A Thoughtful Person’s Thoughts on Anxiety
While I’m not a mental health professional, I do have a lot of life experience that qualifies me to write a blog post about anxiety. Born with a “Jewish Stomach” aka the worries with a touch of lactose intolerance, I do believe I am predisposed to be a little high strung. I’m also predisposed to be pretty funny so I’ll take the good and the bad. But over the years, I’ve learned that anxious is not something I am, it’s something that I feel sometimes. Sometimes more often than not. There’s a lot of factors that lead someone to deal with chronic feelings of anxiety and panic attacks including but not limited to trauma, PTSD, cultural upbringing, and mindset. Our culture tends to label people as anxious and put a band-aid over us by giving you pharmaceuticals and telling you to breathe. I’ve done both, and in some ways, both can be very helpful. But neither of those things gets at the root cause, and pharmaceuticals and other wellness “tips” can be a prison of their own making. As someone who has been on Prozac/Paxil for 20 years and counting, I have many thoughts about that subject but I won’t go too far into here. I’d like instead to discuss the characteristics that I think cause people to struggle with chronic feelings of anxiety, what tends to not to be helpful for us, and in my experience, what does tend to be helpful. This post is for fellow sufferers of anxious feelings and the people who are looking to understand. I speak for myself but I tend to think many will relate and I hope it’s helpful if you do.
In my biased opinion, people who struggle with chronic feelings of anxiety are some of the best people you will meet. A lot of anxiety comes from the deep seated fear of not being good enough. We want so desperately to be GOOD. As a result, we are some of the most caring people. We are the opposite of psychopaths. At my most anxious times I’ve found myself being jealous of psychopaths and their ability to NOT CARE about anyone. Wouldn’t that be a relief? We are also extremely hard workers. Doing the smallest and most taken-for-granted tasks can at times be near impossible. We are all at different levels of functioning and it can vary over time, but in general, I think it is safe to say that the exhaustion of worrying makes anything and everything more difficult. And don’t forget about the perfectionism that many of us carry around with us too. But we power through. The last and most important factor to consider is that feelings of chronic anxiety and/or panic are often TRIGGERED by trauma or post traumatic stress. It has taken me 20 years to realize that the onset of my worst anxiety and panic attacks coincided with a sexual assault at aged 16. I never put two and two together because I was given an anti-depressant and a few sessions of questionable therapy and I moved on. A lot of people who are branded as “anxious” are actually trauma survivors who haven’t processed their trauma. Lastly, I believe that since people who struggle with feelings of anxiety tend to be people who CARE TOO MUCH, we are often drawn to caring professions. Our society takes advantage of people in caring professions and often exacerbates our mental health struggles. Im talking about teachers, health care professionals, social workers, etc. The ills of society are being asked to be solved by these underpaid and exhausted caring individuals. As a teacher myself, this is another topic I could and probably will write another blog post about.
I’ve been on a long journey of healing. I’ve come pretty far but I still have a long way to go. Some of it is generational trauma that will probably take a lifetime and I’m OK with that. I’d like to share things that have been helpful to me. I’ll first start with things that are NOT so helpful. The least helpful thing is for someone to tell me to breathe. Gee thank you, I hadn’t thought of that!! It’s not like I have read every article, own every expensive magazine, and downloaded every damn app selling me some calm. I’ve tried the breathing. Yes, sometimes it works. Especially when the anxiety is becoming panic. But hearing someone say it is goddamn ANNOYING. It’s like telling an angry person to calm down. Breathing is a band-aid. It helps in the moment but it does not solve chronic anxiety. Another unhelpful trend is toxic positivity. Again, thinking positively and changing your thoughts works and is a part of healing, but not when it’s sold as the answer. COME ON, THINK HAPPYYYYY!!!! No. Thinking positively at all costs doesn’t allow you to feel your feelings. It can also feel impossible to do when you’re so used to thinking negatively. But seriously, no one is happy and positive all the time and it’s not human to do so. A healthy emotional state accepts the whole range of emotions. I also don’t think that you can “manifest” your reality just by thinking about it. Yes, imagining a good future outcome is helpful, but you have to actively work, heal, and grow to make changes in your life. Instagram is a breeding ground for wellness tips and toxic positivity so I try to limit how much of it I consume and I try to seek out genuinely helpful mental health resources that are available on it. Going to see an actual therapist or coach or reading a book to help you with changing your thought patterns is so much more valuable than all the breathing, manifesting and time management tips.
So what does help? First off, having someone JUST listen to you is extremely important. Whether that be a therapist ( I could write a whole other blog post about therapy - I’ve had good and bad experiences - but let’s just say it has to be the right therapist, for the right person, in the right situation), friend, or family member, is so helpful. Listening is great, listening WITHOUT giving advice is even better. I struggle with anxiety, I’ve literally heard all of the advice. Most of the time I doubt people will understand unless they’ve gone through it, and I honestly just want people who offer their opinion to shut up. If you are trying to understand someone with anxious feelings, let them talk out their worries and hear it out loud. If you are the person who struggles with anxiety, try to remember that people aren’t mind readers so you have to actually tell the people in your life that you just want them to listen, and that hearing advice isn’t helpful. Don’t get me wrong, advice can be helpful, like I hope this post is, but it should be solicited advice. In addition to having people who listen, It is even more helpful to have people who validate our feelings. If you’re dealing with a person who struggles with chronic anxiety and it’s your turn to talk, tell us that you hear us, that we are normal, and that you’re here for us. And if you mention the word CRAZY or honestly even look at us like we’re crazy, we rightfully reserve the right to knock you out.
