My Relationship with Anxiety
This did not change overnight, it involved developing a toolbox of strategies that suited me and how my anxiety presents itself, along with changing my mindset on how I approach my anxiety when it emerges. It involved deliberate actions, consistent (mostly) practice & trial and error. I wanted to give up, at times I did. I am incredibly grateful that I did not give up for good though, and kept at it. As I can say, I have got to a place where I believe I have a healthy relationship with my feelings of anxiety, when in the past they controlled and consumed most areas of my life. I feel for those still in the struggle of anxiety, and encourage you to not give up for good. It is worth it.
Will my anxiety ever go away?
First of all, you’re not wrong for wanting to be rid of anxiety, it is certainly an uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable bundle of sensations and thoughts. It is only natural that you don’t want to feel this, and as human beings it is our automated response to try and avoid discomfort wherever possible. However, I have learned that Anxiety is an automatic survival function. The physiological experience of Anxiety is innate, and designed to prepare our body to respond to danger, and the anxious thoughts are assessing where the threats may be & how best to keep us safe. So the mind & body are doing what they feel is best to keep us safe, which is incredibly helpful when we are in real danger. Unfortunately, sometimes, particularly when we have experienced trauma, and / or high stress inducing experiences in our life, our brain can misinterpret threats & start firing off these survival functions even when they are not needed, (when we are actually safe). So we don’t want to get rid of the anxiety entirely – it is the misfiring that we want to work on.
How do I stop letting my anxiety control me?
Anxiety is our response to a perceived or real threat. We may have trouble controlling when our brain interprets danger especially whilst we are starting out on this journey. We may also not be able to control how the mind and body chooses to respond (e.g., whether it shuts down, disconnects from reality, anger or shaking) but we can learn how to be aware when this happens, ride out the storm & choose what we want to do in response. For example, I particularly resonate with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’s (ACT) strategy called Dropping Anchor. Where we use the acronym ACE to take back control of our actions…
A – Acknowledge the anxiety (e.g., I am observing that I am having the feeling of anxiety)
C – Connect with your body (feel into the other parts of your body, e.g., pushing your feet into the ground).
E – Engage with your surroundings (e.g., utilise your senses to bring to the room & being present in the moment)
We can repeat this several times until we feel more able to ride out the waves of anxiety. From here we are more able to choose how we want to respond, rather than reacting impulsively from our anxiety. If you have trouble with this, or want help in working on no longer reacting from a place of fear and anxiety, working with a psychologist would likely be helpful.
Calming anxiety rather than trying to control anxiety?
You would notice in the previous strategy we aren’t trying to make the anxiety go away, this is because fighting with our anxiety often leads to more anxiety & panic. This shift from calming the anxiety instead of controlling it was a key change for me. So as I list these strategies for inspiration, please remember this is our aim. Some of these techniques have helped me to soothe anxiety in a preventative sense & also to intervene when it inevitably pops up, and is being unhelpful (overprotective)…
- Maintaining a healthy sleep cycle
- Moving your body regularly
- Drinking plenty of water
- Reducing caffeine & alcohol intake
- Implementing and sustaining healthy boundaries with others
- Talking to a supportive friend / family member (someone who can listen without trying to fix our anxiety or makes us feel silly for having these experiences)
- Writing it out – journaling can help slow the anxious thinking down. Usually I use this when the thoughts are thick & fast … this allows for challenging or defusion from any unhelpful thinking that is contributing to the anxiety
- Avoiding the avoidance trap – question if avoiding is going to provide long term relief or only short term, short lived relief
- Reducing overwhelm – for example this could mean writing a list & prioritizing what is important to you and needing urgent attention rather than trying to do all the things, or perhaps turning off your phone / or notifications for some of the day
- Meditation and / or Mindfulness practices – help you to connect to the present moment & increase your capacity to implement strategies like breathing exercises when you need them
- Changing your body temperature – ice cubes, a cold shower can help to cool down our nervous system
- Breathing strategies – I have put this last because I know you have heard this before. You might even think it doesn’t work. Breathing is helpful for the nervous system to calm when it is anxious, however it is only one piece of the puzzle. A psychologist can help you work on the obstacles you might be facing when trying to implement breathing strategies.
The main tip for all of this is to find what works for you! But always consider if it is bringing you short term relief but making it worse long term, as that is a red flag for it not being a helpful calming strategy.
Treating anxiety as an anxious part of you rather than the whole you?
There is a concept from Internal Family Systems (IFS) that I resonate with, that says we as human beings have different parts of us. These different parts often have different agendas, perspectives and ideas about how to keep us (as a whole) safe.
I often felt at odds with my anxious part, she would pop up unwanted, majority of the time in situations when I am actually not in real danger, almost like an overprotective helicopter parent or a very overbearing friend. I spent a long time “managing” my anxious part, ultimately trying to make her go away and let me get on with my life. I blamed my anxious part for a lot of the difficulties I was having, and thought if I could just get rid of her I would be happy and successful and better connected with others.
I realize now, she is just trying to protect me and keep me safe. I realized that it was my fighting with her that was causing most of my distress & I imagined if I was treating a caring protective friend (although overzealous) the way I was treating her I would be mortified. SO I decided to try something different.
I utilised another ACT strategy, so now when my anxious part pops up, I utilize strategies (like the ones listed above) to help soothe her, & I speak kindly and compassionately to her. I thank my anxious part for her input, let he know I appreciate her for trying to help out, and gently move back towards what my values and goals are, towards the person I want to be and the life that I want to live. Over time she has begun to trust me more to make decisions without sounding the alarm bells. It feels more like a collaborative partnership with a part of myself who comes around sometimes rather than a never ending war with myself. That feels healthy to me. That feels worth it.
Author: Samantha Sheppard, B Psych (Hons).
Samantha is a registered psychologist with experience working with children and adolescents (and their families), young adults and adults. Samantha empowers others with their mental health using a non-judgemental, compassionate approach, and particularly resonates with a social and emotional wellbeing framework.
To make an appointment with Samantha Sheppard try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.