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3 Categories of Coping Skills for Anxiety (and How I Use Them)

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Man, oh man. My anxiety is through the roof. Why? (Warning … strong language ahead.)

No fucking idea.

Contrary to a vaguely popular (and really fucking irritating) belief, anxiety is not stress or worry — although stressing and worrying are part of anxiety. And it is most certainly not a choice. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s something you have, like chickenpox. Although thankfully, chickenpox is a once (perhaps twice)-in-a-lifetime affair. Anxiety, on the other hand, can be a daily curse. Forever. And just like chickenpox, it needs to be managed. If anxiety is not a condition you have to tick on tell-me-your-medical-history quizzes, then first, I’m jealous; and second, please try to understand. A lot of us are dealing with this shit, and your understanding and empathy can make a big difference. But how do you slow a racing pulse? We can’t all be like Qui-Gon Jinn, with the inexplicable ability to drop into a trance-like meditative state midway through an epic Jedi battle. Is it even possible to stop the fear coursing through your body? Or the incessant and uncontrollable need to wiggle and jiggle like the skivvy-clad quartet, popular with toddlers for the past two decades?

And that startle reflex is really startling.

I’ve been known to scare the life out of store attendants with my freaky leap-in-the-air-with-panic response to the rather unassuming question, “Would you like some help?” Anxiety may be a mental health issue, but it has physical consequences. And they’re very fucking uncomfortable. Calming the farm is problematic. There are as many tools and options as there are people on the face of the planet. What works for one, may not work for another. Putting aside pharmacological management for a moment (in my opinion, it’s great, but not instant, not appropriate for everybody and not a complete solution), most coping strategies fall into three categories (again, in my opinion).

1. Maladaptive.

AKA, a really bad option. Any kind of coping strategy with a negative impact on you (or someone else), is maladaptive. I learned to manage anxiety by ignoring it, becoming depressed, developing an eating disorder, numbing emotions (usually by burying my head in something so the real world disappears — reading, writing, playing Candy Crush …) and self-harm. Self-harm is my go-to behavior and something I instinctively go in search of when breathing becomes difficult, thoughts can’t be stilled and I’m quivering like a bowl of jelly in an earthquake.

2. Mind games.

Mindfulness is the buzzword of the 21st century. And I’m sure it’s really fricking fabulous. But I suck at it. Stilling my thoughts is impossible. Popping them onto clouds and streams or shoving them in filing cabinets doesn’t work — they just pop straight back into my head. I’m sure a lot more practice would see improvement, and perhaps I’ll get my shit together and do some practice, but for my current bout of high anxiety, it’s not helpful. What I have found helpful however, is … (I sat here for 15 minutes trying to think of mental activities that help still my mental chaos — I can’t think of any. I appear to have mentally failed this category).

3. Distraction.

There are tools that do (sometimes) work for me in this category. Phew! Grounding is my favorite: finding five things I can see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Really focus on each thing and try to describe it to myself. It’s surprisingly helpful. And really bloody simple. Physical exercise is awesome, going for a huge walk, to the gym, doing a workout or housework. (Haha! That’s a joke, I don’t do housework??) Television is terrific. Burying myself into a movie or binge-watching Netflix are pretty fabulous. My mind is sufficiently engaged, it forgets to be anxious. Until the phone rings and my startle reflex pops back up.

Breathing is another simple, but useful trick. I know we all breathe all the time (those that don’t aren’t reading), but focused breathing (I like apps to focus on) makes a world of difference, particularly if anxiety is morphing into a panic attack.

And last but not least, touching stuff. Not just any stuff, I used to use a stress ball, but I lost it. Now I have a toy rabbit called Hope. Becoming mentally and physically focused on the object in hand, helps. It helps me, anyway. Any psychologist, psychiatrist or would-be therapist, would (should) have a large bag of tricks to draw from when it comes to healthy ways to manage anxiety. I’m sure I’ve been taught all sorts of things, but not all work and not all are remembered.

The one thing I do need to remember: Tools don’t make anxiety go away, they simply make it manageable.

They stop it from escalating into panic. And the undignified experience of having an ambulance called to confirm there’s nothing “wrong,” you’re not actually having a heart attack. I haven’t mastered Jedi mind tricks and I’m still startling myself with my startle reflex. I know this too shall pass, it always does. In the meantime, it’s really fucking unpleasant. I don’t know why it’s there. I don’t know when it will go. I can fondle a blanket, breathe deeply and binge-watch Netflix. And I can write. Write, write, write. It’s always my most cathartic outlet.

Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria

Originally published: February 5, 2020
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