The next thing that has been helpful for me is acknowledging my own feelings in the moment. It takes a ton of practice, but being able to say “this is anxiety I am feeling, this is not who I am, this is a feeling, feelings don’t last forever, it will pass” is incredibly empowering. This can be used for any feeling you are feeling in the moment. Notice the feeling, feel the feeling, let the feeling pass. Easier said than done, but with tons of practice it gets easier. This also works to separate the anxiety from yourself. Anxiety is not WHO we are, it is a feeling that we feel. When you internalize this, you give yourself the freedom to not feel anxious forever. It normalizes the feeling. It is 100% normal for humans to feel anxious feelings. It keeps us out of harm’s way. I don’t say I am an anxious, depressed person anymore. I also don’t say I HAVE anxiety or depression. I say that I am a person who struggles with anxious thoughts and depressive moods. I am not an ANXIOUS person, I am actually a lovely, caring, and thoughtful person thank-you-very-much.
Along these lines, the MOST helpful thing on my journey has been changing my thought patterns slowly over time. I’ve used many different resources to do this (therapy, coaching programs, workbooks, podcasts and books) and I’m still working on it. It’s a slow steady grind that takes constant attention, but so is dealing with anxiety. As a good friend once told me, both things are hard. Choose your hard. I personally struggle with perfectionist thinking patterns which include “all or nothing” thinking, fear of failure, procrastination, and critical self-talk among other things. A few ways to change this type of thinking include doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and working towards a growth mindset. Both require you to notice your thoughts. Think about your thoughts. Write about your thoughts. I also like to walk about my thoughts because nothing is better for a good “think” than a long ass walk (or a short one). Carol Dweck wrote an amazing book about growth mindset called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. The gist of the book is that a growth mindset is the opposite of having a fixed or rigid mindset about your abilities. People who worry or struggle with anxious thoughts want things or ourselves to be perfect or good enough RIGHT NOW. When we are not, we criticize ourselves or others to death. The thought “this is too hard I can never do this” for example becomes “this is hard but I can learn to do hard things.” I’m really skimming the surface here but I highly recommend her book and also The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism by Sharon Martin. I’ve never done a full round of CBT therapy with a therapist, but I’ve read enough to be able to employ certain techniques like asking myself what the absolute worst outcome of a situation could be and then thinking about how bad that would actually be and how likely it is to happen. If my boss is actually mad at me for being 15 minutes late to work, the worst thing that could happen is they fire me. In the grand scheme of my life, that is not the worst thing that could happen. It would suck big time but I’d still be alive, breathing, and keep on living. It’s also not super likely to happen. If your boss actually does fire you for being a little late, you probably don’t want to work at that place anyways.
That brings me to my next point. Another thing that is helpful is to REDUCE YOUR STRESS. The best way to reduce your stress is to create BOUNDARIES. Caring, anxiety prone people tend to be people pleasers. We feel pressure to work the extra hours, care for the people even if we can’t care for ourselves, worry away all of the worries. I have very strong personal boundaries for my work now. Especially working from home, I shut my computer at the end of my workday. Sure there is more I could do, but there will always be more. Get comfortable saying NO. To coworkers, family, and friends. If you want to say no but you say yes instead, you are really saying NO TO YOURSELF. Boundaries can be terrifying for anxious feeling sufferers. What’s more anxiety provoking than conflict?!?! But saying no doesn’t have to be fraught with conflict. If someone has a problem with the boundaries that you set for your own well being, that is their problem, not yours. Try not to take on the feelings of others. I spent a lot of my childhood walking on eggshells, trying not to anger my father and disappoint my mother. I tried to anticipate and mitigate their feelings. The bottom line is the only person whose feelings you are responsible for are YOUR OWN. You can’t make anyone feel a certain way. You can’t even make yourself feel a certain way. All you can do is notice and question your thoughts which then turn into our feelings. I’m going to repeat that again because it was a big learning moment for me. THOUGHTS BECOME FEELINGS. Anxious thoughts become anxious feelings. Do I still have anxious thoughts and feelings? YOU BET. But it’s coming easier and easier over time for me to recognize WHEN I’m feeling anxious and WHAT thoughts I’m having at the time either consciously or unconsciously.
My last tip is to TRY to spend time doing things that make you feel fulfilled. Not things you HAVE to do or things you SHOULD do, but things you WANT to do. I don’t care what it is. For me, it is creativity. It is making art (which I think I’m good at) and writing (which I’m not great at YET but I want to work on it.) Not all that many people are seeing my art or reading my writing but it makes me feel better to do it anyway. It doesn’t matter how long either. Even just a few minutes will help. I know time is an issue and the anxious feelings make it feel impossible, but for me, NOT doing it makes the anxious thoughts and depressive moods so so much worse.
So there you have it. My thoughts on anxiety. I’m not a mental health professional nor is my experience inclusive, but I hope reading my perspective is helpful to someone out there and I’m available to listen without giving advice if you need it.
Lots of love,