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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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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: November 13, 2016
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