What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of fear or panic. Feeling anxious sometimes is normal. Most people worry about something - exams, sports competitions, new situations, public speaking etc - but once the difficult situation is over, they feel better and calm down. Anxiety becomes a problem when someone worries all the time, or finds that they are worrying about lots and lots of things in their everyday life. According to the charity Young Minds as many as one in six young people experience anxiety at some point. So it is very common, and also something that we can tackle.
5 Step Plan for Tackling Anxiety
1 - Burn It Off
When our brain senses a fear or worry then it triggers our body to get ready for action. That famous 'fight or flight' response is getting our muscles ready to move quickly by sending hormones around the body. We've all heard of adrenaline - it makes your heart beat faster, makes you concentrate, it causes that sudden jolt you feel in your stomach when there's something scary out there. It's absolutely great when you need to jump out of the way of a sabre-toothed tiger - or nowadays an oncoming bus. That's adrenaline as your friend helping you to stay safe.
But adrenaline isn't so great if it just hangs around in your body. Because that sense of something wrong in your stomach, general unease and being too jumpy to settle to anything isn't helpful for us in today's world of revision, listening to teachers etc. So you have to find a way to release it by burning it off. You need to get active with some form of exercise - whether that's dancing to music, jogging, taking the dog for a walk etc. Research shows that 30 mins of moderate exercise (you don't have to do high intensity to get the benefit) is a great way to do this.
The extra benefits of exercise are that it makes you smarter and happier!
a) over time, it builds new neurons in the hippocampus, where memory is*
b) even in the short term, people do better on memory tests when they have exercised first
c) researchers found that kids remembered more vocabulary in a foreign language if they walked whilst learning it
d) people consistently report improvements in their mood after exercise
2 - Take Out The Stress
Think of a bucket. Imagine that each thing to cause worry or stress is a cup of water. You can easily add one or two to the bucket without any trouble. But add too many cups of water and the bucket will overflow. All that stress and emotion can build up until it is too much to manage. We all know that feeling where something small can go wrong, like losing your keys and we just get on with it. But if ten things go wrong and then you lose your keys you are much more likely to find yourself shouting at someone or being very upset.
So we need to find a way to bail the water out of the bucket. We need to find a way to remove the stress.
Things that may de-stress you:
Warm bath, colouring books, yoga, meditation - whatever it is that you want to do to relax.
3 - Don't Let It Take Over
Spend time doing things you like and are good at. Finding things that aren't a worry to really focus on. Mindfulness is about giving your whole attention to something. Find whatever works for you: playing music, football, painting, dancing, juggling, craft etc. Focus on something that absorbs your attention.
4 - Use A Worry Box
This is a great technique from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) for problem solving and dealing with anxiety.
Write your worries on a piece of paper and file them in a Worry Box. Don't spend time on them now - they are filed for a particular time.
But, crucially, they have not just gone there to be thrown out. We aren't saying that these worries aren't there, just that you are setting aside a time to deal with them later.
Then once a week, dedicate a time for opening the box and looking through all of the pieces of paper. You are going to spend that time problem solving how to deal with those worries. Talk it through with someone else. Come up with any ideas, no matter how unreasonable, for how to fix that problem.
For example - if you had a maths test coming up you might come up with these solutions, some of them aren't very practical or sensible, but that's OK at this point - anything goes.
e.g. To Solve Maths Test Worries
Steal all pens so no one can write answers, leave school, ask teacher for extra help at breaktime, google BBC bitesize help, call friend in another class to explain, pretend you've broken both arms and can't write etc etc.
Then you can choose a way to approach that problem and that's when you throw away that worry. So a the end of each week, you'll end up with an empty Worry Box. And if the same worry comes up again, that's OK, you just put it on a new piece of paper and stick it in the box.
Benefits of the Worry Box
Contains worry to a particular time
Focuses on problem solving
Builds coping skills
Conversation starter with someone else who wants to help you
And of course it feels great to rip up a worry you realize you've dealt with.
There are lots of versions of this exercise on the web that say, once you've put the worry in the box then its gone and you don't need to look at it again. We don't advocate that approach. It isn't helpful to suggest that a worry isn't real. Trying to shut down our feelings and lock them away will always end in them bursting out again. The worry box isn't a dustbin for our feelings, its a technique for problem solving. We come back to those worries and work out what, if anything, we need to do with them.
5 - Share
That adage "a problem shared is a problem halved" is right. It's great to talk through worries with someone else - find a trusted person to talk to about what's worrying you. You may find that they can help with problem solving, or you may find that they understand because they have the same worry so you can work on it together.
The charity Young Minds is great for explaining what is happening and showing that someone who is anxious is in very good company. They say around 1 in every 6 young people will be anxious at some point.* They have some great guides at https://youngminds.org.uk for example on how to get to sleep, or coping techniques when you feel anxious.
GPs, school counsellors, school nurses etc will be able to offer advice and probably helpful leaflets. They can also refer you on to more 1:1 help if you need it. Clinical Psychologists, as Helen is, or counsellors and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in NHS) work individually with young people to support them to manage their anxiety. There are always people who can help. Always feel that you can seek advice.
With all our best wishes,
Dr Helen Care and Rachel Tustian
A Confident Start - psychology that works for you.
a) “Aerobic exercise triggers new cell growth in the hippocampus (memory hub). This growth of new neurons is called neurogenesis. Exercise promotes neurogenesis by increasing BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). By increasing BDNF, aerobic exercise boosts your memory and makes you smarter. You can add neurogenesis to your list of reasons to exercise every day.” —Christopher Bergland (The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, 2007)
"Exercise stimulates the growth of new blood vessels and new neurons in the brain. Exercise may help maintain the electrical connections between brain areas related to memory and decision-making". Nelson, M. E., Rejeski, W. J., Blair, S. N., Duncan, P. W., Judge, J. O., King, A. C., et al. (2007). Physical activity and public health in older adults: recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 39(8), 1435-1445; Circulation, 116(9), 1094-1105.
c) Ben Martynoga, How Physical Exercise Makes Your Brain Work Better. The Guardian 18th June 2016
d) Penedo, F.J. & Dahn, J.R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 18 (2), 189–193.