I remember the exact moment when I finally accepted that my anxiety had gotten out of control. It was a Saturday afternoon and we were driving to go food shopping. A completely routine, boring, and uneventful task. Unpleasant and annoying, but not particularly terrifying.
As we’re driving over the bridge and getting ready to merge onto the interstate, my husband turns to me and casually asks if I fancied going to get a burger for dinner. More specifically, he asked if I wanted to get a burger from my favourite burger place for dinner. Somewhere I had been countless times before, that make (in my opinion) the best burger in town.
Within seconds, I felt like I had been hit with a ton of bricks. A tidal wave of anxiety washed up and over me, and I instantly felt sick. My hands and face started tingling, I started to feel really hot, and I felt my throat start to get tighter. My whole body tensed up as the anxiety took control.
“This is beyond ridiculous” I said to myself as my mind began racing in equal parts panic, confusion, and sheer frustration. “What is so damn scary about going for a burger? Why am I like this?”
If you’ve experienced an anxiety attack before, you may have found yourself asking the same sort of questions. I knew there was nothing scary or dangerous about eating a burger, but my anxiety was kicking in as if I’d been told I had to bungee jump off a cliff to get down to the restaurant. I could see no logical reason for my anxiety to be kicking in right at that moment.
And I just couldn’t take it anymore. I knew it was time to do something different.
“This is beyond ridiculous. Why am I like this?”Louise
Up until this point I had been coping with my attacks. As I got older, my attacks got worse and worse. At first, I found new ways to cope and fight them off. Sometimes I’d win, and others I’d lose, usually resulting in me calling my mother from a bathroom somewhere in between vomit sessions.
But now, in my 30s, my coping strategies weren’t working anymore. My attacks were no longer limited to the major triggers – flying, large social engagements, and times of increased stress. They were now happening on a daily basis, triggered by the simplest everyday things.
I was married now too. If you’re in a relationship, you’ll understand the added dimension this brings to your anxiety. It’s not just you that is affected anymore, so I could no longer use avoidance as a strategy to calm my anxiety. I couldn’t just back out of a social engagement anymore, or choose not to go out to eat, or spend a whole day on the couch under a blanket. Now my choices and behavior affects my husband too.
And that is a whole new level of anxiety.
So on that bridge, in the middle of a full-blown anxiety attack over a stupid burger, I knew I had to find a way to beat this once and for all.
Not just cope with it.
Not just avoid it.
Beat it entirely.
I wanted to be able to go eat that burger like it was no big deal. Because in reality, it IS no big deal. It’s just a stinkin burger. I wanted to be able to go out to eat, go out with friends, take a road trip somewhere, stay up late, and do all the normal, everyday stuff that everyone else seems to be able to do with no issue.
I wanted to be free of my anxiety.
Today, I am.
It took me a while to find new strategies, research new information, get the right support, and test out what works for me. But I did it. I finally found the way to beat my anxiety attacks and live my everyday life anxiety-free.
Now just to be clear, I’m not completely anxiety free. The big stuff can still set me off. But I’ve learned how to deal with attacks when they happen, and how to prevent them in situations I know might trigger me. I can prepare in advance for the big stuff so that I can make it through relatively unscathed. I can fly on a plane now quite happily, go out to a social engagement without much issue, and know how to take care of myself in times of stress so that I avoid the slippery slope into anxiety.
Most importantly, I can go about my everyday life and go out for a burger whenever I want, and not give my anxiety a second thought.
How I recovered from anxiety
There were three key things that were crucial to my recovery. First, I had to learn to accept my struggles and stop fighting it. Second, I had to learn what factors influenced my anxiety response and how to mitigate them. Third, I had to change my relationship with my anxiety.
1) Accepting my anxiety, not avoiding it
This was the first step, and probably the most important one. Up until that day, I had always coped with my anxiety symptoms by fighting them. Anxiety was the enemy, and I needed to beat it down and resist it at all costs. I would try to think my way out of it, used deep breathing exercises, or just force myself to act normally as if it wasn’t happening.
Acting ‘normally’ was my mistake.
