This is a very personal, wonderful, and compelling guest post written by Hannah Helford. Take a look into the mind of someone who deals with chronic anxiety, and learn Hannah’s strategies that she has spent her entire life honing and practicing.
I’ve spent my life trying to develop strategies to deal with my anxiety. At 3 years old I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD. My ADHD was so loud that it took until I was 18 for anyone to even notice that something more was going on inside me: I am incredibly anxious. It took years of introspection and therapy for me to even realize it. I’ve come to learn that everyone struggles with anxiety differently. So through my lifetime of dealing with anxiety- I’ve worked on strategies that help me cope, and these are my best ones.
Anxiety isn’t rational. It’s chemical. It takes over your brain.
This is gonna suck. I’m so not excited at all. I don’t want to be social; I don’t want to deal with people. I wish I could stay home and just watch TV. My heart is already going 1000 miles per hour. Ugh, my palms are sweating. My face is getting red. Everyone will be able to see I’m freaking out. They all don’t like me already. I’m not going to have any fun. I’m gonna lose all this valuable time I could have spent resting at home, where I’m safe from unexpected obstacles. Ugh, this week is gonna suck. Everything just sucks.
Where are these thoughts coming from?
They’re coming from the negative energy that flows through me. It affects every part of me. It makes my skin sweat, my face turn red, my hands fidget, my heart race, my stomach jump, it makes me worry incessantly, but worst of all: it gives me a feeling of dread mixed with fear that takes over my entire body. This energy is called anxiety. It is always present in my mind, body, and spirit.
Currently, there is no cure for anxiety, only treatments that help with the symptoms. Drugs can definitely help some people, but a lot of the time they have negative side effects. Drugs or not- I’ve spent my entire life working on these methods to help me deal with the constant anxiety in my life. These are my four best strategies.
Self-talk can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It’s all a matter of if you let your anxiety take the wheel of your mind or if you take it yourself. I have literal battles in my head between my rational calm thinking and my anxiety. It’s an eternal struggle but the more you practice, the easier it gets.
The beginning of this article has an example of my self-talk ruled by anxiety. When I find myself on an anxiety-driven thought stream, I do exactly what I did in this article. PAUSE. Breathe. Then I ask myself a question about the rationality of the situation.
My go-to question is usually “what is the REALISTIC absolute worst thing that could happen?” really focusing on the realistic aspects. For example, let’s say I was driving about 10 mph over the speed limit and a cop started to pull me over. “Oh my gosh, I’m going to be thrown in jail. This is terrifying. I’m in so much trouble.” The anxiety starts to take over my body. PAUSE. Breathe. “What is the realistic worst thing that could happen?” “I’m only speeding; I’m not doing anything else wrong.
The worst that can happen realistically is that I’ll get a ticket. Maybe multiple depending on the officer. Everyone gets speeding tickets. You’re not going to jail. Everything is going to be okay.”
Putting a real world boundary on anxiety can really make a HUGE difference. My heart rate instantly starts to slow down the second I realize how much my anxiety dramatized the situation.
2. Communication with Friends and Family
Everyone in my life knows I struggle with anxiety. When my anxiety takes over, they know what it is but it’s still difficult for them to see me like that and they don’t always know how to respond. Some of the time it feels like no one understands my anxiety and no one can help me with it. But what I’ve learned is that the people you love want to help and they can IF you let them.
When I start to have an anxiety attack, my emotions go on a roller coaster. First, I start feeling nervous and negative about everything; usually I can win the battle there and my anxiety retreats. But if rationality doesn’t win there (probably because of uncontrollable outside factors) I start to get angry. My anger is destructive and scary and powerful. It’s also the hardest time for me to rationalize and calm down; not that it isn’t possible. The anger is so strong that it soon wears me out and is replaced with sadness. I start to cry.
