a number of tactics to outwit Anxiety

(The following is a high-edited post from a former blog I kept on Anxiety and Depression, “Prone to Hope.” The tactics still apply, so I thought it worth re-posting on michaelspheres.)

I’ll admit it. I find a post about tactics to outwit Anxiety a bit awkward. To the ignorant ear, such techniques may make it sound like you can simply “snap out of” your mental illness. That would be a terrible impression for me to make. Just as you can’t will away cancer, and you can’t laugh a broken leg into mending itself faster, you can’t “simply” think calm and happy thoughts to rid yourself of Anxiety.

However, just as people must find a way to live with and address the symptoms of other chronic diseases/illnesses (e.g., arthritis, asthma, diabetes), someone who suffers from chronic Anxiety can do things to face their symptoms successfully.

Sometimes you win the encounters; sometimes, you lose.

Some days I outwit my bully; other days, I have to call in sick to work. Such is life, no?

Here are some potential defenses for the Anxiety-prone person:

  • go on the offense; fill your brain and body with natural and positive chemical reactions
  • recognize irrational worries about the future as such, and bring your mind back to the present
  • notice anxious thinking about life and ask yourself, “why?”
  • focus your brain on something else despite every urge to feel Anxiety
  • recognize situations that might induce Anxiety and get ahead of those situations
  • use some creative twist to turn present Anxiety into future accomplishment
  • acknowledge Anxiety once It’s already pounced on you
  • call in sick to work when you’ve lost the battle

Let’s be practical about each of these defenses:

Go on the offense. Fill your brain and body with natural and positive chemical reactions: There are many ways to do this. For me, it is all about starting the day off right. And the best way to begin a day for me is intense exercise. A couple of the benefits are:

  1. Endorphins fill my body. Endorphins are chemicals that both help fight pain — a familiar feeling attached to Anxiety and panic attacks — and trigger feelings of awesomeness — the opposite of negative Anxiety.
  2. My muscles get fatigued. This impedes the muscle tension that often accompanies Anxiety.

Recognize irrational worries about the future as such and bring your mind back to the present: Have you caught your Anxiety-prone brain thinking irrationally about the future? Do something physical or “sense”-ational to focus your mind on the real now instead of the false future. Yogic breathing exercises, tapping your wrist, counting shades of green in your surroundings, holding an ice cube, sniffing lavender, and even pinching yourself are all methods some Anxiety-ridden people use to force their minds to leave the scary (irrationally thought about) future and get into the present moment. The action is a simple physical thing to get your mind to feel the right now and stop imagining the future as it likely will not be.

Notice anxious thinking about life and ask yourself, “why?” I used to wake up in the wee hours of the morning worrying about the next day. My mind blew everything out of proportion. Believe it or not, the perfect thing to do when worrying is to pointedly ask “why.” Asking “why?” gets your mind focused on solutions and rewards and not being stuck in worry.

Focus your brain on something else despite every urge to feel Anxiety: Do you feel Anxiety coming on and have no idea why? Try to focus on something else. One significant area of focus is on things for which you are grateful. To make this tangible, I am considering compiling photos of things I appreciate. I’ll write on the back of the pictures why I am thankful for those things. Don’t write just a sentence or two. Instead, provide a good narrative about why that person, thing, or action (e.g., my wife, my puppy, my garden) is so important to me. This does two things. First, I naturally find myself thinking about those things more. Second, when I need to jigger my brain, I have pictures and stories with which to interact positively. (By the way, writing an expression of gratitude is another great way to start the day. Fill your brain with positive chemicals before bad ones can invade.)

Recognize situations that might induce Anxiety and get ahead of those situations: Sunday afternoons and evenings: boooooo! Honestly, my therapist tells me I should have low to no expectations on Sunday afternoons and evenings. Obligations will become worries, and worries will become Anxiety. So my wife and I have agreed that if we can finish all weekend obligations by Sunday midday, I can fill the rest of the day with mindless mental bubble gum: horror flicks, personally-assembled YouTube concerts, etc.).

Use some creative twist to turn present Anxiety into future accomplishments: Here’s a trick I invented all by myself. Years back, I came upon it while staring into the mirror at a yoga studio. My bully, Anxiety, was beginning to dance on my sternum. It reminded me of everything I had to do that day and how I would suck at them. It chided me, “You will fail publicly, and everyone will notice and abandon you.” I closed my eyes, and a healthier voice in my brain whispered, “Imagine what tonight will feel like once you’ve accomplished everything you’ve got to do today. Michael, you’re going to leave this yoga studio relaxed, happy, and ready to take on your day. And the world will be a better place because of it.”

If Anxiety has already pounced on you, one strategy is to acknowledge It:  Anxiety is my bully. Bullies love fights. Don’t fight It. Accept It. Of late, that has meant letting Anxiety sit beside me for 15 – 45 minutes as I play brain tricks to show Anxiety that what It is saying isn’t true: “My world is not falling apart.” “People don’t think I’m a freak.” “And I shouldn’t feel like trash (permanently).” To borrow lyrics from U2, I’m just “stuck in a moment.” For example, on a recent morning, I felt Anxiety jostling terrible thoughts in my brain. I went to my bed, turned out the lights, and breathed while just letting Anxiety say It’s awful things. I acknowledged those statements as being felt but made my brain realize the thoughts weren’t true. Or at least not as bad as Anxiety wanted them to feel. Assuming this position and process for 15 minutes this morning calmed me; it let me grapple with better ways of thinking.

Call in sick to work when you’ve lost the battle: Sometimes I lose. Anxiety wins. And I feel myself plunging into a panic attack. If my brain has already become a brick, if frayed nerve-endings already pain my body, if my chest feels like it is going to explode, or if my throat feels like it is going to collapse, the day is shot. I will be of no use to myself or anyone else. Take an Anxiety-designated chill pill, go to bed, and wait for a new day.

I feel I need to restate that none of the techniques above are simply tactics to “snap out of it.” In the case of an episode of Anxiety, you are working to think your brain into releasing new chemicals into itself. The Anxiety-prone brain naturally finds time to swirl around adrenaline and cortisol — fight or flight chemicals. The sufferer must actively work to change that. It is a challenging thing to do, something that requires practice and discipline. And sometimes acceptance that for that particular day, you just need to make it to tomorrow.

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