Today, I am shifting things from my usual blog posts and talking about something a little more personal for me. We have all been through something that has made us feel anxious whether it is an exam we are studying for, a problem at work or even just a problem you have to deal with in general. For some people, however, feeling anxious happens far too often and can interfere with their life. Anxiety can appear out of nowhere and when you least expect it. It can appear when nothing logical seems to trigger it.
Around seven or eight years ago, my life changed. I chose to pull myself from toxic and abusive relationships (which was extremely difficult because I cared deeply for some of the people), my health declined, I was constantly developing more and more health problems and I was dealing with a lot of emotional and physical stresses making it extremely difficult to function ‘normally’. I won’t go into the exact details of my life but it was seven years ago when I started to experience anxiety.
Throughout the years, I had moments of panic where the feeling of extreme fear and terror suddenly hit me without any warning. In those moments, I would experience nausea, chest pain, difficult breathing, numbness, heart racing, sweating and feeling faint. It would feel like my entire body was shaking but on the outside, it wasn’t. The first time it happened, I thought I was dying or that I was going “crazy.” I had never been around anyone who had experienced this openly and in public. I was on a ferry, waiting for it to dock and I had nowhere I could escape to. I just panicked and to this day, I still have no idea why this terrible feeling occurred. I was lucky that my aunt was willing to pick me up on the other side so I did not have to go on public transit in such a state. I was lucky that my patient, loving, and understanding partner was with me at the time but I was also aware there would be times that I would have to deal with this alone and that terrified me.
A bit about my health: I have a lot of food intolerance and allergies that cause my body to feel awful at times. My gut and bowels were always angry at me because it was very difficult to deal with the amount of allergies I had and still be able to eat properly. Eating became a stress in my life. I was too afraid to eat out with friends or when I was visiting someone. I only wanted to eat when I knew I would be home. I felt nauseous almost every time I ate. My intestines were constantly inflamed, I was bloated more often than not (which caused me to feel self-conscious about my body) and I had sharp pains on my right side which was a constant worry because I always thought it was appendicitis. I turned into a hypochondriac because my body was in constant pain or discomfort. This made going to work and spending time with people extremely difficult. I started to develop something I liked to call “Food Induced Social Anxiety.” It’s obviously not an actual medical term but it was the best way I could explain my anxious feelings when I was around people. I had to explain my situation to many people when they asked me why I wasn’t eating when we all went out to a restaurant. I would develop an overwhelming worry that I would vomit in front of everyone or that I would have an allergy attack in front of everyone (which wasn’t deadly but severe enough that it prevents me from functioning normally). Even though the people I now surround myself with are accepting and understanding, I still kept feeling like I would be judged. I was self-conscious and embarrassed every time I had to explain to them why I didn’t want to eat. I worried people would think I was anorexic or would make fun of me. This only added to my anxiety problems.
On top of all this, I have a phobia of flushing toilets! Yeah, thank you childhood farmhouse toilet that liked to flood often. I hate toilets that don’t flush properly or look like they might overflow. It is the flushing that freaks me out so when I go out, I would end up giving myself unnecessary stresses by playing the “what if” game. What if I throw up and the toilet overflows?! I am fully aware that this is ridiculous. I laugh at myself all the time but that doesn’t mean I can shake this very real feeling of fear so easily. (Fun Fact: While I am getting better at dealing with this ridiculous fear, I have designated toilets around town that I know I can trust! I call them “Brittany Approved Toilets.” Gotta have some fun with your fears, no?)
So, after visiting my doctor multiple times to make sure there is nothing physically wrong with me (aside from the annoying but not life threatening issues I already have or had to deal with: Ovarian Cyst, Tietze Syndrome, Allergies and Intolerance, and Epstein–Barr virus to name a few ), I started to research anxiety disorders. I was careful not to diagnose myself with everything I stumbled across but to focus on learning ways to “deal with” feelings of anxiousness.
