I waited too long to take proper action against my anxiety attacks. What once were haphazard hyperventilation attacks turned into panic attacks as stress increased. Definitely not fun.
I’ve found it hard to accept that I apparently had a mental issue. For years I took pride in the fact that I was always good humored, positive and had never felt an inch of depression or intense fear.
I’ve seen friends, and even my ex-girlfriend, suffer from depression. I never got it. I couldn’t imagine feeling like that. Therefore, I couldn’t really understand them. And when you’re in a relationship, understanding each other is vital.
In the past year, I’ve experienced more stress than usual. My company was heading into the abyss, and I couldn’t take control. (In the end, we did, but it was a long road). The sheer idea of bankruptcy, or having no job, no certainties, no idea of what I wanted to do to make a living (writing doesn’t get me there — yet). I knew I liked to be in control, but I didn’t know it was this intense!
I started gaining weight, partying too much, drinking too much. I felt miserable. I was always tired. And sometimes out of the blue, I was hit by a panic attack. A feeling I don’t wish for people to experience, but alas, we do.
I was stretched too thin. I was arrogant in thinking I could ‘cure’ myself. But who was I kidding? I told myself my problem wasn’t severe enough, other people suffered more than me, mentally. I feared being judged to seek help. However, it was that fear I needed to conquer. After another severe panic attack, I finally went to a psychologist. Probably the best decision I made this year.
Here’s what I learned about tackling anxiety and how you can take steps to deal with your anxiety too. Be warned: one can never cure anxiety, but you can learn to cope with it and move on with your life.
“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
How I learned to battle my anxiety with therapy
My preconceived ideas that therapy wasn’t for me were all false and stories in my head. After having conquered the fear to go to therapy, it was liberating. Even after two sessions, let alone more.
It’s great to tell someone who is ‘objective’ about what troubles you, about your fears and insecurities. Without a filter, without holding up a mask. Letting down your walls and armor. I felt naked, but talking about it didn’t feel scary once I sat there.
I was lucky, my therapist was a good one. His wall decorated by impressive degrees from Ivy-League American universities. Not that that should be the sole reason for his good performance.
At first, he seemed stern, like your typical impatient math teacher. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t trying to be my friend. He sat in that chair to get results. Baring my past, ideas, insecurities, and soul. After the first session I was wrecked, but the second got better, and the third… Luckily his ‘office’ view was over the Amsterdam canals, not a bad place to pour your heart out.
We analyzed three things concerning my anxiety:
- My behavior, what caused the panic attacks, the hyperventilating? Even during casual conversations with friends, I hyperventilated. Usually in a public space. I worried too much, about what other people might think of me (and I gladly fed those stories in my mind), about what my friend might think, about my to-do list, about my next meeting, about an argument I might have with my dad… (Trust me this is draining and it all happens simultaneously).
- Pause. I needed to analyze my thoughts, where they stem from. Most importantly, I needed to stop the thought loops and reflect.
- Which leads to cognition. How could I solve the problem? How could I adjust my behavior
“What upsets people is not things themselves, but their judgments about these things.” — Epictetus.
So, let’s get to the practical stuff, the tools I have learned to better cope with my anxiety:
1. Hit pause. When I have an ‘attack’, I feel my breath rising, causing short and high breaths in my throat. I need to literally stop. I need to bring back my breath to my stomach. You can do this by inhaling deeply for 3 seconds, exhale long for 6 seconds. Repeat that 3 times. Calm yourself down. Stop what you’re doing.
2. Reflect and stop thought loops. The stories you are telling yourself (of what someone else might think, say or do) must stop. They are false. Can you really know what someone else is thinking? Usually, they aren’t thinking about you at all. They have enough to worry about themselves.
Continually thinking about what you must do during the day can consume you. Take one task and complete it, then move on to the next. Tackle the biggest task first (this relieves the most stress). And if you haven’t finished your list, well, there’s always tomorrow. Will someone die if you don’t cross everything off your list? Will you?
