(like, omg if I could just let it go DON’T YOU THINK I WOULD??)
I recently posted a poll asking for suggestions on topics to explore together and the overwhelming response was anxiety. I’m honestly not surprised about this. Our society is dripping with anxiety, especially the past few weeks over the Coronavirus and how the average adult seems to not normally wash their hands very often. Whether you are feeling panicked about that or not, anxiety is a feeling that the majority of us can relate to.
I figured this would be a good intro topic for a mental health blog.
First thing- like so many other words, we overuse the word “anxiety.” I need to make sure to point out to those of you that have never experienced true anxiety that it is not simply feeling nervousness or worry. Everyone has felt those things at some point, but not everyone has experienced anxiety. So please keep in mind that saying “It’s going to be okay” and “Just let it go” or my personal favorite “You just need to give it to God” are extremely unhelpful and invalidating (like, omg if I could just let it go DON’T YOU THINK I WOULD??)
On the flip side, anxiety does not always look like a panic attack either. Many people deal with anxiety on almost a daily basis and have never experienced it as a full blown attack. That also should not invalidate what you are feeling and saying “Well it’s not that bad” to yourself is not helpful. There is no need to judge or compare our intensity- if it is distressing then you deserve help.
Another point worth noting is that people struggling with anxiety often cannot tell you what it is tied to. Why am I feeling anxious? I have no idea and not knowing only exasperates the feeling. It also makes it feel harder to “fix” (without a therapist) because you are not sure of the source- however there are some universal coping skills that can help regardless of the origin that I will share in a bit.
Anxiety also presents very differently for everyone. Here are some common symptoms of anxiety:
Negative self talk
Shortness of breath
Irritability (this is often how mine presents and it took me a very long time to recognize that)
Loss of or increase in appetite
This is not a complete list by any means and I encourage you to make your own so that you can identify your own list of symptoms.
You will hear me say this over and over, but I believe that awareness of a problem is half of the work. If you can work to increase your awareness (what, when, why, and how you are experiencing something) consistently, you will be able to work through it more effectively. Let’s start with some journaling prompts:
What am I feeling right now? (see list of symptoms above or add your own)
How intense am I feeling this from 1-10?
Where do I feel it in my body? (Headache, tension, heart racing, tingling)
How long did this feeling last?
After you spend a few days asking yourself these questions and logging your answers, most people start to notice trends and patterns. Maybe it’s before work that you notice negative self talk increasing, at night you get antsy, or perhaps before seeing a particular family member you have a knot in your stomach.
Once you notice a trend you can come up with a plan.
1- Get a therapist. (Why don’t you have one already? You have a PCP, right?) You should not have to deal with this alone. Even if your anxiety is not impairing your daily function, get a therapist. I use EMDR for anxiety and it works wonders. When you are searching for a therapist, specifically ask if they are EMDR trained because you will want this! More info on EMDR is coming in another blog post soon.
2- Build your toolbox of coping skills.
3- Make tough decisions. Do I need to set new boundaries (ooh wee...that's another hot topic) that will be hard in the beginning but help me in the long run? Do I need to change jobs? Do I need to change my DIET (Yes, girl. Diet has a HUGE impact on anxiety. More on that later.)
So now that you have all of this awareness and you are waiting for your first appointment with your therapist, what to do in the meantime?
Here is a short list of my favorite grounding techniques. For those of you interested in the science behind these, in short- anxiety activates your sympathetic nervous system. That’s the adrenaline rush, increase in heart rate, ready to run feeling you have. You want to calm that down and engage the parasympathetic system so that you can decrease those responses. That’s what these techniques do.
Deep breathing- by far the easiest and most popular technique I would say. There are several simple breath counts that work but you have to find the one that is most effective for you. While you are counting breaths, try to only focus on what you are doing. Close your eyes and visualize your lungs expanding and contracting.
4 Square- think of drawing a square while you counting breaths. 4 counts in, hold at the top for 4, another 4 counts out, hold at the bottom for 4. When you are holding- don’t act like you are underwater, just gently sit with the inhale or exhale before moving to the next.
4, 7, 8- 4 counts in, 7 count hold, 8 counts out. The exhale engages the parasympathetic system, so the longer you spend exhaling vs inhaling, the more effective it will be.
Belly breathing- regardless of which counting technique you use, you want to breath not just from the lungs but all the way through your abdomen. Sit with a straight back and place one hand on your chest and one on your belly. When you inhale, feel the breath come completely through your lungs and belly- you want to feel both expand. Then exhale to empty both.
Acupressure points- if you are in a meeting and can’t close your eyes and belly breath (because that could be awkward, right?) you might want to learn about acupressure points. There are certain pressure points on your body that taking deeper breaths and massaging these spots can help to engage the parasympathetic system as well. The easiest pressure point is on your hand between your thumb and index finger. Gently massaging that soft point can be calming and the more you practice it, the more effective it will be.
I have plenty of other coping skills that I plan to share, but starting with these is a great way to begin a mindfulness practice of managing your anxiety. At the end of the day, knowing you are not in this alone is so important. You aren’t. And you deserve help. Finding a community (like this one) that supports working through these issues with no shame and judgement is vital.
I would love to connect and hear your experiences too! What helps you during anxious moments?