July 7, 2014

Avoiding the Anxiety Sucker Punch

First, some background: I have struggled with anxiety since 2011, when I underwent brain surgery and had a really difficult time healing.  The process was long and I found my anxiety impeded my ability to gauge what was real and what was not (health wise).  It's a very tricky thing, anxiety.  It consumes your ability to evaluate your sense of self, and it can be emotionally rending.

I sought help and found it (thankfully - life became overwhelmingly hard with anxiety).  I found a wonderful counselor that helped me to re-think anxiety and taught me how to cope.  I saw my doctor, who helped me with medications and directed me towards many of the suggestions I include below.  I was open about how I struggled - with my husband and other family members who loved me regardless.  I learned to depend upon God in ways I never had before, and He helped me in tangible ways.

With all that help, I'm much healthier and happier now.  I still struggle with anxiety, but on the whole am as happy as ever.  It does get better with time and effort.

Avoiding the Anxiety Sucker Punch

Learn your triggers:
Anxiety is more predictable than you think. Usually anxiety has triggers that tend to set off reactions in you.  This isn't the 'why' you have anxiety as much as 'when'.  After an attack, or intense feelings of anxiety, observe the situation you were in.  What were you thinking about?  Was there something in your day you were uncomfortable with?  Who was with you?  What time of day was it? Do you have extra stress?  Are you exhausted?  Are you taking care of your body (ie. eating well, or drinking enough?) I have learned that I get anxiety attacks when 1. I'm tired, 2. I'm at odds with my hubby, and 3. over-commit my time.  Those three are a recipe for disaster for me.  I have a friend whose triggers include really busy places, like Costco on a Saturday.  Another friend noticed she feels anxious most when she has back to back commitments. Pay attention and you'll find you can avoid the perfect storm more often.  

Accept things as they are:
Anxiety isn't a weakness, or even a disease. It's a response.  And learning to cope with it when you're experiencing too much of that response is necessary.  At that point it becomes a condition, or a disorder even. It's not just in your head.
When you develop anxiety (which is common), you have to accept that you need to change how you deal with life's ups and downs, and not insist that you can 'handle it' as you may have before.

Don't kick yourself because you are anxious, or allow embarrassment to impede your seeking help. Especially don't allow yourself to think that you're less of a person because you live with anxiety. EVERYONE struggles with something.  Anxiety is just your struggle. It's ok.  You learn to live with it.  Let me say that again.  You can learn to live with it, not just survive it.

Don't fight so hard against it, ride it out instead:
In my experience, the quickest way to have a panic attack is to get all worked up that you're going to have a panic attack.  Instead, recognize that you have them from time to time, and that you've been through it before and made it.  We can handle more than we think when we take fear out of the equation. Refuse to re-play other panic attacks or intense anxiety in your mind.  Concentrate on thoughts of coming relief.  You've done it before, you can do it again. It's not easy, but it gets easier with practice.

Find a doc and take your meds:
Taking your meds aren't a sign of weakness.  They treat anxiety much like pain medicine helps with passing a kidney stone.  It's a real ailment, and your body will prove it to you.  Sometimes you have to switch prescriptions a few times until you find one that has the least side effects for you and helps the most.  A good doctor is so valuable in this. Healing comes so much faster with a good doc, or a good therapist. You may not need them at all in the years to come, but for now, don't be prideful, just get yourself some help.

Watch what you watch:
I'm all for being informed, but when I'm struggling, I just don't watch the news.  It's usually bad news, and can disrupt your sense of peace unnecessarily.  I follow the same rule with upsetting movies. I find I feel a little more vulnerable when I'm anxious, so I don't watch disturbing things and it really helps.


The opposite of avoiding upsetting thing is to seek out peaceful things.  I have an excellent meditation app on my phone that offers a 5 minute, 15 minute or 25 minute meditation routine that helps me to physically relax, which almost always allows me to mentally relax.  If meditation is weird for you, make yourself a playlist that relaxes you or find a set of exercises that you can do in a pinch to draw out the tension that almost always accompanies anxiety.
This would've been especially helpful to me when my hubby and I got to visit LA and were on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  They put us in seats that were directly in the view of the camera for several portions of the show, and I was having a panic attack about being on live TV.  I made it through without outwardly freaking out (which was very difficult), but how I would've loved to put in my headphones for a few minutes before the show just to calm down!

Despite the differing opinions we all hold on who God is and his nature as it relates to us, the power of prayer is universal. It allows us to trust that a wiser, more perfect being is ultimately in control, not us.  Prayer gives me hope that my imperfect body can still function enough to accomplish great things.  And I've seen it's benefits in tangible ways. Although it is often the thing I do when I have no other help to be found, it's the first thing to do if I'm using it right.  God is real, and it helps.

I'm not the only one who benefits from praying.  Harvard scientist Herbert Benson, MD has done his own research to understand how mind affects body. "All forms of prayer", he says, "evoke a relaxation response that quells stress, quiets the body, and promotes healing."  More info here.

DO something enjoyable:
When I struggled with terrible insomnia related to anxiety, I found sitting in bed hoping to fall asleep just made me worse.  Much worse.  So I got up and began playing that snow ball game on Wii Fit.  I am not a gamer, nor do I like staying in the house when I could throw real snow balls out side, but this was enjoyable to me and didn't disrupt others in the house at 3AM.  It also helped physically.  Take an art class at your YMCA or community college.  Join an online discussion about something you care about.  Serve a neighbor who needs it.  Work on getting better at a talent.  Do something that rewards you in feeling good.

Be careful with this one, because drinking is enjoyable to a lot of people.  But it doesn't help here.  And eating is enjoyable, but moderate what you're eating.  You don't need self loathing to add to the list of contributors of your anxiety.

Laugh more:
 Not fake laugh.  Real, pure and simple appreciation of the funny things about life. The more you practice, the better you get at finding humor in the things around you.  Start out by collecting funny things on pinterest.  You can visit my funny board if you need a place to jump off.  If my sense of humor isn't funny to you, then look around until you do find other things that make you laugh.  Laughing releases endorphins, which naturally fight cortisol and other hormones that negatively effect you.  

On my worst days, exercise is the only thing that will help me out.  Sometimes you just need to move, get outside and reset your body.  Try zumba at home or in a gym.  Walk your dog, or do an exercise video at home.  Do it for at least 20 minutes and you'll fee the good effects of it.

I hope that doing some or all of these things are helpful!  Keep your hopes up and never give yourself up for lost.  You can deal with the symptoms of your anxiety until you learn to manage it, which will happen with time and effort.  

I'd love to know how you've learned to manage anxiety, please leave a comment!

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