3. Recognize story-telling behavior that’s completely fictional. This can be thinking for another person, having 100s of arguments with someone in your head, negative self-talk, feeling like everyone is focusing on you, on your insecurities.
Earth to you! Who is telling you all this? Can you hear what others are thinking? Then you have a precious and magical gift! Unless you’re Mel Gibson in What Women Want, then, no you can’t. Can you predict reactions, the future? No. Realize that it’s all made up — by yourself. Gently push those thoughts away.
“You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
4. Take distance from your thoughts and counter them with what if’s. What’s the worst that someone may think? What’s the worst outcome of not being on time, of not having finished something, of losing control, of going bankrupt, etc? What’s the worst a friend might think about things you’re insecure about Will they honestly think badly of you, even if you’ve hung out for years?
Dig deep. Usually, it’s not the end of the world. It might suck, but you’re still you. And chances are you won’t end up in the gutter, with having one boot to your name and a hand me down coat.
You walk around with all your years of earthly experience telling yourself the same version of a story to yourself day in, day out. Don’t tell yourself things that aren’t true.
5. Relax. Don’t rush yourself. I am always feeling like I have to be quick, fast, constantly watching the clock. Learn from the Spanish (mañana, mañana) — although probably not too much. There are great tools to relax, more on that in the next section.
Tools for calming oneself down
- Headspace: a great app to learn guided meditation (there’s even a managing anxiety pack of 30-days). The first 10 days are free. I’d quit it for half a year and immediately noticed I was more anxious. I start my day with a 10/15-minute meditation (almost every day). It’s quite expensive, you can also try the free app Oak, build by Kevin Rose
- Pause: read, watch some tv, go for a walk, call a friend, treat yourself to a nice lunch. Anything to break your thinking or worrying. Focus on something else which is relaxing.
- Get a massage, go to a sauna, go floating or treat yourself so an entire spa day.
- Exercise — it doesn’t matter what, my advice is doing something you enjoy.
- Talk about your worries with a friend, your girlfriend/boyfriend, your mom. It helps to vent.
- Study Stoic philosophy. I’m not prophesizing here; you can make up your own mind. It has helped me a great deal over the past years, it’s about the things you can control and letting go of the things you can’t. I’m not doing it justice and it deserves more posts, but I recommend you check out Ryan Holiday or Tim Ferriss on the topic.
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius.
What if I can’t break my anxiety patterns?
Well, first of all, seek professional help. I knew all the things above already, but I just couldn’t get myself to act on it without help. You possibly can’t either. And that’s ok. You are far from alone in this!
If you aren’t able to calm yourself down, to let go of thoughts or behavior, then analyze where it went wrong later in the day. Buy a journal. Reflect on what happened. Why couldn’t you stop making up stories? Why were you so rushed? Analyze your emotions and behavior.
How did you feel? How did you behave? Not the way you would have liked? Well, how did you want to feel or behave? Why weren’t you able to? Why? Write it down. Learn more about yourself.
So, now what?
Embark on your mental exercising journey. You might not be able to lift 100kg the first go but start with 5kg. It will get easier with time.
You’ll never be ‘cured’, and that’s fine, as long as you learn to be better at dealing with your anxiety.
I told my friends and family I went to therapy for my anxiety attacks. None of them had ever noticed anything… And I was always thinking everyone must’ve. Plus, they were far from judgmental, they’re proud of me for taking the step. (And I come from a family in which no one dares to talk about their feelings.) Often the conversations later on dealt with their worries and it’s great to talk about it with one another (and even to get to know each other better).
So fall, stand up, rise, learn and repeat.
NOW I WANT TO ASK YOU FOR YOUR TIPS. WHAT’S HELPING YOU MANAGE YOUR ANXIETY?
Let’s end with my favorite quote.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca
Would you like listen to short fiction stories while you’re commuting, walking, running or cooking? Listen to the Turner Stories Podcast.
Originally published at medium.com