As many of you may well be aware, although my real name is Dr Tim Sharp, I’m sometimes known as “Dr Happy”! And as Dr Happy, Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute, I spend a lot of my time talking and writing about happiness.
As part of this, I spend much of my time busting myths and misconceptions about happiness and living our best lives; one of these being that we can and should be happy all the time!
Well, in case you hadn’t already learned or realised this … we can’t, and we shouldn’t even try to be.
The so called “negative emotions” are a normal part of life; we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t experience sadness and grief, anger and frustration, stress and anxiety. I won’t go in to detail here but these emotions, despite being unpleasant, can and usually are useful and important.
But, and this is an important but, we don’t want too many of these unpleasant emotions and we don’t want them to persist for too long because if and when they do, they can be debilitating. An excess of negative emotions can impact on our daily lives, making it difficult to work or study or relate to others.
The challenge, therefore, is to accept what’s normal and manage these emotions so we can function effectively; and ideally thrive and flourish. So today we’re going to look at how to deal with one of the most common types of distress – which is anxiety.
To begin with, it’s useful to appreciate that anxiety is a “biopsychosocial” phenomenon. That is, it is comprised of various components including physiological symptoms, emotional and cognitive symptoms, associated behaviours and even aspects that vary or depend on the social context in which all these occur. Accordingly, managing anxiety effectively requires a multifaceted approach.
Some of the most commonly recommended tips for dealing with anxiety
- Calming the body with slow breathing and muscle relaxation. Anxiety leads to increases in certain parts of the nervous system that we experience as increased breathing, increased heart rate, sweatiness and other physiological symptoms. There’s nothing inherently bad or dangerous about these but they can be perceived as unpleasant and accordingly, it can help to reduce their intensity by applying simple relaxation or meditation strategies. Check out some of the many, great apps in your app store (e.g. Headspace, Smiling Mind or Calm)
- Steering your mind away from unhelpful and towards helpful thoughts; when we get anxious, we tend to catastrophise or “make mountains out of molehills”. This just exacerbates stress and worsens all of the aforementioned symptoms. The good news, however, is that we can change these thoughts and think more constructive helpful ones. To begin with, try to put things in perspective. Ask yourself questions like “is it really that bad?”, “what’s the worst that can happen?” and “even if something bad does happen will I be able to manage it?” Focusing more on what you can control and less on what you can’t control always helps; so, think about what you can do that will make a positive difference and then do it
- Take positive action; do something useful. Passivity in the face of anxiety tends not to be very effective. Rather, do what you can. Confronting fears almost always leads to better outcomes and more often than not, people realise their worst fears are rarely if ever realised. We gain confidence by taking on what we’re afraid of so work out what you can do that will make the situation better and then do it; even if you need to ask for help
- And this is an important final note; you don’t have to cope with anxiety, or anything for that matter, all on your own. Ask a friend or family member or colleague to support you through. If necessary, seek professional assistance. We all need help sometimes and there’s nothing wrong with that (especially if it’s going to lead you towards a better future).