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What might help when ‘anxious’ and ‘overwhelmed’ feels like the new normal.

Ten minutes! Can I have ten minutes of  your time please?

I get it and I hear you. You are slammed, full, goosed, overwhelmed, overwrought, ‘in the weeds’ and more than just a little bit exhausted. You certainly don’t have time to read, never mind think about or implement, ‘helpful hints and tips’ on how to manage anxiety.

But! If this sounds like you, then you are exactly who needs to read this.

We will make a deal with you, if you read this to the end, then we will make it a seven-minute read. Look, you’ve already gained three minutes!

There is a wealth of information on the Googlesphere and beyond about mental health and anxiety. You’ve probably read much of it before. The irony of sharing mental health information is that when people feel anxious and overwhelmed their brain moves into ‘survival mode’. In this mode the brain has short term focus and prioritises getting through a particular moment/day/week. In this mode the brain is much less likely to prioritise emotional health, which gets parked on the ‘I will deal with that next week’ mental task list. Of course, many of us rarely ever clear the task list for this week, so we build a negative association with ‘mental health information’ because we think we are ‘failing at it’ or that ‘it won’t work for me’. These thoughts contribute to the feelings of anxiety and emotional overload. At the moment, many of us are living in ‘survival mode’.

In therapy, those in emotional struggle are supported to understand and challenge this vicious cycle and the ‘knowledge to action gap’, to enable them to prioritise their mind health and start to move away from ‘knowing’ towards ‘doing’. Of course, this blog is not therapy, but we wonder if our deal could be twofold:

  • to read this to the end, AND
  • if one of the ‘what helps’ tips resonates with you, then you agree to follow it up; thatyou act to do one thing differently. One change.
    Mind health change is often about marginal gains. In doing one thing differently, you can move towards interrupting your vicious cycle.

Anxiety – what it is useful to know?
In our everyday lives we hear the same shared stories, people describing how they feel overwhelmed and anxious. Those who share this experience are our colleagues, our team- mates, our friends, our family members. They are us. The conversation around mental health, and particularly around anxiety, feels more prevalent and louder than it has ever been. Why is this?
Anxiety is a normal human response to threat. Everyone experiences anxiety. It is part of the rich tapestry of emotion that is the normal human experience. We need it to survive, to be alert to threat, thus taking action to move away from harm (both physical and social harm). We experience anxiety through our physical sensations, our thoughts, and emotions. It impacts what we do. For a significant number of people anxiety is experienced with such frequency and/or intensity that it impacts on their ability to engage in what they want and need to do. At the extreme end of the spectrum, anxiety can feel entirely overwhelming and disabling, impacting on all aspects of a person’s life.

Our brains are wired to scan for threat, to be our ‘lookout’ for potential harm. Our brain quickly identifies ‘actual’ threat, but it also creates a whole range scenarios of ‘potential’ threats. This has evolutionary value since, if we can predict potential threat, then we have a chance to mitigate it. Our threat system takes a kind of ‘better-safe-than-sorry’ approach by creating lots of ‘what if….?’ type scenarios. Recent and current events give plenty of material for our brains to forecast threat.

To spice things up and really challenge our evolutionary wiring, the digital world has permeated our everyday existence and is gradually penetrating our interactions, twenty-four hours a day, making our brains’ threat-scanning endless, thus overwhelming our minds: emails; 24-hour news, news apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, product marketing, more emails! Much of the information our brains are bombarded with is threat focussed, thus activating anxiety. During times of social stress, the content on digital platforms become increasingly threat focussed. While there has undoubtedly been huge value in the digital age, psychologically it is not benign. There is a technological and evolutionary gap – our brains response to threat is anxiety and the digital age bombards our brain with threat rich material. It then makes sense why, at a population level, we feel more anxious.

