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Anxiety: The Complete Guide (2023)

11 Jan 2022
5 min read

For Mental Health Awareness Week, we explored this year's theme: anxiety and its impact on our mental health. We focused on understanding and managing anxiety while providing support to those around us. Throughout the week, we organised various activities related to anxiety, such as discussions on gut health and eco anxiety, and hosted an insightful webinar by Fergus Ross, an esteemed psychotherapist and counsellor at MYNDUP.

During the webinar, Fergus delved into the complexities of anxiety, sharing valuable insights, tools, and techniques for managing and understanding anxiety in our daily lives.

This blog post summarises the key points discussed by Fergus Ross during the webinar, offering a condensed version of his enlightening talk. If you missed the webinar, keep reading to gain valuable knowledge about managing anxiety. You can also watch the full recording of the webinar on YouTube.

What is anxiety: Understanding the complexities

Anxiety is a common emotion experienced by everyone. However, for many individuals, it can escalate and develop into a significant mental health issue. Anxiety often leads to habitual and conditioned thinking, resulting in overwhelming feelings of panic, worry, and fear. The common thread linking various anxiety conditions is anxious thinking.

Anxiety is one of the major markers in mental health, alongside depression. While depression primarily focuses on the past, anxiety revolves around the present and the future. 

The purpose of anxiety

Anxiety actually serves an important biological purpose—it prepares us to respond to anticipated threats and triggers various reactions, such as caution, alertness, and the ability to warn others. Anxiety is deeply rooted in our primal instincts and operates through the freeze, appease, flight, or fight response. Its ultimate goal is survival, helping us adapt to potential risks. However, although some anxiety is needed, it often manifests as feelings of unease, worry, and fear. By understanding these emotions and origins, we can navigate the impact of anxiety on our lives more effectively.

Where does anxiety come from?

Anxiety and the limbic system 

Anxiety comes from a small part of our brain called the limbic system. This ancient part of our brain controls automatic reactions and releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol when it detects danger. These hormones make us more alert and reactive, kind of like when we have caffeine. The limbic system is part of our autonomic nervous system and works without us thinking about it, and it hasn't really changed much throughout human evolution.

The functions of the limbic system

The limbic system, known as the "three f's" (fear, food, and reproduction), controls these basic parts of our lives. When we feel fear, our body gets a burst of adrenaline and cortisol, which makes us want to run away or get away from what we see as a danger. The limbic system also affects how our body reacts when we think about food and the chance to reproduce.

The biological experience of anxiety

Anxiety affects our bodies in different ways. We might feel our hair standing up, get goosebumps, feel restless, or notice changes in temperature. Our skin might become cold and sweaty, while our vital organs receive more blood, making our hands and feet feel cooler. These physical sensations give us hints about what's going on inside us, and noticing these changes can encourage us to understand why they're happening.

Restoring equilibrium

After anxiety fades away, our bodies slowly go back to a balanced state called equilibrium. During the post-anxiety phase, we might feel a bit shaky as we transition back to a normal state.

What does anxiety cause within us?

Increased vigilance and imagining worst-case scenarios

When anxiety takes over, we become hyper-aware, constantly looking out for potential threats. Even after a perceived threat has passed, the fear of more dangers lingers, making us cautious and on edge. This heightened vigilance often leads to imagining the worst outcomes, blowing potential risks out of proportion.

The challenges of modern anxiety

Anxiety evolved to help us deal with immediate threats and seek safety. However, in our modern world, we encounter constant triggers that provoke anxiety responses. Our evolutionary instincts haven't adapted to the relatively safer environments we now live in, resulting in ongoing anxiety. Long-lasting anxiety can be draining, weakening our immune system and driving us to rely on stimulants like caffeine or nicotine.

Human interaction is crucial in reducing anxiety. Connecting with others who aren't experiencing the same level of anxiety can help us relax and gain perspective. Disrupted sleep patterns, poor sleep quality, and fatigue are all common symptoms of long-term anxiety that can affect our physical and mental well-being.

Impact of anxiety on behaviour

Persistent anxiety affects various aspects of our lives, including our eating habits. Some individuals may experience increased food cravings or engage in excessive eating as a response to anxiety. Additionally, anxiety can hinder our ability to find pleasure in leisure activities, making them feel burdensome rather than enjoyable. Relationships can also suffer due to heightened irritability and impatience caused by anxiety.

Differentiating stress from burnout

Stress and burnout are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct characteristics. Stress can make us feel busy and excited, seeking pleasure and enjoyment. However, if stress becomes chronic and overwhelming, it can lead to burnout. Burnout is characterised by emotional numbness and a loss of joy, where our emotions become dulled, and everything feels indifferent.

One advantage of anxiety compared to other mental health conditions is that we can physically feel its effects. Recognising changes in our bodies can prompt us to take action. In cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), there are key concepts called "delay, distract, and decide" which help us shift our focus from immediate reactions to engaging our logical decision-making abilities in the prefrontal cortex.

Breaking this technique down, delay means pausing before reacting to anxiety, allowing clearer thinking and considering different perspectives. So instead of immediately declining a party invitation due to social anxiety, we can pause and think about the potential benefits of attending. Distract involves shifting attention away from anxious thoughts or sensations by engaging in hobbies, reading, or exercising, which redirects our focus and provides temporary relief from anxiety. Decide means using logical thinking to make rational decisions instead of letting anxiety control us. For example, when facing a fear-inducing risk, we can carefully evaluate potential outcomes before deciding.

