In last week’s email I talked about some of the benefits I’ve experienced from my own meditation practice and one of those things was the effect it has had on my anxiety. Sending out that email made me realize that I haven’t talked much about anxiety in the whole time I’ve been keeping this blog. Since anxiety can be a huge factor in whether someone is able to move forward on their health or life goals and it’s something I personally have dealt with, I thought it might be a good time to talk about some other things that might be helpful if you are suffering from anxiety – because let’s be honest . . .there are more of us that are dealing with anxiety in some form or another than aren’t. Today I’m going to share 6 things I do that have given me more power over my anxiety (and I’ll share some about my struggle too). I hope some of these help you!
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting about 18% of the adult population. And that’s only those who have actually been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (and not including those under 18). I’ve had anxiety for years, and while I’m managing it very well these days, there have been times when it has been a major issue in my life and felt completely out of control. Long term anxiety and stress can lead to many health problems, so it’s really important to find ways to manage it if you suffer from it (even if you don’t have goals that it’s getting in the way of).
Despite how common it is, I’ve been a little shy about sharing my struggle with it in the public sphere (even though I’ve been very frank with my weight & emotional eating history), probably because there is still a big social stigma surrounding mental health. Today I’m going to share because I’m in a place where my anxiety is pretty well managed (by some of the tools I’ll talk about today), I want others to know that they aren’t alone and I want others to see that even people who you think have their shit together, have probably struggled with things that you would never suspect. (Don’t worry, I don’t think anyone thinks I have my shit together. Just kidding, I have my shit together . . . it’s in a pile over there, but it’s still shit. Haha.) I also think anxiety ties in easily with the to the emotional eating world – the two often go hand in hand.
My Anxiety Story
To give you a little background about my anxiety . . .I have a type of medical anxiety that is called “health worries”. It started shortly after my Mom died in 2001 (though if I’m honest, I’ve always been squeamish about medical stuff – it just snowballed after 2001). I remember lying in bed feeling like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. At the time, I was living pretty “hard” (lots of partying, bad food, crazy hours) and I remember thinking constantly that I was having a heart attack or that something else was seriously wrong with my body. As the years went on, that fear around my health got worse. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure in my early 20’s and had to go through a bunch of tests over several months. The doctor was worried that my kidneys and heart were damaged from possibly having high blood pressure for years. Having to have all those tests when I was already scared about health stuff really put my anxiety in overdrive (thankfully those tests showed everything was ok) and there have been times when I was completely paralyzed by my anxiety. Every doctor appointment, test or even a random pain or sensation in my body that was abnormal for me could send me into a multiple day panic attack. I have had difficulty discerning when a pain or a feeling I have in my body is something that needs immediate attention or is nothing to worry about. And of course, with my anxiety, I’m terrified of going to the doctors (what if they find something terminal?) and also of what happens if I don’t go (what if it is something terrible and I’m ignoring it?). You can see how that loop can be hard to get out of during an episode.
Quality of Life Issue
That’s the cliff notes version of how my crazy anxiety works (which is more than you probably want to know I’m sure). A doctor once said to me, when I said I wasn’t ready to get help for it, that people only get help when their quality of life is compromised to a point that they feel is no longer acceptable. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time but several years ago I finally reached a point where I understood what she was talking about. The amount of mental and emotional energy I was using just to get by most days was completely exhausting. I went to therapy for it, and have also done a ton of work on my own since then. I still have occasional anxious days that pop up but nothing that would stop me in my tracks for days like I used to. I have tools now that I use to halt the progression of my anxiety. They help me keep perspective, stay calm and grounded and I’m so glad I have them. I would never want to go back to feeling the way I used to (feeling out of control, smothered and vibraty all at the same time).
While my health anxiety manifests a little differently than other generalized anxiety disorders, the techniques I use to manage it are similar to those used with generalized anxiety – and can be very effective! Try some of these and let me know if they help you at all!
6 Things You Can Do To Have More Power Over Anxiety
The first thing to go for me when I’m in the midst of anxiety is to stop exercising, usually because I’m so wrapped up in my fear that I become paralyzed but in reality, exercise is the best way to release some of the stress around the issue, get some feel good endorphins going again and concentrate your energy in a healthy way. It helps get your mind off of whatever you are worried about or at least gives you something to focus on other than the feelings your anxiety gives you. When my anxiety creeps in these days, I make sure to stick to my regular exercise schedule and doing that usually shortens the duration of my anxiety. It doesn’t have to be something huge, even going for a short walk or a 15 minute yoga session at home can enough. Getting in touch with your body and out of your mind for a bit can be immensely helpful.
