10 Healthy Habits for Preventing Clinical Anxiety

Everyone worries about something sometimes. But some people feel anxious all of the time. Ms Tan Ming Chin, Counselling Psychologist, Clarity Singapore, explains the difference between normal and clinical anxiety, and how to keep the latter at bay.

The Singapore Mental Health Study initiated in 2016 by Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Ministry of Health (MOH) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) revealed that one in seven persons in Singapore has a lifetime prevalence of a mental disorder. One in 62 persons would develop generalised anxiety disorder, and that is only one of the many subtypes of anxiety disorders identified so far. Ms Tan shared that it is also not uncommon to see clients carry severe anxiety symptoms, though diagnosed with another condition.

“Clinical anxiety manifests easily, for infinite reasons,” said Ms Tan. “It is important to acknowledge that anxiety is a normal state of emotion. In life, we will all have anxious moments. However, regular anxiety is fleeting while clinical anxiety can persist for days, months and even years, in varying intensities.”

Persistent worrying, finding it difficult to relax, and constantly fearing that ‘something bad’ will happen, are among the common indicators of clinical anxiety.

Ms Tan emphasises the fact that clinical anxiety does not discriminate. It can afflict anyone, including highly successful and intelligent leaders and articulate young people with apparently bright futures. They may or may not have family members who have been diagnosed with mental disorders.

“If you develop pathological traits of distress, it is important to remember that it is never your fault,” said Ms Tan. “At times it does feel like life can push us dangerously close to the edge. However, the good news is that you can actively build better ‘mental immunity’. It does not mean that you will never falter, but rather than you will recover faster.”

Here are 10 healthy habits, handpicked by Ms Tan and practised by therapists themselves. Try them. You’ve got nothing to lose but your nagging feelings of anxiety!

1. Daily Gratitude Exercise
Count 10 things you are thankful for in your life. You do not have to have unique items every day, just 10 things you are grateful for at any given moment. The opposite of gratitude is not ingratitude but forgetfulness. Gratitude keeps us present. Gratitude is good energy and good energy attracts good energy, which leads to better outcomes than focusing on negativity.

2. Practise Self-Honesty
Denying unacceptable or negative thoughts and emotions can make you feel worse. Practise vocalising them to yourself and notice how that feels. Even when your most raw thoughts and emotions may not represent reality or logic, acknowledge them anyway. You do not have to agree with them; you just need to acknowledge them.

Brad Blanton, an American psychologist and best-selling author of ‘Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life by Telling the Truth’ wrote: “We learn to ‘act nice’ and deny that we are angry, and we make ourselves sick in the process of denial. This is one of the main areas in which something we can’t tell the truth about ruins our lives.”

3. Get a Move On
Every day, run for at least one minute or do 10 jumping jacks. Cardio exercises stimulate the production of endorphins, which studies have shown can reduce stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Endorphins are a chemical in your body that interacts with your brain to desensitise pain. This is a small goal that is eminently attainable. (Small goals every day create less dread and higher compliance than large, daunting goals.)

4. Find Positive Anchors
Anything that gives you good vibes is a positive anchor. It could be an activity, an object, or even a YouTube channel. It does not need to be your all-time favourite thing to do, or even wildly enjoyable – just mildly enjoyable. Many simple pleasures add up to abundant collective positive energy. Remember that the anchors should be purely positive.

5. Disarm Auto-Pilot
Consistency is great – it gives us a sense of control in stressful situations. However, you should change things up a little for at least a few minutes a day, just to get your body to tune into the present. When you are not present for a long time, you can become disassociated from your sensations and emotions. Subsequently, when stress builds up you may fail to detect the telltale signs. This can lead to a buildup and eventual mental breakdown.

6. Set Boundaries
Will your work go away if you keep overworking to clear it? Or will you create a new equilibrium of a consistently heavy workload? That said, Ms Tan does not discourage clients from working during their weekends and days off. However, she sets these golden rules:
• Limit working to a designated time slot.
• Work only if it reduces your stress
– for example, by anticipating and preparing for a heavy workload, or managing a backlog.
• Ensure that this is an exception and does not become the norm.

7. Guard Quality Sleep Time
If you need to, upgrade to a better mattress or pillow. But more importantly, try to keep your mind ‘free’ during designated sleep time. If worrying thoughts invade, stop them with these steps:
• Visually represent the thoughts with a mental image. For example, picture them as fish swimming underwater in front of your eyes.
• Characterise their movements to mirror how your thoughts are ‘swimming’ in your mind.
• Say the word ‘STOP!’ and notice how the fish dart out of your sight. Say it softly or say it loudly, just make sure you say it firmly.
That said, thought-stopping is not a solution to persistent worry. You should see a psychotherapist if anxiety persists.

8. Good Vibes Only
Listening to malicious gossip or reading negative content on a regular basis can erode your mental resilience. You should cut out toxic people and digital content that leaves you feeling inadequate or unhappy. If you cannot cut them out completely, reduce your contact or draw boundaries to limit your exposure. (The first thing you may want to do after reading this article is to curate your social media feeds!)

9. Notice More, ‘Interpret’ Less
One condition of clinical anxiety is the unhealthy habit of ‘fortune-telling’ and ‘mind-reading’ – predicting bad outcomes and what-ifs, and arbitrarily making negative conclusions about what others are thinking of you. First, acknowledge how you have fallen into these two ‘thinking traps’ in the past. Then, catch yourself when you start drawing conclusions on meagre or no evidence. Notice moments in life that create the urge to ‘interpret’, and just let them flow around you. Do not try to argue with the thoughts if they only get stronger.

10. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Be forgiving with yourself. It is normal for humans to make mistakes. (Imagine how little we would learn if we never made a mistake in our lives!) Set a quota to make at least three mistakes every day. You are sure to hit it. Often, the more we worry about mistakes, the more we invite mistakes. A common driver of self-inflicted stress is the thought that, “If I were harder on myself, I could prevent myself from making mistakes.” The culture of ‘beating ourselves up’ has deceived us into believing that lowering our self-esteem will increase self-efficacy.

Ms Tan encourages us to check ourselves by counting how many healthy habits we are currently practising in our daily lives.“Remember to embody the message of ‘cutting yourself some slack’ while practising these habits. If you have not managed to practise any of them in the past week, simply move on. Never feel bad about doing something, or not doing something!” said Ms Tan.

For better motivation, Ms Tan suggests forming accountability groups with friends, family members or your partner. Check in with one another every week and share your positive anchors.

Think positively and take active steps towards building your mental immunity against clinical anxiety.

This article is taken from our My Alvernia Magazine Issue #45. Click here to read the issue on our website.