6 Reflections on How I’ve Learned to Cope With Anxiety

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I realize now this is something I’ve seldom written about, at least in a public sphere. Perhaps this is because it’s deeply personal and feels so difficult to explain. I think one of my main apprehensions (in regards to sharing about this and also seeking help) is the fear I will be misunderstood.

On one hand, there are certain aspects or explanations of anxiety that seem to be true across the board. Talk to anyone who has dealt with anxiety, and you will likely hear mention of repetitive, unwelcome and often haunting thought patterns along with a combination of both physical and mental/emotional symptoms. Frequently, a common notion of feeling “out of control” and unable to convince yourself out of your feelings/thoughts exists, even if you are able to recognize them as irrational.

However, on the other hand, the way each individual experiences and interprets their personal anxiety is unlikely to match up with another’s. Triggers are different. I think this is because of the influence of unique life experiences and circumstances that shape the way anxiety plays out.

In the psychological field, there are different categories of anxiety (general anxiety, phobias, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder), but these are certainly not black and white. Descriptions are not always fitting for personal experiences, which may cause people with anxiety to feel alienated and unsure where to turn for help. Likewise, coping mechanisms or tools are not universally applicable or beneficial. What works precisely for one person may not always work for someone else.

For these reasons and many more, dealing with anxiety can be enormously frustrating and seemingly hopeless. It can also feel like a lonely battle, as if no one else out there could possibly understand or relate (even if this is not really true). In my own experience, it has been a long journey of finding ways of thinking or acting that truly do help. Most of these methods have emerged from extended trials, resulting in some hard-won truths.

I have decided now to attempt to clearly write these out (primarily for myself) because I know how hard it can be to remember these simple tips in the midst of anxiety. Yet, I hope at least some of what I write can be helpful to someone else.

1. First of all, learn how to identify anxious thoughts.

This may seem extraordinarily simple, but trust me. It can be surprisingly difficult to distinguish between what is justifiable or reasonable and what is not once certain thoughts get rolling in your head. It sounds silly, but oftentimes, I don’t realize I have been thinking something I know deep down is irrational until it has gone too far. I have found the best way to recognize these kinds of thoughts is not to try to analyze their legitimacy in the moment. This tends to take me down a winding path that only makes the situation worse. Instead, I have learned to identify these unhealthy thoughts by the effects they have on me. I’m not sure quite how to articulate it, but I know I have this intuitive sense that something is off (marked by a sort of panicky, distressing, fatalistic nature).

2. Once identified, do something about it.

We give power to our anxious thoughts when we allow ourselves to dwell on them. For a long time, I used to believe I couldn’t help myself from thinking about whatever was causing my anxiety. Now, I think that although it is not easy, it is in fact possible to do just this through a persistent re-training of our minds. When I step back and realize the nature of the thoughts I am hosting, I can then tell myself, “This is not real and I do not have to dwell on it.” By cutting off these sorts of thoughts as soon as their characteristics come to light, I am more easily able to just let them pass by. Giving too much attention to them plays into the all-too-common trap of actually becoming anxious about anxiety itself, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. We must work to avoid the cyclical pattern of thinking that says, “Oh no, I am having this anxious thought I can’t stop. Now, all of the anxiety I have struggled through before is going to come back and there is nothing I can do about it.” This doesn’t have to be true.

3. Look back on the past.

This has actually been one of the most helpful tools I have picked up and something I was only able to learn with time. One value of being (perhaps too) introspective is I have begun to realize how my anxiety works. For me personally, the topics or “triggers” that send me spiraling into anxiety seem to come in waves. Here’s what I mean: For some period of time (typically a few weeks or maybe many months), a certain trigger or fear serves as the main cause of my anxiety. Sometimes they are connected in some way, but usually the specific prompt seems random and unexplainable. Often without my explicit realization, new triggers arise and fill the mental structure already established previously, thus replacing one dominant anxiety-inducer with another. Somehow, it seems as if my mind can really only handle one at a time, although they all follow the same sort of thought patterns. Remembering this when I am dealing with a particular trigger helps me to get out of my head for long enough to recognize what is really happening, especially when what I suggested previously doesn’t seem to be working. My line of reasoning typically goes like this, “Oh, what I am experiencing right now is just like that other thing then. Now I can see that the other thing wasn’t real and I didn’t need to worry about it after all. Therefore, what is going on now is of the same nature and I don’t have to give it power over me.”