2. Tell someone about it.
This is something I didn’t see the value in until I was in therapy for my anxiety (which seems crazy to me now!). I used to actually keep all my worries and fears inside – part of me felt like my fears would get worse or be realized if I actually shared them with anyone. But when I did finally share with my husband or a friend that something was on my mind, not only did I feel a huge sense of relief but it also allayed the extra anxiety that comes from thinking you are acting like a big weirdo during the attack (since they now knew the reason if I was acting like a weirdo). Sharing your worries, fears and anxieties with someone you trust can help you realize how much we build stuff up in our heads (to a huge deal) and it may seem like way less of a deal when you say it outloud. I find I’m much more likely to think rationally after talking about something with another person. Hearing their thoughts can be helpful too because they can be more objective. Hearing from someone who cares about you that the situation you are having anxiety about isn’t very likely to happen can make you feel world’s better. And if the situation is something that is legitimately likely to happen, these people who care about you can also be the ones who support you and help you get through it. Totally helpful either way!
Journal! Free form or be specific. Just get it all out – say as much as you need to and I recommend good old pen and paper over typing/computer. When I’m dealing with my medical anxiety, I find writing especially helpful. There have been times when I felt completely paralyzed by my own thoughts and fears around my health. One tactic that has been very helpful to use during a panic attack is to write a journal entry about it.
For me, it goes something like this: What am I feeling? I write down what I’m feeling at that exact moment (for me it’s usually a pain or sensation somewhere in my body). What do I think it is? I write about what I’m worried what it could be. Next I ask myself to get into my rational brain for a minute with What it is more likely to be? (odds are it’s just constipation or just my body being run down etc), and then I come up with a rational action plan. What and when will I do about it? For me, it might be something like “if this pain gets worse or lasts longer than 3 days, I’ll go to the doctor”.
Once I put it all down on paper I feel some relief just sheerly out of being able to express what I’m feeling, but also having an action plan written out, helps me to relax. Sometimes my anxiety brain can’t understand when something is worth investigating and when it’s best to wait and writing helps me make sense of it all. It’s like I get stuck in a loop but writing halts that loop from continuing.
For general panic / anxiety, your questions and answers might look a little different – maybe something more like this (but please customize to what makes sense for your type of worries):
1. What am I feeling? (physical sensations, thoughts, feelings)
2. What am I having anxiety about? or What do I think I might be anxious about?
3. Do I actually have any real evidence that this is likely to be/ happen? If so, what?
4. What specifically can I do to feel more in control in this situation? And when will I take those actions?
Writing in a question / answer format might not feel right for your particular type of anxiety – I know for some folks, anxiety is a vague feeling of fear or worry (or just something not being right) – so writing about specific worries and action plans may not be possible. I’d still encourage you to write in a freeform style – to get all your thoughts and sensations on paper. Take some deep breaths and read it over when you are done. For many people just putting the thoughts down somewhere can be enough to take us down a notch!
Doing this will be hard at first – in fact you may not remember to even do it! But if you keep it in the back of your mind as a tool to try the next time you are freaking out you may be surprised by how much it can help. I find this one especially to be cumulative. The more I’ve resorted to it, the faster it brings me back to normal.
4. Become aware of your thoughts and make the decision to change them.
Okay this one deserves a blog post on it’s own because it takes a lot of practice but to be as brief as possible, know this – ultimately, we’re in control of the thoughts that happen in our brains. I know it may not seem like it (and holy shit it doesn’t feel like it when you’re lost in anxiety land!), but we are the ones coming up with thoughts (good or bad) and those thoughts that make us feel a certain way (anxiety, happiness, jealousy etc). The problem is, most of the time we’re not aware how ingrained these thoughts are in our brains. They’re so ingrained that it becomes an automatic response to a situation. This makes it very difficult to change it (unless you are willing to notice and call yourself out on it, repeatedly).
To become more aware of your thoughts, next time you feel anxious, I want you to try to recall (write it down) what thoughts made you feel that way. You may not be aware of the conscious thought at first – but it will become more apparent the more you give your brain this task to do. If you don’t want to wait until you’re anxious to do some of this type of thought work, try it the next time you find yourself feeling down or irritated – work backwards from that feeling and try to find the originating thought that made you feel that way. This kind of work helps us become more aware, which is the starter step for changing your response.
