Anxiety & I have been doing a wee dance for as long as I can remember. Dancing in and out of each others’ lives since my wee years. Just when I thought I had booted it out of my life forever, it would pirouette back in like a hippo in a tutu time & time again. Especially when I had plenty of other things to worry about… go figure! I always saw it as this separate thing to me that would possess my body and intrude on my life. I thought I just needed to learn how to master and get rid of it. But over the years I have learned the key role it plays in my life and I’ve learned something new with each dance routine!
Here’s what my life’s grand performances have taught me:
1) Anxiety is….. the body’s reaction to a perceived threat. It’s basically an alert siren going off in my body that I’m not feeling safe or good about something. If a situation arises that triggers fear in me, my brain reacts by flooding my body with adrenaline to fight or flee. This is a handy system to have when a grizzly bear is running towards me (I wouldn’t be hanging around to fight that one). Not so handy when the perceived threat is a ‘what –if’ scenario that hasn’t happened or may never happen, therefore there’s no fighting or fleeing it! The good news is, if I have created the scenario, I can create the solution the exact same way.
2) Getting anxious about being anxious only fuels it…. who knew! Although it may feel like the hippo has landed on my chest, I can’t breathe and I may just about die, it’s not going to happen! The sooner I can stop that chestnut of a thought process, the better! As long as I keep fighting or ignoring it the longer and more intense it gets. Once I surrender to it and rationalize my fear or perceived threat, the sooner it will calm. Rationalizing is very hard to do when in crisis mode. The logical part of the brain switches off and the emotional part is dancing a hoolie! When in crisis mode, there are no amounts of breathing techniques, yoga, or meditation that can instantly calm me so I just need to sit with it and find stillness. These are great for prevention or calming down at low levels but when I’m in a full-blown panic I just need to stop, surrender and find my safe place to avoid aggravating the response. This was a big lesson for me. I would be so worried about panicking and needing a quick exit to the toilet that I created the need to find a toilet everywhere I would go. I had gone from reacting to a perceived threat to creating one in my mind, thus reacting to it. Talk about self-sabotage!! Understanding the fear process has definitely helped me manage it better.
3) Anyone can experience anxiety or a panic attack given the right sequence of events. I use to think I was in a unique group of people that needed to hide the torture of daily panic, which no one would understand and I needed to feel terrible about myself for feeling this way. Again, another great way to get myself into a frenzy. Turns out, anyone can get themselves into a hula hoop of panic. Everyone has a core fear that drives them. Everyone’s brain has an alert system that activates when they get into trouble and their core fear is activated. In life, we can get stuck in situations that make us confront our core fear. If it’s not easy to leave the situation, our brain will respond. Staying in this headspace for a prolonged period without giving your brain time to rest or reset will trigger anxiety and panic. I have seen many people function well on a day-to-day basis running around living on coffee and adrenaline. They work late hours, take their work home, take on way more than they should, they can’t say no and always strive for more and the next promotion. But the minute they take a well-deserved break their whole body crashes and they get sick. Or if they don’t take a break the stress accumulates and eventually they find it hard to switch off at the end of the day, they get knots and ulcers in their stomachs and one day they can completely burnout or have a full-blown panic attack and can’t understand what’s happening. Lesson learned? There is no unique group, stop being too hard on yourself; you’re ahead of the game on mapping out a life authentic to you because your body won’t leave you do otherwise.
4) Certain personalities are more prone to stress and anxiety – but there are things that can be done to manage it. Gaining awareness of who you are, what motivates you, and what your fears are can help you understand yourself better and allow you to manage your behaviours and navigate life more easily. If you’re wired to people please, oblige others, be indecisive, seek perfection, can’t say no, lack assertion and you have a fearful relationship with uncertainty then you are a recipe for stress and burnout. It is what it is! Self-development and growth are important for everyone but no one more than the one limited by their own personality. There are vast outlets available for self-growth these days. Once you get the first hit of relief you may just become addicted to it. I know I have! It’s taken my body to crash from the dis-ease of chronic illness to stop, listen, learn and apply the change. It’s not easy changing how you interact with the world around you but it’s vital in order to break the stress cycle, heal and live a happy life! Here are two different Personality tests and profiles I found useful: Myer’s-Briggs and Trueself. The Four Tendencies* by Gretchen Rubin gives great insight into how you meet your own needs and expectations Vs meeting others’.
5) Meditation is my reset – without resetting my body, the stress accumulates. I am more easily triggered by stress when I’m already at a high level Vs a low level. Meditation isn’t just about breathing. It allows you to take notice of all the little tensions held in your body that you don’t notice until they accumulate into stiffness, pain, and injury. Meditation allows me to release the little tensions before they snowball into something bigger and harder to release. It also allows me to “turn the volume down” on the pain I have. With pain, there will inevitably be mental suffering. Sometimes I can’t do anything about the pain but through meditation, I can manage the suffering which in turn alleviates the pain. More on that later!
Meditation also allows me to notice a feeling and detach myself from it and let it go without it consuming me. That’s been a great tool to have in the toolbox when there was little I could do to change a stressful situation I was in. Anxiety gears you up to fight or flee but if you can’t do either, you need to find a way to relieve the suffering before you spiral.
