Many of us have felt anxious at one point in our lives. Whether you’ve felt uneasy about an upcoming exam or were stressed about familial disputes – those of us who have experienced angst know how all-consuming and suffocating the feeling can be. Anxiety can be defined as a feeling of extreme apprehension or stress about upcoming events, or incidents from the past that trigger unease within us. What many people don’t know, however, is that anxiety can come in many shapes and forms and that various scenarios and situations trigger people in different ways, often invoking fear or stress in them.
When having an anxiety attack, for example, not everyone will struggle to breathe or have their hearts race uncontrollably. Some people will feel their thoughts racing around in their minds, with gut-wrenching fear overcoming their entire being. Others may be very restless or become sweaty and struggle to focus on tasks. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all diagnosis of anxiety and there is no single solution to dealing with this state of being. Non-profit mental health advocacy organisation, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), notes that as many as one in six people suffer from anxiety to varying degrees.
Furthermore, in 2018, the South African Stress and Health (SASH) study found that anxiety is one of the most prevalent of mental health disorders faced by South Africans, followed by substance abuse and mood disorders.
I have suffered with anxiety for as long as I can remember, which was largely caused by my being bullied as a child. At primary school, I was often teased because I was fat and wore my hijab (headscarf) from a very young age. Even though I am a now a post-graduate student at university and in my mid-twenties, I often still feel like the shy little girl I once was, being taunted and teased because I didn’t fit the mold of what society deemed as ‘normal’
My feelings of introversion and inadequacy are plain to see.
When lecturers ask my classmates and me to stand and introduce ourselves, I feel my head spinning. My heart thumps in my chest and I can barely speak without stuttering. When I have to present any work in front of my class, before composing myself in the bathroom a minute or two before I’m set to deliver my oral, I always have a mini panic attack and become a fumbling mess, with a vomit-like feeling bubbling in my tummy.
Academic achievement is another cause of the severe stress I have. I often become so anxious about obtaining excellent grades that I find myself hunched in front of my laptop for hours at a time without eating, sleeping, or interacting with any of my family members. Once an assignment has been submitted, I panic about how well I’ll do in the assessment, before gobbling up everything in sight and binge watching any mindless sitcom I can get my hands on. It is an unhealthy pattern that often leads me to neglect my health and wellbeing, but due to my extreme desire to pass my master’s degree exceptionally well, I feel like I constantly have to push myself beyond what my mind is able to withstand in order to maintain my grades.
Recently, I have started having silent moments of meditation, where I simply try quieting down my thoughts while breathing and thanking Allah for continuing to bless and guide me on my journey. These moments of gratitude have truly helped me to center myself, especially when I become overwhelmed with deadlines.
Here are some tips for coping with anxiety:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you feel like you are becoming overwhelmed with anxiety, don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Talk to a friend, family member or even an educator about your angst. If you’re not keen on speaking to someone who knows you, contact SADAG on their toll-free helpline at 0800 456 789 and a counsellor will be on the line to talk to you. You can also find SADAG on all social media platforms. There will always be someone around to help you, so please don’t be shy to reach out.
- Try yoga or silent moments of meditation
Taking a few minutes to do some yoga or to have a quiet moment to yourself to meditate is a great way to relax and to stop yourself from overthinking. Since I started making time for quiet moments of gratitude within my day, I have started feeling less anxious and more appreciative for little moments of beauty that occur within my daily life. Even taking 10-minute walk can be a great way to clear your mind.
- Keep a journal
Journaling is an act of mindfulness. Writing down what you feel can be a great way of helping you make sense of your feelings, and simply writing down a paragraph a day can be very soothing. After a few weeks, go back and read some of your thoughts. You’ll be so surprised at all you’ve overcome, and you’ll certainly be inspired to conquer more mountains!
- Cut down on social media
While social media is a great way of connecting with friends and family, these platforms can often also leave people feeling alone and anxious. If you feel triggered by posts shared on social media, or by comments or debates taking place online, it could be time to take a hiatus from these online platforms. Even simply spending less time online can be a form of mindfulness.
- Try to manage your diet and exercise
Eating healthily and exercising regularly is a great way to keep both your mind and body in good condition. Eating oily and fatty foods can often lead you to feel sluggish and bloated, which will impact your overall mood and disposition about life. Start with drinking more water and eating at least one fruit a day. Making healthier choices about your body will also give you renewed optimism about life.
- Manage your triggers
Life is full of triggers and you may not be able to avoid them all. However, realising that triggers you to feel anxious and then developing appropriate coping mechanisms is a step in the right direction.
- Get medical help
Getting help from a trained healthcare professional is always a good idea when you feel like you’re unable to manage your anxiety on your own. Your doctor may, for example, refer you to a psychologist or prescribe certain medication to you to help you cope with severe anxiety or stress. Let me reiterate, it’s never shameful to reach out and ask for help.
Mental health should not be viewed as a taboo topic of discussion and I love that people are speaking out more and more about how crippling anxiety can be. In the words of Miss South Africa, Shudufhadzo Musida, who is an advocate for mental health, we should normalise speaking about mental health because, ‘it’s okay not to be okay’. We all need a little help sometimes, so never be afraid of reaching out and getting the support you need.
Read about the stigma around mental health here
Tell us: How have you coped with anxiety in your life?