Treating, or alleviating the symptoms of, mental illness is subjective. Articles on miracle cures, tips from fellow sufferers and Pinterest infographics fill the Internet and when researching self-help tips, at times I am more overwhelmed by the abundance of information than the oncoming panic attack.
Many people do not realise I suffer from anxiety, even though it has loomed over me throughout my life, whether as a side effect of another mental illness or in a generalised form. Perhaps this is an outcome of my body having developed a profound ability to mask any physical symptoms. I make that pre-rehearsed phone inquiry through my stomach doing literal summersaults. I cling onto my pen in exam halls and regurgitate two years’ worth of knowledge in forty minutes. Once, I delivered a presentation in front of a very substantial audience and came close to unconsciousness, yet when I mentioned this to my friends a few hours later, I received a few raised eyebrows in response.
‘We didn’t notice – at all,’ they said. ‘You’re a natural at public speaking.’
The shirt I had to throw away due to excessive perspiration certainly didn’t think so.
Anyway, this leads onto the central point of this post – how do I deal with this anxiety? Do I have wisdom to share with people in the same boat (I’ve noticed I always use sea-inspired metaphors in my blog which is a sign that it’s time for another holiday), or do I bow to anxiety as an integral part of my character?
Well, it’s a combination. Lighting candles and taking a bubble bath may work for some people. Practicing 7-11 breathing does wonders for others. I have tried countless holistic remedies and panic-fighting techniques which fellow sufferers and even psychologists recommended. These things didn’t just fail to work, but also exacerbated the problem. In my post about sleep anxiety and insomnia, I mentioned how at times, the harder you try to fix a problem, the harder it strikes back.
Some weeks ago, an excellent therapist taught me about the ‘Blue Elephant’ phenomenon. If I tell you not to think about about blue elephants – as in, force yourself to eject images or even those two words from your mind – what do you end up thinking about? Yep, a whole jungle of blue elephants. This principle certainly applies to my anxiety. The more I try not to panic, the more I expose myself to an onset of anxiety.
For example: I wake up on the day of an exam. I follow the steps which are supposed to minimise the chances of a panic attack like eating a good breakfast, meditating and drinking water. I practice deep breathing on the train while reiterating the same thoughts. ‘You must not be nervous. What did that buzzfeed article tell you? Think positively. You must not, under any circumstances, panic.’ Suddenly, my fear of forgetting how many miles of railway Russia had in 1903 transforms into a tricker beast: anxiety over the prospect of experiencing anxiety at an inconvenient time. I try really hard to avoid panic, but this in itself renders it inevitable.
How can such an issue be conquered? Well, my magic trick is acceptance. I accept any thoughts, feelings and physical sensations I experience, in the absence of judgement. Whenever I recognise a future event as a potential trigger, I acknowledge that a panic attack may occur and instead of doing anything within my power to avert it, I minimise my dread by recognising that a panic attack, as unpleasant as it is, cannot kill me. That a bit of anxiety won’t hinder my ability to perform in a stressful situation. If, and when, the anxiety sets in I carry on with what I’m doing while letting the feeling sit there, do its thing and fade away on its own accord. I think ‘okay, I am experiencing anxiety and there is little I can do about it’ before paying close attention to each associated sensation, such as the beating of my heart, the sickliness in my stomach, my clammy palms.
At times I go a step further by purposely trying to worsen the anxiety. Instead of fighting a panic attack, I command myself to try and have one. This sounds ridiculous but rings close to how some insomniacs succeed in falling asleep by forcing themselves to stay awake.
Of course, this reverse psychology and most other techniques aimed at alleviating anxiety-related symptoms are short-term solutions. At times, there are underlying issues (such as specific phobias, other mental illnesses and chronic stress) which must be addressed to reduce it in the long run. For example, when I had anorexia I’d implement acceptance ‘in the moment’ when faced with a trigger while overcoming any broader fears over a longer period of time. Nowadays, however, my anxiety can arise without a cause I can specifically pinpoint, and I think many can relate to this – in such instances, acceptance os much better than ruminating and trying to figure out what that cause may be.
Anxiety can be destructive, it can hinder our lives and in many instances, stop us from following our dreams. I’ve avoided many opportunities simply because I knew I would panic. However, when I minimise the dread associated with anxiety as see it as just a feeling, a falsely-activated fight or flight response, and acknowledge my tendency to feel overwhelmed for no concrete reason, it becomes much more manageable. I float through life feeling ‘chill’ while understanding that I will never be what society deems a ‘chill’ person.
This, of course, may not work for everyone. Mental health is very individual much like the techniques we implement to help ourselves. However, I firmly believe that it is a process of trial and error, based on our own instincts and in many instances, the expertise of trained professionals which makes me an advocate of seeking help for issues like anxiety whenever possible.
Let me know in the comments – what tips help you manage anxiety and/or stress? What doesn’t? Talking about these issues is very important because not only does it raise awareness, but acts as a guide for those who are struggling and haven’t yet reached out.
Lots of love, Maria ♡