Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Anxiety, The Story Of My Life.

Over my lifetime I have received a lot of comments about all the things I do, or how I do them all.  I have always been a very busy person, since I was very small.  But I get asked many times how I can run a store, have time to do my art, take care of my family and still have time to research and write, all while dealing with some fairly crippling health issues.
I would love to tell you that I simply have boundless energy, and am constantly looking for productive places to use it all.  But the truth is much darker, and far less beautiful than that.  The truth is I have struggled with severe anxiety for most of my life.  This anxiety has taken different forms over the years, from stomach issues, to severe panic attacks, to depression, social phobias, and insomnia.  From years of dealing with anxiety I've had a lot of experience trying different things to keep it under control on a daily basis.  I get some funny looks when I share that I struggle with anxiety on a daily and sometimes minute by minute basis.  People usually assume that if I was severely anxious I would stay at home, and avoid people, not run a store and be out in public all the time.  I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a huge temptation to just hide away, but hiding often makes the anxiety worse.  Being left alone with your thoughts can be very counterproductive for me.  And that is what I want to share with you today.
It is easy to think when dealing with anxiety that avoiding the situations that make you anxious is the answer.  The problem with that is, if you are anything like me, your anxiety is like a systemic infection.  It isn't limited to one or two areas of your life.  It may seem like it is related to only one area, but when that area is eliminated, it seeps into another area of your life and before you know it it is just as crippling as it was before you removed the first area!  This can be very discouraging, and cause even more anxiety when we start becoming anxious about being anxious. For those of you who have never experienced persistant anxiety, this may sound quite foreign, but for those of you who have experienced it first hand, you know exactly what I am talking about.  So it soon becomes obvious that eliminating the source of our anxiety is usually a fruitless effort.  Instead we have to learn ways of living with our anxiety in ways that does not allow it to cripple us and rob us of our life.

It is important to realize that a lot of anxiety comes from pathways that are formed in our brains, many times from childhood.  It may not have ANYTHING at all to do with our present lives, but is simply a pattern that our brain has fallen into.  Something may happen that triggers a response, someone may raise their hand and your brain instantly assumes you are going to be hit, or someone raises their voice, and you are right back as a child fearing the wrath of a parent.  Or it could be a situation that subconsciously triggers something that you can't even make sense of.  This pattern the brain is in cannot be broken out of by will power, or changed overnight with any amount of information.  It takes time, and sometimes a lifestyle that takes into consideration the limitations involved with severe anxiety.  This does not mean however that you have to live with crippling anxiety all your life.  Sometimes it takes creative solutions to fool your brain into not being anxious, or at least not spiraling down into the negative patterns or panic attacks.
So I'm here to share some of the techniques I've found for dealing with my anxiety.  The first is probably obvious.  I stay busy.  Sometimes just a little busy, sometimes VERY BUSY.  My busyness comes and goes like waves.  Some days I am able to relax, and enjoy the sunshine, while other days idleness causes a full blown panic attack.  Now I'm not promoting running yourself into the ground (which I have been guilty of doing in years past) simply to outrun your anxiety.  This will leave you exhausted which will ultimately lead to more anxiety.  Rather, I am talking about fooling your brain into forgetting that it is anxious at a particular moment when the anxiety is overtaking you.  For me, two of the tools I use to distract my brain from going into a full on panic is research, and writing.  Both of these work wonders for me.  It has become so second nature to me, that many times I don't even realize I am anxious, I just feel a sudden compulsion to research something, or start writing in my journal, blog, or a letter or email.  Then once I stop and think of what "inspired me" to research or write, I will realize that it was overwhelming feelings of anxiety.  And it does not matter what you research, just find something you are interested in, and dig in!  It gives your brain something else to think about, and pulls it out of the dangerous spiral that was starting.  And you don't have to be a good writer either!  You can simply write in your journal.  One fantastic way I use writing to combat my anxiety is to jot down my thoughts for my little boy.  Things I would otherwise no doubt forget to ever tell him.  What I was thinking about him that day, how much I love him, the cute things he does, or what dreams I have for him and how I believe God will use him in the future.  This is something I would likely never stop to do if writing wasn't a tool I used to cope with my anxiety.  It is amazing how distracting your brain can ward off a panic attack or just settle down anxiety.  Another thing I often do is take my ipod, which has all my pictures of Hudsen and just start flipping through them.  I find myself relaxing, and smiling at the different memories and fun times.   The important thing isn't so much "what" you do, as that you have a plan in place.  Trying to stop in the middle of an anxiety attack and think about "what to do" is rarely effective.   By the time you are trying to think of what to do, your brain is already in fight or flight mode, and trying to reason with it is of little use.  You must decide before hand what you are going to do, write, research, run.  Because of my health issues right now, I'm not able to do a lot of physical exercise right now, which is previously how I kept my anxiety at bay.  But exercise is another wonderful tool to use.  But again, you must have it planned out before hand, not wait till the moment of and then try to decide what you are going to do to help your anxiety.  By then it is too late.  Eventually, like me, your response plan will become second nature, and without even realizing it you will ward off an anxiety attack by jumping right into your action plan.  No there are still some days despite my best efforts, I find myself in a full blown panic attack.  But these days are much farther apart now that I have a plan.
Now that I shared this with you, my secret is out!  When you see a day with several blog posts it's probably a good assumption that I am having an anxious day!  Some days I'm just very full of words, but many days I'm fighting of my anxiety with writing!

Other than the "doing something" side of dealing with my anxiety, I also have a few other more "fluffy" things I like to do.  Most often I do the active part first, and then after the anxiety has somewhat subsided I use one of these things to calm myself down the rest of the way.
A hot shower.  There is nothing like a relaxing how shower to help clear the tension that anxiety brings.  Essential oils, or other soothing smells.  I am someone who has a very emotion response to smells.  And not just pleasant ones!  To this day I still get a happy warm feeling when I smell skunks, because as a child when we started smelling skunks it meant we were almost to my Grandparents house!  But aside from wearing skunk scent, which my husband seems to object too, using pleasant aromas has a wonderful ability to calm me down.  I'm not talking about supposed relaxing or calming benefits from essential oils, although those may be helpful.  I'm just talking about what scents remind you of a happy memory, or just calm you.  It might be your grandmother's perfume, or your dad's cologne.  Or it might just be an herbal oil that you love.  But the ability of scent to affect our brains is truly amazing.  And in the case of anxiety it can be a powerful tool to "jolt" our brains out of a downward spiral.

So I hope this will be helpful for those of you out there who like me, struggle with anxiety.  And maybe using these tools will help your mind begin to develop more healthy patterns and systems of coping.

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