Here is the full transcript of Olivia Remes’ TEDx talk: How to Cope With Anxiety at TEDxUHasselt conference.
Olivia Remes – University of Cambridge
Imagine that you’re getting ready to go to a party. You feel excited, but also nervous, and you’ve got this feeling in your stomach almost like another heartbeat.
There’s something holding you back, holding you back from getting too happy: “No, you mustn’t get too happy. Better to be cautious, otherwise, something bad might happen.”
You start wondering, “Who should I talk to when I get there? What if no one wants to talk to me? What if they’ll think I’m weird?”
When you arrive at the party, someone comes up to you and starts talking with you, and as this is happening, your mind starts racing, your heart begins pounding, you start sweating, and it feels almost like you’re dissociating from yourself, like it’s an out-of-body experience, and you’re just watching yourself talk “Keep it together,” you say to yourself, but you can’t.
And it’s just getting worse: after a few minutes of conversation, the person you’ve been speaking to leaves, and you feel utterly defeated. This has been happening to you in social situations for a long time. Or imagine every time you go out, and you’re in crowded places, you feel this panic starting to arise.
When you’re surrounded by lots of people, like on a bus, you start to feel hot, nauseous, uneasy, and to prevent this from happening, you start avoiding a lot of places which makes you feel lonely and isolated. You or the person in both of these scenarios have anxiety disorders, and what I can tell you is that anxiety is very common, much more than people think.
Right now, one in 14 people around the world have an anxiety disorder, and each year, it costs over $42 billion to treat this mental health problem. To show you the impact that anxiety has on someone’s life, I will just mention that anxiety can lead to depression, school dropout, suicide. It makes it harder to focus, and to hold down a job, and it can lead to relationship breakdown.
But a lot of people don’t know this. That’s why, a lot of times, people sweep anxiety under the rug as just nerves that you need to get over, as a weakness, but anxiety is so much more than that. A reason why so many people don’t think it’s important is that they don’t know what it is.
Is it your personality? Is it an illness? Is it a normal sensation? What is? That’s why it’s important to differentiate what is normal anxiety from what is an anxiety disorder.
Normal anxiety is an emotion that we all get when we’re in stressful situations. For example, let’s say, you’re out in the woods, and you come face-to-face with a bear. This will probably make you feel a little bit anxious, and you’ll probably want to start running like crazy. This anxious feeling that you get is good because it protects you, it saves you, and it makes you on a hightail it out of there, although maybe it’s not such a good idea to start running when you see a bear.
I really don’t think you can outrun a bear. Anxiety helps us meet our deadlines at work and deal with emergencies in life, but when this anxiety emotion is taken to the extreme and arises in situations which don’t pose a real threat, then that’s when you might have an anxiety disorder.
For example, people with generalized anxiety disorder worry excessively and constantly about everything going on in their lives, and they find it very difficult to control this worry. They also have symptoms like restlessness, fear; they find it hard to fall asleep at night, and they can’t concentrate on tasks.
In spite of whatever kind of anxiety you might be suffering from, there is something that you can do to lower it. It works, and it’s simpler than you may think. All too often, we’re given medication for mental disorders, but it doesn’t always work in the long run. Symptoms often come back, and you’re back to where you started.
So here’s something else to consider: the way you cope or handle things has a direct impact on how much anxiety you’re experiencing, and if you tweak the way you’re coping, then you can lower your anxiety. In our study at the University of Cambridge, we showed that women living in poor areas have a higher risk for anxiety than women living in richer areas.
These results didn’t surprise us, but when we looked closer, we found that women living in poor areas, if they had a particular set of coping resources, they didn’t have anxiety, while women living in poor areas without these coping resources had anxiety.
Other studies showed that people who had faced extreme circumstances, who had faced adversity, been through wars and natural disasters, if they had coping resources, they remained healthy and free of mental disorders, while others, facing the same hardships but without coping skills went on a downward spiral and developed mental disorders.
