Everyday anxiety hacks
For anyone who’s woken at 3am with an iron-hard knot of stress in the pit of their stomach, the impact of living with anxiety will be crushingly familiar. Up to three million Brits have some kind of anxiety disorder – symptoms vary, but include everything from a racing heart to dizziness, breathlessness and problems sleeping.
‘There are a number of reasons why anxiety is on the rise – the fast pace of life, perfectionism and comparison, and lack of community support can all play a role,’ says Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and anti-anxiety expert.
However, it’s important to manage anxiety. Over time, it can affect our ability to form relationships, hold down a job, or simply enjoy life’s small pleasures (a steaming cup of coffee, a bright winter’s morning); anxiety is also linked with depression, and may trigger gut issues such as IBS.
The good news is that, collectively, we’re constantly discovering new ways to ease our anxiety. The following ideas aren’t replacements for medical intervention, but some people might find them useful.
Many of us don’t do downtime any more, what with all the scrolling through work emails at 11pm and maintaining the perfect Instagram profile. Say hello, then, to niksen – the Dutch relaxation technique that quite literally involves doing nothing. So why might scheduling time to gaze out of the window or dreamily listen to music (both niksen ‘activities’) make us less jittery? The idea is that it lets us simply ‘be’ and our minds wander – subtly different to mindfulness, which is more about being present. With niksen, you relinquish control of your thoughts.
Brotheridge says: ‘Many of us are trying to do too much and it’s not natural. Our nervous system is not designed to be in fight-or-flight mode as often as we are. Doing “nothing” could give us a chance to calm down this stress response.’ Similarly, theories abound that boredom boosts creativity a recent study found that participants who did a tedious task performed better in an idea generation test afterwards. The downside? For overthinkers, niksen could mean added time for rumination – often the fire that fuels anxiety.
2 Weighted blankets
If you suffer from stress-induced insomnia, a weighted blanket could be your new best friend. Originally designed to soothe autistic children, a variety of brands are now pitched at anxious adults. The theory is a sense of deep pressure on top of you makes you feel snug and safe, a bit like you’re being constantly hugged.
Abeer Iqbal is co-founder of British company Sumo Sleep. He says: ‘Our blankets contain evenly distributed micro glass beads. Under this weight, your body experiences deep pressure therapy. This triggers a reaction similar to when you have a massage. Serotonin and melatonin levels rise (the chemicals responsible for calm and sleep). Cortisol levels decrease (those associated with stress).’
One small study involving 32 adults found nearly two-thirds felt less anxious after using one; another 2015 Swedish study suggested they improve sleep quality. However, as mass-market weighted blankets are a relatively new phenomenon, there’s still a lack of research backing up claims. Available in weights ranging from 4-12kg, makers advise buying one that’s roughly a 10th of your bodyweight (Iqbal says 8-14% is OK). Retailing at £150-ish, they’re not cheap, but what price a night of unsullied slumber?
3 Soothing apps
There’s no shortage of anti-anxiety apps these days. Some offer guided meditations (Headspace); others track mood (BoostMe reminds you of positive activities that worked when you previously felt anxious) or offer mind-altering programmes (Dare teaches how to manage panic attacks).
Brotheridge, who offers the online programme Your Calmest Self, says, ‘Apps can be inexpensive and accessible, but equally, they can be easy to ignore and not actually use.’
Ultimately it’s probably a personality thing. ‘If you’re motivated, they can be great,’ says Brotheridge. ‘Otherwise, you may be better off trying something in person.’
What makes apps so convenient can also be their downfall – the fact you use them alone. ‘With apps, we often miss out on the community aspect and much of managing our mental health is about knowing we’re not alone,’ she says. ‘I often recommend support groups or sharing circles so people can connect with others.’
Mindfulness is sold as a panacea for our times, but being in the present moment is easier said than done. Step forward sophrology, which still offers mindful elements, but is more dynamic – so potentially more of a distraction from your racing thoughts. Invented by Colombian doctor Alfonso Caycedo in the 1960s (to treat depression and PTSD), sophrology mashes up yoga, Japanese Zen, Buddhist meditation, hypnosis and psychology; think visualisations, gentle movement and breathing exercises.
Brotheridge says: ‘People can be bored just sitting and breathing. Adding in visualisations and movement could make it more engaging.’
Anecdotally, sophrology’s fans say it brings them feelings of positivity and contentment. With 12 levels, you can choose how deep you go (the first is about releasing tension; later you enter the more psychological realms of improving concentration and boosting fulfilment). Popular in France (where it’s used by the French rugby team), sophrology classes are becoming more available here.
While the jury is out on many of its claimed health benefits, there is some credible scientific evidence suggesting that cannabidiol or CBD (a non-psychoactive compound found in hemp) could help ease anxiety. One 2018 study found that low doses of CBD administered for seven days alleviated symptoms of both pain and anxiety. In another recent study on CBD, anxiety and sleep, anxiety scores decreased within the first month in nearly 80 per cent of patients who were taking CBD.
However, large-scale trials are needed for more robust evidence. Brotheridge says: ‘The results are promising for CBD and anxiety, but it’s not a miracle cure. It doesn’t address the causes, but could help manage symptoms. I personally take CBD oil daily to help manage PMS.’
If you’ve seen those slightly creepy videos of people on YouTube whispering into their hairbrushes, then you might have experienced ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). Some find it a useful tool for relieving their stress.
‘ASMR is a response where some get “tingles” as a result of hearing sounds such as whispering or a softly spoken voice,’ says Brotheridge. ‘Not everyone finds this – but it’s wonderfully helpful for anxiety if you do.’
A study from Sheffield and Manchester Metropolitan Universities in 2018 found those who felt ASMR brain tingles (which typically start in the scalp and travel down the spine) had a significantly lower heart rate than those who didn’t, which may indicate that they felt more relaxed. With 13 million videos freely available on YouTube, this is one you can easily try at home.