Welcome to my blog. This week, 15th – 21st May 2023, we are being encouraged to give thought to our mental health generally, paying particular attention to the theme of anxiety. According to the Mental Health Foundation, anxiety is a normal emotion in us all, but sometimes, it can get out of control and become a problem. Lots of things can lead to feelings of anxiety, including things like exam pressure, relationships, starting a new job (or losing one) or other big life events. Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems. In a recent survey, a quarter of people said they felt so anxious that it stopped them from doing the things they want to do, either some or all of the time.
Our School Counsellor, Lizzie Arthur, shares her thoughts on Mental Health Awareness Week 2023.
So – what is anxiety?
It’s how we respond to feeling threatened, under pressure or stressed: for example, if we have an exam, job interview or doctor’s appointment. Anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can spur us on, help us stay alert, make us aware of risks and motivate us to solve problems.
However, anxiety can be a problem if it affects your ability to live your life. If your anxiety is ongoing, intense, hard to control or out of proportion to your situation, it can get in the way and affect the choices that we make.
The biochemistry of anxiety – how does it work?
I’m quite interested in how the chemistry within our bodies affects how we feel. What’s going on in there, when we feel anxious? To give an idea of how anxiety interacts with the brain, let’s look at some of the body’s chemicals and neurotransmitters (chemicals that help transmit our nerve impulses) and how they may contribute to anxiety:
Serotonin may be the most well-known neurotransmitter. Low levels of serotonin are linked to both anxiety, and depression. Studies have shown that therapy and self-care increase natural serotonin levels.
Epinephrine/Norepinephrine are responsible for many of the symptoms of anxiety. These hormones and neurotransmitters are responsible for the adrenaline and energy that is pumped through our body when you’re stressed or anxious, and cause changes like rapid heartbeat, sweating etc. Sometimes, these hormones can become overactive as a result of prolonged or regular stress.
Endorphins are important, in relation to how anxiety is relieved. Endorphins are mood and relaxation stabilizers. Exercise is an example of a healthy way to release endorphins and cope with anxiety.
Dopamine There is evidence suggesting that improving dopamine levels could reduce anxiety. We can naturally increase dopamine levels by making certain lifestyle choices, such as eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly.
The above is only a basic introduction to the biochemistry of anxiety, as I’m sure the biologists among you will already know. The reality is that nearly every hormone and every neurotransmitter in our body, can potentially cause anxiety.
Anxiety can affect both our body and our mind – so what does anxiety feel like?
The effects on our mind can be:
- feeling of dread or fearing the worst
- feeling on edge or panicky
- difficulty concentrating
- feeling detached from yourself or the world around you
Physical feelings can include:
- feeling dizzy or light-headed
- wobbly legs or pins and needles in your hands and feet
- shortness of breath or hyperventilating
- heart palpitations (a noticeably strong, fast heartbeat)
- nausea (feeling sick)
- needing the toilet more or less often
- sleep problems
- panic attacks
Anxiety can also affect our behaviour. We may withdraw from friends and family, feel unable to go to school or other places. Whilst avoiding situations can give us short-term relief, the anxiety often returns the next time we’re in that situation. Avoiding it may reinforce the feeling of danger and never gives us the chance to test out whether our fears are true or not.
Some of us may appear to be fine on the outside, while still experiencing some of the symptoms listed above. We may find ways of hiding anxiety, so that other people don’t notice it.
Good news – we can take action to help ourselves.
The following are just a few examples of things that can work towards rebalancing our brain chemistry, to reduce feelings of anxiety:
- focused breathing exercises
- meditation and mindfulness practices
- journalling and colouring
- healthy, balanced diet
- talking therapies
When I begin to feel a bit unsettled and angsty, I try to make a conscious and deliberate effort to a) figure out what I’m anxious about and b) do more of the things that I know help to balance me out, emotionally. For me, those things are practicing some yoga, going for a run, baking some bread, getting out for a walk in the countryside or at the coast, or – most recently, going for a cold-water dip. I’ve joined a group of cold-water swimmers and I make time to go at least once a week. It’s fantastic!
“You don’t need to plunge into cold water if you don’t want to. My advice, if I may offer it, would be to find the things that you know help you, no matter how small they are – and do them. Regularly. On repeat. Forming a few positive habits can seem like a minor change, but the impact on how we feel, can be major.”
Lastly, as ever, I would remind you that talking can help. It can really, really help. One of my favourite quotes comes from a wonderful, American children’s television presenter, Fred Rogers, who told his young viewers ‘If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.’ If you’re struggling with anxiety, or anything else, and you can find a way to mention it to someone, the chances are that between us, we’ll be able to manage it.
Thank you very much for reading. Wishing you all a growthful, nourishing mental health awareness week. I’m in school on Mondays and Wednesdays and I’m here to help. Find me at firstname.lastname@example.org.