To the outside world and the majority of my social group, I’m a fairly outgoing person. I’m happy to chat to people in social situations. I can be funny and occasionally even charming, and I generally appear comfortable interacting with others. For the past five to six years, however, I’ve struggled with an increasing level of anxiety around things that most other people would look forward to. The idea of holidays or travel can set off minor panic attacks, and anything that breaks my usual routine can result in a day or more of feeling generally anxious.
Of course, like many people, I’ve become good at hiding it. Except for a couple of extremely close friends and my girlfriend, nobody would know I struggle with any kind of anxiety. Over the years, I’ve become adept at covering my symptoms with a mask and generally pretending they’re not there. Yet, recently I’ve been trying to take a different route. Rather than simply hiding or trying to ignore my anxiety, I’ve been attempting to adopt strategies that not only allow me to cope better, but allow me to control or reduce my symptoms as much as possible. I’d like to share the most effective of these strategies with you here.
1. Meditation and breathing
It seems any guide to anxiety will likely list meditation as a recommended exercise. In fact, it was a blog post on anxiety coping strategies where I first came across it. Yet, I have to say it can be really effective, particularly if you’re willing to adopt it as a regular (or ideally daily) exercise. Every day at 5.45 p.m., I spend at least 15 minutes meditating, and I’ve found guided meditation especially useful. There’s something about the concept of mindfulness and forcing the brain, both consciously and subconsciously, to focus on breathing rather than the usual stuff that clogs up your mind that is extremely relaxing.
A word of warning with meditation: It can take a little while before you really start to notice the benefits. In the short term, the lack of noticeable results may put you off. It’s by no means a quick fix, but if you’re willing to stick with it, then it can be really helpful in the long run. For those willing to give it a try (and I would suggest you do so for at least a month), I would highly recommend Headspace. They have a free trial so you don’t have to pay to try it, and they have a specific program for anxiety that I found really helpful.
In general, focusing on your breathing is a really useful technique for controlling the symptoms of anxiety, particularly if you find yourself having a panic attack. You can do this without practicing meditation, but as a large part of meditation involves focusing on the breathing, it’s a great way of getting you into this habit.
Initially, I was resistant to the idea of seeing a psychiatrist, but after trying for a few years to cope on my own, I decided to go down this route as my symptoms were becoming frequent, less predictable and more severe. Of course, not everyone can afford to talk to someone, but there are options available even if you can’t pay for a private psychiatrist.
For me, it felt like going to see someone was me starting the process of taking back control. No longer was I willing to lead my life around the anxiety, letting it control what I could and couldn’t do. I felt like I was being proactive and taking responsibility for my condition and on some level that I was admitting it to myself. It’s a slow process, but since I’ve engaged in counseling aimed specifically at dealing with anxiety, I have begun to gain back some control over my life. Even when I do feel anxious, I feel better prepared to face it head on. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in talking to someone, and if that person is trained to help people cope with anxiety, then really you have nothing to lose.
3. Change the story you tell yourself
A little while ago I started reading about the stoics and their philosophy toward life, in particular their ability to understand that you cannot control external events. Instead, the only thing you can control is the way you react to events and your emotional response. While I was thinking about this, I came across an infographic about optical illusions, which is here if you want to have a look. In this piece, they talk about how our brains make assumptions about the world and how our perception of what’s happening is often different from reality. In essence, we don’t always see what’s real.
Think about this for a second. Our subjective perception does not always match reality, which to me that’s anxiety in a nutshell. Your brain is interpreting situations as being worthy of an adrenaline response when in reality no such response is needed. You are literally misinterpreting reality, and it’s this erroneous perception of danger or a cause for concern that is, in essence, the problem.
To me, this was something of a revelation. It led to a new found approach to my condition, one in which I would actively try to change my perception rather than simply accept it. We all tell ourselves stories every day about who we are and about how we react to things, but there is absolutely nothing to stop you from changing this story.
I used to think of myself as an anxious person, a person who tries to avoid parties or nights out and a person who can’t go anywhere overnight. One day, I decided to change this story. Instead, I now think of myself as someone who occasionally gets anxious but who is dealing with it. Someone who is getting better. You’d be amazed at the impact this subtle change in thinking can have.
If you’re interested in reading more about the stoic philosophy, our perception of reality and the stories we tell ourselves, I would greatly recommend reading “Happy” by Derren Brown. It can be heavy reading at times, but it’s well worth the effort.
To me, these three techniques have been by far the most helpful (and trust me, I’ve tried a lot of different methods). Ultimately, it’s all about finding what works for you and sticking with it. Personally, what’s had the greatest impact for me is simply refusing to accept this was “just the way it is.” I accepted my condition and made a commitment to get better, regardless of how long that might take. I’m by no means anxiety-free, but these days I find that I’m better able to control my symptoms and I’m definitely less prone to panic attacks.
Do let me know how you get on if you decide to adopt any of these techniques. If they prove helpful to just one person, then it was worth writing this post. I have a few other techniques I’d be happy to discuss.
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