For years I told myself I didn’t have anxiety. I took full responsibility for depression, but in my eyes anxiety was represented by my mom, who had full blown anxiety almost every minute of every day. Since mine was different, I gave myself the benefit of the doubt and proudly told myself, I’m not anxious.
I was in denial.
Even though I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a panic about this or that going on in my life unable to go back to sleep, until I “figured it out.” Ha. Basically exhausting myself with overthinking it to death.
Even though I experienced anxiety at every major upheaval in my life. Graduation from college into a work world that had just been clobbered by an economic crisis - I drank that anxiety away. Having children didn't lessen my anxiety - I just didn’t have as much time to think about it. Divorce - anxiety through the roof. Custody of Mason at age 54 - anxious and isolated on top of it, that was incredibly difficult. After I bought my first house - I was paralyzed by anxiety. Once again, it’s back in full force.
It was the realization that my anxiety had gotten the best of me that allowed me to start making changes in my life. Instead of letting my anxiety drive my actions, I had to take control of my life. In retrospect, not acknowledging how anxious I was certainly didn’t make things better and likely made my life worse. For years, I believed if I did the right amount of yoga and meditation, I could wrestle control of my life from anxiety. I told myself that lie for years.
What finally worked was acknowledging and accepting my anxiety. Not judging myself and thinking I was a lesser person.
When my mind began to pull me into a line of thinking that I knew would cause me anxiety, I just stopped. Didn’t think about the who, the what or the why that was causing my anxiety. I certainly struggled with that, but when I succeeded in slamming the door shut on the thoughts that were making me anxious, there was peace instead of panic. If I wasn’t always successful in shutting that door, I gave myself grace and compassion when my mind went on a spiral. The key to reducing my anxiety was to stay present. Thinking of the future and the long list of what could go wrong, will ALWAYS cause anxiety.
Maybe you normally don't struggle with anxiety, but right now thoughts are coming at lightning speed and you are overwhelmed with panic. Maybe you have always had a low level hum of anxiety. These tips are for you.
- Stay present - When you are present in each moment, you don’t give anxiety the chance to take hold. Once you start looking to the future, that’s the invitation for anxiety. Looking to the past can be just as dangerous. You open the door to second guessing your choices and actions. It's impossible to change what you've done in your past so give yourself the grace and compassion you deserve and move forward.
- Mindful of your thoughts - Awareness is the first step of implementing any change. Begin by watching your thoughts - without judgement - and when your thoughts begin to race in one direction or another, become present with your breath.
- Acknowledge and accept - once you become aware, the second step is acceptance. Accepting allows you to move forward. If you fight your anxiety in an effort to “control” it, you waste your precious energy on the fight, then have less energy to manage your anxiety.
- Respond instead of react - when a stressful situation comes up, your first instinct may be to panic or run or lash out. That is a reaction. When you stop the reaction and take time to assess how you are feeling (scared, wanting to avoid, helpless, etc), you’re able to respond to the situation in a different way. “Yes I feel scared, but is this situation a threat to me?"
- Stop the “what if” cycle - our brains can play an endless loop of horrifying consequences of our actions if we allow it. Know that by engaging in that loop, you may be causing your body’s fight or flight response. Unless you really need to fight or flight, the constant cycling can wreak havoc on your body, weakening your immune system and cardiovascular system for starters.
- Immerse Yourself in an activity - Choose an activity that will fully occupy your mind. Try to avoid screens. Get outside if possible. Move. Take a walk or a bike ride. Breathe. Color. Knit. Read. Meditate. Practice Yoga. Only you know what will keep you fully present. And as I tell my students in Yoga class, if your mind wanders (back to the anxiety), gently bring yourself back to your breath. It is that simple and that challenging.
- Focus on what’s in front of you - When you’re in the present moment, responding to situations and living your life, there is no room for anxiety. The minute you leave your present moment, that’s when the anxiety monster will attack. Imagining all the different (usually bad) outcomes for what you’re experiencing. By staying present, you stop that before it even starts.
- Compassion and kindness for self - I know it can sometime seem easier to have compassion and kindness for others, than it is to have it for ourselves. Know that you are just as deserving. You deserve forgiveness. You deserve a second chance. You deserve love and respect. Just as much from yourself, as from the loved ones in your life.
- Know you're not alone - Look around you. Many people are struggling. You may not know it because they put on a happy face or they try and stay positive. We each manage our anxiety in our own way. And we're all doing the best we can.
Living with anxiety can seem incredibly challenging, but denying anxiety can make the struggle even more difficult. When we allow ourselves to accept and make peace with our anxiety, we can take the first step towards healing. May you find the healing you deserve as you take it one breath at a time.