There are a range of factors which can precipitate and perpetuate our experience of anxiety. Over the past few years there have been incredibly difficult social challenges and pressures (the COVID pandemic, war, cost of living crisis, uncertainty about the future of our planet). For many of us, social challenges have had a very personal impact – loss, grief, redundancy or uncertainty around employment, ill-health, isolation, financial worry. If we understand that anxiety is the activation of our ‘threat’ system to help us feel physically and socially safe, it makes sense that there has been an almost population level increase in our experience of anxiety over the past few years. Groups who have been more negatively impacted by these social challenges are more affected. Professionals who work within hospitality are one of these groups. It then makes sense why those in the hospitality sector are more likely to experience anxiety.

One crucial point in understanding why anxiety is more prevalent is that anxiety spreads quickly. This relates back to our brains being wired for threat: when we hear anxiety in others, our brain creates more ‘potential threat’ stories, and we then feel anxious. Have you ever felt calm or content on arrival at your hotel/restaurant/catering venue, but you have walked into a storm of anxiety when the threat systems of colleagues is in overdrive? Have you ever found yourself then getting drawn into their experience and then felt anxious as a result? In hospitality, and every service sector with high levels of face-to-face interactions, we are very good at sharing stories, where the ‘work-relevant and necessary’ morphs into the ‘personal- joyous and gregarious’ to ‘downright-gossip’ and often deeply personal, sometime spiralling into a vicious cycle of others’ self-fulfilling prophecies. This is a very common experience and at a time when there is generally heightened anxiety this becomes an endless loop, where anxiety feeds anxiety.

Act on Anxiety – what can you do?
While it is helpful to understand why you are experiencing increased anxiety, it is more important to think about what you can do to help, when you feel anxious. Psychological science shows us that there are things we can do to help, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Will these actions entirely eradicate your experience of anxiety? No, but they are not meant to, remember anxiety is a normal feeling that is often present for good reason. What these techniques can do is help you surf the waves of anxiety rather than be consumed by them.

1. Notice, name, and normalise your thoughts and feelings

This sounds deceptively simple. Doing this may feel tricky, especially during times of emotional struggle. When you feel difficult emotions, including anxiety, it often feels like you are ‘in it’. It can take up all your energy and headspace. Remember anxiety places us into ‘survival mode’, where our thoughts focus on the short term; however, what is more likely to help us is ‘thriving mode’, where we can access thoughts and actions that help us in the medium to long term. When you notice and name your thoughts and feelings, it helps you make sense of your struggle. In noticing your thoughts, you can notice whether they are helping you or hindering you. You can notice whether your thoughts are harsh (‘I’m an idiot’, ‘I’m failing’) or gentle (‘this is a really tough situation’). This is important because harsh, critical thoughts exacerbate anxiety. Normalising your thoughts and feelings help you view yourself through a more compassionate lens.

In practice this is what it looks like. If you notice tough feelings, then stop what you are doing. Take a deep breath, right into the bottom of your lungs. Do it again, only this time slow your inhale and exhale. Now, keep doing this for about 30 seconds. Now, notice what you are feeling now: ‘I notice that I am feeling ….?’ (Stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, angry). Now notice what you are thinking: ‘I notice that I am thinking …..?’ (‘that I am never going to get all of this done’, ‘that I am not coping’). To normalise it, notice what you would say to a friend who was feeling and thinking the same way you are. It might be something along the lines of ‘I get it, you’re feeling overwhelmed at the moment, it’s tough’ (notice the absence of criticism). Finally, notice what matters most to you now and what can you do that moves towards that.


2. Focus on what is in your control
There are many big challenges and pressures both broadly within society and more specifically, within hospitality. Under these circumstances’ anxiety, emotional overload, fear and stress are pretty much inevitable. It is common for people to get lost in worrying about the big picture things. You cannot control what will happen in the future. You cannot control how systems and government responds to societal challenges. You cannot eliminate difficult thoughts and feelings. What you can control is what you do, now, today. You can control how you treat yourself and the people in your life (friends, colleagues, family members). That matters.