It took me time to master the art of meditation. I had many failed attempts and found myself more anxious after trying to force myself to change my breathing pattern. My GP recommended the Headspace app. It took me through the steps gradually with short sessions under the expectation I wasn’t going to master it straight away. I can now enjoy hour-long meditations without falling asleep and give my body a well-needed reset!! Nailed it!
6) There is a whole science behind Breathing!! – There was a time I had the awareness that breathing played a major role in calming down the body but I hadn’t mastered the technique of using it mid panic attack. I found it very hard to force myself to breathe differently whilst in the throngs of panic. I had chronic neck and back pain when I was at my sickest with Crohn’s Disease. It was probably the most anxious I had ever been in my life, trying out different drugs for 2 years, living away from home, and months away from getting married. I was prone to injury and pulling muscles easily so I went to a physiotherapist for a few months. After a while she made me realize if I don’t learn how to breathe properly and deal with my anxiety no amount of massage and stretching will relax the muscles. Physiotherapy would give me short-term relief before the tension would build up again within days.
It was around this time I came across a breathing workshop in Queenstown, New Zealand run by Emma Ferris from The Breath Effect. Trained as a physiotherapist, Emma has a great understanding of every muscle in the body. Once she realized the influence breathing had on the muscles and how many people had poor breathing habits, it became her mission to teach people the art of breathing. The breath regulates everything in the body which is why people get in such trouble when panicking with shallow breathing. Breathing deactivates the fight or flight survival mode and stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system allowing us to relax. Emma has a great way of teaching and also offers online courses if you can’t access her workshops in New Zealand.
7) Being an empathetic person makes me more prone to getting overwhelmed and anxious – I have always been super sensitive to other people’s feelings. I physically feel what others are feeling. As you can suspect, this would leave me easily overwhelmed with feelings that weren’t mine and were hard to manage and release. I picked up some pretty bad habits that were toxic to me. In order to relieve myself of someone else’s pain, I would try fixing their problems. Because I would get rewarded for this I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It left me fatigued, anxious and I would withdraw from being around people in order to avoid getting overwhelmed. I also allowed people into my life that would use me until they felt better then drop me. Not exactly a grade A support system! My whole belief system was off sync and I had no boundaries set up to protect myself. Through a lot of awareness, growth, and making some much-needed changes, I have learned to see this as a gift and not a burden. It’s also been a very important step in managing my anxiety! Abdul Saad, a clinical psychologist based in Sydney, delivers some creative content on this subject on Youtube. He highlights that Empaths fall on a scale of healthy to unhealthy and breaks down what actions can be taken to move from an unhealthy Empath to a healthy one.
8) Panic attacks and Adrenal Fatigue go hand in hand – Turns out, running around like a loose chicken trying to keep up with everybody can cause burnout. Not only does maintaining high adrenaline levels for long periods of time cause adrenal fatigue, it can also trigger a panic attack. Identifying the difference between burning energy and running on adrenaline will make all the difference in managing your anxiety.
9) Chronic illness and anxiety go hand in hand – Apparently, it’s completely normal to feel uneasy about not knowing what’s going on with the health of your body. Who knew? This may seem obvious to most people but I had completely underestimated the effect my illness had on my mental health and how closely they are linked. Not only does the general uncertainty of your body’s ability trigger stress but apparently having inflammation in your body can cause inflammation in the brain, which in turn can cause depression and anxiety. Don’t forget to reach out for support and take care of your mind when your body isn’t running on all cylinders. Our bodies work as a whole, mind and body. If you’re struggling mentally your body will never find the peace to heal.
10) Dependency is the catalyst for anxiety – Yes it’s completely normal to rely on others especially when sick but being chronically ill for months or years at a time can have a devastating effect on one’s independence and stability. It can also be detrimental to a relationship. Especially when it takes a toll on your partner. When they’re unstable or stressed, not only can you not relieve it but you feel like you are adding to it. You can very quickly feel like a burden and spiral into an anxious state. What has this taught me? Spread your support out. This can be quite tricky when away from home and family, but it can be done. And for those of you that don’t have an illness to manage but lack the confidence to embrace your independence, please don’t waste another minute of your life dependent on the actions, thoughts and feelings of someone else. You’re crippling yourself. There’s plenty of ways to break free and build yourself up. One step at a time.
11) Every emotion has a chemical molecular structure – Every emotion you feel creates a chemical reaction in your body. Fear and excitement only have one molecule of a difference in structure; therefore it can be easy to switch from one to the other with confidence once you know-how. Rather than feeling a rush of adrenaline and letting my thoughts cripple me, I feel the adrenaline, embrace it, think of all the positive outcomes, and get excited. It takes some practice to face the fear and flip it on its head but it’s such a great skill to learn!
12) When you survive the worst-case scenario, you level up in life! – Once you live through the situation you dreaded the most, suddenly you’re living at a whole new level. Small anxieties become obsolete and suddenly it takes a whole lot more to knock you down or make your knees shake and heart pound! Understanding the functionality of your anxiety and befriending it instead of fearing it will release you beyond your imagination!
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