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.”