This Is Anxiety
By: Naté Allen
Before I was diagnosed, I hated how I was feeling. Hate is a strong word, I know. But that’s genuinely how I felt.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was going on, but I knew it wasn’t right. I was always tense. Panicking for no reason. Constant pit in my stomach. Anticipating bad things. Expecting to fail. Isolating. I had convinced myself that happiness didn’t exist.
I later found out that I suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which snowballed into many other issues that we’ll touch on in another blog post.
My diagnosis was confusing and embarrassing, but after a while, I embraced it. Learning more about my body’s response to certain things made me more accepting of who I was. I became more compassionate with myself, and was able to develop a toolbox of coping mechanisms to use when I wasn’t feeling my best.
My goal in this post is to share the insight I’ve gained in hopes of increasing awareness about anxiety disorders and sending a message to my fellow anxiety warriors… its ok to not be ok. Hopefully the coping mechanisms I share below can help someone in need of relief. I’m certainly no mental health professional, but since I’ve gone through it, I feel obligated to at least share my thoughts.
So, what exactly is anxiety?
Anxiety is your body’s response to something stressful. It’s a sense of fear, apprehension, or nervousness for something that is about to happen or that could happen. We’ve all experienced some form of anxiety in our lives. Have you ever gotten a queasy stomach waiting in line for a roller coaster? Had stage-fright before a speech or performance? Been nervous on a first date? Then you’ve experienced anxiety. This type of anxiety is uncomfortable, but it’s actually normal. It comes and goes and doesn’t negatively affect your daily life.
An anxiety disorder is a bit different. It involves having a fear so intense that it cripples you. An all-encompassing sense of worry and impending doom. It can affect your tasks, relationships, and your self-esteem. It can make you avoid things you usually enjoy, and many times, the feeling stays with you for hours, days, or even weeks. Some anxiety symptoms are triggered by specific things, but others are unexplained. There are many different types of anxiety, including but not limited to panic disorder, social anxiety, phobias, separation anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and generalized anxiety disorder.
I’m sure my fellow anxiety warriors can agree, just because you embrace anxiety doesn’t mean other folks will. I’ve gotten some of the most interesting comments and opinions about anxiety, to which I kindly listen and educate if need be. Anxiety, along with most other mental disorders are so stigmatized that we tend to avoid discussing them. Because of this, some of us remain unaware of how to empathize with someone struggling with anxiety.
Here are a few common misconceptions:
Anxiety is not a real medical condition. This is so far from the truth. Besides the fact that anxiety disorders are classified as such in the DSM-IV and also listed as the most common mental health disorders in the country, anxiety disorders can also lead to serious medical conditions including depression, self-harm, and addiction.
People with anxiety are weak. Actually we’re incredibly strong. We muster up the strength everyday to deal with an affliction that most “normal” people don’t have to encounter. We fight incredibly hard to live stable lives despite a disorder that makes it nearly impossible to do so.
People with anxiety should just have a drink. This is the worst thing you can suggest to someone with anxiety. For starters, alcohol can actually increase anxiety, and when the alcohol wears off, well, you’re basically worse off than when you started. The most obvious reason that alcohol isn’t the best solution is because overuse of these substances can lead to worse problems such as addiction and poor decision making.
People who have anxiety attacks are just being dramatic. An anxiety attack is a very real and very physical thing. The experience is different for each individual, but for me… it feels like an elephant is on my chest, I can barely breathe, my body is overheating, and I’m really scared. I sometimes feel anxious about the anxiety attack itself, which makes it worse. When I don’t know what’s making me anxious, I get even more anxious, and yeah… it’s a fairly painful cycle. I would never choose to feel this way, so it’s safe to say that it’s pretty real.
Here are some coping strategies that have helped me through it:
1. Breathe. With heightened anxiety comes heightened heart rate. Deep, focused breathing helps to moderate your heart rate and calm you down. I typically breath in for a six count, hold for a six count, and release the breath for a four count.
2. Stay grounded. In the midst of heightened anxiety, it helps to remain grounded. A great way to do this is to acknowledge the five senses. Ask yourself: what are five things I can see? What are four things I can hear? What are three things I can touch? What are two things I can smell? What is one thing I can taste? All of a sudden, you’re more present and gradually more calm.
3. Exercise. Exercising produces endorphins (our brain’s natural feel-good transmitters) which elevates mood, relieves tension, and causes us to sleep better (which in turn decreases stress). Feeling anxious? Run around the block a few times… you’ll feel so much better.
4. Practice yoga. Yoga is extremely calming and self-soothing. It provides a quiet space to reconnect the body, soul and mind. It’s an opportunity for us to let go of our worries and come back to our breath. If you’re in Chicago, check out our in-house yoga class.
5. Reframe your thoughts. Whenever a worry or negative thought enters your mind, acknowledge it for what it is—a thought. Don’t fight the thought. Thank your brain for providing the thought and kindly send it on its way. It helps to think of something that moves, like a cloud or leaves floating along a river. Place that negative thought on a leaf and let it float away. You could also challenge your thoughts by asking “what is the likelihood of this happening?” “Is this a rational thought?”
6. Journal. Even if you don’t know exactly what to write, jotting down whatever comes to mind is a great way to organize your thoughts and clear brain fog.
7. Talk to a therapist. It may seem strange to talk to someone you don’t know about your problems, but having a neutral sounding board, especially someone who is professionally trained to assist you, can be incredibly beneficial. Getting things off your chest can feel like a huge burden has been lifted. Sometimes, we just need to talk it out..
8. If you need to leave, leave. If you find yourself in a situation or environment that triggers your anxiety, its more than ok to excuse yourself.
Do you have a friend or family member who struggles with anxiety? It may feel frustrating trying to help him or her because you may not know exactly how to help. The best thing you can do for your anxious loved-one is ask “what do you need?” This puts the ball in their court to tell you exactly how you can help. Even if they don’t know what to ask for, the empathy from you will help tremendously.
To my fellow anxiety warriors… I want you to know that you are NOT alone. I’m so proud of you for your bravery and perseverance. To the friends and loved ones of those dealing with anxiety, thank you for your love and support. I appreciate you reading this blog in an effort to learn more. If you feel comfortable sharing your personal experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to leave comments and questions below.
Peace & Love,