4. Remember, “grace for the place.”

This is a concept a friend introduced me to a few years ago, and I have returned to it often since. Sometimes, my experience with anxiety takes on the form of seeing someone else’s struggle and placing myself in their position. Then, I fall into the thought pattern of, “What if that happens to me? How would I handle it?” Consequently, I end up worrying excessively about an imagined reality, which takes away from my ability to deal with issues (or enjoy blessings) in real time. The idea of “grace for the place” rests on the assertion that there is a grace given to someone actually experiencing a tough situation that is not present when fearfully projecting a “what if” type of scenario. This grace may take the form of guidance, comfort or clarity that can only be found in context. Almost always, our imagined projections of the future born of worry are worse than what would happen if our fears actually came true. There have been at least a few times when something I once spent so much energy worrying about later happened and wasn’t at all like I anxiously anticipated. The lesson here is to focus on what is given to us in the present rather than residing in a “what if” world that is not reality.

5. Recognize that anxiety is not all bad.

To some extent, anxiety can actually be a healthy thing. It can push us to take extra precautions in potentially dangerous or threatening situations. It is good to remember that being afraid is a natural human impulse that does have some helpful purposes. Thinking about this has encouraged me to look at the other side of the coin in regards to my own anxiety and try to see some of its benefits. Although I would much prefer to do without it, my anxiety does allow me to see the world from a different perspective and feel a deep sense of empathy about certain issues I would not otherwise consider. It can be a beneficial exercise for anyone dealing with anxiety to find at least one thing about it they can be grateful for. Understandably, chronic anxiety can easily become something dreadful that we hate about ourselves. It is easy to get angry and have a “woe is me” attitude about this, but that only makes things worse. Thus, I have found it helpful to try to cling to at least one positive effect or purposeful result of the anxiety I experience.

6. Lastly, be patient with yourself.

None of what I wrote is particularly easy to put into practice. If it were, then I wouldn’t still be struggling with this after so many years. It may sound as if I wrote these tips like I don’t have too much trouble applying them, but in reality, I am very much in the middle (and sometimes the beginning) of implementing them in my daily life. At times, the hard work of tackling anxiety can feel like taking “one step forward, two steps back.” I think I need to realize there has been progress, proven simply by having all of these things to write out. There is hope. Although my anxiety may not ever completely disappear, I believe it undoubtedly can, and will, continue to get better with time.

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What I Really Want From Friends When I'm Feeling Anxious

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There are times in my life when my head connects one dot to the next dot, which is way over a billion of other dots, other scenarios — scenarios that seem to be more likely to happen than the one my head has already settled on.

I’ve argued and felt discouraged by speaking about my anxiety to key people in my life, such as people I’ve called “best friends” or plainly family.

I don’t expect these people to understand now. I don’t expect them to understand this in the future (or I hope they don’t ever have to struggle with this at all). I don’t expect them to understand why my head overthinks simple situations or things that have yet to happen. I don’t expect them to understand the internal debate I have sometimes on how to greet strangers before I come in direct contact with them, such as greeting a cashier while paying or asking for help and not seeming pathetic or awkward, which can sometimes leave me pondering or working myself up for minutes at a time. (It sometimes takes hours to call someone for a simple check-up on my violin.) I don’t expect them to understand how my head simply goes from A to Z in a matter of seconds, passing by each and every letter at the speed of light, plus adding other letters unknown to the English alphabet into the mix. I don’t expect them to understand how I panic or stress out to the point where I have a panic attack, where I feel consumed and suffocated by every little thing, where I’m crying and having trouble breathing.

I cannot just be “normal” or do what you may view as simple “normally.”

You may not be capable of understanding this, and I accept that. It’s time for you to also accept that you cannot understand, whether it’s my anxiety, stress or even my moments of grief from a loss of mine.

No human is perfect.

I am definitely not perfect.

I don’t have everything together, even though physically it might seem that way outside of closed doors.

And sometimes, I struggle to let myself know it’s OK and that my future is going to be OK.

It’s OK not to be OK.

I have to read self-help books in order to keep the peace in my head, to remember where I am in this life is OK — even if in hindsight it’s frustrating.

For example, I have to remember what Jamie Tworkowski wrote in his book “If You Feel Too Much” every time I feel like I’m working myself up to a panic attack:

“This life — it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win. It’s [OK] to slow down. You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by. This life is not about status or opinion or appearance. You don’t have to fake it.”

