By Melissa Nobile
Have you ever experienced this uncomfortable, restless feeling in your body? A sense of unexplainable urgency. Your mind is spinning with “what if“ scenarios. You may find it difficult to breathe. You may feel dizzy, a tingling sensation, chest pain, heart palpitations, weakness in the legs or dissociation. Feeling like you are going crazy? You’re not. It’s anxiety. The good news is that you can heal from it.
Don’t get me wrong – anxiety from time to time is perfectly normal and is nothing to be worried about. Feeling anxious before a big exam or a presentation at work is perfectly normal and actually a sign of good health. Through years of evolution, your body and mind have been wired to help you prepare you for danger. If you feel anxious, your body is functioning well. It’s doing its job. It’s giving you some valuable information.
Every single symptom of anxiety has been created through thousands and thousands of years of evolution. None of them is dangerous – on the contrary: as uncomfortable as these symptoms may feel, they have been created to promote our survival and keep us safe. Sometimes, your body and mind are a little too overprotective though and create anxiety in excess, thinking that there is a danger when really there is none.
Just imagine the following situation: You’re at the cinema with your loved one. It’s an absolutely safe situation, and you’re enjoying yourself. Then suddenly, your brain – for some unknown reason – is generating a series of very uncomfortable anxiety symptoms.
This blog post talks about the anxiety mentioned above – the one that is maladaptive. Maladaptive, because it becomes a barrier in your life, making you feel unable to live life to its fullest. The one that never seems to truly go away. The one that is often called a disorder, because it no longer serves us, but instead keeps us prisoners of our own mind – the ultimate form of hell. Here’s what it may look like:
Anxiety keeps me awake at night
“I’m having anxiety tonight. I get these thoughts that I’m going to die while my 7 years old daughter is alone in bed with me. I know it sounds crazy, but this is my current anxiety. There is always one, and it never ends.“ – Kelly, 27
Panick attacks interfere with my everyday life
“I can’t leave the house alone without my mom unless it’s for work… I’m 23. 2 years ago I would go everywhere alone. I hate this random bursts of panic attacks when I’m just out trying to relax or have fun. I get lightheaded and feel faint. I feel bad because my friends think I’m just not having fun with them because I’m always wanting to go home early.“ – Andy, 23
I’m feeling scared to death
“I feel a feeling of doom, like something bad is about to happen, like I am literally dying. I am so scared and can’t think of anything else but death. I felt like that yesterday, and now I can’t get it out of my mind. I’m so scared.” – Tom, 54
Anxiety paralyses me – how do I escape this hell?
“I truly hate what my anxiety does to me. The feeling of being completely overwhelmed, like the walls, are caving in on me. It paralyses me. The way I cope is to sleep. Of course, this makes everything 100× worse. And it only heightens the feeling. How do I escape this hell?” – Sarah, 34
Why do some people develop disordered anxiety and others do not? There is no way one could validate the notion of cause to effect, given the complexity of the human brain. What research does know is that it may be the result of genetics, a cumulation of past or present stressors, medication, substance abuse, medical illness, trauma, learned behaviour, assault,… The list goes on endlessly.
With the help of a professional, you may be able to get closer to figuring out what the underlying cause of your anxiety is. However, it’ll only be specific to you and your unique situation. Not knowing why you have developed anxiety or how it started is okay too. What you need to know – and the point that I am hoping to make in this article – is that there is a way out. There is a way out of anxiety regardless of its origin and the length of time you have been suffering.
The consequences of living with disordered anxiety can be numerous and devastating. The little things that once made life enjoyable now seem like impossible tasks – whether that is a dinner with friends, being able to attend work, or enjoying a good night of sleep. It becomes difficult just to be. The brain is hijacked. Often, it isn’t the anxiety symptoms themselves that rob individuals from leading a meaningful life, but it’s the coping mechanisms put into place to survive the experience.
A common way to cope is by turning to alcohol and drugs. It seems like a convenient option to never deal with the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety. Avoidance of any situation and place that triggers anxiety/panic is another observable strategy often used by sufferers. However, that may eventually lead to agoraphobia. Isolation is another common coping mechanism observed in mental health settings: Individuals choose not to have a social life because they fear a flare up of their anxiety in public.
For years, mental health professionals believed that anxiety could only be managed. As a result, the majority of people believe that it’s a condition that one will suffer from for the rest of their life. This is not true at all though. We now know that anxiety as a disorder can be overcome, and freedom can absolutely be found. You will not be a slave to this condition forever. Although, it is hard work and a long journey to truly heal. It is a proactive process that requires courage and the willingness to sit through uncomfortable feelings and challenge what you believed to be the reality. Change can start now.
