- Mental Health
How to beat anxiety: The power of acceptance
Have you experienced anxiety that overwhelmed you?
What is anxiety?
Anxiety can feel all-encompassing and hard to deal with. It can make someone want to crawl under their bedsheets and forget about the world. It can take away someone's appetite, make them feel like they're going crazy and disrupt their work, family and friendships. It can feel like a never-ending spiral that you will never escape from. But there is hope - and lots of help out there for people if they just ask for it.
Anxiety can be linked with depression, or it can be stand-alone. It can be associated with a traumatic event, or can simply "pop out of nowhere". Sometimes it's the result of being burnt out and neglecting one's mental well-being for the sake of achieving goals or being too hard on ourselves. In short, anxiety is not something that anyone enjoys when it gets to the level where it's all you think about, feel and even dream about.
How do people attempt to reduce their anxiety?
You've probably heard lots of advice about how to reduce your anxiety. Common examples are "Just relax!", "It will go away on its own", "Breathe deeply", "Go for a walk", "It's not that bad", or "Why are you anxious? You have nothing to be anxious about."
Common ways that people try to reduce or prevent anxiety are exercise, herbal tea, yoga, meditation, thinking positively and even taking medication such as Xanax when it all gets too much and their doctor prescribes this for them.
What I have found to be highly effective in reducing and managing my anxiety
Having done a lot of research and reading on the subject after a particularly harrowing bout of anxiety I experienced when suffering some health problems, a house that wouldn't sell, and 4 years of full time work while studying another degree (no holidays to speak of for many years), I decided to get to the bottom of why I was feeling this way.
My first step was to see my doctor. He recommended speaking to a psychologist which I was doubtful would help - considering that at the time, I could barely force myself to go to work, eat or smile. However it has been an empowering and extremely useful experience learning how to change my approach to my anxiety and finally being able to recover from it without the fear of it returning and how I will cope 'next time'.
The most useful thing she had me do was fill out a table when I felt anxious that aimed to separate my thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It was quite hard to separate how I felt, with my thoughts. What it did do however was make me realize that 'anxiety' is a collection of a myriad of physical sensations, negative and judgmental thoughts that made me 'anxious about being anxious', and the resultant feelings of fear, depression and hopelessness.
Once I was able to see the connection between my thoughts and attitude to the anxiety I was feeling and how they contributed to my sadness and fear, I realized that I did have some power over the chain of events inside me that led to my feeling so miserable.
This approach has been described as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and is used by many psychologists effectively to treat people with a range of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. It has been proven to be as effective as medication for some people and is an important skill to add to anyone's metaphorical tool box for coping with the ups and downs in life.
Learning to accept anxious feelings and thoughts
Another breakthrough for me in the way I approached my anxiety was acceptance. I have learned to simply observe my feelings and thoughts of anxiety and not try to fight or control them. On numerous occasions I tried to 'pep talk' myself, tell myself "There is no good reason for you to feel anxious", and convince myself that I shouldn't feel anxious. While these techniques helped temporarily, as did exercise or distracting myself by watching TV etc., none of these things really solved the underlying problem. I felt exhausted in constantly keeping the anxiety 'at bay'. I felt like I was constantly fighting myself and my thoughts. It got to the point where I was ready to give up.
A fantastic skill I have learned which has helped me so much in dealing with my anxiety has been to step back a bit, observe my difficult feelings and thoughts, say to myself "I am having an anxious thought" or "I am feeling stressed and afraid" and simply accept it. Rather than struggle with it, judge myself or try to convince myself why I shouldn't think or feel a certain way - it has been a wonderfully freeing feeling to simply be OK with the fact that from time to time, these feelings will emerge.
It is like I have learned to look what I fear the most full in the face, and instead of rage at it, hide from it, or run away from it, just accept it and be relaxed about the fact that I am experiencing some unpleasant feelings. The motto "All things will pass" has also helped me a lot. Now when I see some anxious feelings floating through me, I simply observe them and accept it. Not fighting them has taken their power away to scare me. I am not afraid of myself anymore. Think of a Chinese finger toy. Both your index fingers are trapped in it and the harder you try to pull them apart, the tighter they are trapped. It is only when you learn to relax, that your fingers can be freed.
What do you find most useful in reducing or preventing anxiety?
Useful websites and books
There are lots of websites that have some good meditation exercises that help you detach yourself from negative thoughts and feelings. I have listed some below. My favorite one comes from a book called The Mindful Way Through Anxiety by Susan M. Orsillo, PhD. and Lizabeth Roemer, PhD. You can listen to it online here. It is called Mindfulness of Clouds and Sky and it involves you imagining that you are lying in a field watching clouds drift by. You imagine that the anxious feelings and thoughts you are having are actually the clouds. Your mind is actually the blue sky behind them - and is a separate entity to these thoughts and feelings.
I really love thunder storms so this is quite a comforting meditation for me. I have learned to place my deepest fears and worries into these moving clouds and accept that they are there, but they are not necessarily all of me. There is a part of me that is separate from them. They are also transient and will pass in time. I have learned not to fight their presence, but to simply accept them and even have some compassion towards myself for how I feel.
Some useful websites with online resources and links are as follows:
For anyone struggling with anxiety - I wish you all the best in your journey of understanding it, learning how to deal with it and eventually coming to an acceptance which will hopefully free you from the worst part of anxiety - being afraid of yourself!
Other causes of anxiety - hyperthyroidism
Interestingly, it was found that my thyroid was overactive (hyperthyroid) during the time of my heightened anxiety. Overactive thyroids can produce many anxiety symptoms including irritation, weight loss and nervousness. Since then, my thyroid has become under-active and the anxiety has gone away entirely. While it helped to know that my symptoms could have been caused by a biological illness, (Hashimoto's Disease), I am still of the firm belief that doing "mind-work" such as mindfulness meditation helped me ride out this very trying time in my life and has given me the skills to cope in the future when faced with anxiety or difficulties. It is worth getting a check-up and testing your thyroid function with your doctor if you have persistent anxiety symptoms.