I think I’ve always had anxiety, but I wasn’t officially diagnosed until college. And I didn’t start taking medication for it until after I had a stroke in 2015. Before the medication, I believe I was what you’d call a self-medicator — I’d drink a lot of alcohol, smoke a lot of cigarettes, and partake in other substances that are legal in some places and not others, if you know what I mean. Now that I’m taking the miracle drug Lexapro, I no longer smoke anything at all, and I have a much healthier relationship with alcohol. Anxiety management techniques and my medication were life savers, literally, as I was no longer hurting my body with so much alcohol and nasty cigarettes.
So now, instead of drinking or smoking to numb my racing heart and silence my thoughts when I feel like things are too unbearable, I continue to take my recommended dose of mediation and practice these techniques when trying to calm myself down, convincing myself that my brain is basically playing tricks on me and that everything will be OK. This was especially important after I had my son. Postpartum depression and anxiety were very present in my life up until he turned about 6 months old, and I still go back to my old feelings and worries sometimes. However, they’re definitely not as bad as before where I felt like my life was over, he’d never ever sleep (and I’d never sleep), and he was going to die of SIDS in his crib unless he wore his Owlet sock monitor so I could watch his heart rate and oxygen levels before I felt comfortable enough to go to sleep.
I feel like it's important to note that sometimes medication is the answer for some people with anxiety or mental illness, and for others , medications don't work as well as behavior management techniques. For people like myself, maybe it's a combination of both that does the trick. Whatever you decide to do is a great step in the right direction, because it's very important to do something to make your life and mental health better.
So how do you know if you have an actual anxiety disorder and you're not just reacting normally to stressors? Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist tells Romper in an email interview, "People with generalized anxiety disorder have excessive anxiety or worry most days for at least six months. They worry about a variety of scenarios like home, school, work, and relationships. What makes a disorder more than typical anxiety is that it causes problems like avoidance of activities, difficulty completing tasks, relationship issues and conflict, sleep problems, muscle tension, irritability, panic, and heart palpitations."
If this sounds like you, perhaps some of these management techniques can help you out.
1. Thought Replacement
Krawiec explains a really simple technique: "Using a 5:1 ratio to replace each negative unrealistic thought with at least five reasonable alternatives." This may scare some people, but I can't tell you how often I've done an exercise like this while I'm driving down the road and suddenly a panic attack starts to randomly come on and I'm not sure why.
Like suddenly I'll think, "Oh my god, what if my car were to swerve off the road." So to combat that negative thought, I'll think, "Well, I'm a good driver and I have control of the vehicle, I'm going to get to my destination safely and on time, there are no other cars around me, and there's an open area in between the two sides of the interstate." Calms me down almost every time.
2. A Grounding Exercise
"A mindfulness technique in which you go through your senses and think of five things you see, four you hear, three you feel, two you smell, and one you taste. It helps the brain to be more here and now instead of the future," says Krawiec. I do this one at social gatherings or before I'd have to give a presentation at work when I worked in an office.
3. Deep Breathing
Anyone can do this one, and it is super effective, at least for me. "Oxygen helps to heal and seal nerve endings. The better we breathe, the better we can manage stress. There are a variety of guided breath exercises that help to restore calm to the body," says Krawiec.
I personally do the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, where you breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale for eight seconds.
According to a Psychotherapy Network article, one doctor has her clients "close their eyes and breathe, noticing the body, how the intake of air feels, how the heart beats, what sensations they have in the gut, etc. And with their eyes still closed, clients purposefully shift their awareness away from their bodies to everything they can hear or smell or feel through their skin.
"By shifting awareness back and forth several times between what's going on in their bodies and what's going on around them, clients learn in a physical way that they can control what aspects of their world — internal or external — they'll notice," the article explained. "It's a simple technique, which allows them to feel more in control as they stay mindful of the present."
4. Seek Support
I don't know what I'd do without my husband when I'm feeling anxious and feel an attack coming on. I always make sure I tell him when it happens or how I'm feeling, and he tries to help me through it. And this is a technique Krawiec can get behind. "When we are irritable we usually push helpful supports away, but research shows people who turn toward each other during stress have higher levels of oxytocin, lower levels of stress hormones, better absorption of oxygen," she says.
5. Talk To A Professional
And sometimes when your support person isn't cutting it, it's time to talk to a professional. "A psychiatrist can prescribe medications that treat your unique form of anxiety. Psychologists and therapists can diagnose and guide appropriate interventions to your particular anxiety like EMDR, CBT, exposure therapy, guided imagery, etc.," says Krawiec.
6. Have Some Fun
It may sound silly, but it's true. According to the Psychotherapy Networker article, "Laughing is a great way to increase good feelings and discharge tension." So try to take your mind off your anxious feelings by laughing at a favorite TV show or reading something silly.
7. Turn Off
I think we all should practice this technique — anxiety or not. In fact, my friend and I were talking about how odd it is that everyone we know who is our age has some sort of anxiety and has to take medication for it. Is it because we are always connected and have to be easily accessible to everyone and everything (including work) on our phones 24/7? I know I personally feel better when I walk away from technology and turn off my phone for even just 30 minutes.
In fact, according to an ABC News article, "...research suggests that phone-induced anxiety operates on a positive feedback loop, saying that phones keep us in a persistent state of anxiety and the only relief from this anxiety is to look at our phones."