I had to accept that I wasn’t ‘normal’ (whatever that is). I have anxiety, and I need to do things a little differently. Trying to push myself to do things the same way as everyone else wasn’t working. In fact, it only made my anxiety worse.
Here’s an example.
In my late teens and early twenties, I used to love going out to eat and for a night out with my friends. As I got older and my anxiety worsened, going out to eat with others became a major trigger for me. I’d feel sick before we even left the house, and by the time we reached the restaurant I would be in the middle of a full-blown anxiety attack. I’d struggle to eat, struggle to chat with my friends and enjoy myself, and end up spending a lot of time in the bathroom trying to bring myself down.
Turned out that the mistake I was making was trying to force myself to act the way most people do when going out to dinner. I needed to accept that my anxiety meant I need to do something a little different.
During my research, I discovered that low blood sugar mimics anxiety symptoms. When our blood sugar levels drop and we need to eat, the sensations it produces can be misinterpreted by our brains as anxiety symptoms. I discovered that when I got hungry, I would get these symptoms, which would add to my already-anxious physical state.
Now, the ‘normal’ way of doing things when it comes to dealing with hunger and going out to eat is to wait until you get to the restaurant to eat anything. When most people feel hungry and know they are going out to dinner soon, they don’t eat beforehand. They wait until they get there and eat a nice, big meal of whatever yummy treats are on offer.
I was trying to do this too.
I would get hungry maybe an hour or so beforehand, particularly if we had a later reservation. Yet, as we were going out to dinner soon, I wouldn’t eat so as not to spoil my appetite. Typical, normal behavior.
I’m not ‘normal’ though. I have anxiety.
Trying to follow the established social norms of not ruining one’s appetite meant my blood sugar would drop, and I would get those anxiety-like symptoms. Before you know it, I’m under attack.
WHO SAYS YOU CAN’T EAT BEFORE YOU GO TO DINNER?
Who made up that rule?
I had to stop trying to act like everyone else, and accept that I need to do something a little different. Not massively different, but just a little different so that I could manage my anxiety symptoms.
I started having a little snack before I went out to dinner. Just enough to take the edge off my hunger and bring up my blood sugar.
Yes, my husband thought it was weird, and that I was ruining my appetite.
But it drastically reduced my anxiety. So he accepted it.
And so did I.
I now accept there are a few things that I do a little differently to keep my anxiety at bay. I don’t have to do things the way everyone else does. I learned to accept my anxiety, not resist it. I learned it’s OK to eat a snack before dinner, or to go to bed super early if I’m stressed, or make sure I have extra time scheduled when I travel. I no longer hide from it, or try to fight it. By accepting it, I’ve managed to overcome it.
2. Identifying and mitigating my anxiety triggers
Once I had begun to accept my anxiety and learned that it was OK to do things a little differently in order to manage my symptoms, I set about trying to identify patterns and triggers and work out what I needed to do to either a) prevent them or b) mitigate their effects.
This was surprisingly easy once I had given myself permission to do what I needed to do to handle my anxiety!
Before, I had been so concerned with trying to act normal and not inconvenience anyone that every day was becoming like a battle against myself. I was so intent on forcing myself to conform to the norm that I was suffering needlessly.
Just like I discovered that eating a snack before I go out to dinner significantly reduced my anxiety, I started to figure out what else I could to do. I came up with so many simple, easy things I could do that I completely transformed my day-to-day experiences!
Let me give you some examples:
My anxiety is always worse in the mornings, and I was guaranteed an anxiety attack if I had to get up early and travel somewhere, especially if it was a few hours away. So, I stopped travelling early in the mornings! I schedule everything I can for later in the day, and if I have to go somewhere early, I’ll travel the night before. I always fly at night, so that I have all day to get ready before I go and don’t have to face a morning anxiety attack.
Speaking of airplanes, whenever I fly I always take my own food. As you know, eating out is a trigger for me, and airplane food is no different. You never know exactly when it will be served, or if it will even be edible. So, I pack my own food, and I eat when I’M hungry, not when the air stewardesses decide its dinner time. This way I manage my blood sugar levels and avoid triggering an attack.
I monitor my stress levels, and make sure I get an early night if I have a big night out planned the next day. I don’t accept invitations out the night before a big event so that I can be well rested, and I always make sure I have water available.
