Melissa’s Rap: The earliest symptoms of anxiety I can remember were in Elementary School. I didn’t know what they were at the time. I struggled with anxiety all the way through high school and college and into adulthood. I still suffer from anxiety, but I have come a long way and have learned how to manage it better. My anxiety became so prevalent at such a young age, that it didn’t occur to me until much later in life that not everyone experiences life in this way.
For those who do experience anxiety regularly, those experiences can vary drastically. For some, it comes and goes, is usually triggered by a stressful incident, and is for the most part manageable. Others, like me, seem to have it always underlying, just beneath the surface. Certain situations, experiences, and even people can trigger it, and those triggers and the symptoms they experience as a result vary from person to person.
Stressful situations can sometimes cause someone to experience anxiety attacks, which can become very debilitating and can greatly impact ones life and livelihood. When I am experiencing an anxiety attack, my chest tightens, and I get a painful vice grip-feeling around my heart. It becomes increasingly difficult to breathe, no matter how hard I tried to relax my body and expand my lungs to accommodate the breath. My muscles tighten up so much, it is an effort to move. My sympathetic nervous system puts me in fight or flight and I start analyzing ways to get out of the situation. The voice in my head goes into overdrive and thoughts become scattered as panic sets in. I shut down socially, as my attention turned inward to my symptoms, and I snap at the smallest annoyance (and everything is annoying.) The earliest anxiety attacks I remember were in high school.
My anxiety has affected relationships, responsibilities, and my quality of life. When I was younger, it often spiraled into depression, which was just as debilitating, and usually harder to climb out of.
I read books on anxiety. I took up yoga. I tried therapy. I tried medicating. All of those things helped, to a certain extent, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to manage the anxiety so that it had less negative impacts on my life.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to better manage my anxiety the majority of the time. I still incorporate many of the methods listed above, but learning to do the following steps has made the biggest difference for me, helping me manage the day-to-day anxiety much more effectively and preventing full-blown anxiety attacks completely.
HELPFUL STEPS TO MANAGING ANXIETY
Learning and managing my triggers: I am listing this one first because I believe it is one of the most important things you can do to manage your anxiety: learn what your triggers are and do your best to avoid them. For me, crowds and clutter are huge triggers. Violence and conflict also make my trigger list. Diet is a trigger and a coping mechanism, which I find sadly amusing. For some, it may be family or other relationships that may be stressful or even unhealthy. Enclosed spaces can take trigger claustrophobia for some, which I view as a form of anxiety.
There are many triggers that we can’t really control, and in some cases we wouldn’t want to. For me, being a parent is a powerful trigger for my anxiety, but it is also a special gift in my life. Travel and holidays are two more triggers that I would never want to give up. Being aware of these triggers is the first step to managing them.
What I have learned to do is control the triggers I can. I often avoid big events, I try to keep some semblance of order in my home and work spaces, and I create systems and habits that help me manage those triggers that I can’t or wouldn’t want to remove from my life. Learning your triggers takes time and a great deal of self-analysis, but it is possible. The more you work to discover your triggers, the more easily you will be able to recognize them as they arise.
Avoiding overscheduling by saying no (and taking time for you): Some time ago, I was doing some reading online and came across this statement: “No is a complete sentence.” This deeply resonated with me because not only had I been a people-pleaser for so long, I also love helping people, so I would rarely say no. Listening to my body and saying no when I knew I was on the verge of being overcommitted or overwhelmed was a game changer for me. It’s ok to say no.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled “Badass Break Time: Let Go or Be Dragged.” It talks about being more kind to yourself when you just can’t see to fit everything in and you are feeling like a failure of a mom/employee/friend/family member/human and you just need a break. It is OK to take some time for you, to rest and to heal. You may also find this post helpful, since we are in the midst of yet another hectic holiday season: “Surviving the Holidays With Health Challenges.”
Asking for what I need: This was another hurdle for me. I am stubborn and I also don’t like to inconvenience people; so much so that when someone would graciously offer help, I would still say no.
Recently, life has been throwing a lot of curveballs at me at once. I was finding it difficult to get through a day without crying at least once, and I wasn’t sleeping or eating much. As hard as it was, though, I reached out for help. I contacted my therapist to schedule time, I asked a friend to get together, and I made sure yoga was on the calendar and had friends attending to make sure it happened. While I am still working through some of those curveballs, I am doing it in a much healthier way than I would have had I not asked for what I need.
Building a support system: Another invaluable step to dealing with my anxiety was developing a strong support system. Friends and family have played a tremendous role in helping me feel more calm and empowered to face life head on by listening without judgement and helping me stay grounded. Having a foundation of support is a powerful way to keep your anxiety at bay, or at the very least have others there to assist you when anxiety strikes.
Leaving unhealthy relationships: This one is tough. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you can leave a toxic experience, perhaps for safety reasons or because it feels too vulnerable to be alone. Or it can impact other important relationships in your life, like your children, other family members or friends. But, this may be a necessary step to addressing your anxiety, as you would be cutting out or cutting back on a major source of it.
Eating a healthy diet: I have noticed a direct correlation between my eating and my anxiety levels. While anxiety can certainly drive me to eat poorly, eating poorly definitely impacts the way I feel. And when I am not feeling well, I tend to get irritated and anxious, and coping becomes more difficult. If you aren’t already, develop regular healthy eating habits, avoiding processed food and sticking with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and whole grains. When anxiety strikes, resist the urge to binge on fried food, caffeine, and sugar, and notice how it impacts your anxiety and your ability to cope with it.
Redirection: When I can sense my anxiety taking hold, one method of combatting it is not staying stuck in my usual actions and responses. Just like when you are redirecting a child who is upset, you can redirect yourself in a way that changes up what you are doing in the moment, and as a result, you can alter your focus, which an help tremendously. For example, if you are having anxiety and you are at home, getting out and walking around the block or starting an activity you weren’t planning to do (art, cooking, calling a friend) can help you stay focused in the present moment and give your body some time to recalibrate.
In Conclusion: These are just a few examples of steps I have taken to address (and learn to live with) my own anxiety. If you haven’t implemented some of these steps before, I encourage you to try them to see how they work for you. I know how debilitating anxiety can be and my hope is you are able to find what works best for you personally so that you can improve your own quality of life. Take it one day at a time, and begin the work of learning your triggers, implementing boundaries, and developing habits and systems in your life to help you better manage your own anxiety.
Professional Help: This post should not be construed as, nor should be considered a substitute for, medical advice. View our Medical Disclaimer here. It is important to seek professional help and support should you find it difficult to manage day-to-day. If you are considering harming yourself or others, please reach out for immediate help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
I would love to learn from you and your experiences! What steps do you take to manage your anxiety? What do you think has been the most powerful step you’ve taken and why? Please comment below or message me here. I look forward to hearing from you!