The good news is that once you are aware that you’re the one in control of your thoughts, that you’re the voice inside you that is thinking those things, you can work at managing and changing those thoughts. For me, in the past this meant when an anxious feeling or thought came up that normally would send me into a tailspin, my old way of thinking was to go along with the thought (because our brains like to do what’s easy – and that’s easy) and build on it, look for evidence of it being true, which would increase stressful anxious feelings very quickly. My current response when an anxious feeling or thought comes up is to notice it, pause, say to myself “I’m not going to give that thought any power over me right now.” A statement like that is powerful because it interrupts the natural evidence building process that goes on with anxious thoughts. I actually feel almost instant relief now when I feel anxious and I halt the thoughts in this way. It feels incredible to have some control over your brain.
It probably won’t work the first time you use it and the first few times you try to reroute your brain you might find that it halts the thought temporarily and then it comes back, but try a powerful statement again (even if you have to go at it a different way), and again, and eventually you’ll find it will have more staying power. You are literally retraining your brain how to think in these situations. It may help to practice changing your thoughts in less volatile situations at first – instead of trying it for the first time during an anxiety attack, try it when you have self-doubt about a situation at work or self-judgement about your body. Becoming skilled at managing your thoughts can be helpful in so many areas of our lives! (I will be sure to talk more about managing our thoughts in another blog post – because this is a huge subject and it is something that takes lots of practice!)
5. Watch what you put (or don’t put) into your body.
I know you knew this one was coming. 🙂 If you’re a naturally anxious person, then it’s super important to pay attention to how different foods, drinks and other substances affect you – items in each of these categories can increase or decrease anxiety in certain people. Sugar (including carbohydrates from refined grain products), alcohol and caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety, especially in high quantities or in those who are very sensitive. Anxiety can also be a symptom of a food sensitivity or intolerance (and one way to determine that is through an elimination diet). Low blood sugar can set off anxiety (if this sounds like you, you may want to keep balanced snacks of protein, fat and fiber on hand). I know I’m far more anxious if I’ve drank more alcohol than I should (especially the day after) or if I reach for a 3rd cup of coffee. Know yourself and what you can tolerate.
Many supplements are touted to be beneficial for anxiety sufferers, including magnesium, valerian root, kava, chamomile, fish oil and several of the b vitamins – if you have any medical conditions or are on any medications it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking supplements (especially if you’re thinking about taking more than one). And lastly, a whole foods diet rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and light on heavily processed foods is one way you can support your body from your toes, all the way to your head. Is a whole foods diet going to cure your anxiety? No, I’m not saying that, but if you give your body great nutrition, it’s better equipped to support you in every way, including mental health.
I’ve already talked in previous posts about meditation being so helpful for anxiety – but in particular, to me, quiet time with deep and slow controlled breathing is one of the best things you can do during a panic attack or even during less acute anxiety. A few minutes of slow diaphragmatic breaths will slow down your heart beat, reduce your blood pressure, relax muscles and the intake of fresh oxygen with stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which will help you feel more calm.
Unfortunately, breathing is one of the hardest things to do when we’re freaking out isn’t it?! We take shallow breaths which makes us feel like we can’t get enough air in, we’re breathing too fast or we have difficulty exhaling fully, all of which increases feelings of panic. If you feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen, it’s hard to think rationally or about anything else so in order to slow the anxiety down, first you have to slow your breathing down.
To slow yourself down, try this breathing exercise: sit down in a quiet place and breathe in fully and slowly for a count of 4 seconds, hold the breath for 4 seconds (if this is prudent for your body – it may not be if you have any heart or respiratory conditions) and then exhale for 4 seconds. To make sure you are breathing from your diaphragm, put one hand on your belly when you inhale. Your belly should expand on the inhale and retract on the exhale. If you are breathing from your chest alone (too shallow) your belly won’t rise. Try breathe deeper into your body and try again. Do anywhere from 4 – 10 of these slow breaths and go back to your normal breath if you find you start to get dizzy.
Don’t be surprised if you feel sleepy and relaxed after!
Well that’s all for today. I hope some of these tips can help you if this is something you are going through. I know they’ve made a world of difference in my life.
One last note of importance, please, if you have been suffering from anxiety and aren’t having any luck reducing it on your own, please consider speaking with your doctor or a mental health professional for help. You don’t have to go through it alone and there are many resources available to increase the quality of your life.
If you have anxiety, what are your favorite tools or tricks for managing it? Please share in the comments below.
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Thanks for sharing your story, Andrea, and for the great tips on how to overcome anxiety.