The Worst Parts of Living With Anxiety – and What to Do About It
Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree, but unless you’ve felt the near-constant, tummy-ache-inducing, knock-the-breath-out-of-you kind of anxiety, you might not really understand what living with (and let’s be honest, sometimes struggling with) an anxiety disorder is like.
That’s why it can be annoying and unhelpful when people who don’t “get it” offer up methods that helped them. (OK, yoga is good for you! We get it!) On the other hand — people with more persistent anxiety shouldn’t reject every suggestion or believe that nothing will ever help. It’s a tricky balance, and it’s why we like getting advice from real people who live with anxiety. Sure, not everything will work for everyone, and if you’re really struggling with anxiety, these suggestions should be paired with guidance from a therapist and/or a psychiatrist. But we can’t stop sharing solutions, and we can’t stop trying to help each other live more peaceful lives.
We’ve asked our community to share with us the “worst” symptoms of anxiety before. Here, we want to talk about how to combat them. No invalidation. No, “If this doesn’t work for you, you’re not trying hard enough.” Just some advice from people who’ve been there. Take it or leave it. Although anxiety may never completely go away for some of us, there are things we can do to handle the worst parts.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
1. Physical Symptoms
Anxiety starts in your mind, but its effects can expand to your body. Stomach aches, back pain, a pounding heart… these are only some of the ways anxiety shows up as physical symptoms. Often, we focus so much on the racing thoughts and emotions that come with anxiety, we forget to recognize how physical anxiety can be.
“Napping helps me. I know it’s not good to nap all the time, but sometimes that’s all I can do to make everything stop for awhile and basically restart my brain.” — Samantha K.
“Four-seven-eight breathing. When I feel like my heart is beating fast, my chest gets tighter, and my mind gets foggier, four-seven-eight breathing helps to stop that snowball. Four seconds inhale, seven seconds hold, eight seconds exhale.” — Erin L.
“I do a body relaxation exercise I learned in anxiety therapy. You squeeze your feet as tight as you can for five seconds then release for five seconds. Move to your calf, repeat. Move to thighs, repeat. Move all the way up the body one area at a time until you reach your face. It helps your brain recognize the body being stressed versus relaxing each area. By the second round my panic attack is gone or at least 60-percent subsided.” — Melanie J.
“Movement. Driving can help, but I try to avoid that as my faculties are not at 100 percent generally (and if I have to vomit that can turn me into a road hazard). Any sort of movement: brisk walk or pacing in circles or just back and forth. When people try to mistakenly help by telling me to just sit down and relax and breathe… nope! I need to do the exact opposite and move. While focusing on my breathing.” — Kristine P.
“I go outside. Fresh air helps me a lot. I hold a cold water bottle — that helps too. Or sit in front of a fan. Anything cold helps me calm down. Another thing that helps is writing down my exact thoughts out. Go on a drive with no music. Just clear my mind, enjoy the mountains.” — Mary H.
“Talking through them with my husband to help me understand it’s part of my anxiety and not something else. That usually leads to talk about the stressors that lead to the physical symptoms. Having support is incredibly helpful.” — Jolene N.
“I always have my heating pad at the ready for muscle aches… I also try and work out as much as possible because it helps with keeping my anxiety under control and it helps to relax my body and mind.” — Serenity B.
2. Feeling Like You’re Not Good Enough
Anxiety and perfectionism often go hand-in-hand, and when you (inevitably) don’t meet your anxiety-driven perfectionistic expectations, it’s easy to be hard on yourself. When this happens, anxiety becomes a constant feeling of not being good enough. In a piece about feeling like your best isn’t enough, Mighty contributor Erica Chau wrote, “I’ve always wanted to be the best and when I wasn’t perfect, it was devastating. And I mean I would be crushed. I’d beat myself up for days thinking about it… As my anxiety and depression got worse, the feeling of helplessness – of failure – just got worse.”
“I know it’s a crutch and a bad habit, but having someone talk me through it, whether it’s my boyfriend or my therapist or a friend. I know I should be able to calm myself down, but when my anxiety is spiraling, my emotions take over and logic goes out the window, so I need something external to be that voice of reason to help get my thoughts back under control.” — Colleen M.
“I have both anxiety and depression! Making a list, either mental or physical, of things I’m grateful for or did well today helps a lot. Filming myself talking about it and watching my videos also gives me another perspective of who I am and what I can do to get better.” — Thais S.
