When I finally got up the nerve to seek a doctor’s help with my consistent anxiety attacks I sat in the parking lot before my appointment totally terrified of going inside. Would he think I was nuts? Am I crazy? Why have I been feeling this way? What will the people in the waiting room think of me? Will anyone I know see me going in here? What kind of people go to a counselor? And then it happens again. My heart starts to race and my mind just won’t stop. What if the doctor can’t help? What if he thinks I’m making this up? What if I can’t explain to him what is happening? My palms are sweaty. My chest hurts. What if I just don’t go inside? How long is this going to take anyway? What if…..
The worst part is that it comes on out of nowhere usually. Obviously going to see a doctor can be a stress ridden experience, but that’s not when the anixiety usually presents itself. It happens at the most inopportune and random times. Like when I’m half-way through my shopping list and standing in front of the bananas in the produce section. When I realize I had a coupon for the salsa in my cart and begin to search through my purse for it… I begin to feel flustered and irritated; my mind starts to spiral out of control. Did I leave it on the counter? I know it’s in here! Why can’t I do anything right? What else did I leave at home? Did I forget to put toilet paper on the shopping list? My memory is failing me, my chest starts to constrict and I leave my cart…right there, half-full, in the midst of other shoppers and escape to my car.
When we think of anxiety we generally think of things that are going to happen in the future that might cause us stress. An upcoming move, a promotion at work, an impending deployment…. Not a simple grocery store run. Unfortunately for those suffering with anxiety disorder sometimes those anxious feelings come on when there is a perceived threat, real-or-not, that triggers the emotional reaction. Sometimes we make predictions on the outcome of event that have absolutely no basis in real life. This results in all the physical symptoms I’ve mentioned above as well as just a general lack of patience, cranky mood, and verbal outbursts that are uncharacteristic of our personalities. This can also, I’ve learned, result in behaviors that seem rash, unjust, and decisions that are not clearly thought out.
Family, friends, co-workers then suffer the brunt of these mood swings, and unfortunately they often do not understand the triggers that begin the downward spiral. Sadly, those suffering with anxiety disorder don’t often understand the triggers either. It’s often a tiny, insignificant thing that puts us over the edge.
For me, this has had some seriously negative effects on my relationships and life decisions. It has taken me several years to realize that this problem I have has a name, that its ok, and that I can take steps to control it. Unfortunately for those loved ones who got hurt along the way, I can’t take back time or the choices I have made, but moving forward I seek to understand anxiety and not let it control me.
So, here are my top ten things I have learned about living with Anxiety Disorder:
1. Do not act on any spur of the moment decisions. Before jumping in your car and say, moving across the country because you feel like your current life is over, I recommend you sleep on it. Anxiety tends to make every situation feel worse, feel more serious, feel disastrous. It is important to let your brain work through the anxiety first, and then make any serious decisions with a clear mind.
2. Learn to breathe. This was the first piece of advice given to me by that doctor. (The one who I did eventually get out of my car to go see.) When we are little kids we find ourselves hiding from monsters under the covers in our beds, we stop moving and stop breathing so that the monsters can’t find us. As adults, when we are afraid, our first instinct is to stop breathing. So, take in air. Take deep slow breahths, in through your nose and out through your mouth. And count. Counting helps.
3. Have an emergency exit. If (and this doesn’t happen often) you can pinpoint the scenario that is giving you anxiety, make sure you think through your exit strategy. Knowing that you have a way out of a social event or obligation can take a massive amount of the anxiety away.
4. Get more sleep. As a human being we all know that we are supposed to be getting plenty of sleep. There are numerous studies out there on the health benefits of sleep. Personally, I know that when I get less than seven hours of good sleep I am much more likely to snap at my loved ones, make rash decisions, and lose patience with myself. Some of my worst decisions have been made on days when I was not functioning on enough sleep.
5. Visualize something awesome. I know this one sounds dumb. I told the doctor so when he suggested I work on meditation and visualization. I reminded him I wasn’t crazy and didn’t really believe in all that nonsense. But, when I get really worked up about something, one of the fastest ways to reset my brain and get back to a normal state is to start imagining something wonderful. Sometimes I think of my niece, a margarita on the beach, a favorite family vacation…this doesn’t always work. Sometimes I have to pull up a photo on my phone or physically look at something calming. But trust me, as crazy-pants as this one seems, it can be incredibly helpful. There’s a great explination here and some instructions on how to get started as well. http://psychcentral.com/lib/guided-visualization-a-way-to-relax-reduce-stress-and-more/000684
6. Embrace your mistakes instead of pretending you won’t, or haven’t, made any. This one was hard for me. It took some time, some convincing from my doctor and a whole lot of effort on my part to admit that the mistakes I have made actually happened. I needed to own my past. I needed to seek forgiveness from those people I’ve hurt and actually apologize, and I had a laundry list of people whom I too needed to forgive. However, once I started owning my choices and my shortcomings, I started to feel better, less anxious, and more in control of my own destiny.
7. Say “I can”, “I will”, “Why not?”…. Anxiety leads to negativity. I often found myself limiting my life by telling myself that I couldn’t, shouldn’t or wouldn’t be able to do something. By training my mind to say “I can” instead of “I can’t” I have found that the world seems far more manageable, more like an adventure and less like something I have to muddle through.
8. Plan ahead. Far ahead. Making lists and practicing productivity has forced me to think through the events that might be anxiety causing in the future. From super simple things like hanging my keys in the same place every day so I don’t spend frantic minutes searching for them in the morning, to writing out long-term goals for my life on the calendar I’ve found that planning helps me to focus my energy on positivity, rather than on the things that could or might go wrong.
9. Develop a thankful heart. By expressing gratitude for things that I do have rather than pursuing a desire for the things I cannot have, I have been able to control the anxiety attacks much more easily. Being grateful for things makes your brain focus on positive ideas. Seeing joy, and acknowledging where it comes from has been a huge key in managing my emotions.
10. Pray and seek prayer. Ask others to pray for you. Pray for yourself. Talk to God. Let go. There is nothing in this world that cannot be tackled with enough prayer. There is a huge relief that comes from stepping outside of your comfort zone and asking someone to pray for you too. Just knowing that someone else has your back, and that God is listening is a huge relief.
The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? Psalm 118:6