Anxiety has been part of my life since I was 10 years old. I have had periods of my life that have been riddled with panic and anxiety and have busted my ass to learn how to cope with it. This last week has been one for the books, with a level of anxiety I haven't experienced in years. Yay. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to share with you what anxiety has taught me. First thing, it's important to acknowledge that most people who experience anxiety don't feel like talking about it. If you are not one of these people, you know these people. They walk among us, fighting a secret battle that, amazingly, goes unnoticed by most. Having anxiety is like being terrified for no reason. It's constant thoughts, often irrational, that spin through your head seeming to feed off each other growing into some uncontrollable monster. That monster can rule your life if you let it and cripple you with worries and negative thoughts that leave you feeling helpless, incompetent, and incapable of living your life. Yes, it's dramatic, but that's exactly what anxiety is. It's creating mountains out of mole hills. It's seeing terror in a calm, happy world. It's an unanswered phone call to a friend that tells you that you have no friends. It's a quick hug from your boyfriend that is a sure sign that your relationship is over. It's a distracted hello from your boss that tells you that you are undervalued and shitty at your job. It's a scream within the quiet that no one hears but you. It's an irrational world that, for a period of time, becomes all you see, filtering life through dark, scratched lenses that you can't take off.
People who live with anxiety and panic are warriors, fighting like hell just to catch up to your "normal." The struggle is real and scary and humiliating. Not to mention EXHAUSTING. Your nervous system is on high alert all the time using every ounce of energy you have to keep you in "fight or flight" mode. Rest does not come easy, relaxation is a joke, and not even sleep can escape the thoughts that manifest as nightmares. Alright, I think I've painted a pretty good picture and can now move on to the what-the-hell-do-I-do part.
The first step in overcoming anxiety is to realize that you can't trust your own mind as it is riddled with irrational thoughts. The second step is to calm your nerves in any way you possibly can. Here are some ways to help you accomplish this:
Angie's Anxiety Tool Box
- Make a list. My earliest tool began with a list. I was instructed by a therapist to objectively observe my thoughts by writing them down on paper in one of two columns: "Rational" or "Irrational." This was the first time I was challenged to recognize the difference and acknowledge that my mind could be mistaken. This was such a powerful awareness exercise that taught me which thoughts deserved attention and which thoughts needed to be let go.
- Gain perspective. For the trickier thoughts that you just can't escape, bring in reinforcement. As I mentioned, anxiety has you living in an irrational world where you're fighting to understand what's real and what's not. Sometimes you'll need to open up to someone to ask them to give their perspective. This can help you determine if your worrying is warranted (often it is not) or if you have misperceived the situation. Choose a friend that is supportive, who understands anxiety and communicate to them that you need them to be gentle with you since you'll be in a vulnerable state.
- Sweat. There is no questioning that getting your heart pumping is one of the fastest ways to calm your nerves and relieve anxiety. It absolutely will work and give your body something to do with all that energy coursing through your nervous system. Vigorous exercise is a must during periods of anxiety.
- Breathe. Breathing is like a miracle cure that we often forget to take advantage of. Deepening our breath has a very calming effect and brings our bodies out of "fight or flight" mode and into "rest and repose." Anxiety cannot exist in "rest and repose." Slowly and gently inhale until the breath has filled up the chest and stomach. At the top of the inhale hold for three seconds. Slowly and gently exhale until you need to physically push the air out. Pause for a second and repeat. Playing with other breathing techniques can also be extremely helpful. This is why I love Kundalini Yoga as it's full of weird, dynamic breathing exercises matched with movement that kicks anxiety's ass. Give it a try!
- Eat wisely. Lots of times food can contribute to anxiety, so it's good to eat well and avoid foods that deplete you or that stimulate anxiety. I stay away from caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, and sugar during stressful times. I also take extra care to get nutrients in my body, so more juicing, smoothies, salads, etc. Supporting our bodies with nutrition can greatly decrease symptoms.
- Self-care is not optional. Taking 'time-outs' for yourself is absolutely essential during periods of anxiety. Do things that nurture yourself as your system is taking a beating and you need love more than anything. Get a massage, take a bath, go hiking, go for a walk, do yoga, meditate (guided meditations work best when anxious), talk with a friend, go for a bike ride, jump in the lake (this is soooo helpful), etc. Find something, anything that you enjoy that is good for you. Go out of your way to do this! Plan it into your day and make sure you do it.
- Give yourself permission to shut off. Lots of people make the mistake with anxiety to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to stop the feelings momentarily. I have tried this and it makes things much worse in the long wrong. I would encourage you not to try those things, but to still allow yourself breaks from the feelings through other means. For me this means zoning out to a TV show or movie. Just make sure that you allow yourself time to deal with the feelings, too, but it is helpful to give yourself time to relax.
- Cry. When I'm experiencing extreme anxiety, I usually reach a breaking point. Allow for this to happen as the other side of it is so much better. Find someone nurturing that you can confide in or write in a journal to reach that point where you allow all the feelings to be felt. Yes, it's overwhelming, but it's good to release them. Let the feelings wash over you and embrace your "why me" moment and let go. Cry, scream, whatever it takes. Just let go and love yourself through the process.
- Get hands on. Do mundane chores that require you to be present. For me that means cooking. I have to be aware while chopping veggies and cooking so that I don't hurt myself. This gets me out of my head, which is where the monster is living, and more in touch with the real world. Find things to do that require presence and you will be forced out of your head.
- Serve. Finding ways to give to others is a powerful way to connect to your heart. Experiencing love and compassion can quickly get rid of anxious feelings. Anxiety is often a very isolating feeling making us feel disconnected from the world around us. If we make the choice to push through that to connect to others through service and giving we can eliminate a huge part of the problem.
- Mindfulness. As I mentioned, our thoughts are the biggest problem, so finding ways to get out of your head are a quick way to relieve anxiety. Do what you can to be in your body, which means that you completely absorbed in the present moment and not the thoughts running through your head. A simple mindfulness technique is to concentrate on your five senses. Notice what you are currently hearing, tasting, seeing, feeling, and smelling. Keep bringing yourself back to those things that are happening in that moment. It's incredibly helpful.
The most important part is that you are patient and compassionate with yourself. Continue to find coping mechanisms and people who support you so that you have an arsenal of tools to guide you through the rough times. And always remember that there is an end to those feelings and you will be free of anxiety at some point. Don't let the feelings consume you and continue to nurture yourself through the process. Lots of love and lots of luck and deep, deep breaths.