I’ve been living with anxiety for most of my life – but I never actually realised it was anxiety. I thought everyone was ready to get off the bus or train five minutes before they needed to be. I thought everyone practised conversations before having them (even what to say when buying a bus ticket), and that everyone just had that feeling like there was a washing machine on a spin cycle in their chest all the time.
Even in 2010, when I was diagnosed with “anxiety and depression” and the GP told me that my bouts of not being able to catch my breath for hours at a time were anxiety attacks, I assumed it was a misdiagnosis. It was only relatively recently that I realised that some people just don’t have these feelings – or if they do, only when they’re in a big, anxiety inducing situation like an exam or something.
Here are some things I have picked up over the years, for coping with anxiety…
Don’t try to calm down when you’re anxious
I saw a quote on the internet a while ago: The opposite of anxiety isn’t calm; it’s presence. It really struck a chord with me. Trying to calm down when you’re feeling anxious is possibly the most pointless thing there is. In fact, a lot of the time it makes things worse – you can’t calm down, and suddenly you’re even more aware of just how anxious you’re feeling and it’s getting worse because you should be able to calm down, shouldn’t you? Trying to calm down just steps everything up a notch in my experience.
Instead of trying to calm down, focus on being in the present moment. Find things to focus on in the here and now. For some people, mid panic attack, it’s helpful to do that thing where you look for 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. For me, trying to remember that list makes me more anxious! Instead, I focus on my breath and really pay attention to the sensations in my body as I follow the breath in and out. If I’m at my desk, I watch the birds feeding in the bush outside my window, or find a tree and watch its branches blowing in the breeze. I might also attempt to count birds or leaves or branches or whatever – anything that brings me into this moment right here, instead of flying off a mile a minute into some unknown future situation.
Prevention is better than cure
When you’re in the middle of an anxiety attack or a period of high anxiety, it’s really hard to try and climb back down from that. Better then to work on things that help to ground you and avoid it getting that bad in the first place.
For me, the prevention is meditation. I meditate every day. Sometimes, on days when I am feeling anxious, it’s like torture and I don’t last long – but I still do it. On other days I am able to reach a state of calm where I am fully present in the moment – even if only for one moment.
The thing about meditation is that you don’t really see the effects at the time. You might finish a meditation and think oh, I feel more relaxed now – or you might finish and think that was like torture. Either way, it’s what happens later on that makes the difference. For me, meditation gives me a space in between stimulus and response. It allows me to step in and make myself take a few deep breaths before my anxious mind reacts to something. It’s a way of staying grounded.
Take good care of yourself
I know this sounds a bit simplistic – but if you’re not used to taking care of yourself it can be hard to stop the early warning signs of anxiety creeping up on you, and then before you know it you’re overwhelmed and hardly functioning.
Taking care of yourself has two benefits then: firstly, it can help you to avoid becomign too anxious, by providing time and space in your life to calm your nervous system. Secondly, it can help you to spot the warning signs that things are becoming difficult, and allow you to take some time out and reset before things get out of hand.
Taking care of yourself doesn’t necessarily mean bubble baths and glasses of wine though; it can mean making tough decisions about who you spend time with and where your energy goes. It might mean saying no to that social occasion because you need an early night. It’s the boring, grown up side of self care that you need here!
Most people on a daily basis breathe only into their chest. You might think, That’s where my lungs are though – and you would be right. Except that in order for your lungs to fill properly, your diaphragm needs to move downwards. So actually, a full deep breath should start by expanding your belly, rather than causing you to raise your shoulders.
If you’ve never done this before, it might sound a bit weird. This video might help you to understand what I mean.
Once you have figured out what it feels like to breathe into your diaphragm, you can use this either as part of a meditation or breathwork practice, or just as a quick, mindful check in every now and then.
Get out of your head
When I am anxious, I live almost entirely in my head. I find that I can become cut off from my body, spending all of my time thinking, thinking, thinking – with no actual feeling involved. This is probably a problem of the modern age in some respects. Getting back into your body can help to calm your thoughts. That might look like a meditation practice where you focus on sensations in your body, or a mindful yoga practice.
I’ve been to many yoga classes where I completely lost track of wheher I was lifting my right or left foot next because my anxious mind was busy composing emails I would never send. I’ve also been to yoga classes where the teacher had us lay on the floor and rotate our legs in our hip joints for what felt like forever. My anxious, impatient mind hated every second of it – but the more I stuck with it, the more I found that I could actually pick up on signals from my body that I had never heard before. I could tell when a muscle was feeling a little tight before it became something so physically painful I couldn’t sit straight.
Now, when I practise yoga I am (mostly) able to move my consciousness out of my head and into my body while I pay attention to what I am doing. It’s like giving my mind a holiday!
Go for a walk
In her book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful Sarah Wilson suggests a kind of mindful walking where you breathe in for 3 steps, then out for 3 steps. This makes you focus on tying your breath to the movement – and you have to move really slowly to be able to do it. And that can quieten the anxiety. I have often gone for long, wandering walks when feeling anxious and it always helps.
When we are anxious, there are a lot of stressy hormones rushing around the body – and walking gives them somewhere to go. They have a use in getting your body moving. As well as this, walking can help to make your thoughts slow down to the same pace as your feet are moving – which means you can actually process them rather than just be overwhelmed by them.
When you’re in the middle of it, accept and acknowledge it
There is such a thing as being anxious about being anxious. To anyone who has not suffered this particular hell, it probably sounds ridiculous. Well, if I’m honest it sounds ridiculous to me too – and I have been down that path many times. You start to feel anxious, and then a voice in your head goes Oh no, no the anxiety! HELP! and before you know it, you’re in some weird anxiety spiral where you don’t even know what you’re actually anxious over any more. It’s surreal, and scary.
I often find I can interrupt that thought process by just owning and accepting the situation. I literally just say to myself Yep, you’re anxious againl you’re feeling anxiety. Then the panicked voice has no news to share. That sounds too simplistic to work, and it might not work for everyone – but it’s made a big difference for me.
Talk to the right person
Talking about anxiety can be difficult. Everyone has their own problems to deal with, so sharing yours can make you feel guilty. And often if you do share how you’re feeling it can end with the other person sharing their problems and then you end up comforting them or dealing with their anxiety – which at best doesn’t alleviate your problems, and at worst can make you feel worse.
As well as this, for the most part the mum at the school gate or the barrista on your way to work who ask how you are probably don’t expect (or want) you to blurt out My anxiety is really bad at the moment actually. It’s important to pick the correct setting before talking about your feelings!
Many people benefit from speaking to a trained professional, and formal psychotherapy can be a real help. Check out this article for a good explanation of what psychotherapy is and how it could help. The good thing about talking to a professional is that they will never unload their own problems onto you, and you don’t need to feel guilty for unloading onto them. You also don’t need to worry about hurting their feelings or shocking them, since in all likelihood the really have heard it all before.