Did you ever see the movie Van Wilder? Great flick. Good BC boy, too. Anyways, I remember very clearly something Van said that, at least in my opinion, put him right up there with Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddha: “Worrying is like a rocking chair; It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.” Thanks, Van. What a bearer of wisdom you are. Now take off your shirt.
Of course, if all it took was for someone to tell us to “Stop worrying,” I’d be homeless (but I wouldn’t be worried about it, because someone could just tell me stop worrying). Anxiety Disorders are by far the most common reason people seek counselling, affecting 12% of the population (Public Health Agency of Canada), so there’s a good chance you’ve experienced an uncomfortable degree or worry in your life. There’s also a good chance you’ve been told to just “Stop worrying so much” or “Chill out,” and there’s an even better chance their brilliant advice didn’t work. SO in this post, I hope to provide you with a little insight around that dirty A-word, and a couple of strategies for managing it. If you feel overwhelmed by the length of this articleor just aren’t overly interested in the educational component (or my bracket-happy writing style), scroll to the end where you’ll find some tips :).
So, what exactly is “anxiety?” Van was talking about “worrying.” They’re not the same thing, are they? Or ARE they? They aren’t, right? All these questions are making me anxious. I quit.
I kid. What’s the deal with fear, anxiety, worry, and panic (Now wouldn’t that be a fun dinner party!)? Well! Let me tell you!
So here’s the thing: It really all comes down to semantics. Some professionals try to define each of these terms, but the reality is that one person’s experience of worry might be defined by another as anxiety. One person’s experience of fear could be what another considers panic. There are no specific criteria for us to categorize our experience under one of the labels (and when you’re feeling it, you’re probably not too concerned about what it’s called. Call it John. I don’ t give a crap. Just make it stop!!!). Clients often say, “I have Anxiety.” In reality, that gives me about as much insight into what they’re experiencing as “I have two legs.” I usually respond with something like, “Anxiety is just a word to me. What does it mean to you?” That often confuses them, as much of the time someone has told them they have anxiety (a doctor, parent, friend…). Our society has pathologized anxiety (the conspiracist in me attributes this to the pharmaceutical companies), encouraging people to believe that at their first experience of discomfort they should be rushing to their GPs for Ativan.
In reality, Anxiety is adaptive. It’s there for a reason. It’s there to tell you when you’re in danger or to motivate you when you’re feeling unmotivated. It’s the reason you wear your seat-belt and get out of bed on workdays. If we didn’t have anxiety, we wouldn’t exist (and our economy would suffer even more than it does as a result of all the anxiety-related sick leaves). However, it’s when that anxiety becomes maladaptive (i.e. when it prevents you from getting in your car or going to a party, from falling asleep or feeling calm) that we consider it an “anxiety disorder.” Even then, though, it does not mean that you require medication, necessarily (again, medication is entirely a personal choice). There is a growing body of research suggesting the efficacy of mindfulness and yoga in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
So, back to defining Anxiety. Many professionals see these “fear-based” emotions as sitting on a continuum, meaning we go from worry->anxiety->fear->panic. However, that may not describe your experience, and that’s just fine! You are the owner of your subjective experience. What’s important is that you know what you’re experiencing and come to find ways to manage it. Try to be able to distinguish between each different experience for yourself, and label it accordingly. Does worry mean you have that “unsettled” feeling in your chest? Does it become anxiety when you start to feel dizzy or light-headed? Does goosebumps make it become fear? Some people consider worry, anxiety, and fear to be synonymous cognitive states, while they consider panic a physiological state. Think for a moment about how you distinguish between worry, anxiety, fear, and panic (and perhaps you don’t).
For me, I like to think of worry as more like concern–almost entirely cognitive with a sense of bodily unease. Anxiety is more physiological for me. I have trouble thinking straight; my chest tightens up. If it’s really strong, my vision blurs and it feels a bit like the walls are caving in. Fear makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up; it gives me goosebumps; adrenaline surges through my body. And panic? Panic feels like I can’t get air into my lungs. Like I might pass out. Like I’m on fire and paralyzed. So. much. fun. Knowing what you’re experiencing can be helpful for knowing how to manage it.
