Although our understanding of mental health issues like anxiety is greater than it once was, in many ways it’s still a complex and often confusing topic — even for the many Australians who regularly experience it.
Here, psychologists share the information and advice they wish more people knew about anxiety, and the most effective ways to cope with it.
1. It’s more common than you might realise.
Anxiety can feel like an an incredibly isolating experience, but in fact, the national rates are quite high — especially among women. According to beyondblue, one in three Australian women will experience anxiety in their lifetime.
“We live in a world where every time you speak to someone, they’re stressed. When it becomes ongoing and that worry is really getting in the way of the way you live your life, you’ve got to do something about it [and] make the choice to do something differently,” says Danielle Buckley, registered psychologist and senior associate at the Positivity Institute.
2. There’s an anxiety ‘continuum’.
The term ‘anxiety’ doesn’t describe a single experience. According to registered psychologist Maria Faustino of Marquee Health, anxiety levels often run in a continuum from ‘healthy’ to ‘disordered’ — and it’s important to recognise the difference.
For instance, you’ve probably experienced a degree of anxiety before an exam or job interview, and at this level it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “An optimum level of anxiety can actually provide focus and energy to allow us to do our best in these types of situations, and usually passes after the ‘stressor’ has passed or has been removed,” Faustino explains.
However, if this anxiety becomes uncontrollable, excessive or persistent, it can be detrimental to various aspects of your health. “It may impact our ability to enjoy life and achieve our goals, and it can also negatively impact our relationships and self-esteem,” Faustino says.
3. The internet isn’t always your friend.
The internet is home to millions of pages of health information, and not all of it is evidence-based. The urge to consult Dr Google when unusual symptoms present is only human, but it’s really, really not a good idea.
That said, if you’re experiencing anxiety the internet can be your ally; Buckley says online resources can be beneficial when it comes to learning about and managing anxiety, but only if they’re from credible sites.
“Google is not a diagnostic tool. If you are concerned, though, and you think you’re anxious or too stressed … you could get online to beyondblue and read their fact sheets, or [visit] the Mood Gym. It’s a free online tool people can use,” she advises.
4. Problem solving strategies can be helpful.
Buckley says building on your problem-solving skills is an effective way to manage your day-to-day anxiety. "Take that time to stop and say, 'Okay, what am I worried about, and what is the likelihood that this will actually come through?', then, 'What can I do about this problem?'" she explains.
If there's really nothing you can do to resolve or control the problem that's causing you concern, try to make an active choice to not worry about it — as challenging as that probably sounds. "We need to teach ourselves to let go of that worry, because whether you worry about it obsessively for the next two hours or not is not going to change the outcome," Buckley says.
5. Try giving yourself 'worry time'.
Obsessive, persistent worrying is characteristic of anxiety, and in an ideal world it would be possible to eliminate these feelings altogether. But when you have real-world pressures and events to cope with, there's no telling when anxiety triggers will appear.
Buckley has an interesting technique for managing this: she encourages her clients to allocate "worry time" to deal with, and compartmentalise, their worry in one go. This requires discipline, but she says it's very effective at dissipating these feelings.
"Choose 30 minutes a day and say, 'I'm going to worry about all the things I've got going on' during that time only. It's a way of retraining your brain. Instead of when [worry] pops up during the day, instead of stewing on it, say, 'No, I've got time where I can worry about this'," Buckely explains. (Post continues after gallery.)
6. Know your triggers
No two individuals experience anxiety in the same way, so self-awareness is one of the best tools when it comes to finding the right support and coping strategies for you.
Faustino says if you can learn to recognise the major sources of your anxiety, it'll empower you to make "small, yet effective" changes. "Being aware of these triggers can assist in helping us evaluate what thoughts, emotions, behaviours and physiological reactions contribute to it. These factors interact with each other — thoughts can have an effect on emotions and behaviours, and vice versa," she explains.
7. It's okay to adjust your expectations.
The weight of expectation can be a source of overwhelming anxiety. Unsurprisingly, anxiety tends to be common among perfectionists, who worry about living up to the expectations and standards set by everyone else. But don't forget: you can also have a say in this.
"If you're worried about, 'Am I doing a good enough job?' or 'What do people think of me?', a good question to ask yourself is, What's good enough for me today?" Buckley advises.
"I think sometimes we need to lower those expectations and the stress level by being okay with what's good enough for us, at this point in time, in our life today."
8. There's no one way to treat it.
Both Faustino and Buckley say people need to realise anxiety is treatable, and that there's not a one-size-fits-all approach. There are a number of strategies both psychologists and individuals can embrace to manage and reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
"Cognitive Behavioural Therapy targets thought patterns that trigger and maintain anxiety, and aims to replace unhelpful thought styles with healthy ones," Faustino explains.
"There are also coping strategies that a person may employ to help manage mild levels of anxiety, such as physical exercises, online self-help resources that are based on scientific research, and relaxation exercises like controlled breathing and progressive muscle relaxation." (Post continues after video.)
9. Invest in your mental health.
We go to all lengths to maintain our physical health — and it's equally important to invest in our mental wellbeing in order to reduce and prevent the cycle of anxiety. Buckley says making time for positivity can enhance your coping strategies and resilience.
"Commit to living a positive, active life. Making sure you eat well and you move a lot and you exercise you have social engagements, all those things that lead to a pleasurable fun life, can provide some protective factors around getting anxiety," she recommends.
10. You don't have to live like this.
One of the main things Buckley wishes people understood about anxiety is that it isn't something to be embarrassed about, or something you should feel compelled to conceal.
"It's so frustrating when you have people you know or clients who are ashamed of mental illness, there's still that stigma attached. If you do put your hand up, there are things we can do to help you get through that pain," she says.
"You don't have to live like this. We want people to be flourishing and living great lives, and not be hampered down by mental illness."
Have you ever experienced anxiety? Is there a strategy that helps you cope with it?