Understanding What Anxiety Is
Firstly, it can help immensely to understand more about what anxiety actually is. When we’re ill we see Anxiety as this hugely frightening, terrible thing but, actually, it’s a simple, necessary part of being human and it cannot be gotten rid of. When people have difficulties with alcohol or drugs, the way to recovery is to completely eliminate those substances from their lives. You can’t do that with Anxiety. It is a necessary part of brain function that keeps us alive.
When you’re about to cross the road and you suddenly see a car speeding towards you and you quickly pull back – that’s anxiety. If you return to your house to find a window broken and your heart races with fear – that’s anxiety. Anxiety is the body’s fight or flight response and it’s required when we’re in danger or facing an aggressor. It was much more useful back in the caveman days when our lives were built on a more primitive level but it’s still required today in high-octane situations like war or medical emergencies.
When you’re suffering from an Anxiety disorder (Generalised Anxiety Disorder, OCD, Postnatal Anxiety etc) the part of your brain that creates the adrenaline needed for fight or flight has gone into overdrive, and you’ve become caught in a vicious spiral of fear & reaction.
One of my therapists helped me to understand that Anxiety isn’t necessarily a “mental illness” – it’s just a condition where your brain’s normal anxiety balance has been knocked off kilter. This idea helped me a lot.
Our Natural Reaction
The nature of anxiety, i.e. the fact that it’s purpose is for use during dangerous situations, means that we instinctively cower away from it. The sensations created by that excess of adrenaline can feel utterly unbearable and, if experienced constantly over a long period of time, can have devastating consequences on our ability to 1) carry out everyday tasks and 2) experience other, more positive emotions.
The first thing we instinctively want to do with anxiety symptoms is to push them away. It feels uncomfortable, we don’t like it, and so we try to get rid of it.
This is the biggest mistake you can make.
Try to remember that your brain is trying to help you (I know it doesn’t feel like it!). Here’s a summary of what happens during an anxiety attack:
And the cycle continues.
Everyone has their own way of surviving their Anxiety – coping strategies, distraction, medication, lifestyle changes etc. But in my experience, and in the experience of many other sufferers I’ve met in the last four years, the very best way to deal with anxiety is to simply give up the fight.
What Should I Do Instead?
You have to let the anxiety in. You have to tell it to come in. When that wave of Anxiety rolls through you and all you want to do is run away (flight) or push it away (fight) you have to sit with it instead. You have to be present with it and allow the horrible, uncomfortable feelings to travel through you. You have to learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Everyone has to find their own way but these are some visualisation techniques that work for me:
The very first thing I do is remain still and take a deep breath. As I breathe in I imagine I’m breathing in all the anxious feelings and horrible thoughts. In my head I imagine actually stepping towards Anxiety. It feels wrong and unnatural but it works. (When I first began practicing this technique I actually imagined Anxiety as a physical being – a dark, spiky version of myself. Once I got more practice I was able to let go of the images and just focus on the thoughts and feelings).
I let whatever weird thought or horrible feeling is attached to the adrenaline come into my brain and I don’t argue with it. I try not to engage too much with it at all, in fact. I just say “oh hi, you again. Thanks for coming but I don’t actually need you right now.” Then I let it do whatever it needs to do and watch it disappear again.
I practice not being afraid of the Anxiety, and not getting angry with it either. It just is. Once you sit with it those first few times you’ll probably feel a subtle sense of relief. It’s our natural instinct to tense against panicky feelings but the freedom that comes from allowing it in feels so much better.
My brother-in-law actually eggs it on and this works great for him. He’ll say “Come on then, do your worst, you’re not going to stop me from doing anything today.” Anxiety feeds off fear so once it realises you’re not afraid and, in fact, you’re not particularly bothered by it it will dissipate. I take a more passive approach to mine but it works just the same.
How Do I Get Comfortable With Anxiety?
I’m not going to pretend this method is easy. It takes a long time, an awful lot of practice, patience & repetition and, frankly, a hefty chunk of blind belief. But it is the best way out of anxiety hell.
The first thing you need to do is believe that Anxiety & Panic Attacks cannot kill you. Neither can they permanently alter your mind and the process is completely reversible. I know it’s so, so difficult to believe this – I’ve been there, several times. But you’re just going to have to take my word on this (and the word of lots of professionals and previous sufferers).
Whatever symptoms you have let them be there, don’t start looking them up online or trying to find quick cures & quick fixes. Just put every single symptom, physical, mental or emotional, under one big umbrella called Anxiety and treat them all the same. With a shrug. With an “oh well, come on then, do your thing and I’m just going to be off over here doing mine”.
Importantly, carry on with your life. Avoiding certain places, people or activities only tells your brain that there issomething to be afraid of. Carry on your life as normally as possible, completely disregarding how you feel.
I can’t stress enough how much practice this method takes. Sadly, you can’t just invite anxiety in a couple of times and expect to feel fine overnight. It’s a hard slog and you have to keep at it. Chances are you’ve been reacting the “wrong way” for quite a while so equally it will take time for your brain and body to get used to this new way of thinking. You will need to do this every time the Anxiety comes – this meant several times a minute when I was at my worst. You’ll have times where you’ll forget or be too tired and it will get a grip on you again but, as soon as you realise, just start inviting it in again, and that relief and sense of control will start to return.
Also, beware of subtle differences in how you think you’re dealing with anxiety and how you actually are. During my recent setback I panicked because I couldn’t understand why this method wasn’t working anymore but actually, when I really examined what I was doing I wasn’t doing it quite right. Being frustrated, aggressive or angry towards the anxiety doesn’t work, you have to either befriend it or show it indifference instead.
This blog post was originally published on thebutterflymother.com and has been republished with the permission of the author, Laura Clark.
Laura Clark, also known as the Butterfly Mother, is a postnatal depression/anxiety survivor and self-confessed "good enough" mum. Through her posts she shares the painfully honest highs & lows of family life, as well as plenty of tips & self-care ideas for keeping mentally and emotionally well as a parent.