It's Personal: Understanding AnxietyPublished October 10, 2021 by Sheila Anne Murray
October 10th is World Mental Health Day. I thought this might be a good time to share my experience of identifying with anxiety and common misconceptions. This blog is purely for educational purposes and is not a replacement for mental health counseling. If you have questions don’t hesitate to reach out or connect.
“I think I have … anxiety,” I said with an exhale, looking anywhere but at my therapist.
Finally, I looked up. Her expression was open and neutral, as if I told her the sky was blue. As I was preparing for this conversation, I had imagined she would gasp and either tell me that I was wrong or that I needed to go on medication straight away.
Neither of those things happened.
Instead, we began to discuss what the sensations were in my body when I felt anxious, what I needed during times of high anxiety, and in what ways I was judging or criticizing my anxiety.
I grew up during a time when mental health was still stigmatized, going to a therapist meant something was wrong with you, and if something was, in-fact, “wrong” it was best to keep quiet about it. The mental landscape for what’s considered to be normal has changed quite a bit since then.
If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that mental health needs to be as prioritized as physical health and that there is so much more that we can do for ourselves and as a collective to nurture our well-being. This includes seeing ourselves as whole people with complex emotions, and honoring where we are in our process. For me, the pandemic created heightened anxiety I hadn’t felt since childhood.
As it turns out, I’m not alone here. Amy Cuddy and Jill Ellyn Riley came up with the term “pandemic flux syndrome,” to encapsulate the mental health toll much of the world is facing during a time that is washed with uncertainty and emotional depletion.
Even as a coach that has worked with over a hundred clients on promoting well-being and finding alignment in their lives and careers, I’m still learning all the time. I’ve come to understand that living in this place of “not-knowing-always-learning” is key for helping professionals to serve their clients at a high level.
While growing my own relationship with anxiety, I’ve been able to help my clients get to know theirs. Like me, many of my clients experience varying levels of anxiety, but have been told most of their lives to “keep going,” “stay positive,” “just relax,” or “chill out.” Statements like these undermine our lived experience and keep us from fully stepping into our best selves. I recently started a program to become a certified trauma-informed coach and I’m looking forward to the tools and understanding it will provide me with, so I can more powerfully help my clients.
In this article, I am busting a handful of myths that I used to believe about anxiety.
5 Unfortunate Anxiety Myths I Used To Believe
Anxiety is bad and needs to be fixed
Like all emotions, anxiety has a purpose. It can boost blood flow, motivate us to work hard, or keep us from engaging in dangerous situations. Everyone will experience anxiety at some point in their lives but the signs and impact will look different. I thoroughly enjoyed Glennon Doyle’s podcast that asks “Anxiety: Is it just love holding its breath?” because of the way she and her sister, Amanda, depart from the clinical description of anxiety and instead tell a story about shared and individual human experience with anxiety.
People with anxiety should stop worrying
*sigh* … It’s a shame that this idea is actually still circulating. While stress and worry can be symptoms or triggers for anxiety, it’s not the full picture. While worry relates to what is occurring for us cognitively, anxiety can be a full-body experience and does not need to be triggered by a worry. People experiencing anxiety might experience pain in a certain area of the body, forgetfulness and confusion, and hypo or hyper arousal.
If you live a healthy lifestyle by eating right, sleeping, and exercising, you shouldn’t have anxiety
First of all, there is no “should”s with anything and especially not with mental health. There is so much more to managing anxiety than living a perceived “healthy” lifestyle. You may have to spend time paying attention to the sensations in your physical body, slowly exposing yourself to your anxiety triggers, observing old stories you’ve embodied, seeking professional help, and more. There is no one-size-fits all approach for anxiety and believing so can be damaging for your healing path.
If you have anxiety, you should avoid your triggers
As humans we naturally want to avoid situations that are uncomfortable - such as hard conversations with a manager, trying new things, or vulnerable emotions. However, intentional exposure to our stressors or triggers can be great ways to increase resilience and decrease our anxious response.
Medication is the only treatment for anxiety
While medication can be helpful for managing anxiety, it is by no means a magic bullet or the only way for all types. Even if medication is prescribed, it will be part of a comprehensive treatment plan including lifestyle changes and working with a professional like a therapist or coach. Again, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, so it’s best to take time to find what will be best for you individually, acknowledging that that too could change over time.
My Go-To Actions For Managing Anxiety
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve noticed periods of the month and hours of the day that can be more anxiety-inducing. Instead of trying to force things to be different (I’d call this my old paradigm), I’ve motivated myself to work with my body and mind (my new paradigm). This means running with my energy and creativity at times, and committing to slowing down and asking for more support from my husband during others.
On the note of asking for support, I’ve found honest communication to be key in managing anxiety and deepening my relationships. I do my best to ask others how they are feeling before I bring up something heavy, and I appreciate it when others do the same for me. When living with anxiety, it can be helpful to take time to get in touch with what you need, alone time, connection, movement, conversation, etc … and to communicate that to others in your close circle, like a partner. No one is a mind reader, so I’ve made an effort to be responsible for myself and ask for what I need.
With everything we humans have on our plate at any given moment, it can be challenging to remember to consciously breathe. It wasn’t until I learned all of the amazing things that breathing could do for me mentally, physically, and emotionally, that I started making a habit of consciously breathing during good times and bad. Feeling joy? Consciously breathe to slow down and be present. Feeling anxiety or overwhelmed? Consciously breathe to engage the parasympathetic nervous system and come back toward a balanced state.
Sometimes feeling stressed or anxious can make us want to stay put when it can actually be really beneficial to change environments or the state of your body. Actions like push-ups, dancing, and cold exposure (doesn’t have to be an ice bath, holding an ice pack will do) can change your physiology and make it easier to manage overwhelming emotions. Regular movement is also an effective way to increase your stress threshold and reduce anxiety.
Whenever I start working with a new client I introduce them to meditation apps! Using an app not only gives them access to a wealth of on-demand guided meditations but can help them chart their progress. My favorite of the moment is Insight Timer but there are so many out there. These days some companies will pay for their employees to have premium meditation app subscriptions. I totally love this. A favorite meditation of mine during stressful times is the RAIN meditation by Tara Brach. If you’re curious about meditation I’d recommend reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog and I hope you walk away with something, either for yourself or someone you love. If you want to continue the conversation, feel free to drop me a note here or message me on Instagram.
Recognizing and easing the physical symptoms of anxiety
Myths & Realities: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)