Acknowledging. The first thing I had to do was to acknowledge that I have anxiety. This might sound strange but for me, when I acknowledge that I have anxiety it is easier for me to deal with it. By telling myself, “what you are feeling is anxiety” helps to take away others stresses that may come up such as thinking I am dying or some other unlikely issue. It also helps to know that what I am experiencing is not my fault. It happens to many people and I just have to find a way to deal with it. I try to be confident when I say “I have anxiety” because it really helps me treat it as such and not allow others to influence me and make me feel bad by saying things like “It’s all in your head” or “You are over reacting.” To me, these physical and mental feelings are very real and I’ve learned that it does not help to listen to the types of people who don’t understand and try to convince you otherwise. Listening to comments like that while experiencing very real physical symptoms makes it harder to cope with as you will most likely start blaming yourself or feeling ashamed for not preventing it which in turn leads to more stress and anxiety. It’s a nasty circle to be stuck in and it took me years to get out of.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Coping Methods– Now, I’m not saying that I have PTSD as I have not been diagnosed by a professional but I have researched it and I found a few methods that I have worked on that help with my anxiety. I really recommend taking a look at the U.S Department of Veteran Affairs page (They even have a phone app to help). I am going to post a little snippet of the page that really helps me:
Sudden Feelings of Anxiety or Panic
Traumatic stress reactions often include feeling your heart pounding and feeling light-headed or spacey. This is usually caused by rapid breathing. If this happens, remember that:
1. These reactions are not dangerous. If you had them while exercising, they most likely would not worry you.
2. These feelings often come with scary thoughts that are not true. For example, you may think, “I’m going to die,” “I’m having a heart attack,” or “I will lose control.” It is the scary thoughts that make these reactions so upsetting.
3. Slowing down your breathing may help.
4. The sensations will pass soon and then you can go on with what you were doing.
Another method for coping with PTSD, which really helps me, is called Grounding. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original article that helped me but many PTSD sites mention it. Anxiety BC has a PDF that has information about coping methods. They write;
Grounding is a very helpful technique if you are experiencing flashbacks and you find yourself sometimes losing touch with the present moment. Having this symptom of PTSD is not only terrifying for you, but it can also be scary for people around you, such as friends and family. Grounding teaches you to stop losing touch with the present moment by concentrating and focusing on the present or by directing your attention to something else. Some Examples of Grounding: Touch objects around you, and describe them (texture, colour). For example, “I’m sitting on a red chair, and the fabric is really soft; it’s velvet. The carpet is beige, and there is a red couch in the corner.” Run water over your hands, and describe aloud how it feels. Name all the different types of animals you can think of (e.g., zebra, cat, dog, cow, etc…), or types of flowers, cities in B.C., etc… Say the alphabet backwards
TIPS FOR GROUNDING:
1. Eyes open. When doing grounding techniques, make sure to keep your eyes open, so that you can see and focus on what is around you right now. It is also a good idea to speak out loud, describing what you are seeing and doing. (My note: This is key for me. Closing my eyes makes me go back into myself and start thinking too deeply about my past and worries. Keeping my eyes open helps me focus on what is in front of me. Surprisingly, this has been the biggest challenge for me because when I get scared or stressed, closing my eyes is my first reaction and it rarely helps!)
2. Practise: Like any other skill, it is important to practise grounding techniques. It will be most useful if you have tried using this skill when you were calm, and you practised it often. That way, when you find yourself needing to use it, you already know how.
3. Enlist help: Teach a friend or family member about grounding and why you need to use it. If someone you trust understands when grounding is useful, they can remind you to use it (and do it with you) if you are starting to lose touch with the present. For example, they might say, “I think you might want to do some grounding now… can you describe what you are wearing? What am I wearing? Where are we right now?”
I found that when I have my attacks, it helps to slow down or stop moving and start describing every little detail about an object in front of me. While doing this, I try to slow down my breathing and take long deep breaths as I describe the shape of a flower or a board on the wall full of pins. Sometimes it doesn’t work but as I practice this technique, I am starting to see improvement in how long my ‘episodes’ last, how fast I can calm myself down and slow my breathing and heart rate, and how I feel after the anxiety has passed. In the past, I would feel sick after an episode because I spent so much of my energy fighting it. Now, even though I still feel exhausted, I don’t feel as ill.
