My Struggles and How I’ve learned to Manage My Anxiety
“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it—just as we have learned to live with storms.”– Paulo Coelho
Ohhh Anxiety… we’ve had such a long, tumultuous relationship. You have truly been one of the most difficult relationships of my life, to be completely honest. I can’t even remember a time when you weren’t present in my life.
From a very young age, starting in elementary school, I experienced massive amounts of anxiety, among a plethora of other complex trauma symptoms from being sexually abused as a child. My anxiety persisted and increased throughout middle school, high school, and even college. I recall the endless nights of worrying and over-analyzing.
The physical pain of anxiety is numbing and paralyzes you in all areas of functioning. It’s living in constant fight, flight or freeze mode: the switch to your sympathetic nervous system is always turned to “on”. Your mind and body are constantly on alert and wondering what’s going to happen next…? should you prepare to run away? numb and dissociate? or kick, scream and punch!?
In 5th grade I remember locking myself in my room, sitting on the mauve carpeted floor in front of the giant mirrors that were the doors to my closet, nervously picking at my face, staring at my body, and hating what I saw. I compared myself to the other girls at school, and often the Olsen Twins (who were the epitome of perfection to me in middle school.) I remember the endless evenings compulsively organizing my room and closet, in an attempt to feel in control. Sometimes it felt like someone was screaming at me in my own head and I couldn’t shut it off.
On top of this, I was in constant fear of another nightmare awaiting me after I drifted off… My dreams were often filled with monsters and gore. Quite traumatic things for a young child. Chronic nightmares (that stemmed from my history of trauma), as you can imagine, made my anxiety so much worse! And when you don’t get good quality sleep, especially as a child, it impacts everything in your life. Your mood, your brain functioning, your memory, your energy, your perspective on yourself and life…
All of these issues greatly added to the problems I had socially with friends and family. I often felt alone and isolated. Like I was the only one that didn’t fit in and belong. The bullying I experienced in middle school added to my depression and self-esteem. My anxiety often manifested as anger and irritability, which many people don’t realize are common side effects of anxiety. The anger kept people away–even my parents–which perpetuated my loneliness.
There are times, such as now while I’m writing this blog, that I feel so horribly sad and sorry for that poor, innocent, sweet little girl. I have nothing but compassion for her. No child should have to experience these sorts of issues.
“Things such as trauma, bullying, anxiety, and depression rob you of your childhood. Worse, they lay the foundation for so many physical and mental health issues later in life, creating imbalances in our nervous systems and hormones. All of this is finally catching up to me today. “-Dani Ashley
What’s the difference between Fear and Anxiety?
Worry, fear, and concern throughout the day are different than anxiety. Everyone has some anxious and worried thoughts. So to some degree, everyone experiences anxiety as an emotion. But just like most things, it’s on a spectrum… and on the more severe side is an anxiety disorder. I think it’s important to distinguish the difference between fear and anxiety.
Fear is a response to a physical threat, such as a bear chasing us, which activates our sympathetic nervous system and sends us into “fight or flight” mode. It sends a message to our body that gives us a rush of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones to increase our heart rate and get our blood pumping, so we can prepare to literally run for our lives or fight off that bear. This instinct keeps us alive and is crucial to our survival. But we don’t live in caveman times anymore…
Anxiety is a perceived threat that can be real or imagined. The problem with anxiety is that the threat is often mental and emotional, more so than physical. But our body and mind don’t know the difference between a child bullying us or a bear chasing us. So our body physically goes through the same exact chemical response, and our mind isn’t able to think rationally.
“How can I overcome anxiety?” Is a common question I get asked. I feel there are two parts to overcome. There’s the physical and the mental — and the two are often interconnected. Although some people say they experience one over the other.
- Physical feeling (fight or flight): stomach tightens, butterflies in belly, pulse quickens, heart beats fast, breathing becomes shallow, throat gets tight, the body gets hot and sweaty (some people get cold).
- Mental: living in fear (common with rejection or failure), can look like overwhelm, racing thoughts, rumination, and excessive worrying.
There are different ways that anxiety manifests. It can result from trauma. It co-occurs with phobias. It can come from taking on too much, which leads to feeling overwhelmed. Or it can come from inaction or indecision,, which often stems from a more depressed state.
How Do You Handle Anxiety?
More often than not, we never learned how to handle our anxiety in a way that serves us. Most of us didn’t learn coping skills and tools and become proficient with those techniques and practices. There are many unhealthy coping strategies to deal with anxiety and our emotions in general.
We can numb and withdraw via behaviors like isolating, binge eating, binge watching netflix, drinking, or drugs. We can seek reassurance, compulsively checking with friends, family or social media to help us feel better. We can self harm by cutting, picking, nail biting, burning, hair pulling, or other forms of harming ourselves.
