I am a highly anxious person.
I have had some form of anxiety, including panic attacks, since I was 6 years old (I wrote about that here). I walk through life with a constant baseline of anxiety. But a panic attack feels to me like my brain is in a thought tornado. Amped up to 100 miles an hour and completely disconnected from the outside world.
I have done a lot of work to get my anxiety under control in recent years. I have come a long way in managing my mind instead of letting it run wild. It has been over a year since I have had a true panic attack. In many ways, I am in the best head space of my life.
Until the day that I wasn’t.
Last week, I had a whopper of a panic attack. We were traveling out of the country with another family. During our trip, our friends’ child tripped and fell and needed stitches. That kind of thing happens all the time (and the child is fine). But I blamed myself for the circumstances surrounding the accident. Even though I wasn’t even there.
No, it wasn’t rational. Panic attacks never are.
Still, I found myself hyperventilating. And performing my signature move during a panic attack — vomiting.
I also managed to make it worse by getting furious with myself about having a panic attack at all. I know better now! I told myself. Why would I do this to myself? Its embarassing and stupid to get so worked up about something in the “shit happens” category of life.
Then, anxiety’s first cousin — perfectionism — informed me that I am a failure for sliding back into old anxiety habits again.
After a few hours of this, I was able to find my mental life boat. Because there are three things that I know well about anxiety. Three thoughts that I repeated to myself over and over. That I wrote in my notebook. Until my breathing began to slow and my mind stopped racing. Three things that are true for almost everyone experiencing intense anxiety.
The source of my anxiety has not actually happened yet.
Anxiety is a forward-looking disease. Almost always, anxious thoughts focus on what will happen. Not what is currently happening.
I will die if I drive over this bridge.
People will think I am not a worthy human being if this story isn’t written perfectly.
These are examples of anxious thoughts. But they are not are happening in the current moment. I have yet to die while driving. And as I write, this story isn’t even published yet. No one has yet had the opportunity to have an opinion on my humanly worth.
So, I remind myself that I can’t predict the future. People themselves don’t know what they are going to think, so how on earth can I predict what they will think? I need to stay in the present. Re-connect to the current moment. And stop trying to figure out all the scenarios. Its not helping me.
Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree.
I say this one not to minimize the experience, but to normalize it. Not everyone has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. But it is the most common mental health issue in the US. About 18% of the population have been diagnosed. And imagine all the people who have anxiety but have not been diagnosed.
Part of the experience of anxiety is the experience of isolation that comes with it. Sometimes anxiety makes you feel like you are crazy. And you are the only crazy one.
Everyone else is driving over this bridge, why is it so hard for me?
So many authors publish articles every day, why can’t I hit the Publish button like they do?
The fact is, we all have different anxiety triggers. Our anxiety will be different than other people. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t all experiencing it. And that is ok.
Which leads me to the last, key thought that I use to manage my anxiety-riddled mind.
Anxiety is not shameful.
Let me say that again for the cheap seats.
There is no reason to feel ashamed about your anxiety.
Feeling shame about anxiety only makes your anxiety worse and makes you feel more alone.
Its the shame that fuels all the negative self talk. The inner critic that says — you’re an idiot for getting worked up over this!
So now, I remind myself to stop fighting my anxiety. I am “allowed” to think and feel anything I want. And if I need to process a fear or take some time to think through my anxiety, then it is OK for me to do that. That is a normal part of the human existance.
Feeling guilty about someone else’s child tripping and needing stitches is irrational. But if that is what I need to work through in my brain, so be it. That thought isn’t harming anyone but me. And I have the tools to get through the thought. As long as I stop trying to put that thought in a box and hiding it away.
So when you have an intense spike in anxiety, seek out soothing thoughts instead of critical ones. Remind yourself that you are not alone, you are not bad or wrong, and you can’t predict the future. Find something grounding in the present moment — the outdoors, a favorite pet, another person.
We all struggle. But it can get better. Not perfect, because there is no perfect. But there is a way out of anxiety. For each of us.