This post is one I've wanted to write for some time now as it's something I feel could help people who are in the same position as I was in before changing my lifestyle. If you've been following my blog for some time, I'm sure you'll know that I've always been quite open about the fact I suffer with anxiety/panic disorder (if not, read my post here where I share my story) and have done since the age of 14. I've been to hell and back with it and tried almost every self help technique there is. In recent months I've been in the best place I've been in a long long time so I thought I'd share a few things I've done that have been helping me to lead an anxiety free life. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these things have cured me as I still have my bad days but they've certainly helped me in the respect that I no longer feel controlled by my anxiety. Instead, I feel like I'm in control of the anxiety instead of the other way around and I honestly never thought I'd say that. With this being said, here are my top tips..
Healthy eating & exercise
This is probably an obvious one but leading a healthy lifestyle really does help to improve your mental state. Eating the right foods provides your body with the nutrients it needs for you to feel your best and exercise releases endorphins which have a mood boosting effect. Some doctors say exercise actually has the same effect as anti-depressent medication as it increases serotonin in the brain - that just shows how powerful it can be on the mind. I have to be honest and say I can be lazy when it comes to exercise (I think part of having anxiety is often feeling really unmotivated) and I really did slack with it in 2015 but now I'm feeling much better, I'm really determined to get fit this year. I'm going to keep unhealthy and processed foods to an absolute minimum as well as exercising regularly as I feel SO much better both physically and mentally when I look after myself more.
Cut down or cut out alcohol
Alcohol is not good for people who suffer with anxiety - it's as simple as that. If you read anything about anxiety and its triggers online, alcohol will always be up there with the top things that are making your anxiety worse. For me, I haven't cut alcohol out as I do enjoy a sociable drink with friends and family but what I have done is learnt is that I have my limit. A few glasses of wine or a couple of cocktails now and then doesn't really affect me but if I go overboard on a night out, I spend the next day in an anxious mess. Heart palpitations, shaking and the anxiety of not being able to remember everything from the night before all go hand in hand to sending my anxiety through the roof. Not worth it.
Drink less caffiene
Alongside alcohol, caffeine is a big anxiety trigger as it stimulates the central nervous system and increases adrenalin. I made the decision to switch to decaf a few years ago now (except the occasional latte here and there) and it's made the biggest difference to how I feel. When I was drinking endless cups of tea every day, it really affected my anxiety levels and made me feel really on edge. When my doctor advised I cut it out, I didn't think I'd be able to do it as I love a morning cup of tea. However, I knew it wasn't doing me any favours so I went cold turkey and switched to decaf tea instead. When I first stopped drinking it, it did make me feel even worse and I had headaches from withdrawals (yes, it was that bad!) but now, I don't miss it at all. I can't even tell the difference between normal and decaf tea - they taste exactly the same.
Have a routine
For me, having routine in my life is SO important and it really helps with my stress levels. I like to know what I'm going to be doing each day, have a plan and try to stick to it. Even little things like planning what I'm going to make for my dinner each day is really important to me. I also like to have more long-term plans and things to look forward to as I feel that gives me a sense of purpose and something to focus on and look forward to. That can be a special occasion, a holiday or buying a house which is my current goal and something I'm really going to focus on achieving this year. Having a plan adds a sense of security to my life and this really helps to control my anxiety levels.
Surround yourself with positivity
Ah, this is SO important. If you're someone who suffers with anxiety, make sure you eliminate anyone negative from your life. I've cut a fair few 'friends' out of my life over the years as they were people who weren't helping my mindset and weren't genuine friends who were there for me in my time of need. My Nanna recently said 'watch out for fair weather friends' and I think that's SO true. The people who only want to know you and be your friend when your life is going well or to gain something from you are NOT friends and they're the kind of people you should think about removing from your life. I can honestly say that I'm now happier than ever because everyone in my life has a positive influence on me and are supportive in the things I do. For example, becoming a full time blogger was a huge decision for me and something that could have made me feel really anxious but I wasn't judged by any of the people in my life as I'm now at a stage where I've filtered out the bad ones and the people around me are all positive, supportive and caring which is exactly what we all need in our lives. Don't let anyone drag you down, you're worth more than that.
Do your research
Before I knew I was suffering with anxiety/panic disorder, I genuinely thought I was going mad. I remember crying in my mums arms and saying 'what's wrong with me, why do I feel like this?' and it was so so so awful. One thing that massively helped with this was doing my research - reading about anxiety, the things that cause it, the symptoms, why those symptoms occur and other people's stories. I'd spend hours reading forums full of people who were in the same situation as me and I found a lot of comfort in knowing I wasn't alone.
This is probably my number one tip for coping with anxiety, panic or even just high stress levels. I had counselling for 3 months and the main thing my counsellor would tell me is to control my breathing. He said people who suffer with anxiety fall into the trap of shallow / quick breathing and this sends your nervous system into overdrive and causes hyperventilation which is the main thing that causes a lot of the awful panic attack symptoms. Whenever I'm feeling panicked now, the first thing I do is try and control my breathing. I take deep breaths from my stomach (so I can feel my stomach expanding) and then breathe out slowly through pursed lips. After doing this for a few minutes my symptoms tend to subside before I get to the stage of a full blown panic attack.
