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It’s said that the thought of public speaking is more anxiety inducing than the fear of dying.

Around eight years ago I was invited to my first major speaking engagement, to deliver the plenary keynote at a GP conference being held interstate.

Having prepared for weeks and driven my family mad relentlessly practising the speech, I found myself sitting alone in a hotel room, my mind racing, questioning my sanity why I had thought speaking on stage in front of 500 of my peers could ever have been a good idea.

Not only that I had obviously eaten something dodgy on the plane because my guts had turned to water and I could barely leave the bathroom.

I had a choice.
I could turn tail and head home with my tail between my legs or seek a way to overcome the terrible anxiety that had taken over control of my body and my mind.

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by anxiety?

Feeling anxious is common, especially if it relates to an event that holds deep meaning for us such as:

  • Your wedding day – will the weather hold out? Will your friends enjoy the day? Is this the right thing to do?
  • Passing those dastardly exams, you might have studied hard (or maybe you didn’t) but exam anxiety is very common even amongst those who everyone else knows will blitz the paper.
  • Fitting in with our colleagues, we stress over whether we’re doing a good enough job, we’re concerned about our future and whether our job/relationship/health will last.

We worry a lot.

While it’s normal to feel anxious about those things that are new, different and we’re not fully confident about, there’s a big difference between regular anxiety and being overly anxious, paralysed with fear.

The problem is anxiety is running rampant in our society.
And it’s getting worse.

The challenge we face is how to be more effective in managing the impact this has on our cognition and mental health.

While depression is the leading cause of ill-health and disability affecting 300 million people worldwide, anxiety comes in at a close second affecting 260 million people. Some unfortunate souls experience both.

It’s been estimated the global cost to the economy of this is running at one trillion dollars.

And that just relates to those who have sought help. There are many more who are afraid to speak up, afraid of the associated stigma and concern that ‘coming out’ will impact their future career or job prospects.

Almost without exception, every time I am invited to speak at a conference or facilitate a workshop, I will have several conversations afterwards with individuals who confide just how difficult anxiety is making their lives, or worried family members at their wits end to know how to help their loved ones.

What is going on?

Why are we so prone to anxiety and what can be done to minimise our risk and alleviate symptoms, especially in the workplace?

The predominant impact that anxiety has on us relates to the physical discomfort of the accompanying symptoms, dry mouth, sweating, rapid heartbeat, palpitations and gut disturbance.

The cognitive impact is it becomes increasingly difficult to tap into the part of the brain associated with logic, analysis and reasoning. As the limbic system heats up over time our ability to down regulate those negative thoughts and behaviours is diminished until we reach the tipping point leading to the so-called amygdala hijack resulting in the loss of conscious control over how we think and feel.

What matters is having a variety of strategies in place to:

a. Minimise the risk of developing anxiety

b. Reduce the severity of the symptoms being experienced to aid a more rapid recovery.

1. Stop pushing so hard

Putting in enough time, energy and effort required to do our work well is one thing but if the expectations we place on ourselves or that others impose on us are too high, this leads to rising levels of stress which if allowed to continue become the norm lead to overwhelm and exhaustion.

2. Take a brain break

We are not designed for long-term focus. We work to our best when we take regular brain breaks in between our different tasks and this keeps stress levels down.

A brain break is just as it sounds – a break from our focus to press pause and relax. This provides the brain the breathing space it needs to restore and refresh and enables the subconscious to get on making sense of what we have learned and develop new insights.

That’s why a brain break looks like, getting out of the office for 10-15 minutes, taking time out for a conversation with a colleague, taking a meal break or drinking some water.
It doesn’t mean jumping onto our social media platforms to update our status!

Taking time out for several brain breaks across your day isn’t being lazy it’s good brain hygiene to keep your brain healthy and stress levels down.

3. Get enough sleep

The deadly duo of anxiety and sleep disturbance feed each other.
Anxiety leads to sleep disturbance and our fatigue aggravates anxiety.
This is where checking on sleep hygiene practices and avoiding bedtime procrastination are a must. Try relaxing in a warm bath, switching off from ALL technology an hour before bed and reading a light fiction book to help prepare you for sleep.

4. Keep a grip on perspective

As stress levels rise the size of our challenges can appear to grow exponentially. What was a minor worry at breakfast has morphed into a gigantic monster by teatime – if we let it.
It’s time to press pause and ask – what IS really happening here?

Finding clarity helps you to identify what needs to happen next. It improves how you interpret and understand what is being asked of you.

This is where having a workplace buddy, a trusted friend or confidante can help you to challenge those negative and self-limited beliefs and reconnect you with your strengths.

5. Expose yourself to positivity germs

Anxiety partners with low mood, making everything feel hard. We forget that above those dark storm clouds, the blue sky is still there. This is where practising an attitude of gratitude, doing some exercise, spending time in a green space, hanging out with some friends, or listening to your favourite music can help.

Feelings, no matter how intense and unpleasant are temporary. Seeking to elevate your mood restores optimism and reduces anxiety.

6. Be mindful

This is a reminder to notice what’s happening around you, to sense how others are feeling and responding. Whether you undertake a formal mindful meditation practice, choose to breathe, or practice paying attention to the here and now, it’s about reducing our noisy mind chatter that’s constantly directing us to our future plans or past concerns.

7. Lighten Up

You may not feel like a rib-cracking chortle, but sharing a joke, finding the humour in a funny video clip, is the first step to reducing some of the heavy burdens of anxiety.

8. Build strong interpersonal relationships

When times are tough, it’s those we care about, who love us that can make the biggest difference. Nurturing positive relationships is THE most effective way to build greater resilience to stress and anxiety.

Anxiety is normal. It’s part of the full spectrum of emotion we experience.
A little anxiety helps us to prepare to be the better version of ourselves.
Like most things, it’s about ensuring we don’t let a good thing turn into bad by ensuring we always stay in full conscious control.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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