As we wound down our work together, my therapist and I talked about the whole process and what it’s been like. She brought up the fact that I’ve been very proactive about it, calling my approach to anxiety “methodical.” I started laughing when she said that because yes, I absolutely was. I had to really break down the whole thing and do as much research as I could, and I needed to make sure I was trying everything that was supposed to help even if I didn’t enjoy it.
But we’re not all like that, and it’s important to recognize we each need to deal with anxiety in our own way. The way I manage it may be completely different than someone else, and that’s OK. Just because something has been proven to work doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or there’s nothing that can help you. It just means that particular thing doesn’t do what you need it to. And that’s OK.
It took me a long time to figure out what works for me. Sometimes, I just needed to tweak something I was already doing, and sometimes, it was a gigantic life change.
Therapy is amazing for me. I got really lucky and clicked with my therapist during our first meeting, but sometimes it takes a few tries. That’s OK. Read here and here for more of my thoughts on therapy.
This was important for me because it gave me a sense of ownership and responsibility over my own healing. There were some books I wanted to throw against the wall, but I read a few that were really helpful. They are: “Panic Attacks Workbook” by David Carbonell, “Don’t Panic” by Reid Wilson, “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron, and “Daring Greatly” and “Rising Strong” by Brené Brown.
These five are my canon. I go back to them again and again, especially the Brown books. They are full of techniques, but they also explain what happens in your brain during a panic attack, and Brown especially talks about the emotional aspects of letting go and accepting what’s happening, no matter what that is. These six books normalize anxiety for me and help me feel less alone.
3. Start a blog.
I’m not going to lie to you guys. I was so scared to start a blog. I really didn’t want to put any of this out on the internet where my parents, my boss or, God forbid, my students could read it. But I got to a certain point where I had been dealing with it for so long and had started to accept its place in my life that I was like, you know what? F*ck it, and published the first entry. And then another one. And then eventually I specifically wrote an entry to my friends explaining what was going on and shared it on Facebook (I hadn’t been sharing the blog before then).
I can’t tell you how liberating it was to talk about my challenges. The only way I could break down the stigma was to talk about what’s going on with me. And I felt better.
4. Depersonalize anxiety.
This one was huge for me and is probably one of the single best things I did. I stopped talking about “my” anxiety and started talking about “the” anxiety. This seems like such a minute change, but its ramifications have been extraordinary. Talking about anxiety this way has helped me see that, while it is a part of my life, it isn’t who I am. I am not an “anxious person.” I am a person who feels heightened anxiety. I am not a “worrier.” I am a person with a tendency to ruminate.
Thinking and talking about anxiety like this has helped me to make space for it in the same way you make space for work or friendships. It’s a thing I have to devote time and energy to, but it’s not taking over my life or my personality. It doesn’t define me. It’s not actually me, it’s my biology. Once I started doing this, it was so much easier to accept it and to not have feelings of shame and guilt around it.
I never did sports in high school unless my gym teacher told me I would fail if I didn’t participate. The only exercise I did in college was walking to class and maybe going to a couple of yoga classes with a friend. This has been the biggest and most difficult life change, but it has also been one of the best. It was a real challenge for a long time to a) find a consistent workout schedule and b) find the right type of exercise.
There was a lot of trial and error, but the biggest issue for me wasn’t the exercise itself, it was the accountability.
I use the Strong app to track my weightlifting and cardio, which helps keep me accountable because I can see all of the times I’ve worked out on the calendar. For me, the schedule that works best is a non-negotiable Wednesday/Friday/Sunday routine of weightlifting — my arms are starting to look super awesome — and high intensity interval training on the bike.
I just feel so much better when I exercise, which in itself blows my mind on a regular basis.
6. Keep a panic diary.
Cataloguing my symptoms in a panic diary was really helpful because I started to see patterns emerge, and from there I could begin to identify triggers and underlying causes. This, in turn, helped me to not only make room for anxiety but also to start expecting it in certain situations.
No longer do I travel with the mindset that I’m not going to feel any anxiety. Now, I expect to feel some, and that makes it a lot easier to handle when I inevitably do. There are other situations where I’ve learned to expect it, and that has actually lessened the symptoms because I’m not fighting them. I’m just letting them be.
7. Create an anxiety check list.
I’ve talked about this before, but this has also been really helpful. Through a lot of trial and error, I have a list of go-to, sequential steps to take when I start to feel anxious. I haven’t had to go past grounding myself and breathing for a long time, and that’s awesome. This list also reminds me of all of the work I’ve done and how I made it through.
I’ve really started speaking out about mental health issues, both in person and my various social media platforms. I want the people in my life (and all people, really) to understand this is an important issue, and it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and each other about it.
I get it if you don’t feel comfortable talking about your own experience. If that’s the case, maybe there’s a way you can advocate for mental health in general or help raise awareness. The stigma will remain unless we do something.
And here are four things that didn’t work for me (but could work for you):
1. Create an anxiety playlist.
Guys, I really thought this one would be a winner. Seriously. I love music, and I really thought if I had a playlist I associated with calming down that it would help me when I felt panicked. Nope. My thoughts just kept right on going, and I had to stop using it pretty quickly, so I wouldn’t start connecting some of my favorite songs with feelings of anxiety.
That being said, I did fall in love with John Mayer all over again through this process, and you can read about why here.
2. Keep it private from everyone except my boyfriend and my sister.
For a time, this is exactly what I needed. But I kept things quiet long after I should have, and it actually started impeding my work with anxiety. This started to get better in leaps and bounds when I started writing a blog and sharing my experiences with people. It made me feel so much less alone, and it made me feel like I can handle this. And if I can’t, there are a ton of people out there who have my back.
I started meditating because I’d read a lot of studies about how helpful it is. And once I found something that suited me (the Headspace app), it was helpful. But only up to a point. I found the anxiety pack on Headspace to be really effective in terms of accepting the anxiety as it comes and not giving it my attention and escalating it. That was great.
But to be honest, I don’t really like meditating, and continuing to do it after I finished the anxiety-specific ones just felt monotonous and obligatory. Maybe if I did it at a different time of day or under different circumstances, I might enjoy it, so I’m going to try again while school’s out this summer. (But yoga kind of serves the meditative purpose for me and sometimes sitting to meditate feels redundant.)
4. Track symptoms.
This one took me a while to figure out, and I think it may have surpassed the point of its usefulness. At first I tried the SAM app, but it just didn’t work for me, although I can see how it would be awesome for others.
After that, I tried Symple, which helped some more in identifying patterns. I’ve written about it before, but I do I think I’ve moved beyond its helpfulness for me personally. I love this app and its concept, but I just don’t really need it anymore.
You might have already figured out what works best for you, or you may feel totally bewildered and don’t know where to start. If that’s where you are in your journey, my suggestion is to start with therapy. Yes, it’s daunting. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it can be expensive. But I think it’s worth it because a person can guide you through everything else and you won’t have to do it alone. If you’re already in therapy, then I suggest working on depersonalizing anxiety and exercise.
We’re in this together.
Follow this journey on It’s Only Fear.
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