Brain

15 Jun 2017

80. OVERCOMING ANXIETY

Leadership can be a roller-coaster ride of emotions – from the highs of celebration to the lows of anxiety and disappointment. When the latter become chronic and prolonged it can have a serious impact on your mental health.

Words: Dr Ian Martin, Cognacity Wellbeing LLP

Stress is par for the course in modern-day management, but understanding and recognising how it is affecting you, physically and mentally, and learning to manage it can have a considerable impact on your ability to cope and sustain your performance over time.

Stress can be acute or chronic and, as humans, we are hardwired to cope effectively with the former through what we call the ‘fight or flight response’. This causes a sharpening of the senses, an increased speed of response, the mobilisation of energy through the release of glucose, and increases in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing.

If this short-term response is contained and proportionate it can be channelled into improving performance. Hence we hear elite sportspeople talk of the need to be ‘nervous’ or ‘primed’ to produce their best. But when stress becomes chronic it can lead to fatigue, burn-out and eventually mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

TIPPING OVER

Anxiety is a subjective feeling of extreme worry, resulting in an inability to relax and physical tension in the body, and an anxious person often experiences marked stress symptoms, all of which can have a detrimental effect on their performance.

We all worry in different situations, but what separates unhelpful anxiety from ‘normal’ worry is its impact on functioning and its chronicity. As well as feeling the physical effects of stress, an anxious person might show psychological symptoms, such as a loss of interest or enthusiasm, a more cynical or critical approach to training and performance, reduced motivation, avoidance and increased distractibility.

These symptoms can all impair our decision-making and reduce our enjoyment of training and competition. When anxious we are also liable to misinterpret challenging situations, seeing them more as a threat than an opportunity.

Thankfully, there are a number of psychological techniques that can be used to contain anxiety, the best approach often being to work with an experienced psychologist. They will use psychological strategies, such as cognitive behavioural or resilience training, which aim to help you stay focused under pressure, keep the stress in proportion to the situation, and recover effectively from periods of high stress. Relaxation exercises, mindfulness and distraction techniques can also be effective.

DEEP IMPACT

As well as causing anxiety, chronic stress can trigger depression, which can have a serious impact on physical and mental wellbeing. Other factors influencing someone’s susceptibility to depression include major life events, such as bereavement or the loss of a job, a family history of depression or a history of misusing drugs or alcohol. Physical illness, injury and social isolation can also play a part.

There are important differences between clinical depression and feeling low from time to time. Depression is significantly more serious and is characterised in part by its pervasiveness and its impact on our physical and mental health. It requires urgent attention.

The effects of depression on mind and body are also far greater, resulting in a disturbance in daily functioning, including impairment of sleep, appetite, energy, sex drive, motivation and concentration. It can also have an impact on immunity, resulting in increased vulnerability to infection.

With depression come persistent negative feelings, sometimes in the form of helplessness or hopelessness.  You may lose confidence and see your surroundings in a very bleak light and, in its most negative form, depression can distort your thinking to the point of utter futility. This can result in suicidal thinking, which requires urgent evaluation and treatment.

You might lose the capacity to derive enjoyment from anything and some individuals begin to use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to alleviate their symptoms. The fatigue, exhaustion and disengagement that go hand in hand with depression can have an enormous impact on performance, reducing your commitment to training, diminishing concentration and focus, and affecting decision-making in a negative way.

LIGHT IN THE TUNNEL

Depression is a potentially life threatening condition and any suspicion that you or a colleague, friend or family member are suffering from the symptoms requires urgent attention.

However, with the right support, it is possible to turn things around and get your life back on track. Start by talking to someone, whether it be a friend or family member, your GP or a mental health professional. They will assess you, provide advice and start treatment if necessary. This might be medical treatment, such as the prescription of antidepressants, mood stabilisers or antipsychotics, or use a range of non-medical approaches, everything from CBT and art therapy to complementary and alternative therapies.