Imagine a time when you felt most anxious or fearful, maybe before a public speech or adventure activity, like hang gliding.
Now imagine that you wake up with that same gripping, dreadful sense, even though it’s a typical day and you have nothing stressful or scary happening. The feeling is just there, heavy in your body and mind.
That’s a glimpse into what it’s like for someone, like me, with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are not the same as feeling nervous or anxious every now and then, as most people do because—well—life is hard and there’s plenty to get worked up about. It’s not the same as the feeling of fear that likely overtakes most people as they prepare to do something like jump out of an airplane.
My anxiety, for which I take medicine, has been with me since I was a child. It’s often irrational. There’s usually no specific reason for it, which is maddening.
It also makes the situation difficult for others to understand because the natural question is, “Why are you anxious?”
The answer is usually, “Because I have generalized anxiety disorder,” or “I don’t know,” or “No logical reason.”
But that interaction doesn’t help me or the person who is trying to understand.
I work daily to manage generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety and feel compelled to discuss it because it is scary for those who have it and easily misunderstood.
Buzzfeed’s Kelsey Darragh shared the aforementioned list of ways her boyfriend can help her when she’s having an anxiety attack, and I related to much of it.
But people are different and situations vary. Much of the time, I’m anxious without having a full-blown attack. Sometimes I can have an anxiety attack and seem fine from someone else’s point of view.
So if you know someone who is coping with anxiety, ask them how you can support them.
If they aren’t sure—it’s taken me more than 10 years to figure out some of this—maybe the following ideas below will help.
—Talk about it. Anxiety can be paralyzing and sometimes just naming it and shining light on it, makes it seem less scary.
—Laugh at it. One of the best things I can do when something really irrational is making me anxious is to say it out loud, and then laugh at how implausible it sounds.
But what if my doctor didn’t actually tell me the truth about my test results and I have a horrible disease? What if she thought that I seem healthy so she didn’t bother to run the tests? Or she didn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me I’m sick.
Yes. That’s an actual fear I’ve had, but when I say it or write it, it’s sort of funny, because that situation would be the makings of a Lifetime original movie and is straight-up illogical.
—Learn about it. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Forty million adults—or 18 percent of the population—are affected annually.
Anxiety disorders are “highly treatable,” but only 37 percent of people get help, also according to ADAA.
The take-away from this? You are not alone and there is help available.
—Distract yourself or have someone help with that. Anxiety is paralyzing.
Sometimes it makes me not want to get out of bed. Sometimes my mind gets stuck in a loop of horrible thoughts. Sometimes it makes me feel like the most simple task will take the energy of biking up Lookout Mountain. Sometimes it makes me feel physically ill.
I’ve found several hobbies, including crocheting and coloring, that give my mind something else to focus on and are low maintenance. These tasks help the body feel in control and provide an outlet for the uncomfortable energy that anxiety produces.
I’m not a person who loves cleaning, but when all else fails, scrubbing something often does the trick. And then you’ll be happy to have clean counters.
One time after I had an anxiety attack, my mom talked to me about random things that I don’t remember.
For a second I thought, “Why are you telling me this? Can’t you see I’m having a problem?” But then I realized she was trying to distract me.
She suggested we watch “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which I had never seen and she loves.
I curled up in bed, watched and listened to my mom reminisce about times when feathered hair was all the rage. It helped to be distracted, and having your mama there usually doesn’t hurt either.
—Sleep. After an anxiety attack, sometimes taking a nap helps my mind and body reset and recover.
—Change locations. Occasionally, anxiety will seize me while I’m at work. Sometimes when this happens, taking a walk or simply changing locations to work at home or in a coffee shop helps.
—Avoid caffeine and alcohol. As I type this, I’m drinking coffee, so this isn’t necessarily easy, and I don’t blame you one bit if you hate this advice.
My anxiety often makes it difficult for me to sleep. So, I wake up, crave a morning boost and drink coffee, which can create more anxiety, which makes it hard to sleep, and the cycle goes on.
But I do try to limit my caffeine intake and avoid it in the evenings. When I don’t, I can feel a major difference and am more susceptible to feeling anxious.
As for alcohol, in the past, I’ve tried to use it to lessen anxiety, especially in social situations.
And while that might help a little at first, for me at least, alcohol ultimately makes it all worse.
It hurts my already-delicate sleeping patterns and if you have even one too many, it can create a new list of not-so-irrational reasons to worry.
I stopped drinking a year ago last month and my anxiety has been better for it.
Not everyone will want to take it that far, but it’s important to be aware of how substances, like caffeine and alcohol, affect anxiety.
—Practice mindfulness and meditation. I’ve written about mindfulness and meditation a lot. Here are a couple pieces that illustrate how the practices can help.
- How understanding the brain, practicing meditation reduces anxiety
- Mental health is as important as physical health; the stigma needs to go
—Exercise. The advice to exercise for general and mental health is nothing new.
And it’s so ubiquitous it can be eye-roll inducing, especially because sometimes the last thing you want to do when feeling anxious is to go for a run or—even worse—venture to the gym, where who knows what small-talk hell or awkward social interaction awaits.
But, maybe obviously, it’s ubiquitous because it does work.
The challenge is getting out of your head and into your workout clothes.
I’m in a workout rut at the moment, and when that happens I try to set low expectations.
Sometimes a walk around down the street or doing some jumping jacks is enough. Start small.
Anxiety creates negative feelings and often results from negative thoughts. To counteract this, remind yourself of all the things you are thankful for.
The more you focus on the good things, the more you’ll see and attract them.
—Listen to people you admire who have anxiety.
Whether it’s a celebrity, friend or mentor, looking at how other people handle their anxiety can be helpful. They might have a tip you haven’t heard of.
For me, just knowing that other people deal with the same things I do is comforting.
Sometimes anxiety makes me feel weak or like others may look down on me for it.
But then I see those who I admire with similar struggles, and it helps me to remember that I don’t view them in a negative light. So hopefully others don’t view me like that.
If they do, it’s not really my business anyway.
And I wish I could be best friends with Kristen Bell, who has spoken several times about her anxiety and depression and about her “open and honest dialogue” about it all.
—Know your triggers. Some of mine are super obvious. Just the thought of any doctor’s appointment sends me into a panic.
Since I was a kid, much of my anxiety has attached itself to health fears.
And, although I think it’s pretty common that crowds can also be a trigger, it took me a while to realize that is true for myself.
Going to the grocery is another, maybe more random, task that can push me toward an anxiety attack.
It can feel easier to shove down feelings of anxiety if they aren’t totally overwhelming at that moment.
But, in my experience, it’s better to be self-aware and recognize possible triggers so you can mitigate them, avoid them or at least have an escape plan ready.
—Don’t fight it.
I always keep psychologist Carl Jung’s words “what you resist not only persists but will grow in size,” in my mind.
The natural urge is to try to make the anxiety go away but sometimes all there is to do is try not to freak out and let it pass. And the thing is, it does usually pass. It may come back later, but that’s a problem for another time.
Fighting with it too much will only make it worse.
Take some deep breaths; get some mantras to repeat to help calm yourself or use some other tools to get through it.
If you aren’t sure whether you have an anxiety disorder, talk to a physician.
I’m pretty vocal about the fact that taking medicine for my anxiety has changed my life for the better, but I’m not a doctor or therapist.
Find someone who is, and if you need someone else to talk to, I’m happy to listen and commiserate.
You’ve got this.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its other employees.