Panic.

Hits you smack in the face.

Not now!

Where did this come from?

I am fine.

I am standing at traffic lights, waiting patiently to cross, the sun is shining and it’s a normal day.

There is absolutely nothing about this situation that is concerning.

Yet out of nowhere this feeling takes over. Heart racing, stomach in knots, light headed.

I might faint.

I can’t faint. I’m in the middle of a busy junction.

Practical thoughts rush through my mind, what have I eaten today? Have I drunk any water? What time did I go to bed?

‘Stop being so stupid, this is pathetic, what’s wrong with you, just get over it’, I tell myself.

But the feeling doesn’t go away.

It clings on. Warning me of some impending doom only the unconscious side of my brain seems to be aware of.

I try so hard to fight it. To tell it to go away, to breath. But nothing works.

The Anxiety Battle

Anxiety, although sometimes helpful before an interview, more often, is not a helpful emotion.

It can come from nowhere. For no apparent reason.

If we don’t know the cause, how on earth are we supposed to tackle the problem in the best way?

What do we do?

Well mostly, we get annoyed with ourselves.

We tell ourselves that it’s a stupid feeling and to just ‘stop’ worrying or panicking.

Simple as that. We fight against it. We put ourselves down and we feel weaker for experiencing such emotions.

So how should we be dealing with such a crippling emotion?

How’s about we treat anxiety like an American Football game.

Don’t worry, to follow this train of thought you don’t need to know anything about American Football.

I don’t know anything about American Football.

This will not get technical.

To start, let’s look at some of the key stages involved in playing a game of American Football.

Stage 1. Attend team strategy sessions to learn the game plays and theories

Stage 2. Attend training to get physically fit and practise

Stage 3. Play the game

Stage 4. Debrief on the results

Warning: before you read on, bring with you some imagination.

Stage 1. Let’s Strategise

You’ve just been signed to the American Football team you have dreamt of playing for since you were a kid.

You’re invited to the first team meeting.

You’re nervous, excited, maybe even a little anxious (the helpful kind) but the meeting goes well.

You meet all your new teammates and most importantly you learn about how to play.

You learn all the set plays (predetermined formations to score points), you learn all the theory behind passing and the space you need to occupy on the field.

You walk away feeling pretty damn confident that you know about the game.

In theory at least.

American Footballers do not go out to play a game without predetermined and learnt set plays.

Anxiety should be treated in the exact same way.

Many of us suffer from anxiety without any proper, predetermined plans created to deal with it when it comes up.

So just like in American Football, to be successful in dealing with anxiety you need a game plan. A predetermined plan of action of what you are going to do when certain situations present themselves to you.

This can consist of specific actions you will do during experiences of anxiety to increase calm or it may be a plan of how to get through a tough day to avoid anxiety.

No American Football team’s set plays will be identical. Similarly, your day and what triggers your anxiety won’t be the same as anyone else’s.

Over to you

Step 1. Research and write a list of 5-10 anxiety relief exercises that resonate with you. You probably have a few you could name right now. But it is important to write at least 5 down. More if you can.

If you don’t know any or need more, then there are endless resources on the internet. To get you started, I have included some links at the bottom of this article.

What’s important with this step is to make sure you are choosing tasks not options or lifestyles.

Dealing with anxiety involves a broad range of techniques, mindsets and activities. But for this exact exercise I want you to purely focus on this one aspect of anxiety. Every item on the list has to be something that is possible for you to do when experiencing anxiety.  For example, eating healthy food, although really helpful in mental health and anxiety, this is a lifestyle factor and most likely won’t help you in an immediate feeling of anxiety.

Some examples include:

  1. 5 to 1 Countdown. Find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste
  2. 10 slow breaths where each breath last for 6 seconds focusing exclusively on the breathing process
  3. Sit down and focus on every area of your body that is feeling a sense of touch. Feel your feet flat against the floor, is there pressure on them, where is the pressure, continue all the way up the body
  4. Listen to a podcast on mental health and anxiety
  5. Practice mindfulness through getting into nature and focusing on one thing and one thing alone for 5 minutes

All of these can be done during most experiences of anxiety.

Stage 2. Train, Train, Train

Back to being an American Football player.

You’ve attended all the strategy sessions and understand the rules of the game and the set plays.

Awesome. You really know your stuff.

So, the coach calls you and says right, big game on Saturday are you in?