Pose! You’re a Tiger…
Remember how I said anxiety is adaptive? Well, here’s why. Ultimately, we’re mammals, and although we have a rational brain (neomammalian) that contributes to us being extraordinarily intelligent mammals, our emotional (paleomammalian) and instinctive (reptilian) brains take over when the neomammalian brain can’t deal with the threat. Ummm thanks for the jargon, Megan. English, please? Right. OK, so basically the emotional and instinctive brains still function as they did when we were cavemen kickin’ it in the wild. Back then, you didn’t worry about exams or being productive, or choking in front of an audience, being late for work, or wearing a bathing suit in public. Back then, stressors were things like wild animals or potential starvation. Things that required fight or flight (or moving your body to find food). But, despite being the highly intelligent creatures that we are, we can’t always determine whether our stressor is one that requires cognition (as most modern-day stressors do), or one that requires getting the f$#! out of there! So, we have the same physiological response: the “fight-flight-freeze” response: Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we release stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline); our heart starts beating faster and stronger to get more oxygen to our large muscles (think arms and legs) so that we can fight or run; blood drains from our brain (your body’s rationale is, “React, don’t think.”; our breathing becomes shallow and rapid to get oxygen to our heart; our pupils dilate to increase visual acuity; our digestion stops (it’s not necessary to digest when your life is on the line!) and we may feel nauseous or have to go to the bathroom; out body temperature rises and we may feel hot or begin to sweat; you’re preparing for a showdown.
Of course, this was super helpful at one point, and it still may be for every 1/1000 stressors you face today, at least in safe, developed countries (I made that number up, but unless you’re a daredevil or are consistently put in life-compromising situations, the flight-flight-freeze response likely isn’t helpful for you with most stressful situations).
So, what the heck do you do?
Me: 1 Anxiety: 0: Tangible tips for managing anxiety
Breathing exercises aren’t just for singers and hippies anymore
Really? You’re going tell me to “breathe” through my anxiety? That’s about as helpful as being told to “Relax.” Well, there’s actually some physiology behind this. Bear with me. You know how I explained how the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and does all that cool stuff to make us superhuman fighting machines? Well, the post-battle masseuse is the parasympathetic nervous system, and it does the opposite of its adrenaline-junkie predecessor. It slows down our heart-rate, lowers our blood pressure, brings our blood back into our brains so we can think (woohoo!), restores our peripheral vision, turns our digestion back on, you name it! And how does one make this automatic process a controlled one? Why, through breathing of course! Concentrating and slowing down our breathing (and engaging in what is called “Diaphragmatic Breathing“) is our best bet for telling the stress-response to peace out.
Control is an Illusion
Anxiety is often the result of a futile search for the “3 C’s”: Control, Certainty, and Comfort. We write list after list and mark our calendars obsessively; we plan, plan, plan, and delegate and dominate. We order the same meal every time or count our calories; we scrub things clean until our hands are raw; we check to make sure our doors are locked several times; we worry about disasters, accidents, illness, poverty. We do everything we can to maintain control over our lives, certainty over the unknowns, and comfort in our environments. But the thing is, no matter what we do, we really have no control. As the, uh, “great philosopher,” Benni Benassi said, “Control is an Illusion”. But our fear of risk and discomfort maintains our desire to search for the elusive “3 C’s.” So how do we let go of that need? Well, as I’ve said before, avoiding our fears just gives them more power. Try to invite some discomfort into your life. Seek it out. You don’t need to dive into the ocean of uncertainty, but try dipping your toe in there. Step out of the comfort zone. The irony of it all, is that the more you put yourself in situations where you feel out of control, the more in control you will feel. This is because you won’t be living in a state of constant fear and anxiety, as you will have made peace with the fact that none of us has complete control over anything, really. Damn. Better just live your life instead of trying to predict and plan it!
And Then What?
Usually when we’re busy worrying, we have this feeling of impending doom (I do love that term, despite my distaste for clichés and overused sayings…”Impending DOOOOOOM. You’ve gotta really hold the “ooooo” for the effect). Anyways, we have this feeling of impending doooooom, but we don’t really have a clear idea of what will cause that doom. We just think, worst case scenario. Something terrible. Doom. So try something: Ask yourself, what IS the worst case scenario? What will I do if it happens? Then what? Then what? So you fail the exam. What do you do? Perhaps you talk to the instructor and see if you can rewrite. Perhaps you study that much harder for the next one. Perhaps your fail the course and have to take it again. Yeah, they’re not favourable outcomes, but you can live with them. Usually the bulk of our anxiety lies in unknown; the uncertainty. When you can picture surviving the worst possible outcome, anxiety usually dissipates a bit. As a general rule, as yourself 2 questions: 1) What’s the worst case scenario? and 2) Can I survive it? If the worst case scenario is something that actually endangers your life, you might find the other strategies more appropriate.
