Anxiety management in stressful times - and how to enjoy the holidays without breaking the bank...

Anxiety management in stressful times - and how to enjoy the holidays without breaking the bank...

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues in our community, and it is becoming more prevalent. Whilst we all feel anxious from time to time - for example, when faced with an exam, an interview, a performance, or a new situation - for some of us, the experience of anxiety, in the form of shortness of breath, panic attacks, stomach aches, sleeplessness, intrusive thoughts or phobias, can be overwhelming, and can get in the way of day to day functioning (such as getting out of bed, going to school or work, getting out of the house, talking to people, and so on). This is when you may need to seek professional help.

A serious form of anxiety is OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which many people have heard of, but which is not just about being clean, tidy and organised. It actually involves having many intrusive thoughts and rituals which have to be performed to (briefly) maintain peace of mind. This is an example of young twin girls who struggled with OCD, and who explain how they got better.  For the anxious person, however, seeking help may also provoke anxiety, so I'm aiming here to explain what therapy for anxiety might look like. 

One of the first things to think about, is finding a therapist who is the 'right fit' for you, which means someone you can feel comfortable with, someone who helps you feel at ease, who explains how they work, and provides helpful information.

The most usual treatment for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, which involves learning what anxiety is, identifying triggers and unhelpful thought patterns, and being guided through 'exposure therapy', which means gradually getting used to the 'scary situation' you might usually try to avoid. Whilst it might seem logical to avoid scary situations, because our brain is telling us its unsafe, this is actually unhelpful in the long run. Slowly becoming more used to taking on challenges, like being in a scary situation, is what exposure therapy is all about.

Understanding how the brain contributes to anxiety can be very helpful in overcoming these avoidance patterns. Its also important to know also that anxiety is useful in small doses. Without some anxiety, we would not be very good at doing important activities such as school, work or self care, and this could result in social withdrawal or depression. So therapy wont 'get rid' of anxiety, but it may help you manage it better, and to function in spite of the symptoms. As the saying goes: 'Its not about waiting for the storm to pass, its about learning to dance in the rain'.

So where does art therapy fit in? Working with a therapist to manage anxiety using talking therapy like CBT alone, is not easy. By bringing art into the room, the situation can feel more fun, more relaxing and less confronting. Art therapy is never about making beautiful pictures. We can use art to show our feelings, or to distract us from them. Art therapy can be used to help explore mindfulness with our eyes open, to help us stay calm, and to provide an external focus, so we are less aware of our anxious internal state. 

Its no coincidence that I am writing about anxiety in December, just a couple of weeks before our biggest holiday of the year. It is weirdly also the time we can feel most stressed, even when we are looking forward to time out with family and friends. Not everyone enjoys the lead up to the break, with parents in particular feeling the strain. There may be planning, shopping, organising, cleaning and present-wrapping to be done. So much to do, so little time. There is also added financial stress, with extra food and presents to buy, and expectations of having a perfect holiday can add to the strain...

With this in mind, here is my list of low cost suggestions for things to do in the school holidays:

  • go to the museum, or one of the excellent art galleries in the city, with lots of free exhibitions and kids' activities on offer (APT9 at QAGOMA is my favourite) 
  • go to the botanic gardens (city or Mt Cootha) and take a picnic
  • go to the beach for an early morning swim or afternoon surf, avoiding the heat of the midday sun
  • take your dog to a pet friendly beach for a morning stroll, they will love you for it!
  • make Christmas decorations for the tree, or a wreath for the door, using recycled or natural materials 
  • go to see the enchanted garden at night
  • take the train into the city - it can be less stressful than driving and finding somewhere to park
  • take a walk around your local neighbourhood - go to the markets, to the public library, go op shopping or to the park 
  • go for a bushwalk, and enjoy the cool rainforest environment
  • practise yoga together using a youtube class
  • hang out with friends you are usually too busy to spend time with
  • when it all gets too much, watch a movie together
  • finally - relax, take a deep breath, remind yourself it will be January soon - you've got this!