3. Talk to someone you trust
If ever there was a piece of mental health advice that can change one’s life, this is it.
We know that talking can help. It can lessen the weight. It can feel validating. It can help us think differently. The only thing to add to this very sound piece of advice is to try and choose someone who can listen, someone who has the capacity to respond without judgement or criticism. If you are that friend to someone in struggle and they choose to speak with you, they are not expecting you to solve their distress, or to be a mental health expert. What they are likely to value most is a good listening ear, calm acknowledgement, acceptance of who they are, and to treat them with compassion. This response is invaluable.

4. Be aware of using alcohol or drugs to cope with difficult feelings
The well-known instinctive response to anxiety is to ‘fight or flight’. When our thoughts and feelings are overwhelming it is understandable that we look for coping strategies to calm our minds and body, to help us ‘flight’. We can find escape in an unlimited number of ways. Some escape strategies are particularly unhelpful because the difficult thoughts and feelings quickly return, and they create additional difficulties. Using alcohol or drugs to cope with difficult feelings often results in harm in the most important areas of your life including physical and mental health, relationships, and work. This unhelpful coping strategy is particularly relevant in hospitality as, for some, parts of the culture are risk factors for substance misuse (such as shift and weekend work, long hours, sociable environment, easy access to alcohol). If you notice that you might be using alcohol or drugs to cope with difficult feelings, then the first step might be to admit that to yourself. If, in reading this, you have a slight internal nod of acknowledgement, well done, it’s a tough thing to recognise. If this is relevant, then try to be compassionate to yourself. Being very self-critical is unlikely to help you move towards the change. The next step might be to speak with someone you trust, your GP or Alcoholics Anonymous (you can dial 0800 9177 650 or visit their website at


5. Prioritise Sleep
Sleep (quality and quantity) is a key protective factor for good mental and physical wellbeing. It is also one of the things that is easily knocked off when you experience distress. People with significant anxiety often report that the struggle to sleep because of busy minds and racing thoughts. Disturbed sleep is very common and something that it is likely to happen to everyone at some point in their lives. Prolonged sleep disturbance merits attention. There are a number of risk factors which increase the likelihood that someone will develop prolonged sleep disturbance, including: shift work (working before 6am or after 7pm), stress and worry. It makes sense that this is something that might be more common in those who work in hospitality. There is plenty of easily accessible information on developing ‘good sleep hygiene’: websites like the Mental Health Foundation, Mind or the NHS have excellent tips to help improve sleep. There are also apps such as Sleepio, funded by NHS Scotland and developed by sleep experts, which has been extensively evaluated to demonstrate its help.

6. Focus on ‘doing’
When anxiety is very present it can dominate our minds and take us away from doing what matters most to you. Most often, the brains way of staying safe is to retreat, to do less and to worry more. This makes sense in the very short term (to prioritise on surviving), but when anxiety dominates with all the ‘what ifs and maybes’, it is easy to lose sight of doing what matters most to us. In thriving mode, rather than surviving, we notice what we value, and we DO more of that. What we do varies from person to person, what matters most to one person will matter less to another. Some examples might include:

  • Connecting with friends and family
  • Having fun with your children in the park
  • Running a 5k
  • Walking in nature
  • Creating: be that music or crochet, cooking or painting; whatever lightens your heart!
  • Listen to your favourite playlist
  • Supporting a friend through a difficult time.This is value-based living. It is in connecting with what matters most to us and doing these things, so that we can live a rich, full and meaningful life, despite what our minds tell us. It is noticing that we cannot control so much of the big stuff, we cannot entirely quash our worrying minds, but what we can do is live in this present moment connected to what matters most to us. That is important.Planning ahead for the next few days, what is one thing that matters to you that anxiety has got in the way of. What one thing can you do to move towards that?

As you have read, mental wellbeing is a spectrum. The information in this blog is intended for those who are noticing some struggle. If you are someone who finds anxiety so overwhelming that is significantly affecting your everyday life and you are feeling distressed, you can phone NHS 24 on 111.

So, what’s your one thing? Name it,
Write it down,
Do that.

Marco Truffelli GMBPsS, FIH, MI
Dr Jan Ferris
©RESILIRĒ – Psychological Fitness and Resilience

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