Befriending your fear
You know my favourite saying: Pain x struggle=suffering! A lot of the time, our anxiety is a result of fighting against the fear. Trying to not be afraid. Trying to be calm. Trying to “Relax.” I’ve mentioned before that I’m quite terrified of flying. After I stopped relying on Ativan, I used to try to amp myself up before a flight; I used to try to be strong and unphased. In reality, of course, I was just causing myself more pain (and really wearing down my tooth enamel). Now, when I fly, I put my little Buddha on my lap and say “Hello” to my fear. I ask it how it’s doing. I tell it I’m effing scared. Then I send myself a bit of compassion, empathize with my feelings of fear and powerlessness, let go of all the tension in my body and picture myself “not struggling” or “giving up control.” I also think of one of my favourite quotes, by Robert Schuller: “When we are in the midst of chaos, let go of the need to control it. Be awash in it, experience it in that moment, try not to control the outcome but deal with the flow as it comes.” I just love that: “Be awash with it.” Try to picture yourself being “awash” with your powerlessness. You might just experience a sense of lightness or relief.
“What makes me so special?”
So using the flying example again, I often relayed my fears to a good friend who had been a pilot and aviation engineer for some years. “But Randall,” I would say, “What if the landing gear doesn’t come down?” He would sigh and answer, “The plane will do a belly landing.” “But Randall,” I would say, “What if the engine fails?” Again, he would sigh and tell me about the alternates. Finally, after my dozenth “But Randall,” he said exasperatedly, “You know, Megan, what makes you so special? There are 6000 planes that fly each day. What make you think yours is going to be the one that crashes?” I was a bit taken aback, because “special” isn’t exactly how I would have framed it. But he was right. So, if you can name your fears (this will not be as effective with generalized anxiety disorder), try reminding yourself that it’s unlikely that you’ll be the “special” one who’s in the earthquake, or whose child gets in a car accident, or whose house burns down (To clarify, that is not to say that horrible tragedies do not happen, and unfortunately sometimes very good people are subject of awful, traumatic events. This technique is not intended to give you an invincibility complex, nor to devalue the magnitude of such traumas; rather, it is to get you to factor probability into your worries, as some people find statistics a helpful reminder).
Dedicated Worry Time
Some people find their worries keep them up at night or distract them from their work. If this is the case for you, set aside a half hour once or twice a day when you can spend time worrying. Keep a notepad and pen with you, and take note of what it is that you’re worried about. Remind yourself that you won’t forget this worry, and you’ll address it during “Worry Time” (say, 3 o’clock). When “Worry Time” rolls around, some of your worries may have solutions, or may have worked themselves out. If not, ask yourself if this is productive or unproductive worry? Will worrying work towards finding a solution, or are you just taking a ride in the rocking chair? If it’s “unproductive worry” that won’t result in a strategy or plan, try one of the techniques mentioned previously focused on giving up the need for control and certainty.
Sometimes, our anxiety becomes too strong, and we find ourselves having or on the verge of a panic attack. Here are a couple of easy to remember exercises you can use in those moments:
This is a mindfulness exercise that will help keep you present when anxiety is trying to sweep you away: Say out loud 5 things you can see, 5 things you can hear, and five things you can feel connecting your body to the ground/chair/bed etc. Then repeat with 4, then 3, then 2, then 1. For example, if I were to do this exercise right now (keeping in mind I’m in a fairly quiet health centre right now), I might say, “desk, chair, phone, keyboard, speaker…fan, receptionist’s voice, phone, photocopier, fan (you can repeat things as I did with the fan)…my fingers on the keyboard keys, my bum on my chair, my left foot on the ground, my necklace on my neck, my sweater on my arm. Make sense? Repeat it until you feel somewhat grounded/the panic has passed (or until you get hungry or have to go to the bathroom or fall asleep…)
Really original names for these past two exercises, hey? 3-1-4 is a breathing exercise: inhale for 3 counts, hold for one, and exhale for 4. This slows down your breathing and prevents hyperventilation (the result of excess carbon dioxide in the blood). Try to breathe into your diaphragm as mentioned earlier (one hand on your tummy and one on your chest–make the tummy hand move with your inhales).
Hopefully this post has given you a bit of practical info for combatting your anxiety (or befriending it!). At the very least, it’s probably distracted you from your anxiety a bit? As a final thought, whenever you’re worrying, try to think of Van, and ask yourself whether or not your rocking is getting you somewhere; whether or not your worrying is productive. If it’s something you have no control over, try to find comfort in accepting that you have no control, and let go of the anxiety-producing and futile search for power you don’t have. Powerlessness is part of the human condition. If it is something where worrying is beneficial, then use it to your benefit and strategize. Breathe. Trust in the process. If you’re spiritual, trust in your god or deity or the Universe. Focus on the present moment. On your current experience. Don’t let anxiety get your wrapped up in some future that hasn’t happened. Don’t assume you have to take medication because someone has told you that you have anxiety.
And, perhaps most importantly, don’t ever fly with me.