I’ve Been Fighting Anxiety for 20 Years. Here’s What I Learned.

A woman who has overcome anxiety looking to her left

I’ve been training for this day my whole life.

“Okay, but really, how’s everyone doing?”

The question came on this morning’s team Zoom call. We’re all working from home because of the pandemic. It was met with shrugs, sighs, and depressed sort of “mehhhh” sounds from our VP. 

I was actually surprised to hear how many of my colleagues are only now realizing this is a big deal. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I often pick up on things before others do. I was worrying about this stuff two weeks ago. My boss thought it was weirdly prophetic that I suggested I should work from home upon returning from some travel (the entire company was put on WFH orders a few days later). I just sighed and thought, “There’s that HSP superpower again.”

We’re all feeling it, aren’t we? The anxiety is palpable. Store shelves are empty, headlines are dire, and, oh yeah, large swaths of the world aren’t allowed to leave their homes. As the economy stalls during this quarantine, those who haven’t yet been laid off are afraid they will be. We HSPs tend to process things deeply and feel things strongly — so we may be among the first to feel anxious, and the anxiety can seem overwhelming.

The good news is that while anxiety is no fun, you can learn to manage it. I should know: I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder almost 20 years ago, and have been learning how to manage it ever since. In some ways, you could say I’ve been training for this day my whole life. I’m no doctor, but here’s what I’ve learned about fighting panic and anxiety.

What Is This Horrible Feeling, and Why Do I Have It?

Anxiety is a much dumber animal than most of us give it credit for. It’s actually a danger response: Various parts of your brain — especially the amygdala — work together to look for danger, and they LIGHT. YOU. UP. if they see something dangerous. Your brain does this so you can run away from predators. This is good.

What’s not so good is your brain is kind of awful at distinguishing different types of danger. It doesn’t know the difference between a lion that wants to eat you and a difficult conversation you need to have with a partner. Or, you know, with a bizarre reversal of our entire society. Stress is stress, as far as our bodies and minds are concerned.

So right now, lots of us have brains that are lit up like Christmas trees. They’re screaming “RUN AWAY RUN AWAY!!!” The trouble is, that trick can’t help us now. We can’t just run away from a pandemic like we could from a lion. Nor can we run from the economy.

With every headline, every tweet, every stray thought about what’s next, our brains see danger and tell us to head for the hills. But we can’t — so the brain stays in full-on anxiety mode. It’s obsessing over something none of us can control: the future.

So, how do you stop it? Here’s the method I use, in four steps. 

4 Steps to Manage Anxiety

1. Notice your symptoms, both physical and mental.

My anxiety used to be like a freight train — I never saw it coming until it ran me over. Now, I can see my train coming from miles away, because I know my symptoms. We all have different anxiety symptoms, and the more you get to know yours, the better off you’ll be. 

  • Physical anxiety symptoms: Notice how you feel in your body when you are anxious. Which muscles are tense? Is your breathing shallow? Are you fidgety? For me, tightness in my chest and tense facial muscles are often an early hint. Do I keep forgetting to eat because I have no appetite? That means my anxiety is running high. Learn to recognize your symptoms and you can catch anxiety before it even affects your emotions. 
  • Mental anxiety symptoms: Likewise, watch for patterns in your thinking. Sometimes our brains like to go on familiar walks when they’re lit up — walks that have nothing to do with what you’re actually anxious about. For me, it’s obsessing for no reason over my dating life, or being “unable” to make any time to go outside. Family and friends can help you notice these patterns. Make a list of them and keep it somewhere you can check it easily.

So, what do you do when you see these symptoms kicking in? Well…

2. Notice your triggers.

Repeat after me: “I do not have a moral duty to ingest the news 24/7.”

I get it. I’m a hard-core news junkie. But when the “how high could unemployment go?” teaser came on yesterday, I turned off the radio. That’s because hearing about layoffs is one of my triggers for anxiety. 

Your triggers may be different. They may also make no logical sense. Don’t overthink it — if your anxiety spikes repeatedly over the same topic, you’ve found a trigger. Smart self-care, then, means stepping away from that topic when you can. Gently ask your dad to stop relaying doom and gloom news stories to you. Turn off the news. Whatever it takes.

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3. Instead, focus on what’s actionable.

One of the most important steps to take when feeling anxious is to think about, and act on, the things that are actually in your control. 

It is helpful to know the precautions your local health authorities are recommending. It is helpful to know what unemployment benefits you’d be eligible for if needed. Because these are things you can actually use.

However, is not helpful to hear news that makes you think what-if-I-get-this-illness-and-give-it-to-my-parents-and-the-entire-world-economy-shuts-down-and-I-get-laid-off-and-there’s-no-food-and-I’m-quarantined-for-6-months. (This sentence basically came straight out of my journal.) 

If you are worried about things that are actionable today, then take action on them — and then remind yourself that you’ve done everything you can. 

The trickiest worries, though, are usually about the future. Which is why you need to…

4. Come back from the future.

My brain’s favorite thought right now is, “The entire world economy is going to shut down.” But is that actually true? I don’t know — and neither does anyone else

Which means when that thought visits me, I need to gently but firmly guide my mind elsewhere. There are lots of ways to do this:

  • Distraction. Take your mind off it, and if it fades out, you’re good. If you find you’re distracting in unhealthy ways (alcohol, harmful behaviors, procrastination, etc.) then it’s time to call in the pros. Start by calling your primary care doctor if you don’t know where else to start — doctors can help treat anxiety or recommend a therapist that may be covered, at least partly, by your insurance.
  • Plain ol’ exercise. Intense exercise, even for one minute, can help dissipate your anxiety hormones so you can relax. Wall push-ups or jogging in place are good examples. So is dancing. Remember: One minute is enough
  • Relaxation exercises. Get this: If your body is relaxed, you can’t feel anxious. It’s physically impossible. (I KNOW, RIGHT?) So, sometimes you can trick yourself out of your anxious thoughts by relaxing your body enough. This works best if you do it often, and not just when you are feeling anxious. Pick a meditation app and do quiet meditation, guided meditation, visualization — whatever works for you. Even just a 3-minute session can help, although experiment with what works best for you. Always start by getting comfortable and taking some deep breaths!
  • Check the facts (yes, this works). Sometimes you can question the evidence to calm down your thoughts. Ask yourself, “Do I know this will happen?” Even better, look for evidence that it might not. When I did this, I found out that a group of scientists did two years’ worth of research on the disease in just three weeks. I’m leaning on that knowledge hard right now, because it offsets the panic you hear everywhere else. 

The most important tip: If your anxiety feels unmanageable, contact a professional. Remember, anyone can have problems with anxiety under this kind of pressure, even if they never struggled with it before. Organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness can help you find support; or start with this index of HSP-friendly therapists.

Being anxious is a reasonable reaction to our current circumstances. But you can take steps to manage your anxiety so you don’t suffer needlessly. I guarantee I’ll have more spikes of anxiety about this in the coming weeks… and then I’ll try to come back to the present. Want to join me?

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