What I do want from you — maybe — is to give me time and ease up on subjects involving the future — my future. I know it may worry you. It worries me impossibly, because I’ve probably already thought of it in every single way imaginable, because it is my life. This happens every day; it sneaks up on me every waking moment in the back of my head, only to attack me in the late hours of the night.

I don’t want to hear your judgment of why can’t I be “normal.” I just want support. I want to hear, “It’s OK. I’m here. I don’t understand, but I want you to know it’s going to be fine.”

It’s that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

And maybe — just maybe — that’s really all I need. Just a simple resting place for this unknown answer of when or how, and instead just being OK. Knowing I’m not alone.

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When I Can't Escape the Racing Thoughts

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Sometimes I just want to get in a box
and stay in there
pray in there
scream because there’s no air in there.
I wanna call out
“this isn’t fair, this mask I wear,
this fake grin-and-bare-it smile I share.”

It’s dark in here
and unclear
if the thoughts themselves built the walls here.

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5 Tips for Coping With Post-Election Anxiety

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When Your 'Irrational' Fears Come True

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I woke up yesterday with swollen eyes, hair matted to my forehead and cheek, my pillow still drying from many, many tears shed Tuesday night. I’m shell-shocked. I’m utterly devastated. My hope is at an all-time low. Grief stricken, with trembling lips, I got up and washed my face. I hoped the cold water would wash away the remnants of Tuesday night’s panic attack.

My skin still felt hot and the pit of my stomach rock hard. The lump in my throat was choking me. I put my makeup on, only to cry it all away, not once, but twice. I grasped my bathroom counter for support, breathed deeply and looked in the mirror. I saw a broken person’s reflection, nearly unrecognizable. Anxiety and depression has come calling loudly today, but for once, it feels warranted.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how difficult this election has been as a person who has anxiety and depression. I drifted between extreme worry, incessantly checking the polls and extreme apathy, turning everything off in disgust. My emotions ebbed and flowed with the headlines of the day. Now, it seems like my anxious half was absolutely right, surprisingly rational and very appropriate given the outcome. I am deeply resentful of that.

You see, I go to a therapist weekly, a psychiatrist monthly and have been doing so for the better part of three years since my Dad died in 2013. Losing him dropped the Earth from beneath my feet, and I felt like I was in total free fall. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, in part due to my unhealthy obsession of thinking and fearing things like losing other loved ones, illness or even simple things like any hint of change. It has not been an easy road. I’ve spent the past three years identifying irrational worry, and using every tool I’ve learned to quell the fears and shun the panic.

But everything is changed now. My anxiety has been devastatingly emboldened. The election of Donald Trump, in spite of his divisive rhetoric and arguable misogyny and bigotry, has given my anxiety a footing I’m not sure it ever fully had until now. I feared a day like today would come, and he would be elected, but I banked on those fears being irrational. I banked on them being just another anxious day.

How wrong I was. How right my anxiety was. And how lost I am now. I think a lot of people are feeling anxiety and profound sadness today, but for those of us who knew those feelings before today, it makes the shocking election results nearly unbearable. I’m crying at work while writing this.

I anticipate quite a few more panic attacks in the future for me. My anxiety feels totally
justified. My worst fears have come true, and I am helpless to resolve them.

My depression feels totally justified. On my “side of the fence” of what appears to be a deeply divided country, there seems to be so little to hope for in terms of the future.  But after listening to Hillary Clinton’s incredibly articulate and inspiring concession speech today, I can’t help but think that is the last thing she wants from women (or anyone for that matter) like me. Rather than stew in gloom, and let it destroy me emotionally, I think the most honorable tribute to her, to show her my deep admiration of all she represents, would be to take this emotional pain, anxiety and depression, harness it’s power, and use it as strength to help shape a future of which I can be proud. I’ll start this difficult, yet valuable process by quoting another two of the most graceful and eloquent women:

“When they go low, we go high.” – Michelle Obama

“We may encounter defeats, but we must not be defeated.” – Maya Angelou

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The Road Trip With My Therapist That Changed My Life

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My therapist changed my life. Actually, my therapist helped me change my life. What I couldn’t do and avoided for 30 years was drive on the highway. It may seem like such a simple thing, but it was a huge barrier in living my life. It was like having a self-imposed prison ankle bracelet, with the travel radius defined by my anxiety.