Whenever I'm feeling anxious, the last thing I can do is sit in one place. I've found doing something to distract myself really helps as it distracts my mind from the irrational anxious thoughts I experience during a panic attack. I know it feels almost impossible to do anything during a panic attack but if you can feel yourself getting anxious and think you could be on the verge of a panic attack, try and do something to distract your mind which will hopefully stop it getting to that stage. I find getting outside for some fresh air really helps me if I'm feeling like that and as exercise releases feel good endorphins, any kind of exercise is ideal. However, it can be anything you enjoy to do, as long as it distracts you. I've found reading, cooking or tidying my room also help - anything that stops me from focusing on feeling anxious is a big help.
Face your fears
As I mentioned in my 2015 overview and 2016 goals post, 2015 was the year I really began to push myself and it's made the biggest difference to my confidence and anxiety levels. Don't get me wrong, the first few times you do something you're not comfortable with, it's hard and anxiety levels can increase but when you get through it, it really helps as you know you can achieve something without anything 'bad' happening. For me and my anxiety, the thought something bad will happen is one of the biggest triggers and things like getting the train on my own, going to events or even being in my flat overnight alone were all huge triggers for me. I used to think something would happen and I'd be alone or trapped and those thought would then trigger the panic attacks. I'll never forget last Summer and the blogger trip to Majorca I went on with Em - I was SO close to cancelling because of anxiety, telling my boyfriend I just couldn't get on a plane and go somewhere unknown with people I don't really know (other than Em, I didn't know anyone) and the thought of getting on a flight with my boyfriend to hold my hand made me feel sick. However, I made a point of going on that trip and had the best time EVER which just showed me not to be so afraid and let my anxiety hold me back. I've been doing all of those things mentioned above a lot more frequently last year and now I know I can do it, it's much less daunting for me.
Don't be ashamed
This is SO important. In the early years of my anxiety disorder, I used to think I was crazy and was so ashamed that I was feeling this way or having these thoughts. Not wanting to go out and do certain things or just wanting to stay in bed and not face the day made me feel like a huge failure. I also suffered with OCD which made me think I was going insane. I often used to cry to myself and think 'why me, why can't I feel normal' but that's the thing, you ARE normal. Just because you have anxiety, it doesn't make you any less of a person that someone without anxiety. Everyone has their struggles and it's so important to remember there's hundred of thousands of people all over the world in the exact same position as you. You're not alone and you can fight it. It annoys me that anxiety is often overlooked as it's not a physical illness - in my darkest days, I used to think having a physical illness would be so much easier to deal with as people would understand what I was going through - when it's a mental issue, to the outside world you look normal and people don't understand in the same way. I now know that's a silly way to think but I'm sure I'm not the only anxiety sufferer to have had those thoughts. All I can say is don't let anyones ignorance affect you and never feel ashamed - unless someone has been through it themselves they have no place to judge you.
So this is a bit of a controversial one but I feel the need to mention it as I really don't think medication for anxiety should get such a bad rep. I tried everything possible to cure my anxiety (CBT/hypnotherapy and all of the things mentioned above) and whilst they do help and I'd 100% advise you do them, nothing has helped me as much as medication. I got to the stage where I felt I could no longer cope with day to day life and although I was petrified to take tablets, they've helped me SO much and I now feel like I can lead a normal life and not have to worry about my anxiety holding me back. I've been prescribed 20mg of an SSRI anti-depressant and whilst I initially felt like a failure for needing to take them, it really is the best decision I ever made. Make sure you don't let stigmas surrounding medication sway your decision - if you've tried everything else and feel you still need help, there's no shame in trying them as like me, they may help massively. Obviously I don't want to be dependent on tablets or be on them for my whole life but for now, they're a massive help and have lifted my mood ten fold. I'm hoping with the positive mindset they've helped me achieve, I'll be able to overcome my anxiety disorder for good!
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
I wanted to briefly include this at the bottom of the post as it is something I have experience with. I had around six month of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy counselling and whilst it did help in certain ways such as recognising my thoughts are irrational, teaching me deep breathing exercises and giving me somewhere I could spill my thoughts out, it definitely didn't help me as much as some of the other things mentioned in this post. Looking back, I don't think my therapist was a great match for me - we didn't click that well and I didn't feel totally relaxed around them which isn't great. I also went private so at £50 a session, the amount of money I was spending did begin to get my down when I wasn't getting the results I'd hoped for. I definitely wouldn't shrug it off as something that doesn't work as I can see how it could but it does involve a lot of commitment and hard work with exercises at home and when I was at my worst, it was the last thing I wanted to do, despite knowing it would benefit me. I'd definitely try it again now I'm taking medication as I have a much more positive and open mindset than I did back then and doctors say a combination of medication and CBT can be the combination that cures anxiety disorders. However, I'd be more inclined to do it through the NHS rather than going private.
So there we have it - these are my best pieces of advice for dealing with anxiety and managing stress levels so you can lead a more relaxed life. I know this post is huge but I just had so much to share - I could talk about it all day. However, if you did manage to make it to the end of the post, I hope it helped you in some way and you can take something from it. As I said, I've suffered for 11 years now and it's only been this past year I'm finally getting it under control so don't give up.
Do you have any more anxiety self help tips? I'd love to hear them so leave a comment below!!