“Thought replacement. When you have a negative thought, you replace it with a positive one. Example: I am so worthless! Reversal: I’m a great friend, I am kind and compassionate. I am just feeling down right now and that is OK.” — Amanda C.
“Saying them out loud, then hearing how absurd they sound, and talking through why they’re false negative thoughts. Also, concentrating on my breathing and getting myself immersed in a task, like washing dishes, drawing/coloring, etc.” — Alyssa M.
3. “Irrational” Worry
It may not be productive to fantasize about all of your loved ones dying, and sure, it doesn’t make sense that friends you’ve known for years will start hating you because of one bad joke, but sometimes when it comes to anxiety, rationality doesn’t matter. Anxiety doesn’t always make sense, but that doesn’t make it less real. As Mighty contributor Tom Petrola wrote, “Just because I do not have a ‘real reason’ to be anxious doesn’t mean I am not anxious.”
“Honestly I just need to vent. I don’t need reassurance, I don’t need to be judged, I don’t need anyone to tell me I’m being irrational (I already know that). I just need to vent and get it out.” — Kellie H.
“I have been told by a physiatrist (and it has worked for me most times) to say out loud to yourself to stop this thought process, and then sing a song out loud. If you are thinking of what the next lyric is, you are redirecting your thought process away from the anxious thoughts.” — Stacey V.
“I write it all out. It is made visible, and then I can start to sort out the irrational vs rational worries. Then I can mark them out one by one. It does help me to feel a little bit more calm.” — Glenda W.
“I ask myself, what is the absolutely worst outcome of whatever it is I am thinking. Usually, it’s nothing that cannot be solved easily. When I see it from that point of view, I really see how my anxiety is working on me.” — Lisa S.
“I write down whatever I’m worrying about and then compare what I thought would happen to what actually happened. This way I realize that I’m thinking of the worst possible outcome that more than likely won’t happen. It helps me relax and know that everything will be OK.” — Lauren S.
4. People Who Don’t “Get It”
As bad as living with anxiety can be, sometimes reactions from the people around you make it worse. Talking about what you’re going through can be an important part of coping with anxiety, but if the people you’re talking to dismiss the validity of your experiences, it only assists that downward spiral of negative thoughts.
“I usually say, ‘You know that feeling that hits you when you lose your wallet or phone? That’s what it feels like for me all day and often for no reason, with no warning or no explanation. It’s exhausting and really wears me down.’ People seem to relate to that feeling and can then internalize what it might be like.” — Kristy M.
“I like to remind myself that my problems/feelings are valid and that it’s OK to feel the way I am, I know I can help myself through it, and don’t need someone to accept it or validate it just because they don’t understand.” — Chelsea W.
“I’ve learned that most people who don’t get it, don’t really want to understand. They are dismissive and can’t accept that when they demand to know ‘what’s wrong,’ sometimes I don’t have an answer that will make sense to them. Then there are those people who think a sunny day or a nap will ‘cure’ me. I’ve found it easier to just not have those people in my life, if possible. For the people I can’t walk away from, I take a lot of hot, steamy showers so I can be alone and cry… without having to answer to anyone.” — Ck D.
“I’ll explain to them my brain is like a computer with way too many windows open. It gets overwhelming. After a while, it’s harder to open a new window. It slows down, then starts freaking out, and eventually freezes up.” — Cara C.
5. Shutting Down or Dissociating
Anxiety-induced dissociation is sometimes described as an “out of body feeling” — when you feel disconnected from your thoughts, identity and body. In her piece about anxiety and dissociating, Mighty contributor Kelly Douglas described the experience as: “You feel disconnected from your own body. You wander aimlessly, purposelessly, your mind unconsciously piloting you… In your disorientation, you feel lightheaded, like you are floating. Your thoughts are so blurred that they are indistinguishable.”
“My comfort item, which is a stuffed teddy bear that I named after my husband, a super soft, fuzzy blanket and a comfort movie (for me, that’s ‘Moana’). My comfort movie helps take my mind off the things I’m freaking out about.” — Liz G.
“My bed. I focus on how smooth and cool the sheets are, the weight of the blankets, the way the pillows dip just right. I can actually feel the tension leave my body.” — Carmen A.
“Sometimes sitting in silence for a little bit. Other times I’ll put on a Disney movie to brighten my spirits or a TV show that makes me laugh.” — Lindz E.
