You’re struggling with anxiety. Maybe you had your first panic attack when you were in high school while taking a final. Maybe you had a panic attack in college while driving or grocery shopping. Maybe since then you’ve been having panic attacks regularly.
Maybe it’s not panic attacks at all. Instead you’re constantly on edge. If they gave out medals for worrying, you’d no doubt take first place. Everything makes you anxious and uncomfortable. And it’s absolutely exhausting.
Whatever the specific circumstances surrounding your anxiety and how it manifests, you feel like a complete and utter loser. You feel like there’s absolutely something wrong with you. There must be.
Many of Kira Hoffman’s clients assume their coworkers and friends don’t struggle with anxiety (or feelings of inadequacy). They also believe they should be able “to get over” or “push through” their anxiety. They believe they should be able to work harder and to cope better. Which is precisely what they think others do—and do with very little effort, said Hoffman, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist who provides psychotherapy services for young professionals in San Francisco.
Lisa Richberg’s clients who have high anxiety, especially panic attacks, tell her that they feel embarrassed and ashamed. They also worry that they’ll be “found out as a fraud,” or seen as “out of control,” said Richberg, who specializes in co-morbid eating disorders and addictions, anxiety and depression in Miami. They yearn to be “normal,” to be like people who don’t sit with anxiety every single day.
But here’s the truth: You’re not alone.
For starters, “anxiety disorders are more common than any other mental health issues,” said Richberg. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the U.S., or 18.1 percent of the population every year.
Also, anxiety in general (and feelings of deficiency) is part of the shared human experience, Hoffman said. “To suffer is to be human,” so, again, you are not alone—just like you’re not alone in your grief or sadness (or excitement or joy).
Knowing you’re not alone is important. But it can be hard to dissipate our thoughts of deficiency. Sometimes, it seems like they’re simply part of who we are. I am anxious, and I am inadequate.
But you can slowly chip away at your negative, hurtful self-perception, and adopt a more compassionate perspective. Below, Hoffman and Richberg share some tips on how.
Share your heart with someone. Tell someone you trust that you’re struggling with anxiety. When Hoffman’s clients have had these discussions with loved ones they’ve reported feeling heard, understood and validated. You might even find out that the other person is struggling or has struggled, too.
However, it’s OK if you’re not ready yet to share. If that’s the case, Hoffman suggested seeing a therapist that you feel is a good fit. In fact, seeing a therapist for your anxiety can be tremendously helpful. As Richberg noted, “Anxiety issues are highly treatable.”
Turn to caring phrases. For many of us speaking to ourselves with kindness feels foreign and false. But you can create a phrase that feels “as authentic, genuine, and true to yourself as possible,” Hoffman said. For instance, you might use: “Everyone feels anxious sometimes,” or “It’s OK, you’re just having a really hard time today.”
You also can create a phrase based on your responses to these questions from Hoffman: “What am I feeling in this moment? What isn’t helpful? What do I need?” You might come up with: “I can be gentle with myself, and provide myself with the comfort I need right now…I think I’ll take a walk to get some fresh air.”
Address your inner critic. Even though it feels like the opposite, our inner critics actually have good intentions. They yearn to protect us and keep us safe. The problem is that they run on fear, and lash out.
Sometimes, it can help to talk directly to your inner critic. For instance, Hoffman suggested saying something like: “I know you are trying to be helpful by motivating me to do better next time, but you are really just hurting me.”
Recognize when your anxiety is talking. “Most of the time, the negative messages we tell ourselves are totally bogus,” Richberg said. That is, our critical thoughts are actually creations of our anxiety.
In order to tell whether a thought is simply your anxiety is talking, Richberg suggested jotting down the negative messages as they arise, and reflecting on these questions:
- Are you catastrophizing? That is, are you creating a catastrophe out of a current or future situation?
- Are you stuck in all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking?
- What are the reasons for and against these thoughts?
- Would others you know and respect agree with these thoughts?
- Are there alternate ways of viewing yourself? What are they?
- What would these more helpful views and thoughts look like?
Tune into your tension. “Our experiences of anxiety and self-criticism almost always involve a somatic component,” Hoffman said. For instance, you might feel tightness in your chest or a pit in your stomach.
She suggested closing your eyes; identifying the location of your tension; visualizing “softening the sharp edges around the physical pain or discomfort”; and giving yourself a gentle caress at that spot, while saying the phrase you picked (from above).
Struggling with anxiety is hard enough. Then when we add our feelings of inadequacy, deficiency and shame, getting through the day may feel downright impossible. Again, know that you’re not alone in these feelings. You’re one of millions. Many millions.
And remember that anxiety is treatable. Every day doesn’t have to feel like a mountain you must scale. Every day doesn’t have to feel like a hurdle. So if you’re not working with a therapist who specializes in anxiety, consider it.
Maybe you think this only confirms how weak you really are; it only confirms how much of a mess you really are. But it’s actually one of the bravest things you can do.