Anxiety...What's the big deal?
Anxiety is an incredibly broad subject. There are several types of anxiety and diverse ways of dealing with them. The truth is that we all suffer with anxiety from time to time. Anxiety over stressful situations like before a test, meeting a deadline, or a public speaking engagement, is considered 'normal'. Anxiety disorder, however, is when your worry and fear over everyday situations becomes intense, excessive, and persistent to the point where it is affecting your daily living. This is not a quick fix nor is it something to ever feel ashamed about. The first step is acknowledging that you have anxiety and that it is interfering with your capability in coping with everyday life.
Having suffered with anxiety for most of my life it was not until a nervous breakdown at the age of twenty-one that I fully began to take my anxiety seriously. Up until then I had been silently coping, masking my anxiety, and hanging on by my fingernails. I experience what is known as High-Functioning anxiety. Some of the signs or traits of someone dealing with this type of anxiety are: Constantly over thinking or over analysing situations; fear of failure and striving for perfection; insomnia; fatigue; people pleasing; hair twirling; leg shaking and nail-biting. There are other traits, but these are my main red flags.
In processing my own anxiety, I learned that as a child, I was not lazy, I was not being dramatic, I was not too sensitive, and I was certainly not overreacting. Although, these were statements that were often thrown at me throughout my childhood into adulthood. These words were, in essence, little daggers forcing me to retreat into my own world. Forcing me to cover up and hold it together. Forcing me to put on a brave face and be 'resilient'. Meanwhile, the subliminal messages were clear. Who you are is not enough. You are too much to manage. You take up too much space with your drama. No one wants to hear what you have to say. Your mental well-being is not important. You are not important. Unlearning these subliminal messages was difficult. Learning to deal with my anxiety was even more difficult. It was a process and still is a process.
The first step was accepting responsibility for myself, my behaviour, and my own mental well-being. What it looked like in practice for me was:
a) seeing a therapist once a week for 2 years
b) spending time alone and being okay in my own company
c) writing, journaling and poetry
e) Implementing boundaries
As I began the journey of healing, there were many unhelpful thought patterns and behaviours that I had to unlearn. This was especially difficult as these were my default settings. It took time, tears, and tenacity to develop and own a new way of thinking, a new way of being and a new way of doing. I met with resistance from people close to me whose own expectations of who I was, were challenged. I learnt that this was not 'on me' and that the only thing I was capable of controlling was my own behavioural response to their projected expectations. Once this thought process took root in my brain, I found a freedom that I had never felt before, an ability to separate myself from other people’s expectations and to let go of the guilt I often felt when I was unable to meet their expectations or standards.
Seeing anxiety in my own children has also taught me a few hard lessons. The main one being that what works for me, may not work for them. Anxiety can be completely crippling and overwhelming. It looks different for everyone and there is no one-solution-works-for-all. I thought that I understood anxiety but when my own children displayed red flags signalling anxiety, I did not pick it up because it did not look anything like my own anxiety. Before I realized what was actually going on, I am afraid I did more damage than good. It took a while for my children to trust me with their anxiety. I understood that I needed to get educated about anxiety and that I had to implement changes for my children who all, at one time or another, were in crisis.
Dealing with anxiety on a daily basis is challenging but an anxiety attack can happen anywhere, at any time and be triggered by the smallest thing. It can manifest in a number of ways - shaking, tremors, dissociation, impaired vision, chest pain, panic attacks, as well as behavioural outbursts. These are just some of the outward signals that you are experiencing anxiety and that you need to pay attention to your body immediately. In our own family, we have learnt to remain flexible and open. If one of us is experiencing anxiety and we have used all the tools at our disposal and it becomes a full-blown anxiety attack, we close ranks and do whatever is necessary for that family member to be able to feel safe and held. Our main question is always, what do you need from us right now? How can we help you?
We have also had to acknowledge where we have been unintentionally unhelpful. Saying things like, "It's no big deal! Don't worry, it will be fine..." or "I had something worse happen to me!" or "In a year, this won't actually matter!" or my personal favourite, "You just need to calm down!" These types of sayings are particularly unhelpful and leave the person feeling completely invalidated, unseen, unheard and overwhelmed. What you could say instead are things like:
1. "I know you are very worried right now. It's okay to feel worried. How can I help you in this moment?"
2. "I can't say that I know exactly how you are feeling but I have experienced some anxiety before. Could I help you to use your tools?"
3. "Shall we take a walk outside and we can talk about it?"
4. "I can see that you are anxious. Shall we stop and take a few deep breaths together and then we can try and figure this out? What do you need from me right now?"
In dealing with anxiety, boundaries are especially important. Learning to put boundaries in place is not as easy as it sounds. Many people who suffer with anxiety at one time or another, have experienced emotional, physical, or psychological trauma, conditioning, or abuse. Healthy boundaries are one way of helping you to deal with your anxiety and to begin the healing process. There is no harm in stepping away from someone for a while or even going no-contact if you need to. You will soon discover who the friends and family are that will love and support you based on their reaction to the boundaries that you set. Your boundaries are yours. They can be moved or changed but only at your discretion. If someone insists on stepping over a boundary, you are firmly within your right to step away. It may feel uncomfortable at first, that is okay! Keep at it! It will be worth it overall.
If you know someone who is struggling with anxiety, remember that it is not your job to 'fix' them. Be there for them in whatever capacity you have available and ask them how you can help them. Try to keep in mind that it is not about you or anything you have done, they are not doing things on purpose and that learning to deal with their anxiety is a process. Get educated. Do not expect the sufferer to educate you. They already have enough going on. Patience is important when helping someone deal with their anxiety. It may feel frustrating, and you may also feel useless at times... That is perfectly fine. Your presence, the fact that you are there makes all the difference. Sometimes that is all someone needs to know so that they can cope with the day.
Until next time, breathe...You've got this!