Anxiety can come on suddenly and unpredictably. You might be preparing for a big job interview or you might just wake up in the morning and, without warning, the dread hits.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition, affecting roughly one in four Australians in their lifetime. Young people described their experiences of anxiety for an episode of Enough, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s youth mental health podcast.
There is a big difference between the disorder – which is a serious mental illness characterised by an excessive sense of worry or fear – and simply feeling stressed or worried, however everyone can feel anxious from time to time.
We looked to five Australians who know a thing or two about mental wellbeing, and asked them to walk us through what they do to deal with anxiety.
Campbell Walker AKA Struthless
Author of Your Head Is A Houseboat
“My anxiety spikes when I do all the unhealthy things I know I shouldn’t do. Think: mainlining caffeine, scrolling through toxic comment sections on global atrocities and taking on enough projects to fill a small village’s inbox.
As for dealing with anxiety, I can only speak as a veteran and not as a professional, but this is what works for me. The first thing I do is make like a yoga-loving Byron mama and breathe. Deep breaths, in through the nose and out through my mouth. After this, I un-kink my goblin phone-neck posture and try to bring my head into the present. To do this, I name five things I can hear, five things I can see, then smell, then touch. (Occasionally I’ll throw in “taste” if I’m looking for a challenge, but there’s only so many times you can say “the remnants of the four coffees that caused this feeling in the first place”.) The idea is that this focuses your attention and brings it away from your anxious thoughts. Here, I’ve usually calmed down enough to identify whether the anxiety is a general feeling of dread (often after doom-scrolling) or related to something specific, like five competing deadlines.
Now, let’s say I’ve got my inhale-exhale going on and I’ve brought myself back to earth enough to journal, this is what I do. I divide my worries into things I can control (my silly little job) and things I can’t (the melting ice caps). For the things I can control, I road-test them with five questions. I usually do this in a table, but it can be done as a list, in a voice note, or even over a chat with a close friend/dog.
- List out your anxiety as specifically as possible. For example: I’m anxious about posting my art online.
- Then, list a simple strategy (or two) to get around some of the potentially negative consequences of this anxiety. For example, when I’m over-committed I find getting organised with calendars and to-do-lists enough to provide mild relief.
- From here, you write out the likely outcome of your situation. If you’re anxious that you’ll die in a plane crash, the likely outcome is that you won’t. While we rationally know this, it’s sometimes nice just to spell it out.
- Next, you ask: what anxiety does this anxiety replace? It’s good to recognise that your current worries might be better than the alternatives their presence rules out. If you’re worried about whether or not your kids will grow up in a house you own, one anxiety this displaces is the anxiety that you might never have children at all.
- Finally, ask: how is this anxiety trying to protect you? If you’re anxious about losing your job, the anxiety might be trying to protect you from the looming (very real) problems that come with a lack of cash. If you’re anxious about having too much work, the anxiety might be trying to protect you from stress. The purpose of this is that it frames anxiety as a protective coping mechanism. Whether this is true or not, it can provide a bit of relief.
And for all the worries I can’t control, I’ll still go through most of the above questions, but I’ll also remember that if I wasn’t born, all of those things I’m worrying about would still exist. For some reason this calms me down a little and I can get on with my day. For now.”
Dr Rebecca Ray
clinical psychologist and author of Small Habits for a Big Life
“Anxiety visits me most often when I’m overwhelmed, usually of my own doing by taking on too many tasks. The pattern has been with me since I was in school and stems from a deep-seated belief I once had that my worth equates to my productivity. While I no longer hold that belief, the pre-existing neural pathways associated with it still exist in my brain, and if I’m not careful, I can fall back into that productivity measurement.
