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Aliffian arief

Feeling Anxious? Here’s One Tool to Manage Your Thoughts

Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health conditions in Australia, impacting 3.3 million of us. Feelings of nervousness and worry without the ability to calm down, feeling tired easily, having difficulty concentrating or sleeping, and muscle tension are all common symptoms of anxiety. Because of the way these manifest – developing over time – it can be hard to know exactly when to seek support.

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Image: Nik Shuliahin

There are several types of anxiety disorders, the most common being Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or social anxiety disorder. These issues can be assessed by a health or mental health care professional (doctor, psychologist, psychiatrist). Doctors often use the ‘K10’, an evidence-based psychological screening tool designed to identify adults with significant levels of psychological distress.  The K10 is comprised of ten questions that assess your emotional, behavioural and physiological experiences, including nervousness, agitation, fatigue and low mood, in the previous four weeks. If moderate to high levels of psychological distress is present, this can indicate that you have an anxiety or depressive problem or disorder. The next steps can be to refer you to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist for a more thorough diagnostic assessment and treatment.

Anxiety is often called the ‘What If?’ disorder because it is a response to the anticipation of threat. Those with diagnosed Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) or other anxiety-based symptoms tend to think in the ‘What If?’. For instance:

  • Everything is fine now, but what if something changes?
  • I love this person, but what if they don’t love me?
  • I’m doing good work, but what if my boss doesn’t think so?

Instead of focussing on the present and on the current facts, anxiety can lead us down a path of constant worry and wreak havoc on our daily lives.

Anxiety’s trick is to make you focus on the future instead of the present. Although this can be helpful at times to help you prepare for actual threats or challenges, it can be also be dysfunctional when you worry about things that are not in your control, you worry about circumstances that are unlikely to occur, and when worry has a negative impact on the rest of your life. Worrying about the future means that you are missing out on the joy that is in the present.

If your anxious thoughts are getting in the way of your day-to-day activities, it may be time to seek support from a professional. There are tools and tips that qualified therapists can support you with to help you focus on the present and diminish anxious thoughts (see our favourite, below). If that doesn’t work for you, your healthcare professional may be able to prescribe medication to help keep anxious worry at bay.

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Image: Fernando @cferdophotography

EXERCISE: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR is an exercise that involves systematically tensing and then relaxing the muscles in your body. By tensing your muscles and then relaxing them, you learn what tension feels like and also how to let it go. This exercise will take you through simple steps to relax your muscles, one-by-one, in a way that also brings your awareness back into your own body and your mind back to the present. Used to regulate your emotions and shut off a racing mind, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) can be a great tool to help reduce your overall stress and anxiety and even help you calm your mind so you can fall asleep! If tensing your muscles causes pain, you can try doing a release-only version of this technique.You can guide yourself through this exercise or you may want to be guided by an instructor, there are may progressive muscle relaxation exercises available on apps like Insight Timer or Spotify. For self-guided instructions, just follow these steps below:

  1. Start seated or lying down, in comfortable clothing. Remember to take your time, and take a deep breath all the way down into your abdomen.
  2. Work your way up through your body, focussing on the muscles in your toes, feel, calves, thighs and glutes, then stomach, chest, arms, hands and fingers, then neck, jaw, and face.
  3. With each muscle group tense your muscles by contracting or squeezing them tightly (don’t tense your muscles if you feel pain or have an injury–in this case, you can just do the release part of the exercise for this muscle group).
  4. Hold the tension for 5-10 seconds and pay attention to how this feels.
  5. Then release all the tension from your muscles and notice how this feels.
  6. After 10 seconds, move on to the next muscle group.

About the Author: Tammi Miller is a certified practising counsellor, founder of BARE Therapy, and author of Paperback Therapy: Therapist-approved tools and advice for mastering your mental health. The Sydney-based professional is a Provisional Member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, and received her training at the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP) in 2020.