Turns out… I’ve had anxiety my entire life. I had no idea I had it- but it was always there; creeping around my head and swirling through my body like a ghost that was actually scared of itself. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I realized the stampede of questions, fears, and scenarios that lived inside my head wasn’t normal.
As a therapist, I get a lot of people asking me to help them get rid of their own anxiety. However, I don’t think it’s something we necessarily get rid of. I still have anxiety. I just learned how to cope with it better. I uncovered the ghost creeping around my head and stopped letting it hide in places in my body that it didn’t belong, like my shaking leg, and my racing heart.
Anxiety is real, and it can be prettttttty damn terrifying. I refer to it often as the “fancy word for fear.” You see, anxiety is something that is built when we consistently try to control something that isn’t ours to control. Whether it is a situation, feeling, relationship, or judgment- anxiety is the voice that says we need to be in charge- when really it isn’t any of our bussiness. This really bums me out because none of us need to be solving problems that aren’t ours- we have too much other shit to take care of. Anxiety is our “control freak” sensor. And while we may not be able to fully rid ourselves of fear of what we cannot control we can learn how to live full lives through it.
So, lucky for all of you control freaks… I’ve created a beginners guide to copying with anxiety.. and I made it kind of simple… mainly because it is.
- Breathe. Deep long breaths. Think about drawing a box with your breath as you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and then breathe out for 4 seconds. Your breath is a crucial part in regulating your body in about a million ways. Breath can slow you down, speed you up, calm you, and freak you out. When I worked as an adventure therapist we would do this exercise where clients climb (harnessed in) to the top of a telephone pole and stand on a block about 1 square foot in size. When people get to the top nerves and anxiety hit like a freight train and fear sirens start going off. What is interesting is that they are completely safe. If they fall… they will be immediately caught by the person in control of the belay below them- AKA they are trying to control a scenario that they are not in control of. This usually creates short breath patterns and their whole bodies shake, which then shakes the pole. However, as soon as they start breathing slower, everything becomes still. Like really, everything stops moving. CRAZYYYY. Slow breathing is your way of telling your body, “I’m ok.”
- Move. When you are having an anxiety attack, or a full blown panic attack, part of what is happening is a disconnection between your brain and your body. Think about the last time you almost got in a car accident. Right after it happened, you probably tensed up, maybe got a little tingly, and then the feeling passed and you moved on because your eyes see that nothing happened and you’re safe. When you are having an anxiety attack you don’t get the signal that your car didn’t get hit. So to signal that to yourself you need to force your body to realize it’s ok… AKA move. Additionally, when you go through the threat response of freezing in a state of fear your body will release stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. When that happens, rather than holding things in and shoving that energy into spaces it doesn’t belong in your body (which just causes you more stress)- it is more helpful to get that energy out- literally do some jumping jacks, shake your arms and legs, hop up the stairs… doesn’t matter.
- Wait. Ahhhh. The dreaded “Do Nothing” skill. This may come as a shock to you but what you’re feeling now isn’t going to last forever. Part of learning to cope with anxiety is learning to believe that your feelings aren’t facts. Just because you feel something it doesn’t make it true OR permanent. I don’t really have to do much to prove this. Just think about yesterday or the day before. There is probably something in there that caused some emotion… you probably don’t feel that same exact emotion right now. I like to call this the “wait 10 minutes rule” (fancy name that I am very proud of). When you want to rid yourself of a feeling immediately give yourself 10 minutes before you act on any decision. Now, in a state of panic, 10 minutes can feel like a lifetime but trust me. Every second that you sit with an emotion the emotion is shifting. 10 minutes is a lot of seconds of shifting.
- Write. I mean this literally, but also really more figuratively. I want you to write a new story here about your anxiety and what it means. What is really interesting about the feelings associated with anxiety and panic is that the same “stuff” that goes on in your brain when that is happening is that same as when you are really excited about something. The difference is what you’re telling yourself. Think about something that makes you really nervous, for example, a job interview. You can tell yourself that you’re super nervous before going in or you can switch how you are relating to the influx of energy you feel to a story about being excited for a new opportunity. This is the part where you identify what the negative thought or “story” you have about the situation you’re in is- and then challenge it. Your first thought isn’t always right. The stories you create in your head are EXTREMELY powerful- and the great thing about that is you are in charge of writing them. Write one that is helpful.
- Repeat. Yes, keep doing these things. Even when they don’t work the first time, or even the second. And definitely when they don’t work AS FAST as you want them to. This is all a process of recreating neural pathways in your brain. Think about how rivers are formed. Baby streams of water have to run for a damn long time before an actual body of water is formed. I don’t know many quick fixes for feelings. Well, actually I do, some include drugs and alcohol and well they tend to wear off and create bigger issues, tbh. Let me rephrase: I don’t know many quick fixes that work long term for feelings. But I do know that if you find some patience, this stuff can work for you. The new neural pathways you are creating are like new streams that eventually will turn into deep rivers. Keep breathing, keep moving, keep waiting, and keep writing.