No Caffeine I try to avoid as much caffeine as possible even though I still end up eating lots of chocolate (Too good!). I avoid coffee, energy drinks, and pops because I find that these things may set off my anxiety. If I feel anxious, I avoid these things all together because they only increase my heart rate and make me feel more jittery and anxious.
Find Something That Calms Me: This is a lot harder than one would think. For me, I have found that lavender essential oil and eucalyptus essential oils helps me calm down especially at night. My mother bought me an oil diffuser for Christmas this year and I love it! Whenever I feel even a bit anxious, I turn it on and go through my grounding techniques and so far, it has helped.
Being in a forest near running fresh water (Streams, rivers, creeks,waterfalls etc) has helped reduce my anxiety but it has been difficult to get to these types of environments because I live in a busy city. I am lucky to live in an area with lots of green space but even those spaces are crowded with people. I try to make a point to get out of the city when I can.
Animals help me have moments of joy even when I’m really upset or miserable. Birds (given I can see them and they are not just squawking at me), pine-cone-throwing squirrels, cats, dogs, even types of insects have all helped me reduce my anxiety when they are around. Winter time, because a lot of these critters are not present, is very hard for me. We are not allowed animals in our apartment so I am looking forward to when we move and I can have an animal friend of my own!
Having plants in my house and on my balcony has really helped in reducing my anxiety levels. I love taking care of plants even if I am not the best at it. It’s like having a pet that doesn’t move or hiss/bark at you. They are, generally, very pleasing to look at and add a bit of life to your home.
Movie Time. The movies in the list below aren’t always my favourite but there is something about them that helps calm me down. For some reason, any movie with Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy or Drew Barrymore (except ET cause he’s terrifying) has helped me calm down. I have no idea why these movies help me but they do. I’m normally into fantasy, sci-fi and action movies.
50 First Dates
I Find Time to Relax and I Don’t Judge Myself For It. This is important for me because I often find myself angry at myself for ‘wasting time.’ After realising how much taking time to relax has benefited my health, I no longer feel angry at myself. I now allow myself guilt-free time to relax. Sometimes it can be an entire week of lazy lounging!
I Say No To Things I Don’t Feel Like Doing. This is another thing I have had to work on. When I feel anxious I don’t like being around people. I love my friends and family but sometimes I just don’t feel up to travelling or partaking in an event. It took me a long time to realised that I am allowed to say no when I am invited out. Be warned though, people may have a tendency to not invite you out if this is a common occurrence because they may not think you are interested at all. Sometimes, it is good to explain to them how you feel and if they are good friends, they will understand. Be honest and sensitive. If you find that you haven’t been seeing friends in a while because of your anxiety, try inviting them over to a place where you feel comfortable. I like to host movie nights with friends at my place because I feel comfortable here and it allows me to stay relaxed while also visiting with them. Just because you say no to hanging out, does not mean you do not love or care for your friends.
Taking a Warm Bath. This is a huge one for me. I don’t know if I could survive living in a home without a bath. Every time I get anxiety or even an allergic reaction where my body feels numb or tense, I take a warm bath. It helps 95% of the time! I like to add bubbles, bath bombs or essential oils to help calm me.
Diet. I’m terrible at this but I still try. I have a lot of food intolerance so I end up eating the same thing over and over which usually means I’m not getting all the nutrients I need. I have to research new recipes and adjust them so they suit my needs. Cooking is not my favourite thing to do so this adds a bit of stress to my life but when I do put time into it, I do feel better and accomplished afterwards. This is certainly something I need to work on.
Exercise. You were probably expecting this one. This is on every healthy life-style list but this one is different as I’m not talking about general exercise. I’m talking about exercises that works for you. Yoga (I’m probably doing it wrong) does not work for me. My brain is not at the state where I can sit quietly and be at peace. I know! I know! It takes practice but I’m just not ready for it yet. For me, running and Chinese martial arts have really helped me. I am nowhere near where I want to be with my exercise routines but I know that running, Tai Chi and kung-fu have really helped me mentally and physically.
