If someone had asked me this question in late 2016, I would have thought that this person had no idea what they were talking about. I had lost my father to Parkinson’s disease earlier that year and my anxiety was at its peak. I had many anxious thoughts, but the one thought that was constantly on my mind was about my health and when, not if, I would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. I would have told this person that they were asking the wrong question because I didn’t ever want to feel anxious. I would have screamed why would I want anything to do with anxiety; anxiety made me feel “crazy”.
Fast forward to now, I still have anxious thoughts around my health, but I am able to manage my anxiety. What does managing our anxiety look like? Like many mental health diagnoses, anxiety is experienced on a spectrum. An individual might experience nervousness before giving a talk in front of an audience, or an individual might feel nauseous and throw up thinking about driving after a car accident, or an individual experiences debilitating anxious thoughts about going back to a toxic work environment, or an individual may experience anxiety or panic attacks.
Anxiety stems from fear. It is an emotional reaction and a physical response to threat. Fear is an incredibly important emotion for human beings. We need it to survive in the world. For example, when we find ourselves in a physical or emotional threat, our fear triggers our reaction. We react by fighting the threat or by running away. In that moment, we don’t actively think, we react immediately to save ourselves. After the threat is gone, we find our mind and body relaxed. The threat is not there anymore.
Sometimes even if the threat is not imminent or constant, our mind and body are not able to come back to that relaxed mode. Now, we find ourselves thinking about the (non-existent) threat constantly. Our body and mind are constantly activated and we are anxious. How can we help our mind and body to relax? Here are some coping skills:
- Stop time travel: Although we haven’t come up with a machine to travel in time physically, we travel in time mentally. Why did this happen to me? What will happen to me? When we do that, we travel in time. Try to bring your attention into the present moment. What can I do right now that can help me take the next right step?
- Make a pact with anxiety: When anxiety shows up, have tea with it. In other words, sit with your anxiety and ask yourself why do you feel anxious? When is it showing up? What are your anxious thoughts telling you?
- I am not my anxiety: This is a mantra I use everyday. I am an individual who lives with anxiety and anxious thoughts. I sometimes challenge my anxious thoughts, or sit with them, or interact with them, or let them literally pass through me.
- Common Humanity: We all feel some form of anxiety. Understanding that we are not in this alone can help us be kinder to ourselves and provide compassion to everyone around us.
I do have a relationship with my anxiety. As I write this blog, I feel my chest tighten up and the anxious thoughts coming up, questioning me, “Are you seriously going to let everyone know that you struggle with anxiety? You are a therapist; you need to be in control. What will everyone think of you?” I tell my anxiety, “I am in control. I want to be able to tell my story on my own terms.” Breathe in and breathe out. I am not my anxiety.