I couldn’t take jobs, go to classes, seminars, doctor’s offices, parties, weddings, funerals, meetings, shopping malls or travel in and out of the state. The list is endless of what I had to say no to. It not only affected my confidence, but my self-esteem.

For most of my adult life, I would have so much anxiety surrounding highways. I would have to keep my eyes closed just riding as a passenger in a car. If I didn’t close my eyes, I would look at the floor or at a book. Anything to avoid what was terrifying around me, being in a car on the highway. I would avoid side streets if they had a sign for the highway, just in case the road only led to a highway on ramp. I would drive hours out of the way on side streets, often driving in bad parts of town just so I wouldn’t have to go on the highway.

Mostly, I just didn’t get to live the life I wanted. I made excuses why I couldn’t go places. I declined countless invitations to do things. I frustrated my children because everyone else’s mom could drive places and I couldn’t. Occasionally, I would admit my fear to understanding friends, and they would let me ride with them. If we went as a group, then I was always eager to sit in the backseat. It is a little less terrifying back there, and it is easier to hide my fear.

My heart would race. My stomach would have butterflies. My hands would sweat. Heck, my whole body would sweat, but mostly, I would be so scared I wanted to cry.

Then, one day I was faced with a problem with no way out. I had to get to Providence, Rhode Island, and there was no way around me not driving there. I looked into the train and the bus, but the schedules wouldn’t work. I had no one else I could ask to drive me. I looked for every way out I could find, but there was none. I had to get over this fear.

I manned up to my problem, and I asked my therapist, Dan, if he could help me with my anxiety. I had four months until I had to drive to Providence, and I needed a miracle. I told him about my fears.

It started as a simple list. On ramps, trucks, big trucks, changing lanes, feeling trapped, driving fast and “not knowing where I am.” Also, did I mention being on ramps and merging onto the highway? Ramps felt like walking to a firing squad. There was no turning back.

The plan was exposure therapy. Exposure therapy involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety. If I knew he was going to make me actually drive on the highway with him in the car, then I never would have signed up for this. I had, in some fantasy, thought I could solve my fear sitting safely and comfortably on the couch in his office. I was in too deep now, as much as I wanted to chicken out, I had to persevere.

Dan first taught me to breathe. Who knew I was doing that wrong? Then, he taught me how to challenge my anxious thoughts. Then, we hit the open road. First, just getting on the highway and getting off the next exit. Eventually, we were driving farther and on different highways. He knew just how hard to push me and when I had enough. He became my biggest cheerleader, encouraging and believing in me even when I doubted myself.

Dan gave me homework. I have always hated homework, but who wants to get an F in their own therapy? So I diligently practiced driving between appointments. I would write my thought challenges and anxiety down in the journal he had given me. The hardest part was remembering to breathe when I felt anxious. I would bring my dog with me when I practiced sometimes, hoping she would help keep me calm. Mostly, she just drooled on the window, but at least I wasn’t alone.

I would conquer one aspect of driving, slowly pulling off that layer only to expose another fear. I had once thought being on ramps was the biggest obstacle but “not knowing where I am” ultimately proved to be the greatest hurdle.

As the date to drive to Providence approached, I still wasn’t sure I could do it. It was the overwhelming fear of “not knowing where I am” I was struggling with. My therapist and I decided to do the drive together the day before I had to do it myself. He understood there was no way to simulate going to Providence. I had to go there to see that I could do it. He blocked out four hours in his day, as it should take us a little more than three hours round trip.

We drove. I crossed state lines into Rhode Island with little fanfare. There was no marching band and confetti waiting for me at the border, but the significance of crossing into another state was monumental for me.

As we approached our destination, I had a panic attack. Dan helped me get through the panic attack. We got lost. I made us go back to the place we left from before we got lost to do it right. If I was going to do it on my own the next day, then I needed to know how to do it without getting lost.

We made it back to his office, and I was exhausted. The trip had been draining, but also empowering. I accomplished a goal I hadn’t been able to reach my entire life. I drove to the state of Rhode Island!

My trip was never going to make the evening news. I hadn’t scaled Mount Everest. I had not completed the Iditarod dog sled race or flown solo around the world. I did what millions of people do every day and never think twice about. I just drove on the highway, but it changed my life. For that was the beginning of me living the life I had wanted, where anxiety didn’t have to win.

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