“Name specific colors I see in the environment, words I see around me, spell out words or colors I see, and count to numbers that I find. Or name things that I can smell, hear or feel. It can really help to ground me.” — Erin H.
“I acknowledge it. I think to myself, ‘Wow, OK, I’m dissociating. This will pass.” And then I point out things I can feel with my five senses to ground myself. It usually does the trick.” — Jennifer S.
6. Difficulty Communicating Needs
There are many reasons why someone with anxiety might have a hard time communicating their needs. Whether they feel like they don’t “deserve” to advocate for themselves, or because they’re too anxious to potentially cause a conflict by speaking up, it can be hard to express what you want/need when you’re fighting an inner battle with anxiety.
“Writing. If I’m having trouble saying something, I write it down and then send that to the person. Some people have trouble even with writing, but for me, writing is like breathing. Writing is how I express all my thoughts.” — James P.
“You may find it weird, I’ll cover my face or tell the person to not look at me when I say what I need. Having someone look at me when I feel anxious makes me feel bad, like I’m doing something wrong. I’ll also avoid eye contact and likely say, ‘I don’t know’ a million times during the sentence as I try and force myself to explain what I need but have a hard time saying it because I’m battling a million thoughts in my head. ‘I’m needy.’ ‘I’m disgusting.’ ‘I don’t deserve it.’ ‘I’m a grown woman who needs to do it alone.’ Then I end up resorting to feeling like a child after it’s all said and done.” — Tiffany C.
“Sign language. I might be too worked up to physically speak, but I can speak my needs through sign language… if the other person knows it. That’s why I wish everyone knew sign language. Even if just basics. There are so many who use it.” — Jess H.
“Texting. When I shut down, sometimes it’s easier to communicate through texting. It’s not as stressful as face-to-face, and I don’t have to talk.” — Cara C.
“Taking my time. Sometimes I need time to think about what it is I’m truly trying to say and then I come back when I’m calmer and thinking straight.” — Melanie K.
7. Racing Thoughts
Racing thoughts — or thoughts that never seem to stop — always seem to come at the most inopportune times, like when you’re trying to sleep or right before a big test. It’s like the floodgates of your mind have opened, and every negative thought, every worry and every doubt come bouncing out at once.
“Cleaning and/or organizing. The way my psychologist explained it to me after I told her, was basically when my brain feels like it’s out of, or getting out of control, it’ll start to want to control things. So when my mind starts racing, I’ll get these urges to clean or organize whatever I can get my hands on.” — Lacey S.
“I watch Netflix while cooking or cleaning the kitchen and sleep with the TV on; otherwise my mind will not shut up.”– Debbie D.
“Sometimes, what helps me is to be very intentional about shifting my attention to tangible things in the moment. For example, if I get anxiety while driving, I focus on small, tangible things, like, ‘I can feel the steering wheel in my hands,’ or ‘I can feel the warmth of the sun on my face,’ or ‘I can feel the support of the seat against my back.’ Putting my attention on simple things that I can feel in the moment helps me tune out the incessant racing anxiety thoughts.” — Ember B.
“Mindfulness meditation, but I also love creating and reciting limericks. I like the rhythm of limericks. When my heart is racing I repeat the words in my head in time to my heartbeat. There is something about rhyming words that pleases and calms me. Creating new limericks makes me concentrate on words and rhymes rather than the racing thoughts. It’s a great form of distraction. Also humor is an effective way of dissolving anxious thoughts. ‘There once was a woman called Jo / Who wouldn’t go out in the snow / Afraid she might fall / She built up a wall / And waited for winter to go.'” — Jo M.
“They usually come when I’m trying to rest or fall asleep, so I pick three spots on my body that I can feel. For example, my cheek on the blanket, hand under my head and feet on each other, and I go through them one at a time over and over, until they’re the only things on my mind.” — Adah J.
“Talking it out. If I have no one to talk to, I talk out loud anyway if I am alone. Hearing myself helps me see how irrational I am being. If it’s something to do with a situation and my anxiety isn’t irrational, it just helps to ‘get it off my chest.’ If I can’t talk it out I let myself have a real good cry. For me it’s all about releasing the anxiety.” — Jessie A.
“Fidget toys. I find that channeling my energy into something else helps me focus better and stop the train of anxiety ridden thoughts. Usually it’s something small like a stress ball, or some putty. But my favorite is actually a small hex nut on a key ring. Just the texture and the spinning nature help.” — Filly D.
What’s the worst part of anxiety for you? How do you cope?