I write a fortnightly column for the Great Eastern Mail. Missed an edition? Here I share past letters for you.

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Dear Emma, I have been feeling so anxious of late and can’t seem to get a grip on it like I used to be able to. What am I doing to make it worse? Is there anything I can do to make it any better? I feel like I have tried all the usual tips and tricks. Can you please help?

Thanks for writing in. You are not alone in this struggle, in fact in my experience, it is quite a common question. So, I hope that is of some comfort. But to answer it, we need to begin with understanding what anxiety is and what habits are.

Anxiety is a physiological and biological response to a threat, whether that threat is real or perceived*. But anxiety is not an enemy. In fact, anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be beneficial in some situations.  Habits are the repeated thoughts or actions we make in our life. These habits form our lives. Sometimes we are aware of these habits, but often we are not. Now, not all habits are bad. But there are certain habits that we can fall into that increase our worry and anxiety, and I’ll address six of them here.

*Please Note: Anxiety disorders differ from normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness and involve excessive fear or anxiety. Further treatment for a disorder should be sought from a qualified health professional.

1.           Ruminating

Ruminating refers to the way we think on something. Our brains are also creatures of comfort. They will naturally seek out the same thought pathway again and again. There are few thinking styles that are quite common, and we often revert to them when confronting new or challenging situations. These thinking styles can become habits and refers to the inner talk we feed ourselves. So, if we find that we often think or speak to ourselves negatively, for example: “I’m stupid”, “I never get things right”, “I’m not like everyone else”, these also become pathways we return to over and over again.

The good news is we can retrain them. You can build a healthy habit with daily practice and a little self-care. Our brains can create new pathways that are healing and wholesome. This a called neuroplasticity. A qualified therapist can help you through the process of reframing. However, using positive self-affirmations and thought journaling can help to build a healthy habit for our thinking patterns.

2.           Diet and Lifestyle choices.

What you feed your body is as important as what you feed your mind. Bad habits in our diet can affect not only our physical wellbeing but our mental health as well. For instance, too much caffeine can cause an increase in the many physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heartrate, restlessness, sweating, nervousness, and dizziness, which are like the symptoms of anxiety. Lack of exercise, too much alcohol and fast food, can cause our minds and bodies to become sluggish, lack energy and even feel unwell, all of which can trigger anxiety.

Learning to think of our bodies as whole can improve our anxiety. What we feed our bodies is as important as what we think on. A food journal can develop awareness to current patterns and help to practise new healthy habits.

3.           Boundaries

One trigger for anxiety is a lack of boundaries, perhaps an inability to say “no” to things or people. Boundaries give us a way of knowing who we are and who we are not. They keep us from being taken advantage of as well as keep us from taking advantage of others. They provide clarity and a healthy framework for our lives.

Setting healthy boundaries helps to lessen anxiety. One way to clearly do that is to define what is your responsibility and what is not.  For example, you might say that your word, actions, and behaviours are your responsibility, but other people’s words, actions and behaviours are not your responsibility. A boundary may then feel like not taking responsibility for others and realising it is not your job to fix things for others.

4.           Lack of Sleep

Sleep deprivation can be a huge contributor to anxiety. A lack of sleep can decrease our problem-solving ability and can make us more reactionary as we struggle though the day. It compromises our ability to think clearly, rationally, and objectively and it’s usually in our tired state that the irrational, unhelpful thinking styles mentioned before increase therefore perpetuating our anxiety.

Creating a night-time routine can help you form a better sleeping pattern. Studies suggest that when you have irregular habits before sleep, the quality and length of sleep may be reduced. Instead, try to go to bed at the same time each night and avoid screens an hour before bed as screen time before bed affects our sleep and the mind’s ability to switch off at the end of the day, which brings me to my next point.

5.           Social media use

Screen time and social media both affect our mental health and physical wellbeing. Too much time spent staring at screens can lead to blurred vision, eye strain, vision problems and problems with neck, back and wrists.

Social media can also  increase anxiety by exposing you to several new stories at once increasing worry about the state of the world, unconsciously causing comparison by exposing you to stories of others you may not be ready for and increases feelings of missing out, jealousy and not being good enough, as well as unintentionally consuming your time.

One way to set a healthy habit around this is to set a timer for 15 minutes and once it goes off you are done for the day with social media. It’s always a good idea to check who you are following and unfollow accounts that make you feel less than or don’t offer an value to your life. Stopping screen time at least half an hour before bed is also beneficial habit to practise, as mentioned above in the sleep section.

6.           Disorganisation

Disorganisation can lead to increased feelings of stress and being out of control which increases anxiety. Clutter and disorganization negatively affect your perception and thoughts. When we feel overwhelmed, our stress and anxiety can rise.

Setting a plan or list can help with this. But avoid tackling it all at once because that can lead to overwhelm. Break your list up into smaller chunks to tackle and remember to schedule small breaks to go for a walk or stretch. Remember to commit to a stopping point. Committing to a stop provides a healthy outline from the start and can help manage the hyper-focus anxiety can bring. So, should you find yourself repeating a non-beneficial habit like some of these we have discussed above, remember to pause, and ask yourself “Is this behaviour helpful?” and then move forward, doing the next right thing from there. There is hope that it doesn’t always have to be as you are experiencing now,  and it starts with creating healthy habits. Hope that helps, Emma

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