Anxiety is a multifaceted beast. Just when you learn to recognise one facet, it turns and shows another one, sending you into an unexpected frenzy. Just when you think you know it all and you are prepared mentally and emotionally, it laughs in your face, pulls up another mask, another layer of terror.
I am getting better at it.
I am managing the ups and downs of the freelancer life with a chill attitude. I used to worry about finances once a day: from morning till night. Now I only mildly worry about it — like once or twice a week. Which is a huge accomplishment, considering I am the sole breadwinner.
I am managing my imposter syndrome, trying to convince myself that no one thinks I am a fraud. They won’t discover how useless I am. I am not deceiving anyone. Because I am not a fraud, I belong here, I have a right to write, just because I have a story to tell.
I am managing my creative mood swings. I am starting to notice a cyclical pattern with my writing and the related mood swings— I know that it goes up and down. And I know that even if it’s down it never stays down. It’s the straw I clutch when writer’s anxiety hits.
I am getting better dealing with the shenanigans of my ex. My last custody hearing had made a proper hot mess of me, shivering and shaking in the heat of the almost-summer, sitting on the curb just out of the courthouse — a few months ago. This most recent custody hearing was even more boring but just as much triggering as the previous one, and I have to admit, it still gives me chills when someone utters my exes’ name. Too bad that my daughter has his surname, it still makes me jump, duck and then apologise every time they say her name in the kindergarten. But I am managing it!
It’s all fun and laughter… until…
This time it’s human connections, friendships, that I worry about. Not sure whether it’s them or me, the time of year or what, but I feel abandoned. Suddenly none of my friends has time for me, no one reaches out and I am getting replies with very long response time (think days) if ever.
And no matter how much I am trying to convince myself rationally about all the reasons that can cause their absence, my anxiety is fuelled by a feeling of unloved-ness, worthlessness and rejection and an inexplicable worry and terror. An unanswered text turns into an “I will die alone because nobody loves me” in no time. Or it turns into a full-blown anxiety attack that something terrible happened to them — depression, terminal illness, death are my usual guesses.
The difference between regular negative self-talk and a triggered anxiety attack is the symptoms.
Negative self-talk is terrible, and you should definitely do something about it. But it usually doesn’t end up being a panic attack. You can snap out from negative self-talk. You can distract yourself, you can do something about it, stopping it before it escalates.
An anxiety attack, it’s a whole different species. No matter what the trigger is for it, it manifests in a way where it sends you into a negative thought-spiral with seemingly no way out. It starts to send mental images of the what-ifs, what-would-have-beens, the worst-case scenarios, and the past memories blurred into one tsunami of negativity that starts to wash over you — causing you physical symptoms of drowning.
It can feel different for every one of us, for me, it feels like drowning, the lack of air, numbness of fingers, the pressure on my chest, the accelerated heartbeat, the fear of not being able to breathe.
The problem with anxiety attacks is that the ways to cope with it go against everything you would want to do when having one.
There is a whole universe of self-help tips, that suggest breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness…. But it requires a lot of self-discipline to do all the things that are actually helpful. And self-discipline while having an anxiety attack… well, that sounds very improbable.
But what is there to do then?
This is what works for me:
Anxiety is a state where your mind is in the future instead of being in the present — worrying about what could be. Use some anchoring techniques to stay in the present and reframe your whole anxiety experience:
- Just breathe. No breathing technique, no mindfulness, no meditation. Just inhale, exhale.
- Stay in the present. Ask yourself if you are safe, if you are alive. The answer is almost always yes to all of these. Here and now in the present nothing harmful is happening. It’s not to diss what you feel, it’s to counteract it.
- Relabel your experience: “you are not going to suffocate — you are just having an anxiety attack and it will pass as it always does.”
- Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.
- Do something, anything. Stand up, walk around, clean your desk or your bathroom — move! I hate if someone suggests that you can snap out of your mental issues, but with physical movement, you can try, and sometimes it works. The mechanical body movements, the extra oxygen it pumps through your veins can act as a calming factor, thus it might be able to make you snap out of it.
Practice mindfulness when you are not anxious
This is not a shortcut, sorry. Starting meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness when you have an anxiety attack — there’s no guarantee that it will work. The problem with anxiety is mainly that it is irrational, and your mind and soul feel all over the place. For meditation, you need to find your core and balance — and without knowing how that feels, when you feel anxious it seems an impossible task.
