4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!

 

Fog in Your Throat?

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Photo by Rory Björkman on Unsplash

There are many behavioral symptoms of depression such as isolating, neglecting one’s personal hygiene, undereating or overeating, and more.  These symptoms are fairly easy to conceal and frequently go unnoticed by others.  One of the noticeable symptoms (and a costly one) is negative speech.  Our depressive behaviors can become habits if we aren’t careful.

Negative speech can set off a cycle of rejection and isolation.  Friends or family members may try to coax us out of our depression by pressing us to talk about our feelings, but are completely unprepared for our response.  These snap out of it people are usually well-meaning, but have no idea of the depths to which depression takes our thinking or how difficult the climb back up can be.  They simply don’t get it, and we then end up on the receiving end of comments like, “Don’t be such a downer” or “I can’t be around you when you are like this” or “Why don’t you just stop feeling sorry for yourself?”

They make it sound so simple — why don’t we stop?  As painful as these remarks may seem at the time, there is actually a clue to escaping negativity in them.  At the root of our negative speech problem is depression hovering around us like a fog, clouding both our anticipation of the future and our interpretation of the past.  People who love us say, “Count your blessings.  Look at what you’ve accomplished!”  The brain fog lies to us and whispers, “You’ve never accomplished anything and never will.”  And we believe it.

When we believe the lie, our ability to expect good things diminishes.  The happy times of our past are distorted as we inventory each and every little flaw throughout our life’s history.  The fog filters our thoughts, and the words we say reflect our foggy brain filter.  The people who care about us don’t understand our responses, and leave us to ourselves until we are “better.”  We end up feeling isolated when we desperately need connection.

Battling depression requires energy at a time when we have none.  This is why it is important to prepare for the next valley when you are on the current hilltop.  In other words, when you are feeling good, channel that momentum to push you through the next rough patch.  Begin by acknowledging your accomplishments – no matter how insignificant.

Dr. Seuss said, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  The same can be said for accomplishments.  If you’ve been in a fog for a long time, admitting you actually DO have some accomplishments may feel a little weird, but do it anyway.  Write down everything, from “I got out of bed this morning” to “I got that promotion.”  If you find you are censoring yourself or are in a valley right now, ask for help from somebody who knows you.  BUT – and this is important: Don’t censor THEM, either.  Just write everything down in a journal or notebook and keep it handy.  Two things will happen if you do.

First, simply writing down three accomplishments each day will lift the fog.  Our thoughts generate chemical reactions in our brain, and these reactions generate physical sensations.  Some of us have brains with low activity in the positive-feeling areas, and high activity in the negative-feeling areas.  Writing down three accomplishments each day forces positive chemical reactions.  In other words, you are exercising the positive-feeling area of the brain, making it stronger and more active.

Second, if you encounter another bout of depression, you can refer back to your list of accomplishments.  It’s a reminder of what you CAN DO and have done – PROOF that you are capable of doing things, even when your brain is shrouded in fog.  You are also setting off those little positive chemical reactions in the brain every time you read your list.  Update it daily.  FILL A NOTEBOOK with accomplishments, big and small.  Use it to chase away the fog so you can see your life and yourself in a positive light.

 

Failure? You May Be Mistaken

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Do you call yourself a failure when you make a mistakeMistakes are typically made because of an error in judgment, or because we lack certain information or a particular skill.  These are valuable life lessons, bringing to light areas in our lives where we need to educate ourselves or make little self-improvements.  Unfortunately, many of us develop a habit of interpreting mistakes as something much worse — an indicator there is something wrong with us.

For people with depression or anxiety, this misinterpretation comes easily.  The depressive brain channels practically every event through a filter of negativity, painting our lives in a humdrum hue.  Mistakes seem catastrophic, and the towel is quickly thrown in.  There are some key differences between mistakes and failures, and learning to recognize them can help you reclaim lost self-esteem and avoid worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Door Opened, Door Closed

Imagine your mistakes as open doors – opportunities to learn.  For instance, when we take up a new hobby or start a new job, we are likely to screw something up at least once.  This is commonly known as the learning curve, but it becomes a show-stopper for many of us.  Our brain processes the screw-up through its negativity filter and we receive an “I’m just not cut out for this” message.  In most cases, the error is nothing more than a lack of information or practice.  As we persist — we improve — and eventually those early mistakes become part of the distant past.

Now, there ARE times where we really are NOT cut out for something.  If American Idol has taught us anything, it’s that not everyone is cut out to be a rock star.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t try new things or pursue a dream, but rather, in chasing our dreams we must also be willing to see and accept reality.  Not doing so can lead to despair.  Failures – like mistakes – are also a learning tool.  Failure is a closed door – an ending to our journey down a wrong path.  Although painful, failure sometimes protects us from our own self-destructive ways by telling us, “Don’t do that again.”

This don’t do it again message is why it is so important to separate our mistakes – which are many – from true failures, which are actually quite rare.  The band Genesis did a song called “Misunderstanding” which helps to illustrate the difference.  It’s basically the story of a man who misreads the signals of a woman he is romantically interested in.  This is the mistake part.  The opportunity here (or open door) is for him to become more self-aware and communicative to ensure he is receiving other’s messages clearly and not projecting his own feelings onto them.  When he realizes she is already in a relationship, this is a door closed – a signal to move on.  In other words, he can learn from the mistake and try again — this time as a better communicator — but in another relationship.

