Anxiety sucks. Let’s get this straight. Anxiety may have been an extremely important survival and evolution tool, namely to run away from predators with giant fangs and even bigger appetites.
If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety attack, however, you know that they will seldom be directly connected to lions approaching you on the plains. More likely, you are overwhelmed and spinning out of control because your brain is throwing worst case scenarios at you over something that may seem trivial, like your partner not answering the phone, your landlord leaving a message on your answering machine, or some minor car trouble.
If you are like me, anxiety is your closest daily companion, which isn’t a good thing.
My anxiety can be so all encompassing that I can hardly make a decision without running through all the worst case scenarios in my head. I don’t even have to get the process started, my brain is so wired for it that it will automatically start the movie, plonk me in the chair, and force feed me the images, without even bothering to get me some popcorn.
At my worst, it locks me in the house unable to go out because surely all my worst case scenarios are right there, waiting to happen.
I will share more of how I came to be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and what brought my anxiety to light and made it a prominent figure in my life, but today I want to share some strategies that help me when I am starting to feel overwhelmed and I can tell an anxiety attack is coming.
1 – Breathe
Big woop, right? Breathing is my super secret? It’s no secret that controlled breathing is proven to reduce anxiety, however most people don’t really practice good breathing. I can always tell an anxiety attack is coming because my breathing becomes shallower. I am no longer in the present and I can’t control my breathing. The first thing I need to do, and I really do need to do it, is sit down, and take some deep breaths. Once I’ve done that, I move on to the next level: deep inhale, hold my breath for 4 seconds, and a slow exhale. I do that 4-5 times and I get a bit of clarity.
It’s actually a lot harder than it sounds, especially when your mind is racing. But believe me, it works.
2 – Get a mantra
This sounds a little hippie-dippy, I know, and the first time I encountered this kind of strategy, I was rolling my eyes at my therapist (very healthy!). She wanted me to find a mantra to talk myself down from an anxiety attack. At the time I was experiencing such violent panic attacks that I had trouble leaving the house, so I figured I’d try anything, what the hell. I was so desperate to get back to some degree of normalcy that I would have waltzed naked on the street if somebody had told me it would help.
One day I was driving and I got overwhelmed by a sense of panic so strong I had to pull over to ensure I calmed down before I endangered myself and/or others. The self help mantras I had been researching all sounded so ridiculous, so wishy-washy, and so unhelpful, so I was unable to claim any of them as my own.
In my time of need however, my mantra came to me. It’s the simplest thing. I just say to myself “Do this” as a way to force myself in the present, to return to the task at hand. That day, it was breathing, and then driving. Often, I find myself saying out loud “Do this” when I am cooking, or making a cup of tea. My mind wanders and often lands on an anxious train of thought, so I have to redirect it to the task at hand. I just do what I am doing, mindfully, and the anxiety train leaves without me on it.
3- Practice Yoga
You don’t need to twist yourself into a pretzel, attend a fashionable hot yoga class or don expensive trendy leggings to reap the health benefits of a yoga practice.
I used to do yoga several times a week in a great local center. It turns out that practicing yoga with other people was not the right way for me. I have a hard time not comparing myself to others, and there is always somebody more flexible, skinnier, better looking, less sweaty, and more successful at it. That’s right, I was trying to be the best at yoga. Let the stupidity of that sink in for a minute.
Now I do yoga in my living room, wearing whatever I am comfortable wearing. I use mainly two resources: Yoga with Adriene and Yoga TX. Both have Youtube channels full of free content for all skill levels and targeting different body complaints, moods, and needs.
A daily practice of even 15 minutes helps. As I write this, I haven’t done yoga in over a week and my anxiety levels are rising daily.
It’s pretty hard to force yourself on the mat when you are about to have an anxiety attack, so try to get into a daily yoga practice first thing in the morning, and you will reap the benefits.
4- Discover mindfulness and meditation
Let me be frank: I am not built for meditation. You know how sometimes you meet people and you can just tell that they eat a lot of whole foods, do yoga 2 hours a day and meditate all the time? Yeah, that’s not me.
Meditation is hard work for me. I resist it, I take it up and then abandon it all the time, I mock it, then I swear by it, then I leave it again.
Still, when I do it regularly for a few days, I become a different person: calmer, less prone to catastrophising, even happier. So why can’t I stick to it? That’s a question for my saint of a therapist.
Don’t be like me, because mindfulness and meditation are clinically proven to help. Think of them as workouts for your brain. Every day it will get a little better, but you have to do it every day.
I have two app subscriptions, one to Headspace and one to Calm.com. You can check them both out for free for a few days to find out which one calls to you, which voice you like best, and which seems to help more.
Both apps have a SOS session, with breathing exercises and quick meditations that can really help in a pinch.
5 – Watch TV that makes you laugh
This may seem a little strange. I know, TV is bad, it’s the devil and nobody should watch it. Or something. I don’t really care for that assessment, I watch a ton of tv and I turned out fine (she says, in the middle of her post about crippling anxiety!).
If I can’t magic my way out of an anxiety attack using any of the strategies (long and short term ones) above, I plonk myself in front of the TV and watch “Modern Family”.
Modern Family is one of my favourite all time shows: I can quote it, play-act it, and probably tell you 8 seasons of synopsis without missing a beat (yet I remember ZERO algebra….). Why is it my pick to calm me down when anxiety or panic are overtaking me?
Nothing really bad ever happens in Modern Family. It’s a show about a big family, they’re all goofy in their own way, they all love each other, and they get into silly situations that are generally resolved within the 20 minutes of each episode. What’s there not to like for an anxious brain? I watch, I laugh, and in about half an hour I feel a lot better.
Find a goofy show, a silly show, one with no violence or mind games, and designate it as your sober driver. When you are drunk on worst case scenario, ask it to drive you home.
6 – Do something with your hands
Have you ever heard that old saying “Idle hands are the devil’s playground?”
I like to think that idle hands are anxiety’s playground. If I am not doing anything, I am more likely to follow my brain down the wrong kind of rabbit hole.
If I feel my anxiety levels rising, or if I start panicking about something I don’t need to be panicking about (that’s likely 99.9% of the things that you will ever think about by the way, I hope that number comforts you), I try to kick myself into doing something with my hands: my choices are baking, knitting, cooking, cleaning, tidying up, even using those colouring books for adults that are all over the place now.
Find something you like doing with your hands, and try it.
These are my strategies: I’ve developed them over the last couple of years, and they help me cope and live with anxiety.
Anxiety is not a disease you can get rid of, in fact it’s not a disease at all. It’s something we all experience to varying degrees at different times in our lives. For some people, anxiety can becomes a serious issue, and then it needs to be tackled, and managed.
I was ashamed of my anxiety for a long time, but now I am learning to accept this most awkward companion, and to manage it so that I have fewer anxiety and panic attacks. It doesn’t work all the time, and every day is different: it can be a daily struggle or a daily exercise, depending on how I choose to see it.
Do you live with anxiety? Have you found any strategies that help you cope? Please share in the comments!