There are others, but you get the idea.
And the best part – they are all such minor things, no one would ever guess they are anxiety-mitigation measures! If you see someone eating their own snacks on a plane, do you assume they must have anxiety, or that they are just hungry? If someone asks you to travel down to an event the night before do you think it must be because they have a mental health condition, or do you figure they just prefer to get a lie in?
The most challenging bit is asking others for what you need. If you’re like me, you’re a bit of a people pleaser and usually go along with whatever everyone else wants to do. I had to get used to being vocal about what I wanted, and accept that my needs and choices are just as valid as everyone else. I was never asking for anything crazy, just an earlier dinner reservation, or to drive down the night before. It was uncomfortable at first – now it’s just how it is! I have just as much right to determine plans and anyone else (and you know there are PLENTY of people who don’t care about what others want or need and are quite happy to just do what they want every time!).
Figure out what triggers you, figure out what you need to do to stop it, and get comfortable advocating for your needs.
3. Change your relationship with anxiety
Accepting your anxiety and managing your triggers works brilliantly on a day to day basis. But for long term recovery, I found I needed to work on my negative thoughts and mindset. Specifically, I found the answer in changing my relationship with my anxiety.
Anxiety had always been my enemy – something I fought against, tried to ignore, and push away. It was certainly not welcome and I wished it would just go away and leave me alone. As I started to accept my anxiety, I knew I had to change the way I thought about it too if I was ever going to beat it.
As I learned more about the physical mechanisms behind anxiety, the fight or flight response, and its evolutionary purpose as a way to protect us from danger I began to realize that anxiety isn’t the enemy.
Quite the opposite in fact.
Anxiety’s true purpose is to protect us.
The problem is, this protection mechanism evolved so long ago that we no longer face the dangers we did before. We aren’t very likely to be chased by a sabre tooth tiger anymore, or fight off invaders from another tribe. We face a different kind of danger now, like public speaking or social events or the threat of losing our job. The adrenaline that is pumped into our bodies to prepare us to fight or flee isn’t being burned up by physical exertion, so it just continues to circulate in our blood streams. We end up in a near-constant state of alertness and anxiety. This makes it very difficult for our brains to recognize what is truly dangerous and what is not.
This understanding helped me change my relationship with anxiety completely. I stopped viewing it as the enemy, and started to focus on the intent behind it. My brain was just trying to protect me from something it thought was dangerous.
Now, it was getting it very wrong and triggering me in situations that weren’t dangerous, but the intent was good. It was just the execution that needed work.
So, instead of getting angry and frustrated and feeding my stress levels more, whenever I started to experience anxiety I would take a moment and say to myself ‘ah, I see you are trying to protect me from something. I am OK, but thank you so much for caring about me’. I developed ways to respond with gratitude, and even compassion for my anxiety, and in time completely flipped my relationship with it.
As I no longer respond with anger and increased stress, I’m no longer reinforcing the anxiety response. When you respond to anxiety with more stress and anger, your brain thinks that the situation must indeed be very dangerous, and proceeds to pump you with more adrenaline to be ready to fight or flee. When you respond calmly, with gratitude and compassion, your brain quickly realizes this isn’t a dangerous situation after all, and your anxiety response decreases. Soon, your brain will stop triggering your fight or flight response in that situation altogether.
Recovery from anxiety is possible
My hope in sharing this is that you will see recovery from anxiety IS possible. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to keep facing up to those things that scare you. As you face them with acceptance and an understanding of the true intent of your anxiety, you’ll begin to find ways to manage or eliminate your triggers and your anxiety will start to lessen. Eventually, those situations that previously brought you out in a cold sweat will be no big deal at all.
My hope for you is that you go from enduring life to truly enjoying it. Life really can be anxiety-free.
Louise Keller is a anxiety and confidence coach, speaker, and educator. She works with anxious, ambitious 30something women that feel trapped by their anxiety and confidence issues to help them take control and overcome their anxiety using positive psychology and practical solutions so they can unleash their true potential, build their confidence, and start achieving their dreams and living life to the fullest without years of therapy.
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