One of the worst things is the Anxiety Hangover: where you feel you didn’t handle the situation well and feel a lot of regret, guilt, shame and remorse. When you don’t handle anxiety well, it further engrains the negative beliefs you have about anxiety, such as:
I can’t handle it
I can’t stand it
Make it stop
Make it go away
How I learned to MANAGE my Anxiety
I say the word managed because I don’t think there’s such a thing as fully healing anxiety (or any mental illness) 100%. It never fully goes away, although it can go into periods of remission. Just as we can’t heal or get rid of our emotions. They come and go, like clouds in the sky or waves in the ocean… The best we can do is teach ourselves to surf the waves instead of freaking out, resisting them and fighting them, which culminates in us feeling like we are drowning and can’t win. Here is a laundry list of things and tools I’ve used (and continue to use to this day) to manage my anxiety. Through these practices I have absolutely lessened my anxiety. I feel much more peaceful, calm and confident in my abilities and belief that I can handle it. It’s all about lifelong healing. No quick fixes. And self-care is the key to this lifestyle.
“Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future.”– Deepak Chopra
Emotional + Mental Self-Care
Knowing My Triggers + the Power of My Thoughts
Knowing and being aware of what triggers my anxiety is huge. This helps me game plan my days and routines, as well as be mindful of my thoughts. If you know, for example, that your phone or computer triggers you because you’re afraid you’re going to get bad news, it’s helpful to explore that and shift your thinking about it. If you are constantly thinking, “Something bad is going to happen. I’m going to get bad news,” chances are those types of thoughts are fueling your anxiety. Start smiling when you look at your phone or computer, and think instead, “Everything is okay. If something comes up, I can handle it. Good things are coming.” Or something of that sort. Some triggers we can also avoid, such as driving in certain areas, coffee (caffeine jitters), getting on social media, or listening to certain types of music, etc.
Allowing myself to Feel My Feeling + being Mindful with my thoughts
It’s so common for us to resist things that are USA (uncomfortable, scary and awkward). We tend to run away from and resist feelings and thoughts. Unfortunately what we resist persists. Instead of judging my thoughts, I mindfully watch my emotions and thoughts, notice them, let myself feel and experience them (without dwelling) and then breathe, and let them go. This takes so much practice and persistence, so please be patient and kind towards yourself! Your mind is like a puppy. It doesn’t help to get frustrated and yell at the puppy. Just re-direct and refocus on your breath or whatever you’re doing.
Meditation / Yoga
Every morning shortly after I wake up I meditate anywhere between 5-30 minutes. Turning this tool into a daily habit has really helped me. I really love using the app Calm, however, Insight Timer is a great free app, as well. I also practice yoga 2-3 times a week. It’s an amazing self-care practice because it nourishes all four areas of self-care: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Therapy + Couples Therapy
Going to therapy has by far been one of the most beneficial things I’ve ever done for myself. I’ve been going to regular therapy for 4 years now and I absolutely love my therapist. The treatment that was the best fit for me was / is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. It’s one of the most renowned treatment for trauma, and also greatly helps with anxiety, depression, and radically shifting your mindset. It uses bilateral stimulation to ultimately desensitize and reprocess traumatic events, disturbing memories, and negative beliefs about yourself. It’s truly transformational.
My fiancé and I have been going to couples therapy for 1.5 years now, and it’s the best investment we’ve made in our relationship. We are doing EFT (emotion focused therapy) and it’s exactly what we need, but it’s also extremely difficult. I’d say couples work is much more challenging than individual work, because it forces you to examine your shadow self and negative patterns you express in the relationship. The biggest goal is to identify the “demon dialogue” (dance that you do with your partner), become aware of it when it gets triggered up, and put a stop to it. Every couple does this in their own way. Another huge goal of couples therapy is to soothe yourself and your inner child enough to put down your walls — with the goal of understanding your partner above protecting and defending yourself.
Deep Breathing + Let it go
Taking big, deep belly breaths vs. shallow breathing or even holding my breath, which is something we subconsciously do when we feel anxious. Breathing has always been difficult for me due to sinuses and allergies. I recently had sinus surgery earlier this year, and have reduced my allergies through supplements, food (cutting out dairy), sinus rinses, and nasya oil. Breathing is something we need to be more mindful and conscious of on a daily basis, especially when we are experiencing stress and anxiety. Practice taking breaths and physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually releasing whatever is bothering.
Getting Good Sleep
Getting good sleep is crucial to our mental health. We need 7-9 hours / night depending on how old you are and your current health status and stress levels. I’m a 8 to 9 hour gal, and if I get less than that, it throws everything off. Sleep is one of the top things that we need to prioritize if it’s frequently disrupted. Things that can disrupt sleep: stress, poor diet, poor digestion, anxiety, ruminating, worrying, nightmares, and alcohol.
Exercise (and getting my feelings OUT of my body!)
