How To Handle Anxiety

It's one of the most common mental health issues in Ireland. Here's how to deal with it.


We all get a bit stressed out from time to time, but what if feeling anxious and on edge is your daily default? Here in Ireland it’s estimated that one in nine individuals will suffer a primary anxiety disorder in their lifetime. That can be anything from generalised anxiety disorder to agoraphobia or panic attacks. None of them are pleasant, so what can you do to keep feeling angsty under control?

To beat anxiety you have to first understand it. “It’s a natural physical reaction in the body that is also known as the fight or flight mechanism,” explains Cognitive Psychotherapist Martha Ryan. “It becomes problematic when a person perceives a non-threatening situation as dangerous.” So that’s when a ‘threat’ like public speaking, an awkward social situation or an unfounded fear of something bad happening causes a rush of adrenaline. As a result, increased levels of oxygen are needed throughout the body, making it difficult for you to catch your breath or calm down. In turn, this causes you to feel light-headed, disorientated and panicked.

Left unchecked, anxiety can rule us, spiraling into depression and modifying our behaviour – if we let it. But the good news is that you can learn to overcome your feelings of fear and panic.

“A person needs to be willing to experience the unpleasant physical and emotional discomfort that occurs when they feel anxious,” stresses Martha. “Although this is unpleasant and intense, it’s the only way to learn what’s an actual threat, and what’s a perceived threat.”

By allowing yourself to experience the anxiety you’ll be able to identify that the cause of your fear is only an unsettling thought. Learning that you’re not actually in any danger helps control the feeling of panic. “By using this technique you can start to experience the distress in a graded way, rather than feeling overwhelmed,” explains Martha.

In a panic? Martha recommends that you remain grounded during the experience by focusing on exactly what you’re feeling at each stage. “You might tell yourself something like, ‘in this moment I feel really anxious, but I’m willing to let the anxiety wash over me,’” she suggests. “The more you resist it, the more the anxiety persists, so letting it be is the quickest way for the feeling to pass.” If you fight against the panic you’ll only feel more distressed. Instead, breathe deep and focus on letting it go.

Finally, the third step is to “notice when the anxiety has started to reduce and allow it to continue to pass,” recommends Martha. This’ll allow the feeling to ease.

That said, although there are techniques for managing feelings of panic, anxiety is a very serious disorder and you don’t have to go it alone. “If it’s impacting on your daily life then you should check in with a GP,” says Martha. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), too, can be of great benefit for anxiety and panic attack sufferers as it helps address the root thoughts and ideas that cause our anxiety to spike in the first place, giving you tools for the future.