So what are some of these coping resources, and how can we use them to lower our anxiety? And before I dive into what they are, I’d like to point out – and I think this is so interesting – you can develop these coping resources or coping skills on your own through the things that you do; you can take charge of your anxiety and lower it, which I think is so empowering.
Today I’ll be talking about three coping resources, and the first one is feeling like you’re in control of your life. People who feel like they’re more in control of their life have better mental health.
If you feel like you’re lacking in control in life, then research shows that you should engage in experiences that give you greater control. I’ll show you what I mean: do you sometimes find that you put off starting something because you just don’t feel ready enough? Do you find it hard to make decisions like what to wear, what to eat who to date, which job to take up? Do you tend to waste a lot of time deciding what you might do while nothing gets done?
A way to overcome indecision and this lack of control in life, is to do it badly. There’s a quote by writer and poet GK Chesterton that says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time.” The reason why this works so well is that it speeds up your decision-making and catapults you straight into action. Otherwise, you can spend hours deciding how you should go about doing something or what you should do. This can be paralyzing and can make you afraid to even begin.
All too often, we aim for perfection, but never end up doing anything because the standards that we set for ourselves are too high, they’re intimidating, which stresses us out. So we delay starting something, or we might even abandon the whole thing altogether. Do it badly frees you up to take action.
I mean you know how it is: so often, we want to do something perfectly we can’t start until it’s the perfect time, until we’ve got all the skills, but this can be daunting and stressful. So why not just jump into it, just do it however, without worrying if it’s good or bad? This will make it that much easier to start something and as you’re doing it badly to finish it, and when you look back, you’ll realize, more often than not, that actually it’s not that bad.
A close friend of mine who has anxiety started using this motto, and this is what she said, “When I started using this motto, my life transformed. I found I could complete tasks in much shorter time periods than before. Do it badly gave me wings to take risks, to try something differently, and to have way more fun during the whole process. It took the anxiety out of everything and replaced it with excitement.”
So do it badly, and you can improve as you go along. I’d like to ask you to think about this: if you start using this motto today, how would your life change?
The second coping strategy is to forgive yourself, and this is very powerful if you use it. People with anxiety think a lot about what they’re doing wrong, their worries, and how bad they’re feeling. Imagine if you had a friend who constantly pointed out everything you’re doing wrong, and everything that was wrong with your life. You would probably want to get rid of this person right away, wouldn’t you?
Well, people with anxiety do this to themselves all day long. They’re not kind to themselves. So maybe it’s time to start being kinder with ourselves, time to start supporting ourselves, and a way to do this is to forgive yourself for any mistakes you think you might have made just a few moments ago, to mistakes made in the past.
If you had a panic attack and are embarrassed about it, forgive yourself; if you wanted to talk to someone, but couldn’t muster up the courage to do so, don’t worry about it, let it go; forgive yourself for anything and everything and this will give you greater compassion towards yourself.
You can’t begin to heal until you do this. And last but not least, having a purpose and meaning in life is a very important coping mechanism. Whatever we do in life, whatever work we produce, however much money we make, we cannot be fully happy until we know that someone else needs us, that someone else depends on our accomplishments, or on the love that we have to share.
It’s not that we need other people’s good words to keep going in life, but if we don’t do something with someone else in mind, then we’re at much higher risk for poor mental health. The famous neurologist Dr Victor Frankel said, “For people who think there’s nothing to live for and nothing more to expect from life, the question is getting these people to realize that life is still expecting something from them.”
Doing something with someone else in mind can carry you through the toughest times. You’ll know the why for your existence and will be able to bear almost any how; almost any how.
So the question is do you do at least one thing with someone else in mind? This could be volunteering, or it could be sharing this knowledge that you gained today with other people, especially those who need it most, and these are often the people who don’t have money for therapy, and they’re usually the ones with the highest rates of anxiety disorders. Give it to them, share with others, because it can really improve your mental health.
So I would like to conclude with this: another way you can do something with someone else in mind is finishing work that might benefit future generations. Even if these people will never realize what you’ve done for them, it doesn’t matter, because you will know, and this will make you realize the uniqueness and importance of your life.