Priscilla Warner, author of Learning to Breathe, used to think she was alone in her struggles. Then she discovered the stats: Six million Americans have panic disorder. Forty million have an anxiety disorder.
So, if you’re struggling with anxiety, you’re absolutely not alone. “We all need to learn from each other,” she said.
Knowing how others manage their anxiety can be helpful. Below are the biggest lessons individuals have learned over the years.
“The best lessons I’ve learned in managing my anxiety can be summed up in one word: commonality,” said Margaret Collins, a stay-at-home mom in St. Louis, Mo.
Like Warner, she realized that she wasn’t alone in her pain. She realized that anxiety “crosses all borders, all genders, and all social statuses.” This empowered Collins to stop beating herself up and start turning to resources for help.
“I no longer felt inferior because I was battling anxiety, because millions of people are experiencing this malady. I no longer felt so isolated and alone, because I had this in common with scores and scores of others.”
Today, when Collins experiences anxiety, instead of chastising herself, she feels compassion for everyone who’s struggling.
Becoming your own advocate.
Cristi Comes, a mental health advocate who writes the blog Motherhood Unadorned, has struggled with anxiety her entire life. “As a kid, I didn’t actually know it was anxiety, but looking back, I now see that all of the stomachaches, irrational fears — like airplanes crashing into my bedroom — and almost painful ‘butterflies’ weren’t normal responses to life.”
Over the years, she’s learned the importance of becoming an advocate for your own mental health. “[This] means I don’t just rely on doctors to manage it for me. It’s a two-way street.”
Anxiety is like any other medical condition, she said. It’s key “to find ways to be happy and manage our illnesses the best we can.”
Gathering your tools.
“A consistent meditation practice is the best tool at my disposal,” Warner said. She first learned to meditate from a young Tibetan monk who had panic attacks as a child. “I use guided imagery or meditation downloads when I need a helping hand, or voice.”
If she’s going through an especially tough time, she attends EMDR sessions. “I find therapy to be the most effective, efficient way to process traumatic experiences.” She limits her sugar and caffeine, and walks regularly.
Kathryn Tristan, a research scientist on the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine and author of Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living, endured anxiety and panic attacks for many years.
She also has a series of tools she turns to, including deep breathing. “I visualize breathing into my heart for about a minute. That pulls in more air and helps to relax me instantly.” When she begins to ruminate about the past or fret about the future, she focuses on “what’s right about my life here and now.”
Not letting anxiety rule your life.
Clinical psychologist Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D, struggled with a severe form of OCD. He experienced obsessions — with no compulsions — for about 45 years. “[T]he obsessions constantly shape-shifted into new forms. When my mind started to habituate to one form, a new form would crop up.”
This meant that he always had a new challenge to confront. Yet, he learned that the best approach was not to let his obsessions dictate his life.
“I resolved to just go about my business and do all the things I wanted to do in my life despite the OCD, even when it was difficult to do so. I would tell myself: ‘OK, the OCD is here, and I’m just going to go about my business and act as if it’s merely background noise.’”
Channeling the anxiety.
Bourne also channeled his anxiety into books about anxiety disorders. In his books, including the bestseller The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, he featured many of the coping strategies that helped him, such as: deep relaxation; meditation; prayer; exercise and reframing catastrophic beliefs.
Justin Klosky, who was diagnosed with OCD as a child, also channeled his anxiety into his work. He founded the O.C.D. Experience, a professional organization company, and penned the book Organize & Create Discipline: An A-to-Z Guide to An Organized Existence.
“We have the power to use our minds in any way we want and control where we want to put our energy…Instead of using that energy to create anxiety, it can be much more useful to use it to promote positive change. We all have that power.”
Understanding change takes time.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about managing my anxiety is this: Don’t expect sweeping changes too quickly,” said Summer Beretsky, a college instructor who pens the blog Panic About Anxiety.
This can be especially tough to grasp because we live in a world of instant gratification, filled with text messaging and drive-thru windows, she said. However, treatment takes time and requires hard work. “Real change is slow.”
Dealing with ups and downs.
Beretsky also struggles with the ups and downs of anxiety. “I might triumphantly go a week without having a panic attack, but then follow up that week with a few days in a row of being unable to leave my house.”
When this happens, she reminds herself that setbacks aren’t failures. “Even on the worst days, you’re not taking a step back. You’re still moving forward, even if only by inches at a time.”
Assessing anxious thoughts.
According to Tristan, “Our minds fire at lightning-like speed and often flash thoughts into our consciousness that are fear-based and negative. But that is only our protective side trying to alert us to possible problems and dangers. It’s supposed to do that.”
She’s learned to acknowledge these thoughts and evaluate them. “I can choose to accept or reject the thoughts coming off this mental assembly line. I can consciously switch what I am thinking about.”
“The biggest lesson I have learned is to stay vigilant for the symptoms of [my] anxiety disorder, and to take appropriate action to prevent it from escalating,” said L.A. Middlesteadt, a board member at the National Alliance on Mental Illness/High Country in N.C., and author of What Doesn’t Kill Us: My Battle with Anxiety (under the pen name L.A. Nicholson).
This includes everything from exercising to upping her medication, depending on the severity of her symptoms.
At 41, a series of stressful events triggered Middlesteadt’s generalized anxiety disorder (“[it] hit me like a punch in the gut”). She experienced insomnia and weight loss, had trouble breathing, and felt overwhelmed by routine tasks like grocery shopping. “I ruminated constantly on worst-case scenarios and forgot what it was like to feel joy.”
She also had two suicide attempts. Fortunately, with hospitalization, medication, therapy and support from family and coworkers, her anxiety abated.
Today, she shares her harrowing story with others.
“I want to reach people feeling like I was in the fall of 2007 and tell them that if I could feel better, anyone can. I want to reach their loved ones who don’t understand and help them see that anxiety is an illness, not a character flaw; and that it is treatable. Mostly, I want to stop at least one person from doing what I did – how profoundly grateful I am that I did not ‘succeed.’”
“On days when my anxiety is at its worst, I can look back and immediately see that I didn’t get enough quality sleep,” Comes said. In fact, she calls sleep her “holy grail of self-care.”
She’s also found that eating protein, vegetables and fruit significantly diminishes her anxiety. So has removing gluten and most grains from her diet. (This also eased her son’s night terrors and reduced her husband’s racing thoughts and improved his sleep.)
Targeting specific symptoms.
Susannah Bortner, a mom, writer and preschool teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., experienced her first panic attack when she was 22 years old.
“Since then, with lots and lots of help from therapists, friends, and family, I’ve learned to recognize the physical symptoms of a panic or anxiety attack and treat those symptoms for what they are: physical symptoms caused by the sudden onset of severe panic.”
In other words, because she doesn’t have much control over the fear itself, she uses concrete strategies to address the symptoms. For instance, if she’s feeling lightheaded, she lies down and focuses on something else. If her heart is racing, she takes deep breaths and concentrates on her breathing. If her hands are tingling, she stretches and flexes her fingers to restore feeling. If she’s experiencing diarrhea symptoms, she uses the bathroom.
These techniques don’t instantly alleviate Bortner’s anxiety. But they help her refocus and let her mind regain a state of calm.
“They force me to focus on something specific rather than the all-encompassing fear of going crazy or dying on the spot. Focusing on something physical and specific rather than the very cerebral, hard-to-control feelings of panic gives me a sense of empowerment when I feel least empowered.”
Anxiety disorders are serious illnesses. But with treatment, acceptance and self-care, you can – and you will – get better.