Anxiety can be such a bitch. It’s become quite commonplace for us to state, “I have anxiety” in the face of discomfort, but there’s a big difference between nervous or uncomfortable and an anxiety disorder. Having experienced both, I can tell you that the difference between nervous or uncomfortable and a full-blown anxiety disorder is NOT a matter of how bad it feels in the moment. It’s more so a difference in level of insight, how capable you are of walking through the worry, fear, and panic, and how much in both quantity and quality it’s affecting your life. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum, the feelings are super-normal and treatable.
In our email exchanges, many of you say things like, “I want to A, but I’m afraid. What should I do?” or, “I’m supposed to B, but what if C happens?”. The most common is, “I keep putting off D because it stresses me out, but I’m getting more and more overwhelmed as D piles up. I’m a nervous wreck!” I hear you! Been there, done that, that, and yup—that, too. You’re not alone. We all experience these things. Seriously. Research tells us that there are an estimated 40 million adults (—women are 60% more likely to be diagnosed than men) , who suffer from an anxiety disorder. The rest of us get nervous, too. I’ve found that an intellectual understanding of what’s going on can be super-helpful as you muster the energy to hop into the solution.
There are several different anxiety disorders. For example, Specific Phobia, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder are most common. Their close (but different) counterparts Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders and Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders feel super-scary, too, but most of you are expressing concerns about what looks like straight-up anxiety. So, let’s start with understanding what’s going on and what’s NOT.
Specific Phobia is like, “Shit, I’m terrified by spiders.” Your anxiety is specific to one isolated thing. In this example, that thing is spiders, but it could be heights, driving in wintery weather, whatever.
Panic Disorder means that you get panic attacks—a conglomeration of physiological symptoms (shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, to name a few) secondary to your fight or flight system kicking into high gear. You may even change plans or adapt your lifestyle for fear of having another.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder means you worry LOTS.
Social Anxiety Disorder describes those of us who get nervous in social situations and, in turn, avoid ‘em AT ALL COSTS.
Sometimes our discomfort doesn’t seem to fit into any of these categories, but it, certainly, feels like anxiety. Here’s the deal. Many of us, women, (—including me!) feel nervous and anxious secondary to other stuff like low self-esteem, dependency, body image concerns, and other results of the garbage that society tells us from the day we’re born. We, unknowingly, internalize this shit. Buying into what society feeds us is an anxiety-trap. The act of trying to be all that we’re seemingly supposed to be (—and expected not to be!) in this society we live in would make any normal human-being nervous as hell. Society says, “Be yourself!! Oh no. Not like that, though.” It’s like, “Damn. Then, like what?!” Enter the confusion, uncertainty, and the fear…of being seen, of not being liked, of being a failure, of not being enough, etc. Then, to make it worse, when we are experiencing anxiety secondary to the internalized messaging, society says, “Damn. You’re nuts! There’s something wrong with you. RELAX.” We, then, internalize that, and it has the potential to become a vicious cycle with no beginning, middle, or end.
Until I learned how to manage my anxiety and stand in my own power—a decades long process—I struggled with all types of nervous energy, anxiety, and panic attacks. For me, what I feared changed with each age and stage but the underlying problem was always low self-esteem. At the time, I thought my anxiety and panic attacks stemmed first from academics, then from appearance, weight & shape, then some dude cheating on me. The apparent trigger morphed and changed, but the feeling was always the same. I worried about everything and nothing, and it took me years to realize that what I thought was the problem of the time was actually never the problem at all.
Here’s a true story to illustrate just how random & detrimental anxiety can be.
When I was in graduate school, I lived approximately 10 miles away from my school. Grad school was a super-stressful time in my life. I was ridiculously perfectionistic, trying to be all things to all people, and had tremendous difficulty with setting boundaries. I never said “NO”, so I was overwhelmed much of the time. Part of my daily routine was to run home to take my dog outside in between classes.
I worried that if I drove away from my garage before the garage was completely down after letting my dog out, the wind might blow swiftly and trigger the garage sensor without my knowledge. In that case, the garage door would remain open, my dog would get out, run into the road, get hit by a car and die. I would be heartbroken. My boyfriend would never forgive me and, in turn, breakup with me. I would be alone for life.
So, to manage my anxiety, I HAD to make damn sure that the garage door closed and stayed closed before driving away. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? Wrong. Especially on exam or presentation days ( high-stress days), my brain played serious tricks on me. I would “make sure” the garage was closed, drive 10 miles to school, second-guess myself, convince myself that there was a possibility that the garage went back up after I drove away, drive back 10 miles, look at the closed garage, drive back to school, repeat, repeat, repeat. No joke. Many times, I’d be late to class or not make it at all. I HAD to do something.
My solution at the time was to leave myself a voicemail that I could listen to, when my brain started playing tricks. I would watch the door close, sit for a second to make damn sure, call my voicemail and say, “THE GARAGE DOOR IS CLOSED.” After arriving in the school parking lot, my brain would inevitably play tricks. Instead of driving back to check, I’d listen to my message for reassurance and walk into class on time, feeling somewhat anxious but okay enough to walk through the fear. After a couple of weeks, that fear subsided. I actually forgot about the whole garage door thing, until a couple of years ago when my dad passed away.
On my first Monday back to work after the wake and funeral, my mom called me and asked if there was anything she could do to make my day a bit easier. Without thinking or remembering my grad school days, I said, “Yep. After you go to the gym, just drive by my house and make sure I closed the garage door.” She agreed to do so. I went on with my day. Within a couple of hours, my mom texted me, “THE GARAGE DOOR IS CLOSED.” I read the text aloud. Hearing my voice say those words immediately reminded me of the voicemail I had left for myself 15 years earlier. OMG. When feeling stressed, my brain seemingly chooses to focus on the f@ckin’ garage door. Kinda weird, but it makes sense. I can’t control unmanageability in grad school or family members dying, but I can try my damnedest to control the garage door. So, that’s just what I did!
My conclusion—It never had anything to do with the garage door, the academics, the body weight and shape, the relationships. It all had to do with me—with my inability to see the big picture, with me not knowing how to handle stress in a healthy way, with me not having the skill-sets to walk through the anxiety, so that I could handle life on life’s terms, not my own. The common denominator in all of the anxiety-provoking situations was that I felt threatened or in danger. My brain and my body didn’t know the difference between real and imagined danger, so my fight or flight system kicked in for survival’s sake.
#HeyLauren skill-sets to manage anxiety.
Here’s what to do to decrease your anxiety in the moment:
Thoughts lead to feelings and feelings lead to behavior. Each of us has many thoughts, up to 70,000 per day! The goal is to get so familiar with your thoughts that you can instantly recognize the thoughts making you feel scared or worried. Once you know which thought patterns cause the unwanted feelings, you can change them! If you change how you think, you can change how you feel and how you behave.
Your body cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time. So, consciously relax your muscles. Taking a couple of minutes to stop, breathe and get present can reduce stress, increase mood and decrease anxiety in an instant. Focus your attention on your breathing, exhale slowly. Scan your body for tension. Loosen the cramped body parts, letting go of anything you’re holding too tightly. Recall a good memory, favorite place or event. Continue to breathe, exhaling slowly. Repeat, as needed.
If you're afraid of it, you need to do it. It's as simple as that.You cannot will yourself to courage. You have to exercise the emotional muscles that flex, when you walk through the fear to overcome it. Avoidance adds to the anxiety by reinforcing it. There's no easier, softer way. You don't need it to be easy and soft. You need it to work and exposure does work. Promise.
And, remember, I’m here to walk through this with you. So email me with any questions you have as you give these skill-sets a try this week.