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The Thought Exercise I Use to Help Unravel My Anxiety

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Lately I’m learning I can experience symptoms of anxiety or depression without becoming fearful that I will have a full breakdown or episode.
In fact, times of anxiety and depression are normal and part of the human experience. The problem I face is that, historically speaking, a hint of depression or a dash of racing thoughts have led me to a period of mood instability, which is hard to recover from without serious interventions.

Because of that, any sort of off-kilter mood change I experience sets off a tiny alarm in my brain. For example, yesterday I struggled to breathe. I felt as if a giant boulder was sitting on my chest and I just couldn’t take a deep enough breathe, no matter what I tried. My shoulders were tense, it felt as if my heart was racing too fast and I felt “jumpy” or “triggered” for danger. I was on edge.

I don’t like that feeling, because I don’t experience a lot of anxiety and it feels intrusive. I typically swing from low levels of hypomania or depression, so anxiety is not as familiar as those two. Also in the past, when I have experienced symptoms of anxiety, it leads me to what seemed to be a point of no return. That is scary to me.

So I walked into my counselor’s office yesterday carrying the weight of this boulder. Within the first 10 minutes, she helped me see that it would be strange if I wasn’t feeling anxiety right now with everything going on in the world. She also helped me unravel some of my anxieties and match them up with what we call “data.” This exercise is one we go through pretty frequently, and it is so helpful for me.

Here’s how it works:

I told her I feared that because I struggled with mental health issues in the past and have improved so much, struggling again makes me feel like a fraud, especially because I try to be so vocal about advocating for mental wellness. My worry: nobody wants to listen to a fraud or a hypocrite. She asked me what data I have to back that up.

I didn’t have any. In fact, just this last month my podcast had over half a million downloads. Someone is listening.

I told her I was fearful that this feeling of anxiousness wouldn’t pass and it would send me spiraling into an unhealthy mood cycle. My worry: I am facing a point of no return. She asked me what data I have to back that up.

I didn’t have any. Instead, I have early intervention strategies to employ. I can take some time off social media, I can go for a walk, I can make a delicious meal or bake something, I can meditate and repeat mantras to myself, I can go to bed early… and if need be, I can see my psychiatrist about medication intervention. I have so many action steps I can take.

I told her I was fearful that things would never be normal again, I would never see people smiling again. I fear I will forever see masked faces, which makes me anxious. My worry: this pandemic and these resulting guidelines will never go away. She asked what data I have to back that up.

I didn’t have any. In fact, I’ve never heard of a pandemic that never ended.

Examining data and unraveling each anxiety is a practice that helps me so much when I start to feel my mental strength wavering. I highly recommend trying this out when you start to feel anxious. Maybe you could journal it out, or ask a friend or spouse to listen, then have them ask you what data you have to support that thought.

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One quick note: maybe you do have data. Maybe one experience has caused you to have a recurring anxiety. To that, I would continue to unravel the anxiety by asking, “what data do you have it will happen again, just like that?” Or, ask yourself, “what would happen next if you experience that again?”

My guess is you would make it. Just like you’re making it right now, still standing, still here.

You have data to support that.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Originally published: August 10, 2020
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