What’s your first thought?

I know what mine would be. Definitely not! I haven’t even attended a single training session yet, I have only learnt the theory.

You might feel confident that you know exactly where to pass the ball or the theory behind making a tackle. But without putting all the theory into practise how do you know what parts of the game you are good at?

How do you know what areas of the game you will never be good at?

Anxiety works the same way.

There are endless resources out there saying do this or do that for anxiety.

But without practising them outside of the experience of anxiety you won’t know which ones feel right for you. You also won’t be accomplished in doing them.

For techniques in overcoming anxiety to actually work you will need to practice them often. Everyday if you can. When you aren’t feeling anxiety.

Discover what ones feel most comfortable to you. Find which ones are most suited to your life and the situations that trigger your own anxiety.

OVER TO YOU

Step 2. Use the list of 5-10 exercises that you wrote down earlier and practise them. To begin with just choose two or three.

Create time in your life and practise them when you are not feeling anxiety. This is really important. Don’t wait until you are experiencing anxiety to introduce them into your life. Become an expert in these exercises.

Stage 3. Play ball

You’ve attended the strategy sessions.

You’ve been to the training’s.

Your confidence has grown.

You are in a live game.

You’ve been playing well, you’ve utilised some of the key strategies you have been practising and your team is winning.

But suddenly the pressure is on you to defend the end goal with one of the best offence teams in American Football League hurtling towards you. You have not practised this situation in training and do not know what action to take.

This is a battle you are not going to win.

No matter how many strategy sessions you have attended or how well you have trained you can’t beat an entire team as a solo player.

Anxiety is the exact same.

Trying to fight against anxiety when it is in full swing is very very difficult.

Fighting against anxiety won’t work.

You need change sides.

You need to be the one scoring the goals.

You need to work WITH your anxiety not AGAINST it.

This may sound bizarre but the more bonding you do with your anxiety, the more you understand it and learn how to work with it.

OVER TO YOU

Step 3:

Similar to step 1 this involves a list. Find a time when you are feeling really calm and you have no distractions. Write down a list of all sensations during your last experience of anxiety. Physical and mental.

Write them in the order they come to your mind and then just jot down next to it if its physical or mental. Then next to each mental sensation (e.g. thoughts) flip it and write a positive one. Next to each physical sensation write the truth about what is actually happening.

Example

Heart racing really fast (physical) My mind thinks there is a threat so this is just a symptom that my body creates as it thinks it will help me. This is not a concern.
What is wrong with me? (thought) Nothing is wrong with me, this is a normal reaction. Anxiety can appear for no reason, I am not the only one who feels like this, it is a result of how humans used to live.
Stomach in knots (physical) This is really common. The body has released a stress hormone and the blood has gone to other areas of the body to help them prepare to survive as it thinks this is needed. This isn’t a cause for concern.

Stage 4. Debrief

After every American Football game each team will get together and review the game.

They review every step and play of the game that lead to the end result.

What went well?

What went wrong?

Where could we improve?

This allows for the whole team to improve. To learn from mistakes and celebrate successes.

No team blindly heads into the next game without reflection on the previous one.

For anxiety to reduce, it is so important that the techniques you are using work for you and work well.

The more work you do in reflection the more likely the anxiety will reduce over time.

OVER TO YOU

Step 4.  After each time you experience anxiety reflect on it.

Wait until the anxiety has passed and write down about the situation.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What/how many exercises did I do?
  • How did they make me feel?
  • Did they help?
  • Did it work?
  • How well did it work?
  • What did I feel?

If you can, journal these answers down. If it didn’t work well there are two options for moving forwards. Maybe practise the exercises more in your down time or move on to the next exercise on your list. Maybe it’s a case of utilising more than one exercise at a time.

Following these steps will not cure your anxiety, there is so much more at play to truly create massive changes. But understanding your anxiety and working with it is a hugely important aspect that if you can master, will aid you in overcoming anxiety.

Resources

Websites for tips on calming exercises:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-zen/201405/22-quick-tips-change-your-anxiety-forever

https://adaa.org/tips-manage-anxiety-and-stress

https://www.anxieties.com/6/panic#.W6lPGmgzY2x

General NZ Anxiety help

https://www.anxiety.org.nz/resources

https://www.medicinenet.com/anxiety/article.htm#what_are_the_types_of_anxiety_disorders

https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines/