Coping with Anxiety: One Size Does Not Fit All!
Some of you may have heard me say that “anxiety runs deep in my family”, when explaining that it has long been a familiar state of mind for me. There’s a ‘literal’ aspect of this too – I am told that I was an exceptionally colicky baby, achieving near-olympic status in that realm.
I am grateful that anxiety no longer hits me like it once did, and no longer seems so random. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t get blindsided from time to time. May of last year was a great example of that, an experience I will never forget.
At times I like to think that because of my experience and counselling training, that I know a lot about anxiety. This gets challenged, however, when an episode of anxiety descends and the question presents itself: “How are you going to cope with me this time?” There can be a side of the brain the rejects the idea of coping, feels too tired to cope or insists that coping is just asking too much.
And then there seems to be another part of the brain that struggles to make the bridge between known coping strategies and actual coping. I once heard someone call this the “praxis gap”, which is actually what brings a number of people to counselling: I know what I need to do, but I just can’t seem to do it.
Let’s Talk (Personalized) Strategy
Once we have sifted through known coping strategies, there is also the need to be specific.
- Of all the coping strategies that I know or have read about, what specific strategies might work for me?
- What has worked for me in the past and of those, what is appropriate for my current situation?
Taking that first step is always the hardest, particularly if we carry a form of internalized pressure that says “this better work!”
Some of my more pleasant memories as a child involved going out to eat, especially Canadianized Chinese food. This was a pretty exciting because I got Chinese food, or any restaurant food for that matter, infrequently. Certainly, the food was tasty, but what really floated my boat was the idea of choice. I have great affinity for smorgasbords, which is pretty much how I look at coping with anxiety:
- What tools/strategies have I learned over time?
- What tools/strategies have I successfully used in the past?
- What tools/strategies might work best with my current anxiety?
And I can say that I never seem to cope the same way twice! Coping seems to depend on:
- How anxiety feels in the body
- The nature of the anxious thoughts
- The particular situation we are in
- The availability or tools/strategies and how easy they are to implement
Throughout the years I’ve inventoried a number of strategies to choose from. Again, the smorgasbord is full but depending on the factors noted above, I won’t be putting every option on my plate.
Here are some of the things that have (variously) worked for me:
- Meditate with it. Allow the anxiety to come in and then recede, like waves in the ocean. Neither holding onto the anxiety, nor pushing it away.
- Let go of judgment. Truth be told, I usually start with a “this sucks” but I try not to let that emotion take hold, lest I feel like a victim. Many times I have told myself that the human mind is capable of experiencing any thought or emotional/physical state so there is no use judging that. The mind can, and will, go to all sorts of places.
- Breathe – Abdominal breathing can be particularly useful. This is one of the best ways I know to stop hyperventilating, lower heart rate and decrease other symptoms of panic. It took me a while, however, to come to this! I used to think that breathing wasn’t too effective until I timed myself once and learned that it took me about 10 minutes of abdominal breathing before I started to feel calmer. Persistence was key!
- Recognize that sometimes anxiety is trying to tell us something. Do I need to take action specific to my situation, if there is a concrete situation or problem that is causing me anxiety?
- Recognize that in many (not all) situations, anxiety does not necessarily equal an emergency. The feeling of urgency may actually be our desire to rid ourselves of our experience/sensation of anxiety; the situation itself may technically not be urgent.
- Talk to a supportive person. Someone who you truly feel is supportive, not someone you think “should” be supportive, particularly if they’re not.
- Do something physical – Can be anything from vacuuming to going to the gym. Whatever works for you. Exercise can be an invaluable outlet for discharging anxiety and stress.
- Write about it – Even though therapists have been recommending this strategy for years, it wasn’t until a good friend urged me to get off the phone and write out my feelings, in the moment, that I actually saw its true potential. I emerged feeling calmer and much clearer in my thoughts.
- Find gratitude – Research shows that even just searching for gratitude, even if we can’t come up with anything specific can help improve our wellbeing substantially.
This list is obviously not exhaustive and may also include things like relaxation techniques/visualization, various forms of exercise, floating or a myriad of other strategies that have worked well for you.
Sometimes for me the crux of my anxiety comes down to the question: “Are you ready to face yourself in this moment? Are you willing?” Because without willingness, no strategy in the world will be effective. And other times, it’s not just a matter of willingness: sometimes we just have to feel safe enough to take the next step.
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