I’ve lived with chronic anxiety for more than half my life. I’m 44 now, and it’s only in the last five years I’ve been able to live a full, happy, and joyful life without anxiety getting in the way. Through decades of self-inquiry, meditation, yoga and mindfulness, I’ve found ways to understand, relate to, and manage my anxiety in new and liberating ways, helping me see what a natural treatment for anxiety can look like. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever feel anxious, and I still go through intense periods. But there’s no comparison between my experience now and how it was fifteen or twenty years ago.
Living With Anxiety
Back then, I used to wake up dreading the day, pulling myself out of bed with all my fears and doubts weighing be down like a rock in the pit of my stomach. Worries about work, money, and especially social interactions. The simplest conversations seemed like massive undertakings. I worried I didn’t make sense; that I came across as arrogant or stupid. I’d mentally rehearse each interaction beforehand and endlessly replay and analyse it afterwards. It made it hard to be around other people, even close friends, and larger gatherings were nearly impossible. I often fled parties for fear of having a full blown panic attack right there in front of everyone. I took great care never to show how I felt, so nobody knew I felt panicky, sad, and unseen. I was scared to let them in for fear of being judged, and I didn’t see how anyone could help. I felt sad, despairing, and most of all, terribly alone.
I’ve since learned that is one of the great ironies about anxiety: the general reluctance of anxiety sufferers to discuss their struggles perpetuates the illusion that each of them suffer alone. The truth is as many as 43 million of American and Canadian adults report they’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and undoubted millions more experience anxiety but do not have a mental health label. That means you likely know several people who feel like I did, or perhaps like you do, but you probably don’t know who they are. Fears about being judged inhibits sharing, and lack of sharing leads to more fear of being judged.
Communication is Crutial
We need to break this cycle not only because anxiety sufferers are NOT alone, but because we remain one of the best and least used resources in creating new and innovative responses to our struggles. If millions of us are thinking about anxiety, and doing our best to manage it, then surely many of us will stumble upon innovative solutions or helpful techniques. We can help each other, but we can only do that if we start sharing our experiences and talking about what has worked for us.
So that’s what I intend to do. A decade ago I felt my anxiety was something I didn’t have the tools to understand or fix. I thought I’d just have to accept it. Now I see that it has rational causes I can comprehend, examine, and address. So, while I understand everyone’s journey out of anxiety may look different, I’d like to share the steps I now use to manage my anxiety when it arises. They aren’t medical advice, they aren’t authoritative, and they aren’t uniquely mine. Most are yogic or mindfulness techniques I’ve adopted to my own use, and I invite you to do the same, or try something altogether different.
Step One: Stop the Judge By Quieting Your Mind
Part of what used to be so debilitating about my own anxiety is that once I started feeling anxious – for example, I was worried that someone thought I was stupid – this very judgmental voice would pipe up in the back of my mind and yell: “You shouldn’t be getting anxious over this!”. I’d get mad at myself for being an anxious person, and all of a sudden I wouldn’t just be thinking “people think I’m stupid” I’d also be thinking, “It’s so stupid to be anxious about people thinking I’m stupid!”.
Developing this kind of judgemental reaction to our own feelings is actually a fairly rational response to living in a society where the phrase “being emotional” is often used as a kind of insult. But that doesn’t mean this response is healthy. It’s easy to see how it can lead an anxious person into a kind of ratcheting tension, each successive layer of judgement ratcheting up the anxiety one more click until, before you know it, you’re anxious, about feeling anxious about, feeling anxious, about that thing you were anxious about.
One way to prevent my anxiety building up these successive layers is to stop my judgement before it has a chance to build up steam. The problem is that simply saying; ‘you shouldn’t get judgemental’ is itself a judgement, and can lead to the very same problem outlined above. So instead, I try to simply quiet my mind. I don’t try to pile on more and more judgements, I let my inner voice go quiet. I turn it off.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but luckily there are a number of techniques that can help you both stop judging in the moment, and retrain your internal voice to jump less quickly to the judging response. The best tool I’ve found is meditation. To help those living with chronic anxiety, I have created a free guided meditation series called Guided Meditations for Stress, Anxiety and Depression, which is designed to help you understand how to use meditation for anxiety and depression.
Step Two: Examine the Feelings By Focusing On Your Mind
Once I’ve turned off the judging response to my anxiety, I find it’s much easier to see the original problem clearly. If I am feeling anxious about a conversation I had with an employee, I am now free to simply notice: I am feeling anxious about that conversation I had with X. I’m not adding to my anxiety by judging whether or not I should be feeling anxious. I just notice that I am, and once I’m free to do that I can start to really unpack all the little physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that constitute my anxious experience.
I often do this by simply closing my eyes and taking 10-30 seconds to notice what it is I am feeling right then, in the middle of my anxiety. You can try this yourself right now if you like, just take a moment and close your eyes.
