Anxiety is fucked up.
We’ve all experienced anxiety on some level. Defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome”, it’s highly likely that at some point in the near future you will feel uncertain about something and feel cause to be alarmed or freaked out. Anxiety Coach describes anxiety as being a Trick: “You experience Discomfort, and get fooled into treating it like Danger.”
For some of us, though, anxiety runs a little deeper. When it becomes broad and debilitating, that’s when things really start to go downhill.
Where does anxiety come from?
… lists the following as potential causes of anxiety:
- overactivity in areas of the brain involved in emotions and behaviour
- an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline, which are involved in the control and regulation of mood
- the genes you inherit from your parents – you’re estimated to be 5 times more likely to develop GAD if you have a close relative with the condition
- having a history of stressful or traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, child abuse or bullying
- having a painful long-term health condition, such as arthritis
- having a history of drug or alcohol misuse
My experience of anxiety has largely been socially based. I had my first panic attack at 16, and struggled through uni, where hour-long tutorial discussions are the done thing. It has followed me ever since, even though I’ve happily made strides – like forcing myself to go to parties where I know no-one but the host, or answering the phone instead of letting it go to voicemail.
In recent years, it has made me want to quit my job, avoid entering into romantic relationships, and burrow down under the covers, ready to call in sick for a workday or an event.
Even though I’ve been able to face anxiety head-on and push through to the other side, I have noticed that it kinda dips back down under the surface and spreads itself in other ways, ready to pop out like margarine through Salada biscuits if I’m not observant enough.
And I guess that’s the thing. There is a huge proportion of people who believe that anxiety can’t be cured, only managed, and I feel the same way. If we are wired to be more sensitive to specific triggers, we can do our best to successfully minimise our responses to those triggers, but ultimately it’s something that we have to get used to doing over and over again. It can feel like pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill, trundling along, and just when you think the load has lifted it refills. Maybe not all the way, but still enough to pull you out of your comfort zone.
Sometimes, anxiety might just manifest in more pleasant but maladaptive when unchecked behaviours, like judging others; telling white lies to avoid being judged; avoiding places or events for seemingly valid reasons in the moment. It could be the pit in your stomach in the morning when you wake up, regardless of what you do. A restlessness that won’t quit. Your anxiety may be secretly manifesting in ways not immediately clear.
If you’re finding yourself removing from your reality, or worrying about things that in the larger scheme of things, don’t hold up to your fears, you might need to practise the tips below.
I’ve organised the tips into eras – when you’re bang-smack in the midst of an attack, when you’re coming down and able to revisit and review the situation, and when you’re in a happier place and can prepare for the next onslaught.
What to do when anxiety comes back
WHEN EVERYTHING’S OKAY:
- Acceptance is key. “So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” – Eckhart Tolle. Remember, we all experience some level of anxiety or unchecked fear about a lot of things. Resisting the inevitable will always be futile. Familiarising yourself with this, and the concept of ACT, will help immeasurably next time.
- On that token: if you are in a bad situation, for example an abusive relationship or a job with conditions that make you dread rocking up, use any pockets of time where you aren’t in complete debilitating anxiety and strategise. What can be done to change the outcome of your current trajectory?
- Take my 31 Days of Conquering Overwhelm challenge. An action a day will make you a lot more conscious of what sets you off and how you can create a mental environment to properly deal with it.
- Complete an online course, or self-imposed reading course. The best way to deal with anxiety is to understand and know everything you need to about it. Knowledge is indeed power, and like in a video game where the unlocked parts remain dark, your brain will conjure up explanations and possibilities and omens until you become clear on how this whole debacle works.
- See someone. But instead of just using therapy as a chance to vent, make it clear that you have things you’d like to actively work on, and build an outline of how you’re going to do this.
- Browse YouTube for relevant videos and soothing background music, to help you get into calming mode whenever you need.
- Sit with your thoughts for at least 10 minutes, and consider what is impacting your anxiety – starting at the base of Maslow’s pyramid can be helpful. Work through any base physical triggers, then move upward. Maintain a broad view of your life experiences.
- Put on your research scientist hat. If there’s an area of your life where you know you’re not functioning 100%, try working on it for a designated period of time and see if it makes a difference on your overall mood. Things like sleep quality, nutrient consumption, and self-talk.
- Make a list of in-between-attack solutions you know will work but that you’re avoiding for whatever reason. Break them down into minuscule steps, and try the first one – the key here is to approach this with curiosity, and the knowledge that you can pause or stop any time you like. Find support if you need. Allow yourself to be challenged, safely.
- Remind yourself that no matter the anxiety-inducing situation, time will pass. Every aspect of our lives ebbs and flows – we need to enjoy the good times when they occur, and use these strengthening feelings as a build-up of ammo for when the bad return.
- Make a list of immediate things you can do when you’re in the middle of an attack. What do you like? These are things that you can lean into, without being maladaptive. For example, exercise and quality films in your favourite genre are great relaxants, but they become maladaptive coping strategies if you start obsessively going to the gym or bingeing movies to avoid feelings of discomfort.