The signals I’m sending from my emotional roller coaster are clearly mixed. So my friends and family don’t always know HOW to help me and it is my job to educate them. It is very hard to think, let alone communicate, rationally when you’re having an anxiety attack. When I am calm again, I reflect on my attack and what could have helped me. Then, it is my responsibility to communicate to my loved ones what they can do in the future to help me.
The hardest part is figuring out what they can do to help. Anxiety comes in so many forms: I have my constant anxiety that I feel every second, then I have my anxiety about certain situations, and then I have my emotional roller coaster of an anxiety attack. It’s hard to specify what you need for all these different situations and feelings. It’s confusing.
Most of the time, all I need is some support, preferably accompanied by a hug. A little “I love you. It’s okay. We’ll figure this out.” can make such a difference.
When I’m having an anxiety attack I feel like I am alone and I am carrying the weight of the world is on my shoulders.
Knowing someone is there to help me carry that weight is sometimes all I need to calm down. When I’m deep in an anxiety attack, it may take me a few minutes to realize my loved ones are supporting me because I’m at my most irrational. At that point, I may walk away. I usually come back after the sadness hits and can apologize. There are times however, that the anxiety attack was just too draining and I need until the next morning to have some clarity. My family knows this. Because I have communicated what I need to them, they are able to help support me.
3. Just Do It
Anxiety isn’t just in my mind. I feel it physically. When something makes me anxious I feel it first in my spine and chest. It feels like a paralyzing tingling, comparable to when your leg falls asleep. It makes my body tense up and my thoughts go on a whirlwind. The tingling makes its way from my torso to my arms, legs, and then finally out through my hands and feet.
Yes, I said paralyzing tingling. Anxiety can be immobilizing. One of the most immobilizing types of anxiety is anticipation anxiety: being nervous about something coming up. There are so many times that I know I have to do something but for some reason the thought of making the steps to get it done is overwhelming. It makes me avoid my obligation completely.
To get through this kind of anxiety, I have adopted the Nike philosophy: Just do it. I know it’s harsh, I know it’s hard. But sometimes it just has to be done. Anxiety is forever present, and if I let everything that made me anxious prevent me from doing it, I would never leave my bed.
Every time I say to myself, “Ugh, just do it!” and I actually get something done, I feel on top of the world. My self-confidence increases from facing my fear, I’m happy that the obligation is over and done with, and a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The more you face your fears, the easier it gets because you know you can do it. Self-confidence is so important when it comes to anxiety and life in general. You have to believe you can beat the anxiety in order to do it. The more you practice winning little battles, the sooner you’ll win the bigger ones as well.
4. Smile and Laugh
Smile. Right now. Just smile. Not a little one, a HUGE smile, your happiest. Now hold it there. Do you feel a little happier? Even just a smidge? Smiling is my tactic for my constant anxiety. A smile can literally make anxiety retreat. Laughing makes you win the war. (Physically smiling actually makes you feel happier– it’s science!)
Most people think of my smile and/or laugh when they think of me. This is because I smile and laugh as much as I possibly can. The happier I am, the less I’m focusing on my anxiety. The more I’m enjoying and fully in a moment, the less my anxiety is questioning it. Let yourself laugh as often as possible. A laugh takes up your entire mind, body, and soul, which is exactly where anxiety lives. A laugh can be your greatest tool.
During an anxiety attack, I try to ask myself, “Do you want to feel negative and anxious or do you want to be happy and have fun?” I know I prefer to be happy and have fun. But making the choice to be happy and pushing your anxiety out of the way can feel like an apocalyptic war. I promise you, you can do it. Sometimes the anxiety is so seductive that you want to give in. But fighting for happiness is worth it. When I’m having an anxiety attack, my thoughts are on a negative, catastrophizing spiral and a laugh can almost always break that spell.
“Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.” This inspiring quote is from Joss Whedon’s commencement address at Wesleyan University. I think it perfectly sums up the key to anxiety. When I accept that my anxiety is forever present and I know I can handle it is when everything gets a lot better. That is my peace.