise, but doing something with someone else in mind takes the spotlight off of us (and our anxieties and worries) and places it onto others – and how we can make a difference to them.

Being connected to people has regularly been shown to be one of the most potent buffers against poor mental health. The neurologist Viktor Frankl wrote:

For people who think there’s nothing to live for, nothing more to expect from life … the question is getting these people to realise that life is still expecting something from them.

Knowing that someone else needs you makes it easier to endure the toughest times. You’ll know the “why” for your existence and will be able to bear almost any “how”.

The ConversationSo how can you make yourself important in someone else’s life? It could be as simple as taking care of a child or elderly parent, volunteering, or finishing work that might benefit future generations. Even if these people never realise what you’ve done for them, it doesn’t matter because you will know. And this will make you realise the uniqueness and importance of your life.

Olivia Remes, PhD Candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What links anxiety, depression and insomnia

Good sleep is essential for our mental well-being. Just one night of disturbed sleep can leave us feeling cranky, flat, worried, or sad the next day. So it’s no surprise sleeping problems, like difficulty falling asleep, not getting enough sleep, or regularly disrupted sleep patterns, are associated with anxiety and depression.

Anxiety and depression, which can range from persistent worry and sadness to a diagnosed mental illness, are common and harmful.

Understanding the many interacting factors likely to cause and maintain these experiences is important, especially for developing effective prevention and treatment interventions. And there is growing recognition sleep problems may be a key factor.

Which problem comes first?

The majority of evidence suggests the relationship between sleep problems and anxiety and depression is strong and goes both ways.

This means sleep problems can lead to anxiety and depression, and vice versa. For example, worrying and feeling tense during bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep, but having trouble falling asleep, and in turn not getting enough sleep, can also result in more anxiety.

Sleep disturbance, particularly insomnia, has been shown to follow anxiety and precede depression in some people, but it is also a common symptom of both disorders.

Trying to tease apart which problem comes first, in whom, and under what circumstances, is difficult. It may depend on when in life the problems occur. Emerging evidence shows sleep problems in adolescence might predict depression (and not the other way around). However, this pattern is not as strong in adults.

The specific type of sleep problem occurring may be of importance. For example, anxiety but not depression has been shown to predict excessive daytime sleepiness. Depression and anxiety also commonly occur together, which complicates the relationship.

Although the exact mechanisms that govern the sleep, anxiety and depression link are unclear, there is overlap in some of the underlying processes that are more generally related to sleep and emotions.

Some aspects of sleep, like the variability of a person’s sleep patterns and their impact on functioning and health, are still relatively unexplored. More research could help further our understanding of these mechanisms.

Sleep interventions

Disentangling which problems come first, and under what circumstances, is difficult.
masha krasnova shabaeva/Flickr, CC BY

The good news is we have effective interventions for many sleep problems, like cognitive behaviour therapy for insomnia (CBT-I).

So there is the possibility that targeting sleep problems in people who are at risk of experiencing them – like teenagers, new mothers and people at risk for anxiety – will not only improve sleep but also lower their risk of developing anxiety and depression.

Online interventions have the potential to increase cost-effectiveness and accessibility of sleep programs. A recent study found a six-week online CBT-I program significantly improved both insomnia and depression symptoms. The program included sleep education and improving sleep thoughts and behaviours, and participants kept sleep diaries so they could receive feedback specific to their sleep patterns.

We’re conducting some research to improve and even prevent physical and mental health problems early in life by targeting sleep problems. Using smart phone and activity tracker technology will also help tailor mental health interventions in the future.

General improvements to sleep might be beneficial for a person with anxiety, depression, or both. Targeting one or more features common to two or more mental disorders, like sleep disturbance, is known as a “transdiagnostic” approach.

Interventions that target transdiagnostic risk factors for anxiety and depression, like excessive rumination, have already shown some success.

A good foundation

For many people, treating sleep problems before treating symptoms of anxiety and depression is less stigmatising and might encourage people to seek further help. Addressing sleep first can develop a good foundation for further treatment.

For example, people with a depressive disorder are less likely to respond to treatment and more likely to relapse if they have a sleep problem like insomnia.

Many of the skills learned in a sleep intervention, such as techniques for relaxation and reducing worry, can also be used to help with daytime symptoms of both anxiety and depression. And this is not to mention the physical benefits of getting a good night’s sleep!

If you’re concerned about your sleep or mental health, speak to a health care professional such as your GP. There are already a number of effective treatments for sleeping problems, depression and anxiety, and when one is treated, the other is likely to improve.

And with research in this area expanding, it’s only a matter of time before we find more ways to use sleep improvement interventions as a key tool to enhance our mental health.


Professor Emeritus John Trinder contributed to this article.

Joanna Waloszek, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Psychology, University of Melbourne and Monika Raniti, Master of Psychology (Clinical)/PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.