Long-term anxiety can significantly impact our well-being, relationships, and overall enjoyment of life. Noticing the signs and understanding the difference between stress and burnout can help us take proactive steps to effectively manage anxiety. Seeking support from others, adopting healthy coping mechanisms, and implementing interventions can also help prevent anxiety from escalating to a state of burnout. Remember, with awareness and appropriate strategies, we can regain control and cultivate a sense of well-being amidst the challenges that anxiety presents.

9 practical strategies for dealing with anxiety

  1. Identify your triggers and take a break: When faced with potential threats or triggers, acknowledge that some situations may be beyond your control. Give yourself a temporary distraction to reassess the situation and gain perspective.
  2. Embrace anxiety and share concerns: Instead of suppressing or denying anxious feelings, accept and embrace them. Recognise that by acknowledging your anxiety, you diminish its power. Share your concerns with trusted individuals to alleviate its impact.
  3. Try breathing techniques and mindfulness: Use breathing exercises like box breathing to redirect your focus to the present moment. Practice mindfulness to reconnect with your body and promote calmness. Engage in debrief sessions after stressful events to process experiences and reduce anxiety.
  4. Engage in physical activity and movement: Physical movement has a positive impact on mental well-being. Take a walk or participate in light exercise to clear your mind and adopt more positive thoughts.
  5. Prioritise restful sleep: Despite stress and anxiety, be mindful of your mental state when preparing for sleep. Accept that excitement and anticipation may affect sleep quality. Acknowledge your emotions and accept temporary restlessness to improve the chances of a good night's sleep.
  6. Increase self-awareness: Understand your own anxiety levels and emotional state. Recognise and accept your genuine feelings instead of conforming to expectations or societal pressures.
  7. Nourish your brain and body: Eat healthy meals even when anxious or stressed to positively impact overall well-being and stabilise stress levels (learn more here)
  8. Explore lifelong learning and build confidence: Continuously learn about your personal triggers and effective coping mechanisms to handle future stressful situations with confidence. Expand your knowledge and acquire new strategies to navigate challenges successfully.
  9. Practice empathy and support others: Be mindful of your reactions when someone around you is experiencing distress. Offer a supportive and non-judgmental space for them to share their feelings. Demonstrate empathy and understanding to create an environment that fosters healing and growth.

Practising self-care in a connected world

In our highly connected world, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and drained by the constant demands of work, social interactions, and the need to always be available. The fear of missing out or letting others down can create paranoia and hinder self-care. Here are some simple ways to take care of yourself and establish healthy boundaries to protect your mental well-being.

  1. Take time for yourself. The idea of being available all the time can be mentally exhausting. It's important to give yourself permission to disconnect and enjoy moments of solitude without the constant pressure to be reachable. Whether it's watching a movie, savouring a meal, or doing something you love, allow yourself to switch off your phone or keep it aside. Rest assured, taking time for yourself won't lead to disaster, even if it feels uncomfortable initially.
  2. Practice switching off. Training yourself to prioritise downtime requires a mental shift. Start by accepting that it's okay to be unavailable during specific periods. Whether you're spending time with loved ones, enjoying solitary activities, or simply relaxing, consciously give yourself permission to be present in the moment. This practice will gradually help you let go of the anxiety of missing out or being needed elsewhere.
  3. Set boundaries. Establishing boundaries is essential for maintaining a healthy work-life balance and protecting your mental health. It's okay to set limits and communicate them to others. By clearly stating your availability and non-availability times, you can reduce the pressure to always be responsive. Setting boundaries will not only benefit you but also help others understand your needs and respect your personal time.

How to support people with anxiety

When interacting with someone who is anxious, it's important to approach the situation with empathy and sensitivity. Instead of dismissing their worries or making things worse, try these simple strategies:

Be curious and caring: Ask open-ended questions to show that you're interested and concerned. Use phrases like "Is there something I can do to help?" or "It seems like something is bothering you. Do you want to talk about it?" This can encourage them to share their feelings and concerns.

Offer support: Provide assistance or a comforting gesture, such as suggesting a cup of tea or lending a listening ear. By acknowledging their struggles and offering support, you create a safe space for them to open up and seek help if they need it.

A note on the role of coaching and counselling

Anxiety is a complex issue that can be looked at from various viewpoints. Coaching and counselling are helpful resources that can support you in achieving your goals and effectively managing anxiety. Difficult childhood experiences and challenging beginnings can make individuals more susceptible to anxiety. Counselling aims to educate and alleviate anxiety-related issues by exploring one's past experiences and their impact on the present. It also helps uncover the root causes of anxiety, allowing individuals to see their fears and anxieties in a less threatening way.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy focuses on challenging and changing anxious thoughts and behaviours. In contrast, an existential or psychodynamic approach delves into the deeper meanings and emotions associated with anxiety. By exploring these perspectives, individuals can gain a comprehensive understanding of their anxiety and develop effective coping strategies.

Gaining insights from the past

Reflecting on the wisdom of influential thinkers can also provide valuable insights into managing anxiety. We don't have to go back thousands of years to ancient philosophers like Marcus Aurelius. Instead, we can draw inspiration from more recent figures like Carl Jung. Jung believed that what we resist persists, offering a different perspective on anxiety. Rather than resisting anxiety, he suggests embracing it, listening to its messages, and deciding whether to accept or let it go.

Finding the right support for you

With various options available, it's important to choose the approach that suits you best. If you're unsure about the most suitable path for your needs, you can reach out to us at, and we’ll happily assist you in finding the right fit.