Video Games. There are some video games that help me relax (given I have the online community on mute for some of it). Most of them are fighting games which makes you wonder why these games calm me down. You would think they would do the opposite but like the grounding method above, they help turn my focus to something else. Most of the games I play have an objective to aim for whether it is capturing a flag, protecting a payload, saving a princess, or just defending an area from the enemy team. These objectives make my brain focus on solving problems and not my anxiety. They turn my mind from the past to the present while I move my character through a map on the screen. On top of that, mots of the games I play have beautiful and colourful graphics that make me feel happy when I see them. I know there are some games out there that don’t help and I know being in front of a screen for long periods of time is not healthy but a few matches here and there of Overwatch has really benefited me this last year.
Having an escape route during an event. When I really want to go to an event but have experienced a lot of anxiety, I tend to create an escape plan. What is an escape plan? It’s a plan to escape the event when I feel an anxiety attack coming on. This can be anything from driving to the party instead of taking the bus so you don’t have to rely on public transit to get you home. It could be knowing you have a buddy with you who understands what you go through and is there to help you if you have an attack. For me, this also means having a place that has “Brittany Approved Toilets” or a bag available if I want to throw up. I’ve never actually thrown up from my anxiety attacks but I always feel like I will and having something available just in case can really lower your stress levels. Find out what works for you and let someone you trust know about your escape plan. If you are too embarrassed to let the host know, have signals ready with your buddy so they can tell the host that you will be leaving. Basically, an escape route allows you to have a back up plan for when your ‘what ifs’ come true. If you have a plan set up before hand, you’ll stress less about those ‘what ifs’.
Identifying My Triggers. Sometimes my anxiety comes on when I am reminded of something from my past. I call these reminders, triggers. Triggers can happen mid-conversation, if you see something, you smell something, you hear something, etc, and it is important to identify these triggers so you can better deal with them or avoid them in the future. I have identified some of my triggers and I have told a few people I trust what they are. When I feel like something is about to trigger me and I do not feel like I can handle it, I will tell them. I will say something like “Can we change topics? This one is starting to trigger me. I would like to save it for another day when my emotions are a little ‘stronger’.” Again, nothing is wrong with you if you have triggers. If you’ve been through something traumatic, it is normal to have triggers but it is important to learn how to deal with them. If I am triggered, I just try to ground myself, acknowledge the trigger, and move on. It has been a hard journey but the more I practice with some of my coping methods, the easier it is for me to deal with triggers. I will always be affected by them but I want to lessen the damage as much as I can or completely change what that trigger means to me (Example: Changing a song that reminds you of negative things to something positive. It is hard to do but it is doable).
Shaping My Brain For the Future. This is an ongoing process where I am attempting to make new memories instead of thinking of the old ones. There is a lot of research behind ‘erasing memories’ and a lot of them focus on directing your thinking else where. It’s a little different from the grounding technique that I mentioned above and I’m still very new to using it. From what I have gathered, you focus on other memories you enjoy so they stay up front and vivid while the bad ones fade away in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you are focusing on the positive things of a negative experience but rather focusing on positive memories that can take the forefront of your brain instead of allowing negative ones to infiltrate your thoughts. For example, I’m trying to stop focusing on someone who did terrible things to me and put my energy towards better people and focusing on them instead of the toxic person. The idea is that your brain will push this toxic memory to the back of your mind (possibly erase it) which will help reduce anxiety, the appearance of triggers, and maybe (if you are lucky) make your body forget the emotions tied to the negative memory. Most of my negative thoughts come at night right before bed. I have many writing projects on the go so when I feel a negative memory, anxiety or bad thought coming on, I play a chapter from the novel, that I am writing, in my head until I fall asleep. It’s almost like watching a movie inside your head. This technique has also helped to reduce my nightmares as I am not thinking negatively as I fall asleep.
There are other ways to deal with anxiety but these are the things that have worked for me. I still get anxiety but I am able to deal with it way better than I did so many years ago. I’ve surrounded myself with amazing people who take time to try to understand what I’ve gone through and what I am going through. I am working on making my life better and I hope some of the above methods can help you if you struggle with anxiety or anything similar to it. It is always important to speak with your doctor if things get really bad and tell people you trust. It took me years to figure this out or find the confidence to do so but I am happy that I did.