There was a point in my life where I was riddled with anxiety, to the point of fearing to leave my house. I experienced extreme symptoms when having to do something as simple as going to the shop. I cannot even remember how many times I thought I was about to die when it was actually just a glitch in my brain. It took me to dark places, but with the appropriate help and tools, I found my way out. Now, life is fun again.
Here is a short list of my favourite tools that can help diminish anxiety drastically:
A special breathing technique to calm you down
1) Pranayama Breathing: I like to call this the ‘emergency breathing’ because it will calm you down pretty quickly and easily. There are loads of wonderful apps out there. My personal favourite is called ‘saagara pranayama universal breathing’ (and it’s free!). I cannot stress enough how much this app can help you learn how to breathe properly again.
When you are anxious, you begin to breathe through your chest a lot more (you wouldn’t even notice this!). This will create a myriad of symptoms such as chest pain, dizziness, weakness in the legs, etc. The app will allow you to learn how to breathe through your belly again which will reduce any anxiety/panic attack. It is recommended though to use it in the morning and at night as well – simply to practice appropriate, relaxing breathing, so that it becomes a habit.
Through a relatively complex chain of reactions, pranayama breathing works by giving an artificial message to the parasympathetic nervous system that everything is safe (well not really an artificial message since it is safe, but anxious people will know what I mean). In the early stages of recovery, I recommend to always walk around with a pair of headphones so that if you are struggling, you can just put the headphones in, and breathe with the app instructor. No need to think, just need to do, and therefore you bypass any thinking pattern and go straight into action!
Use gratitude to change your perspective & perception
2) Gratitude List: Find time to do one daily. It helps with anxiety as it distracts you from anxious thoughts for a while. That’s not the only benefit though: It also helps with uplifting your mood when you are getting discouraged or feeling down/hopeless because of a rough patch.
Special exercises to release trauma & stress
3) TRE: If you can attend a class/course in your neighbourhood or learn to do it with a certified facilitator, it’s helpful. It stands for trauma/tension release exercises. You basically lay down on the floor and allow your nervous system to shake. When an animal is in shock after undergoing stress, it shakes for a while. Humans, however, have been conditioned by society to just go on with their lives and therefore the energy build up and the body struggles to be released. TRE is based on the idea that just like animals (humans are animals after all!), humans need to shake to evacuate tension. It is grounding and usually just feels quite good afterwards. If anything, it gives you an hour of peace where you are not thinking about anything.
Knowledge is power: Learn as much as you can about anxiety & your body’s responses
4) Education: Understanding what happens during an anxiety or panic attack, this is so important. If you remember, earlier in this article, I mentioned that every single symptom that you feel during an anxiety attack – as uncomfortable as it may be – has been created to promote your survival through thousands and thousands of years of evolution. I cannot stress enough about the importance of understanding why your vision gets blurry, why your heart is beating really fast/irregularly, why you feel dizzy, why your breathing gets shallow… And so on.
Once you know what is happening; once you understand the mechanisms in the brain and body during a panic attack, you can rationalise what is happening and worry a little less. So, for example, if you are walking around, start to feel dizzy, your legs getting heavy, etc., you can say to yourself: “Alright, my brain is freaking out. It thinks I’m in danger, but I am not. It’s just a glitch. Now it’s sending signals to my whole body to act accordingly. I’m feeling dizzy because my breathing has changed. Without me even noticing I’m taking in too much oxygen. It’s not life threatening at all, just really uncomfortable and part of the flight/fight response that is here to help fight dangers. Now I need to help my brain understand there is no danger at the moment. Maybe I could start with pranayama breathing to slow down my oxygen intake.”
For a while, you may still jump to the worse conclusions like “I’m dying.” However, somewhere inside your brain, the knowledge about what’s actually going on with you is stored. So, there will always be the part of you that knows that these conclusions are wrong, whereas in the past you may have believed them 100%.
Books that might help you
5) Self-Help books: Have a look on Amazon or take a walk to the local library. You’ll be amazed at what you find. If you were asking me for some advice, I’d recommend the following books:
[/fusion_fontawesome] “Don’t panic” by R. Reid Wilson – mostly because it explains exactly what happens in the body during an anxiety attack as well as the fight/flight response. It helped me to understand my body better, to relax with the sensations and learn to sit with them!
[/fusion_fontawesome] “Reasons to stay alive” by Matt Haig – To read how the author dealt with & overcame his depression just gives tons of hope!
