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Sunday, 15 April 2018 | MYT 8:00 AM

Sunny Side Up: 3 ways to rob anxiety of its power over you

Did you know that four in every 10 Malaysians will experience some form of mental ill-health in their lifetime? That adds up to 12 million people – and the number is likely to rise.

The startling figure was reported in The Star and, more worryingly, a medical specialist here suggested that many people still see emotional problems as a weakness.

This week, I received a message from one reader who asked for suggestions on how to effectively cope with anxiety – a condition that affects one in 13 people worldwide. In severe forms, anxiety can cause headaches, muscle tension and sleep deprivation. It can also spark panic attacks, which in turn increase the anxiety of having future attacks.

Conditions such as anxiety are indiscriminate: whether you’re wealthy or not, physically strong or weaker, high-status or otherwise, our external conditions tend to play an insignificant role in our mental well-being. Indeed, newspapers have told countless stories of celebrities – people who seem to have it all – revealing their struggles with depression, anxiety and stress.

One of the challenges when it comes to suffering from anxiety is the tendency for people to ignore the problem and pretend everything’s fine, or that the issue is no big deal. As consultant psychiatrist at International Medical University Dr Philip George told The Star, a particular issue in Asian culture is that people find it difficult to talk about their emotions, and so problems continue to fester.

When we suppress how we feel, it can seem like we’re dealing with whatever ailments are troubling us. However, suppressing anxiety only strengthens the condition and it will find ways to manifest itself if we don’t take steps to process it. Advice such as taking regular exercise, getting enough sleep, meditating and so on are great ways to reduce the symptoms of anxiety – but these methods might not be suitable for everyone, depending on their circumstances. There is no one-size-fits-all fix, and so having alternatives can help ease the suffering that anxiety can bring.

As someone who has experienced social anxiety, I can empathise with how tough it can be to deal with feelings that often don’t seem to have any reason behind them. Although we realise intellectually there’s no threat in, say, socialising or talking to others in a group, the feelings of nervousness and tension arise regardless. After a while, it can be seriously draining.

To help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, I’d like to share three ways that I’ve used that have been helpful. The anxiety might not go away completely – it’s a natural emotion we all experience – but there are steps we can take that can help to lessen its potency.

Write and keep a daily journal of how you feel: Sometimes, it’s tough to articulate your feelings to others. Keeping a journal (which is for your eyes only) gives you the freedom to write whatever you like, whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed.

One tip I’d share is to write every day and also include days when you’ve had positive experiences. These entries will serve as a reminder that, even if you add up all your worst days, you’re stronger than all of them combined and are still standing. They also help to remind you that there’s a lot of joy and happiness in life.

Listen to upbeat music or watch some comedy: Several studies have suggested that listening to music can affect our moods and help us to experience more positive emotions. My favourite go-to music when I feel anxious includes The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder.

Listening to comedy also works well, as laughter produces feel-good hormones and relaxes tension. Check out one-liner kings Milton Jones and Stewart Francis for some light-hearted relief.

Confide in a friend – or seek professional help if necessary: This is easier said than done. Having said that, calling out how we feel to a trusted friend robs anxiety of its power – it’s no longer able to hide when we shine a light on and normalise it. There is no shame in having emotional problems – Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr all suffered from mental ill-health.

The key in improving your situation lies in expressing your feelings rather than bottling them up. If the anxiety is particularly strong, or you find it difficult to talk to a friend, therapy sessions can be helpful as they provide a safe and confidential space to process challenging emotions, thoughts and feelings.

It’s encouraging to see several organisations in Malaysia doing a lot to raise awareness and reduce the stigma and effects of mental ill-health. We can all play our part by being a little more open with ourselves and others and having conversations that not only benefit those who feel isolated but also strengthen the connections between families and friends in the home and across the wider community.