WHEN YOU’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT:
- Focus on what’s real. Remember the definition at the top of this page? Anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.” When our brains are unsure, they start making up stories. Your brain will turn into a very efficient lying machine if you don’t pull it up on its crap. While you’re in a situation, start by focusing on the tangible things around you that you know are there for sure – for example, the colour of the sky, or the texture of the ground.
- Question your negative self-talk. This is a proper challenge. Your brain will fire back at you, and even conjure rationalisations that make sense because you’re inside your own head, the conjurer itself.
- Practise quick moments of gratitude. Remember that like any temporary thing, time will not remain like this forever. You have had good things happen. Recall them.
- View the situation like a boss battle in a video game or superhero film. Make what you’re experiencing an endeavour, a problem you need to solve, as opposed to something you’re stuck in forever.
- Practise ACT strategies. Embrace the emotions you’re feeling instead of resisting or fearing them. The key is to breathe deeply into what you’re feeling and imagine yourself expanding to the size of the emotion, so that you are bigger than it. It’s hard to remember these action points in the moment, but I can tell you that I tried this once when I was inconsolable and it helped. And that’s the only reason I’m including it in the list, because even if it seems ridiculous, it will 100% cause a shift in your brainscape, and that’s the first step to getting out of the anxious mindset.
- Another tried and true method: record your feelings and thoughts. The act itself is cathartic, and you can decide how you want to deal with your ramblings being in physical form. You can forget they ever existed, or you can track your writings over time and look for patterns that weren’t previously obvious. This can be a great first step to taking back your power and devising a plan of solutions for preventing and managing your unique blend of overwhelm.
- Consider being open about your anxiety when you’re feeling crap. Letting the truth out and seeing that people aren’t likely to judge but instead either listen or want to help can be an important step in realising you’re never truly alone.
JUST AFTER IT’S OVER:
- Eat your favourite meal. Or, find a cafe that has nourishing, serotonin-boosting dishes. Responding to your mind on the come-down with self-care will help speed up that recovery process.
- Have a quick nap or meditate. You might be super tired after trying to deal with your most recent bout of anxiety. Put a timer on and some soothing background music, and either let your thoughts float about or put your mind to rest completely.
- Take deep breaths, refilling your lungs with fresh air. Breathe out the old, and let in the new. Do this by a window or outside for maximum benefit.
- Write about the shift from anxiety to calm, noticing without judgment what caused the attack to subside. Don’t force yourself to find reasons. Just let the pen move and the thoughts flow, unfiltered. You might realise something you weren’t conscious of, initially.
- Go for a nice walk, or drive out somewhere in nature. Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, lists disconnect from nature as one of the major issues affecting modern society. Ever stayed locked inside for too long, and felt cabin fever? By that time your brain is begging you to give it what it requires. Avoid getting to this point, which will just keep the anxiety cycle regenerating.
- Listen to a playlist of your favourite music. But try to go for tracks that soothe, instead of exacerbate, negative emotions. Break-up songs and death metal bops may not be the smartest choice here.
- Take part in a pleasurable activity. My go-to activities include reading, writing, watching aesthetically pleasing YouTube vlogs, and listening to musical numbers. Go with what works for you – just make sure it’s something that will keep you feeling good longer, as opposed to watching old Vine compilations and feeling crap about the time-drain.
- Write up a list of things you’d like to happen differently next time. Or, visualise in vivid detail you dealing with your anxiety in the moment. Remembering that we need to be realistic and can’t expect to respond to something like anxiety perfectly, what are some small physical steps you can take to get close to making that ideal vision a reality?
The most important thing to remember about anxiety
I think the most important thing we need to remember is that feelings of anxiety are natural. To expect to never feel negativity again after practising these steps, or reading self-improvement material, is 100% impossible, and will lead to further despair over a situation that would be much better managed with realism and patience.
Lower your expectations of how things are supposed to be. Strive for a high quality of life, yes. Don’t allow people to walk all over you. Minimise your exposure to situations that aren’t merely mentally challenging and rather downright demoralising.
But be okay with the challenge. With reality and fantasy not lining up all the time. If you are prone to anxiety, be ready for it. Don’t be so easily disarmed. Know that the shit times are SHIT. This is not an exaggeration. But human beings are built to deal with less-than-ideal situations. What you can do is keep practising the right management techniques for you.
This is a lifelong journey. But if you’re conscious and willing to see everything as an exercise in building yourself up (however gradually), you’ve got this.
Print out this flashcard that references all the steps outlined in this post, listed in a simple and easily accessible format.
Try the 31 Days of Conquering Overwhelm challenge! All you have to lose is your existential dread.
Comment below: What are some strategies you’ve built up over the years to help you deal with recurring anxiety? Have you tried any of the tips in this blog post? Did they work, or would you modify them in any way?