Alex Staniforth is a record-breaking adventurer, Everest avalanche survivor, author, mental health charity founder and an expert on resilience through adversity. In this blog for Mental Health Awareness Week, Alex discusses how to overcome your anxiety when trying to cope with the unknown.
Adventure and anxiety aren’t an obvious combination. The concept of voluntarily going into an unfamiliar and uncertain environment, full of risk and potential danger, is enough to paralyse most of us with fear.
Our need for certainty is entirely natural and helps us to feel safe from threats. However, some uncertainty in life is inevitable. Feeling anxious sometimes is entirely normal and can motivate us to work harder or solve challenges. Even keynote speakers still feel nervous before going up on stage. Absence of fear usually means complacency.
The problem is when this anxiety becomes chronic and starts to affect our daily lives and functioning, when it may be defined as an anxiety disorder instead. Anxiety can affect anyone with physical and psychological symptoms. Personally, I have suffered with periods of anxiety since childhood, particularly health anxiety and symptoms such as panic attacks.
Adventure challenges and outdoor sports have been key to managing this. I’ve been fortunate to go on 4 mountaineering expeditions to the Himalayas, where you are dealing with so many unknowns – the weather, health, logistics, politics, natural disasters, and the list is by no means exhaustive. By definition, adventure is “an unusual and exciting or daring experience”. After all, if everything goes perfectly to plan, it’s a tour holiday – not an adventure! Adventure has helped me to build a toolkit for dealing with uncertainty much closer to home, where the potential consequences are usually less dramatic.
In 2016, I joined an expedition to climb Cho Oyu, the 6th highest peak in the world, at 8,201 metres altitude. We didn’t even know whether the strict Chinese government would grant us access to Tibet in the first place. Before arriving at Advanced Base Camp, I was suffering badly with altitude sickness and low oxygen levels, and was rushed down to a lower altitude in the back of a Jeep to try and recover. All I could do was wait – I had no idea what was going to happen next.
Lying alone and sick in my tent, my thoughts rapidly began to spiral. I assumed I was going to be sent home. What if I get worse? How will I get to hospital? What if I fail? My dream of climbing Everest was over. What will people think? What will I do now?
Sound familiar? Catastrophising is imagining the worst possible outcome in a scenario. For you, this could be as major as a health diagnosis or losing a job, to humiliating ourselves or failing an exam. So, how do we deal with the unknown?
The first step is to acknowledge these thoughts with curiosity and let them move through us. Telling yourself to stop being anxious when you’re anxious is like telling yourself to sleep when you have insomnia. It doesn’t work. Where did these thoughts come from? What evidence do we have to back them up? What purpose are they serving?
Focus on what you can control
Most of your time at Base Camp is sat waiting around for a weather window to allow progress up the mountain. Whilst stuck in my tent, all I could control was keeping myself hydrated, eating and resting as much as possible, because stress wasn’t going to help my recovery either. Keeping a positive mindset is key for a positive outcome – if you think you can’t, you probably won’t.
Watch out for confirmation bias
This is a tendency to search for, or interpret, information that supports our existing beliefs – i.e. ‘I’m not very good at altitude’ or ‘I’m not very good at my job’. This can warp our perception of a real versus potential threat, and so we start to look for evidence to support this belief, whether true or not. When feeling overwhelmed about a big decision, I tend to write down a bullet point list of potential outcomes, which helps me to rationalise these beliefs and discover other possible outcomes.
Anxiety is in the future, depression is in the past. Mindfulness allows us to focus on what’s going well in the present moment. When anxious thoughts begin to paralyse us, we all need our own ways of getting back in the present. Going for a run, getting outside and listening to birdsong, cooking dinner, calling a friend, or listening to a podcast are great ways to focus our attention in the moment. These activities might not be realistic in the office or a busy working day – but simple breathing exercises can take just one minute and calm the autonomous nervous system: which often gets fired into overdrive during anxiety, causing the racing heart rate, shallow breathing, shaky palms and feeling on edge. There are plenty of free apps to help, such as Breathwrk.
(N.B. holding your breath isn’t recommended at 6,000 metres where the oxygen level is already half that of sea level!)
The law of impermanence
Within 2 weeks of being ill, against the odds I had fully recovered and was joining the rest of the team on the summit push from Camp 2. In the mountains, a lot can change in a day, a week, or even an hour. You often experience all four seasons in a matter of hours. When running the National Three Peaks in 2020, my mantra was “this too shall pass”. How I felt in the moment didn’t dictate how I’d feel later that day or the day after. It can’t possibly rain every single day (not even in the Lake District).
Don’t overlook the importance of small everyday habits. We’re much better able to manage stress after a quality night sleep (aim for minimum 7 hours), daily exercise and regular meals. Consuming caffeine when already anxious is like throwing petrol on the fire and cutting out just one cup a day can make a difference. The paradox is that anxiety can often undermine sleep, so scheduling the grounding activities above to wind down in the evening should help too.
It’s important to note that if your anxiety is having a major impact on your life and becoming difficult to manage independently, please consider seeking professional help or therapy such as ACT or CBT. Anxiety is a very real condition, just like a physical condition, that can be treated. You’re not alone. For more resources on getting help, please visit Anxiety UK for helpful resources and advice.
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