Sometimes, as in “Misunderstanding”, our mistakes DO lead to failure.  However, the mistakes we learn from are the ones which lead to great successes.  We are going to make mistakes throughout our lifetime – lots of them.  It is in overcoming the “I’m a failure” mindset and learning to live with and learn from our mistakes that we can restore peace of mind and experience new and wonderful things.

 

Eruptors and Internalizers

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Photo by LBoatwright

Depression is frequently described as anger turned inward.  The opposite can also be true; anger is often depression turned outward.  We express anger in any number of ways, but when we don’t know how to handle our anger in a healthy, productive manner, we risk over-expressing or under-expressing ourselves, never really bringing issues which matter to light.  In both cases, there is an effort being made – whether consciously or not – to avoid dealing with something

We’ve probably all encountered somebody who is seemingly angry all the time.  They appear to erupt at the slightest thing, and we walk on eggshells in order to avoid a blast.  We may even attempt to help them get to the root of the problem.  As they swear and slam things we ask, “What are you angry about? Let’s talk about it.”  We receive a puzzling response as the angry person angrily yells, “I’M NOT ANGRY!”  Alrighty, then.

At the other end of the spectrum is the person who swallows their anger in an attempt to deny it.  Their behavior is more subtle as they wage a sort of passive-aggressive battle of neglecting little chores or errands, arguing with the target of their “non-anger” in their head, and/or frequently feeling unwell.  The truth is, they probably do feel unwell – repression is a known contributor to headaches, nausea, anxiety, and other maladies.  The truth is also this; this person is also angrily yelling “I’M NOT ANGRY!”…just not out loud.

People become eruptors or internalizers because of a perceived lack of control.  The eruptor regains control by instilling fear in others, thus enabling them to avoid – essentially — everything they want to avoid.  The internalizer regains control through omission, thinking, “You’ll get a little taste of what it would be like without me, then you’ll be sorry.”  Unfortunately, the other person is rarely sorry and even more rarely notices the internalizer is unhappy.

Anger isolates, whether it is us avoiding a volatile person or a person quietly isolating themselves to avoid becoming a volatile person.  Sadly, neither of these people has actually regained control.  They haven’t empowered themselves, but rather simply found a way to retreat to their corner without losing face.  The underlying issues are still out there, still not dealt with, and on top of them are daily fresh layers of anger and avoidance, wedging more divide in relationships and more despair to the psyche.

Some anger is healthy and warranted, but all too frequently it becomes a conditioned response for those who aren’t sure how to process or express certain emotions.  Anger provides the illusion of a “quick fix” much like drugs to an addict.  It abruptly ends an unwanted or uncomfortable conversation or situation, but wounds everyone in its path.

Angry YOU

Are you an eruptor?  An internalizer?  If so, you can learn healthier ways of dealing with your anger.  First, try tracking your angry feelings for a few weeks.  Rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being “I totally flipped out!”  For each, write down the event which made you feel angry.  Next, begin listing healthier ways you could have dealt with each situation and begin putting these into practice.  For instance, many people need to unwind when they get home from work, which means this is a less-than-ideal time for serious conversations.  If someone approaches you as soon as you walk in the door, politely tell the other person, “This sounds important — give me an hour to decompress from work so I can give you my full attention.”  Then do it.  Be very present in that conversation in order to build trust and prove the value of grabbing a little downtime for yourself.  There is always a chance the other person won’t cooperate with this request, but the point is to monitor your own anger responses so that even when you are pressed, you can still conduct your side of the conversation in a productive manner.

Angry OTHERS

Living with an eruptor or internalizer can be difficult because anger frequently masks their real feelings, making honest communication difficult.  It is fruitless to try and change someone else’s behavior, particularly if they don’t actually want to change it.  Instead, you may have to change the way you process their behavior and try out different ways of communicating until you find ones which work.

Some people are not comfortable talking or even thinking about their feelings.  If you are committed to a relationship with such a person, it may be helpful to process for yourself which issues actually require their input.  For instance, if you are wanting to talk about your own feelings, you should be prepared for a bumpy ride – especially if the gist of the conversation is “you made me feel like this”.  When a person doesn’t understand their own feelings, they are equally unlikely to understand yours or how their actions played a role in the way you feel.  Your angry person may never be a great communicator, but you CAN be.  Learn to process your own anger in healthy ways to reduce your own stress levels, improve your physical health, and restore a little peace to the environment.

A Potential Problem

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Photo by L Boatwright

“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s.  It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s.  Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential?  (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.

Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area.  Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people.  In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.

Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many.  It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister.  The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood.  So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down?  Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else.  The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.

We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short.  We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough.  How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential?  Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.

You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else.  If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else?  Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves.  However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.

Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them.  One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves?  People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on.  Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.

Sometimes it won’t.  When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans.  But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever.  In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship.  In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.

The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled.  Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them.  If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray!  When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”