[/fusion_fontawesome] “Waking the tiger” by Peter A. Levine & Ann Frederick is a book about trauma and great for people suffering with anxiety that may stem from that.
[/fusion_fontawesome] And also lastly, “Dare – The new way to end anxiety and stop panick attacks” by Barry McDonagh. It’s a guided self help book on practical steps to overcome any disordered anxiety, and comes with an app.
Exercises to ground yourself
6) Grounding exercises: There are loads of different techniques out there. It can be as simple as noticing the sensations underneath your feet (warm? soft?), looking around you for 5 things you’ve never noticed before, 5 smells, or 5 things you can touch. Another technique that I like is to spell names of people backwards. So let’s say I’m having lunch with my good friend Oriane, I could start spelling her name backwards, “e-n-a-i-r-o”, which brings me back to the present moment. It works! What works about it is that you become hyper-focused on something. And by doing so, you’re not paying your body’s panic/anxiety response any attention. Therefore it slowly fades away because you’re not feeding it.
Work-out to balance your brain chemistry
7) Exercising: Doing sports is an amazing outlet for all that adrenaline caught in the body due to anxiety attacks. If you are struggling, it’s important to exercise that same day to evacuate some of that adrenaline. Otherwise, the threshold for more anxiety/panic attacks on the next day is fairly high. Besides that, sport just makes you feel good. Really.
Surround yourself with good & reliable friends
8) Social support: Feeling supported by your friends and loved ones is very important. Have a handful of people whom you trust and can call at any time. People who will pick up the phone and listen to you when you’re really feeling hopeless and need a shoulder to cry on. But also when you just want to brag about your progress because you have managed to go and buy an apple at the local grocery shop after weeks of fearing walking out the door.
Confront the mini-me & how to deal with it
9) Confronting the mini-me: Imagine this little person called “mini-me” who is in your brain, and who freaks out about everything. Imagine exactly what mini-me looks like, and when you start feeling overwhelmed or panicky, picture mini-me freaking out and practice putting her (or him!) in a panic room so that she gives you some space while she is locked in there. When you’re really fed up, you could also imagine that you are setting her on fire. You could even imagine that you are locking her in a cage so that he/she shuts up, and literally close your fist to hold the key and tell yourself that if you give into the panic or anxiety, then you have to unlock your fist and let mini-me out.
Challenge your anxiety through journalling
10) Journaling: It helps process whatever happened during the day. On the worse days, it gives you a chance to look back on your progress over the past few months. This hopefully leads to you realising that you’re moving forward and reminds yourself never to give up. Journaling also helps to challenge your anxious thoughts.
Take care of the “What Ifs”
11) Contingency planning: What I mean by this is answering the “what if” questions that pop up in your brain instead of just letting your mind worry endlessly. So, let’s say that you are afraid of going out. Rather than freaking out about “oh my god what if I have a panic attack?” and never really answering the question but instead worry about it all day long, just do some contingency planning until all questions are answered.
Ask yourself for example: ”Ok, so, what if I do have a panic attack?” And then find the answer: “Well, I have tools that help me to cope. I’ll practice the breathing because nobody will notice.” Your mind might come up with another worry: “Ok but what if I give into the panic and really have a full blown attack?” But you just keep going through all the possible scenarios, finding solutions for each one of them: ”Well, if I really lose control, I’ll lock myself in a bathroom. It will be awkward and embarrassing because they will wonder where I have gone. People there might be staring at me, and I’ll never go back to that place again. However, the panic will eventually stop. I’ll probably feel ashamed. Then I’ll have a good cry and feel sorry for myself. After that, I’ll go home.”
Once you’ve finished and answered every question, every time that your brain worries about the same concerns again, you say “Nope, I’ve already discussed this with you, brain. We have a plan.” and move on with your day. This works with whatever you are anxious about.
Find a professional / get treatment
12) Professional help: Please, please seek professional help. Find an experienced provider who can help you deal with this. You don’t have to be alone (nor should you be!). Check yourself into treatment. Give yourself that time. You are worth it. While you are the one that has to put in the work, trained professionals will guide you through the recovery process. They’ll explain to you why you are experiencing what you are experiencing and the mechanisms behind anxiety.From them, you’ll get the reassurance you need to normalize your experience. They can also give you tons of valuable tools to keep moving forward. Eventually, your body and mind will get back to a normal, adaptive level of anxiety.
These are just a few of the many tools available out there, and hopefully, they will give you an idea of where your healing can begin. Anxiety will make you believe that you are going crazy, but you are not. You just have a brain that is a little too overprotective. The good news is that you can not only recover, but you can even thrive.