Getting to Know Our Mental Health Series – Part 3
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Taking back control
Okay, I know it’s been a long summer. But cast your mind back to the last issue of TYV. We talked about some of the science behind mental health – in particular, anxiety, worry and stress. Remember the fight, flight, freeze response? That rush of adrenaline that’s oh so useful if faced with a grizzly bear, but not so useful when you have an exam in 4 weeks? Well, this issue we’re going to talk about what to do when that adrenaline kicks in and your heart begins to race. So, if starting a new school, facing new responsibilities, or meeting new people is making your palms sweaty, hopefully these tips will help you to regain your calm and composure.
What happens when we feel anxious or stressed?
Anxiety, worry and stress can manifest themselves in many different ways. Just as we’re all unique, our responses to stressful situations are also varied. But if you’ve ever experienced these feelings, you might recognise some of these symptoms:
- Muscle aches
- A fast or irregular heartbeat
- Shaking or trembling
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Feeling sick
- Being unable to ‘think straight’, concentrate or make decisions
For anyone who has ever experienced anxiety, you’ll know how terrible these symptoms can be. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations and panic attacks can actually make you feel your body is giving up on you. It’s scary and overwhelming, and the majority of us just wouldn’t know how to deal with these intense and confusing feelings.
The first thing to remember is that these responses are completely normal, so we shouldn’t be alarmed by them. But what practical steps can we take to help us get through these moments of stress?
It’s really important to talk about any stresses you’re experiencing as soon as they come up. Bottling up your feelings will only lead to trouble later on. Imagine a bottle of Coke being handed round your circle of friends. If you all give it a little shake and pass it along, by the time the 10th person opens the lid, you’ll all be covered in a shower of fizz! But, if each person gives the bottle a shake and then gently loosens the lid, the pressure escapes, little by little. The same applies to you; if you don’t talk, there’s nowhere for that pressure to be released.
Try mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness is a great technique that allows you to focus on ‘the moment’, rather than being swallowed up by worrying about what’s to come. Mindfulness training teaches you to be aware of whatever you’re doing – whether this is simply sitting in a quiet room becoming aware of your body and breathing, or outside on a beach walk, noticing every detail around you. Meditation also helps to cleanse the mind – but don’t be tempted to try to ‘shut out’ thoughts; simply allow them to come into your mind and float away, and focus once again on your breathing. To help you out, check out the apps ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’ to guide you through some relaxation.
If you feel yourself becoming panicked with thoughts racing, heartbeat quickening and breathing becoming difficult, calm yourself down with the following breathing exercise:
- Sit with your feet flat on the floor and back straight.
- Close your eyes and ask people around you to step away and give you space.
- Place your hands on your stomach.
- Breathe in for 5 or 7 counts (count out loud or in your head).
- As you breathe in, notice your stomach moving up underneath your hands.
- Breathe out through your mouth for 5 to 10 counts, and notice your stomach moving down underneath your hands.
- Try to focus on counting and your stomach and hands, and repeat until you feel your breathing start to calm.
Talk yourself round
Sometimes our heads really can spin! Our brains have a really tricky way of leading us on a downward spiral of negative thoughts. Show your head who’s boss with some clever talk. Ask yourself questions such as:
- What’s the worst that can happen?
- Is it really as bad as I think it is?
- What would I tell my friend to do in this situation?
- Will this matter (or will I feel like this) in 5 minutes? 5 hours? 5 days? 5 weeks? 5 months? 5 years?
- Where’s the positive in this situation?
Once you start challenging those thoughts that are sending you into a downward spin, you’ll begin to get some much-needed perspective.
And finally, remember that you’re not alone. There’s always someone who can help. Friends, family, people at school are all there for one thing – you! So use them! There’s also a whole world of advice and help available online. YouTube is awash with really good guided meditation videos and breathing exercises.
So give it a go, and take charge of your head!