My favourite tools for managing anxiety always start with the body. Calm the body and you go a long way to calming the mind. At the moment, I need ways to release the tension that rises sitting at my home office. I lie on the floor with a yoga bolster down the length of my back and my arms stretched outwards. This helps to open up my chest and shoulders, relieving tension in my back and neck. Sometimes, I’ll stretch my legs out straight, and other times, I bring the soles of my feet together to open up my hip joints. In settling into this position, I then pop my headphones on and turn on a 10-minute guided meditation. When I first tried combining meditation and relaxing in this position, I couldn’t quite believe how quickly I could shift the anxiety into a sense of grounded relaxation. It’s now a favourite ‘hack’ of mine to become calm quickly.
If you’re in a setting where it’s inappropriate to lie on the ground, sitting on a chair, and gently rolling your neck and shoulders also has wonderful benefits.”
Hugh van Cuylenburg
Founder of The Resilience Project
“While I wouldn’t consider myself an overly stressed person, I’ve noticed the older I am getting – I’m now 41 – the more I experience anxiety. When I reflect on the events or moments that cause it, they are invariably the same three things. In no specific order, they are:
- When I have a big show coming up;
- When I feel I have too much on my plate with work;
- When my kids are struggling.
There are two things that I do to manage this anxiety. It’s amazing how effective they are for me. But I have to do both of them, in this order.
- I tell someone that I trust, often my wife, how I’m feeling. Not so that she can solve the problem for me. In fact when she does try to solve it, I can get frustrated. I just need her to listen. It means that I articulate what’s going on inside my head – and that helps me get it out of my head.
- I exercise. Simple as that. Often, feeling anxious elicits quite a physical reaction because our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When you exercise, you flush those away and get a dose of happy hormones (endorphins and dopamine). But that’s a bit of a boring explanation. Here is a better way to describe why exercise helps me. When I go for a half-hour run, I spend the first 10 minutes thinking about the thing that’s causing anxiety. For the second 10 minutes, all those anxious thoughts seem to disappear. Then in the last 10 minutes, my mind thinks very clearly and pragmatically about whatever is causing the anxiety and I seem to come up with solutions or possible approaches to whatever the issue is.”
Coach and author of Power
“Although I’m a good driver, I do not enjoy driving. I’m also hopeless at geography; I never know where I am. This means that sometimes I become incredibly anxious about driving long distances to new places.
When that happens, I use the power of presence and of questions. Firstly I take ownership of the fact that I’m anxious about getting lost. Then I take slow breaths because the fastest way to shift anxiety in my experience is to slow down my breathing and be present to the situation.
Next, I ask myself a question. ‘What am I anxious about, exactly?’ If the answer is ‘taking a wrong turn’, I remind myself that I am not in the outback, and I’m not going to perish if I’ve taken a wrong turn. If the answer is ‘being late for the meeting’, I call the person I’m about to meet to let them know, which lessens my anxiety.
This process can be used many anxiety-inducing situations. It may be when you’re about to have a difficult conversation, deliver a presentation at work, make a big purchase or move out of home.
- Identify you’re anxious
- Breathe into it
- Question what the anxiety is
- Take action to lessen it.”
Clinical psychologist and host of podcast Crappy to Happy
“When I experience anxiety, it’s usually when I feel overwhelmed by deadlines. I start getting those heart palpitations and sweaty palms, worrying about how I will ever get it all done. The first thing I always do is take a few slow deep breaths to calm my nervous system and bring my attention back to this moment. Then I remind myself that what I’m worrying about is not happening right now. I will sometimes repeat a mantra to myself like, ‘In this moment, I am fine and I am safe. In this moment, everything is OK’, to remind myself that the imminent disaster I’m worrying about in my head is not happening right now. The anxiety is usually a result of your mind projecting into an unknown or made-up future. And even if the worst-case scenario were to happen, it’s not the present.
You can apply this to your specific situation. For example, if it’s financial stress, you’re not being evicted from your house right now. If it’s work deadlines, no one is firing you from your job right now. Right now, everything is fine.
The next really useful thing to do is to keep your attention focused only on what is immediately in front of you. Don’t let your mind spiral out to all the things that are coming up. So if you have four big assignments due in the next month, don’t think about all of them – just focus on the one you’re doing today or that’s due this week.”