Another non-negotiable self-care activity, exercise has helped me feel good and increase my confidence. Another thing it’s helped me with is getting my feelings (and anger) out of my body! I mentioned earlier that anxiety can manifest as anger and irritability. And we must physically release them. Other ways to do this are screaming into a pillow, punching a pillow, ripping paper, drawing, painting, and journaling.
Eating healthy, whole foods + Ayurveda
Another huge thing in my self-care has been being more mindful of what I put in my body. using Ayurveda as a guide. Ayurveda is the oldest health system in the world, derived from India and the Vedas, which are the oldest texts in the world, about 5,000 years old. It helps us figure out what our mind-body type is, and how to eat best and live best for your specific dosha. Learn more about Ayurveda in a recent blog post, here.
For years I was nourishing the above 3 categories really well. The thing that was getting the least attention was my spiritual self-care. The past 1.5 years has been dedicated to my spiritual growth and nourishment. I turned my back on my faith for a long time to due my traumas. I wish I had STARTED with spiritual self-care as an integral part of my healing journey, as it truly is the foundation for everything. Without it, we have a fear based foundation, instead of a foundation built on faith and trust in the Universe — and ourself.
Loving-Kindness and Compassion Towards Myself
I truly believe being kind, compassionate and loving towards yourself is one of the most sacred spiritual practices. Struggling with anxiety, depression, deep shame AND being a recovering perfectionist, this one has always been so difficult for me. I was so used to constantly shaming, blaming, and criticizing myself. So many of us are extremely hard on ourselves and don’t give ourselves the love that we so freely give others. This needs to change. The voice in our head needs to be gentler, softer, and sweeter… and we must learn how to silence and invalidate the inner critic.
I pay the most attention when I feel shame. Because it’s easy to be kind towards yourself when things are going well… and it’s a whole other ball game when things aren’t going well or you make a mistake. This is the time that counts the most — where we need to be kind, compassionate and forgiving towards yourself.
I also started looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself “I love you.” It was awkward at first, but now I have full on monologues telling myself how awesome, beautiful, strong, smart, and kind I am. Building myself up, and comforting my own inner child has done wonders for my self esteem. You can do this at any time, it doesn’t have to be in a mirror, although it’s much more vulnerable and powerful. I dare you to try it!
Faith in the Universe + Gratitude and Prayer
If we don’t have a strong faith and trust in SOMETHING outside of and bigger than ourselves… we tend to have a foundation based out of fear instead of love. I have gotten so much more connected to God / Goddess, the Universe, my spirit guides and even my ancestors. I talk to them and pray to them when I need to.
I also feel like gratitude and prayer go hand in hand. There’s a fun little game I like to play… when I notice myself worrying, I flip that thought around into something I’m grateful for or into a prayer. For example, if I’m worrying about losing my parents one day, I instead practice being grateful for them and their health and send those prayers up to the Universe. This also coincides with the law of attraction and manifestation. We must focus more on what we have and what we want vs. what we don’t have and what we don’t want.
Doing LESS + Routine
I fall into the category of doing too much (vs. too little) and this causes overwhelm which fuels my anxiety. This sometimes leads me to procrastinate which also makes my anxiety so much worse. Ever since the fall when my hormone imbalances came to a peak, I’ve focused on doing so much less in a day, a week, a month, a year. I have lower expectations for what I can accomplish, which ends up being so much more realistic. This has allowed me to slow down and simplify my life and my routine. Having a daily routine (where we eat, sleep and work at the same times every day) helps our body and mind know what to expect. I still struggle with having the same bedtime and wake time every day, but that’s okay, because I’m working on it. We are always a work in progress, and what matters more is how we talk to and treat ourselves, more so than the action. BEING over doing is key.
Following your Dharma + Helping Others
And finally, finding your dharma (life purpose) and helping by serving others is a huge part of fulfillment, joy and peace. You can read more about finding and following your dharma in my recent blog post here, but I will say that it most likely won’t happen until your self-care is solid.
“Anxiety is easy. Calm is what’s difficult. Extremes are easy… Balance is hard.”-Dani Ashley
I’ve had anxiety for so long, that I sometimes don’t know how to live without it. Anxiety truly is an addiction and a lifestyle. I still find myself slipping back into creating anxiety, simply because I’m just so damn used to it. Maybe you can relate?
You don’t need to do ALL of these things to achieve healing and self-care. Especially if you’ve been dreading one, such as meditation or exercise, skip it for now and pick something else that appeals to you. Don’t let this list intimidate you. Choose one thing at a time and choose what calls to you. It may take some trial and error, but that’s part of the beautiful journey of learning to manage our mental health issues.
Now I would love to hear from you.
Do you struggle with anxiety? How does it manifest for you? What’s helped you manage it? Let me know in the comments below and I look forward to connecting and going deeper with you. Sending much love, self-care, and gratitude.