Anxiety. What a loaded word. And I don’t even know where to start. Is it an emotion? A psychiatric disorder? A state of consciousness? At one point does it become a problem? Well before I can delve into that, I need to try to define what it is.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines anxiety in many ways. The most basic definition of anxiety is: fear or nervousness about what might happen; a feeling of wanting to do something very much.
Their medical definition of anxiety is:
1. a) a painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usually over an impending or anticipated ill; b) a cause of anxiety; or an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it;
2. an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it (for more on these dictionary definitions, go here)
For a more clinical definition, according American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.
As is evident from the descriptions above, anxiety can take on a number of forms (also evidenced by the fact that there are many different types of anxiety in DSM-5, each with their own unique definitions, characteristics and diagnostic criteria). I tell you this to remind you that each case is different, and what works for me might not work for you. But just in case (and because I find it helpful to write this down for future reference, I thought I’d share my experiences.
I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life (without having a name/diagnosis for it until a few yeas ago.) (Incidentally that diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder and I also have a touch of social anxiety disorder). People called me high strung and shy, not realizing that both were very much symptoms of something much greater going on in my brain. My anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, including panic attacks, racing thoughts and an inability to do anything when I get so anxious about the thought or potential outcome of whatever I’m going to do, or whatever decision I have to make, that I just can’t do anything.(also described as action paralysis and it happens either because I’m too overwhelmed with options or afraid to stat something, lest I make a mistake). That final part is often my biggest struggle. I am constantly reminding myself that if I don’t start, I don’t even give myself a chance to do it right. That, in fact, the paralysis can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But telling myself that is only so useful – usually I need more.
For acute panic attacks and racing thoughts that prevent me from sleeping for hours on end, I take prescription medication when necessary. I believe that my antidepressant also helps to ease my anxiety. However, I prefer to manage my anxiety such that I have to rely on medication or other substances as little as possible. Frankly I already feel like I take too many medications (none are optional – last time I tried to go off of one, it was a disaster and I ended up back on even more than I’d started with). And newer studies are suggesting that long-term benzodiazepine use can permanently alter your brain chemicals and possibly pose problems in the elderly (sorry – my psychiatrist told me about this and I cannot find a link right now, so I’ll post one late when I find one).
So here are my non-medication-based strategies that at the very least help me to limit my anxiety and , ideally, keep it within manageable levels (because I do find that some small level of anxiety – the part that makes me a perfectionist and makes me care about the quality of my work or the outcome of situations – can be useful in my day to day life).
- Meditation/breathing exercises. These can be a lifesaver. If I’m super super anxious (especially useful at night when my racing thoughts won’t let me sleep), I put in my headphones and listen to a guided medication aimed at falling and saying asleep. If it’s not bedtime, I have some non-sleep guided relaxations or else I mediate with breathing exercises that force me slow down my brain and focus on my breath. With respect tot his, I really want to read Dan Harris’ 10 % Happer to learn more about his meditation techniques and his other coping mechanisms.
- Coloring. You might think I’m too old for coloing books but you are wrong. My favorites include mandalas (link is to my favorite mandala book) and the Zolocolor books. They present abstract pictures (totally different kinds) and the act of coloring and choosing colors is very calming to me. From Amazon (re Mandalas): Each intricate design will draw your eye inward, shifting your focus toward your center and allowing you to fully relax your mind as you express yourself through these beautifully complex illustrations. I find that the Zolocolor books have the same effect, just more unique, less symmetrical pictures, which is good for when I’m trying to get my brain just to slow down (as opposed to stopping) or tying to re-focus. Sometimes I use markers, sometimes I use colored pencils. Depends on my mood – I often prefer the overall aesthetic effect of markers, but colored pencils can be much more relaxing, plus I enjoy the shading aspect.
- Walking (and maybe running). Sometimes getting outside the house is all that I need to get out of my head. Sometimes a quick loop around our parking lot does the trick, other times I find myself going 5 or 6 miles before my mind calms down. No real rhyme or reason I don’t think. I often think of walking as a moving meditation. Depending on where I am and/or how I’m feeling, I may or may not wear headphones. Sometimes I need the distraction from my brain, other times, I might be trying to communicate with my brain (for lack of a better word). When I’m in better shape, I find that running can also do the same.
- Yoga/Deep Stretching. Yoga and stretching help me stay grounded and more calm in general. I wish that I had better habits and did these things every day, but I do them as often as I remember and always feel better. I love all kinds of yoga, but for purposes of managing my anxiety, I find that gentler or restorative classes (as opposed to the more athletic power vinyasa or Bikram) are better/more helpful. After all, I don’t want to leave class more anxious than I was I went in!
- Acupuncture. I’ve been getting acupuncture since Novembe. It started on a week basis for about 6 weeks and now I go for “maintenance” every 3-4 weeks. I originally started going as a potential solution to my migraines, but without question, acupuncture has done the most good for my anxiety. I don’t know why it woks, but I know that it does.
- Massage. When all else fails, I know that I will calm down if I go get a nice deep tissue massage. Not a relaxing swedish massage – I find those kind of annoying. Rather, a deep tissue massage that really gets deep into my muscles and releases tension (or energy blocks) that I can’t get to myself. I wish I could afford to do this more often. My muscles hold onto so much tension (no matter how much I may stretch and drink water and do all those other right things) and the tension can trigger my anxiety. Releasing all of those toxins/negative energy from my body can be very painful but is extremely effective.
Please note that I do not treat my anxiety with alcohol or non-prescription drugs. While a glass of wine or a vodka soda may have a temporary calming effect, I often find that the anxiety is only worse when the effects of the alcohol wear off. Which isn’t to say that I don’t drink, I just try not to use it as a coping mechanism (cf food). When I’ve tried everything above to no avail, am too anxious to even do any of those things, or when a panic attack hits me out of nowhere, of course I take my medication. It would be stupid not to. But I don’t want to be dependent on it and I do want to build up a strong arsenal of coping skills for times when a) medicine is impossible or impractical and b) to help pevent the anxiety in the first place. The one thing that isn’t listed up there that I know has been helpful in the past is counseling, and I hope to re-add that to my anxiety tool-kit in the next few months. Side note: it is really hard to find a therapist without a recommendation, hard to find a recommendation to begin with, and then it is really hard to find a recommendation when your insurance sucks and doesn’t accept any of the recommendations that you’ve actually been given. And don’t even get me started on scheduling issues…
How about you? Do you deal with anxiety? What kind? Is it sometimes crippling or paralyzing? What non-drug related coping mechanisms do you have?