If meditation, mindful breathing, muscle relaxation is part of your daily routine then it makes it easier to pull them out of your toolbox when anxiety hits you. Then you know the state you would want to reach, and it is a comforting thought to know how calm and relaxed you can get.
If you have never tried it, the balance seems so out of reach that it will just annoy you more — being already anxious and getting even more frustrated not being able to find a way to calm down. If you know that you get anxiety attacks, start practising calming and soothing techniques when you are feeling fine, and thus make a mental anchor for yourself — in case you need it anytime.
Take a break
Take a break from everything. Take a mental health day off. Cancel your meetings, clear out your schedule, hide your to-do list for a day. Life is busy, it is exhausting. If you are an overachiever like me, you will think that if you opt-out from your day then the world will stop spinning, your projects will come to a halt, your tasks will fail, your colleagues or clients will abandon you.
Take a conscious step back. Nothing — I repeat nothing — will happen if you choose to give yourself a 24-hour break. People around you are more lenient toward you than you are toward yourself. Call in sick, postpone your deadlines, allow yourself a day where you let go of the feeling that the weight of the world is on your very shoulders.
Take a break from your work emails and social media. Turn off your notifications, silence your phone. You deserve to be left alone. You deserve a break from the world.
Rest, eat, and stop drinking coffee
I don’t believe in bubble baths and I hate the expression power-nap. They make self-care and rest sound way too easy. But finding a way to rest your body is important — you need to find your own way to do so. Find a way that works for you, where you let yourself go a bit, where you allow yourself to release stress. It can be mindlessly binge-watching something, going for a walk or reading a book. I find afternoon naps great — and as I can’t really do it because of my work, this is my go-to method on a mental health day off.
Or if that’s your way, go for a run, do 50 burpees, exhaust yourself and fill up on endorphin and dopamine.
Have a proper meal, give some healthy fuel to your body. Don’t wait for your appetite to show up, it might never do. Go for something light, avoid junk food, fill up your vitamin stocks, eat some fish — for the Omega 3, eat fruit — for the antioxidants and vitamin C.
Stop drinking coffee and try not to drink any alcoholic beverages. Your body is exhausted already, the anxiety and fear put it in an always-alert fight or flight mode. You don’t need more stimulants; you need a physical release of the contracted muscles and survivor mode biochemicals. Drink water, drink lemonade, drink green tea and or chamomile and mint tea.
Allow yourself to worry
But put a timer on it. I found it counterproductive to stop myself worrying. Because my anxiety doesn’t make sense in the first place anyway. I cannot stop it rationally, as rationally I know that there is nothing to worry about.
I usually trick myself with this one, and you could too. Give yourself 10–20 minutes, where you decide that now you are going to overthink it all. That you will look at it from all aspects, picture all the possible outcomes, in all versions, full-scale vivid daydreaming. And when the time is up, you can “schedule” another anxiety date with yourself in the future — that you will or will not use.
The interesting thing here is that it stays within control — you know that your time will be up shortly, there is an end to it. And also, when the time is up and the anxiety creeps back, you tell yourself, that you had your time of worrying already and the next schedule is not here yet.
It allows you to stay in control and also lets your suppressed emotions to resurface — on your own terms, not on theirs.
Know that it will pass
This is the hardest of all. When it hits you with full force, no matter how irrational it is, it feels real. Similarly to other mental health issues, with anxiety, your current status seems to last forever.
Prepare yourself with reminders that will tell you that it will pass. You are not going to die, you are “just” having an anxiety attack. Use a rubber band, pinch yourself, get yourself a tattoo to remind you that it will pass. You will survive this one too, you just need to duck and wait for the storm to pass. I know that it will pass, make sure that you know it too.
This has been my go-to solution lately. To sit down and just write. Freewriting, rambling, journaling to get it all out of my system, to allow my feelings flow and help myself process them on the go — or even doing research, immersing myself in a deeper topic to get my mind off the current events. Writing has special healing power, with its focus, different perspective.
You don’t need to expect it to be the best piece of your life, it is more about grounding yourself in another reality, helping to find your mind to calm down.