I usually start by scanning myself for physical sensations. Am I holding tension anywhere? Am I in pain? Are I tired, or hungry, overheated or otherwise physically uncomfortable? Next, I notice some of the emotions I’m experiencing beyond my general anxiety. Am I feeling angry, frustrated, humiliated, embarrassed? Towards what or whom are these emotions directed, when did they arise, and in response to what situation? Finally, I move on to some of the thoughts that might be underpinning my anxiety. If I’m anxious about a conversation I’ve had with X, what do I actually believe about that conversation, about X, and about me, that have led to this anxious feeling? Do I believe that X thinks I’m inept, or inarticulate? Do I worry they don’t think I’m funny, or that I’m too harsh? Do I think any of these things about myself?
This little mindfulness often provides me with new information and perspective that allows me to understand my problem better and take real productive action. I realize I need to eat, or take a moment to stretch. I understand my concerns about my conversation with X are exacerbated by my annoyance with someone else, and can develop a plan to talk to that person. I notice my unconscious beliefs about X and about myself that don’t make sense when I really consider them clearly, so I can just let them go. I use the mental energy I save by stopping the judging response to power my own self inquiry, identify the factors contributing to my anxiety, address the ones I can reasonably handle on my own, and seek help for those that are too big for me to handle.
Step Three: Empower Yourself Through Consistency and Practice
These two techniques above are great, but they are also really hard. It’s hard to turn off your judging mind, and its really hard to simply stop and take the time to examine in great detail your emotional, intellectual, and physical reality. It’s especially hard because chronic anxiety is largely about patterns and habits that have been a long time in the making and are consequently extremely difficult to break.
For me, the only way to make steady progress in working through my anxiety issues is to establish workable routines. This might look like setting aside 10-60 minutes a day that you dedicate to working on establishing yourself in the techniques above. This is not an enormous amount of time, and you can easily justify it to yourself, even if you are a person, like me, who worries they don’t spend enough time doing other things like working, or playing with the kids. If you have chronic anxiety taking some time for yourself each day isn’t just going to help you, but all those around you. It’s going to help you become more efficient, more clear, and more available for emotional connection.
For me, the routine looks something like this (note, it’s intentionally very flexible):
- 10-30 minutes/day of yoga
- 10-30 minutes/day of meditation
When considering yoga for anxiety (or yoga for depression), the style of yoga is up to you. Vigorous and relaxing yoga classes can both have amazing benefits and often depend on the individual. Yoga and meditation, particularly when practiced together, will help release the tension and repetitive patterns that have established themselves in your body and mind. Our yoga program, ‘Yoga for Chronic Stress, Anxiety and Depression’, takes you through an effective day-to-day routine of yoga and meditation that is designed to give you the tools that you need to make progress with your anxiety. It requires a subscription to our site, which is $10/month.
Step Four: Build a Network of Support
I started this post by mentioning the irony of so many people who battle with anxiety feeling alone, but I understand just how scary this last step can be. I get that opening up about what you may be going through isn’t just about your hangups, it’s about our society’s too. Many people aren’t particularly good at talking about deep personal problems, and feel uncomfortable talking about them. But, as I mention at the end of step two, some of the factors contributing to your anxiety probably aren’t things you can deal with alone, not because you’re inept, but because some things are just categorically not individual problems. Loneliness, is only the most obvious. Consider all the relationships that define your day to day reality, and think about how changes in those relationships affect your mood and quality of life. Each of them plays a role.
The key for me has been to find people I trust and sharing with them only what I am comfortable with, and feel they will be able and willing to handle. Keep in mind a support network doesn’t mean one person you go to time and again when you’re anxious or panicky. This isn’t just potentially hard on that one person, it runs counter to the information I’ve gleaned through months and years of doing step two: my anxiety is a multifaceted and complex thing demanding a variety of approaches. It doesn’t make sense to demand or expect one person to supply everything I need. A network means many people, each of whom may play a different supporting role in your life: from the acquaintance who goes to art classes with you, to the coworker who reminds you to take your lunch, to the close friend who you can talk through almost any situation with.
A support network doesn’t mean people you can lean on without ever feeling the need to help them out in return. Paradoxically, getting support without reciprocation has been far less helpful that situations in which I’ve been able to give as well as receive support. There’s a lot of ways this can look, and its possible to tailor the exchange to fit each of the connections in your network. The exchange of support you have with your spouse will likely look very different from the one you have with your casual co-worker.
Learn How To Let Go of Your Anxiety
If you are ready to learn how to let go of your anxiety, but you prefer to start small, I have created an email-based anxiety learning series that you can subscribe to, for free. It provides everything you need to take a few simple, practical steps toward letting go of the grip that anxiety has on your life.