Even though we suffer from anxiety, life still goes on. We need to learn how to control anxiety so that we may continue to live and prosper. Most people that suffer from anxiety live normal lives. They have families, they work, they love, they raise children, they take vacations and they look just like everyone else. The difference is, we may become anxious or suffer from a panic attack at any moment. These attacks can range from complete debilitation to mild discomfort. Some people are able to hide their attacks and no one around them is the wiser. For an unfortunate few, the anxiety is so overwhelming that it controls their lives and their lifestyle and their behavior is completely based around their anxiety.
Whichever category you may fall under, just know it is possible to function even while you are experiencing anxiety. In the article, Dealing with Anxiety, you read about the fear scale. If you are an 8 or above, it becomes very difficult to focus on anything but your anxiety. For people in that category, it is very important that you work on different methods to bring your fear level down to a 7 or below, before trying some of the tactics in this article. You can manage that by medication, breathing techniques, exercise or meditation. The point is, be pro-active and work towards lowering your anxiety fear level.
Just to recap from a previous article, keep a journal in which you record daily what you feel your level of anxiety to be. 0 = No fear at all, completely relaxed, 10 = The worst fear you have ever had, complete panic. 4 through 8 represent a discomfort zone of heightened anxiety levels that most people can still function through. If you find yourself in that zone, it is important to work voluntarily in that zone in order to reclaim your life from the anxiety monster. In other words, it is important to CONTROL ANXIETY, rather than anxiety control you. Remember also, you are changing the faulty wiring in your brain by not responding to the false alarm that is being sounded. You are training the way your body responds (the physical symptoms) to your anxiety. At first, this may seem very difficult, but overtime, you will gradually notice the less credit you give your anxiety, the less effect it will have on you.
A big part of anxiety is our reaction to it. When anxiety triggers in our bodies, we experience physical symptoms. The second bite the anxiety monster takes is our fear of those symptoms. The less fear we have of those symptoms, the less control anxiety has over us. Only active practice will desensitize our nervous system.
Functioning with high levels of anxiety
Most people that experience a high level of anxiety (8 or above) find it very difficult to focus on anything but their anxiety. This makes it very difficult to use any of your calming techniques. That is why it is so important to practice, practice, practice! The time to practice is not when you are in critical mode, but when you are experiencing mild to moderate anxiety. It is during those times that you control anxiety with your breathing techniques or meditation or whatever it is you have found that works for you.
Imagine playing a game of golf with your buddy Jim. The game has come down to the last putt on the last hole of the course. Both you and Jim golf on a regular basis. Over the last few months, Jim has been practicing on his swing while teeing off. You on the other hand have been practicing over the last few months on your putting. You are both about ten feet away from the hole. Who has the better chance of sinking the ball? That’s right! You do! It really is that simple, if you practice something, when it comes time to use it, you will be more able to do it than someone who has not practice it. Plain and simple!
If all else fails, remember this, this is unpleasant, but not dangerous. Let me say that again. If you are experiencing anxiety over a level of 8, it is unpleasant, BUT NOT DANGEROUS! You must remember that above all else. The feelings at this high level of anxiety are so overwhelming that it is very easy to respond to the false alarm your body is sounding by concluding that real danger is at hand. Look around you, is anyone else panicking? No? Then nothing is wrong, you are experiencing a false alarm, a few chemicals out of place in your sensitized brain.
Always leave yourself an out
I challenge you to face the anxiety monster head on. But, you may not win the war in one battle. It may take several times, even several months before you feel enough improvement to realize you are winning the war. That is why, before the battle even starts, have an out. Running from the anxiety monster never works. You may feel better, but the monster knows it beat you. And you are training yourself to flee every time you face the monster. An out is different. An out is simply a contract that you have made with yourself beforehand. You have agreed to take a break and to return to the situation in a more manageable way in the near future. If you do take an out, make sure and get back in the fight as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it may be to return.
Use imagery to fight the anxiety monster on your terms. Visualize or imagine the place or situation that causes you anxiety. When the monster shows up, begin working on lowering your anxiety. Keep your eyes closed when you use imagery. Your out is opening your eyes. This exercise is under your complete control. Fight the monster and feel your anxiety levels lowering. If it becomes too much, open your eyes. You are safe, you are in control. Know before you begin an exercise like this, what exactly you are going to do to fight the monster, know what your out is and know that you are in complete control.
Again, this takes practice. Stick with it and I guarantee you will see results. Once you can control the monster using imagery, it is time to step it up a notch and search out the monster on his home turf. If for example you are having trouble driving, imagine driving while in a comfortable setting at home and deal with your anxiety on your terms. Once you have complete control over your anxiety while at home, then it’s time to take it a step further. Simply sit in your car in your driveway and begin the exercise all over. Sit back relax, feel the anxiety as it comes on, once your anxiety level is 4 or over, start decreasing it. Once you have mastered this sitting in your car, go for a short slow drive in your neighborhood or find an empty parking lot and repeat the process. From there, find a place you can go a little faster and so on until you are driving on the freeway and control anxiety completely.
Several years ago I experienced a panic attack while driving down the freeway with my family in the car. I had to pull over and let my wife drive. It was a very embarrassing time for me to say the least. Even worse, I started experiencing anxiety every time I drove with someone in the car.
When I finally had had enough, I decided to do something about my problem. Using imagery, I sat in my favorite comfortable chair at home and closed my eyes. I called out to the anxiety monster and told him he wasn’t going to bother me anymore. I focused my thoughts and began daydreaming about taking a drive with my family on the freeway. I tried to make it as real as I could in my mind. Admittedly, I had trouble staying focused at first. I could imagine being in the car and driving down the freeway, but my brain wandered and I began thinking of other things. I was unable to bring up any anxious feelings and the monster did not show up.
But, guess what? I stuck with it and tried again and again. Each day I tried again. On the third day, something happened. I was able to focus enough that I actually began to feel anxious. I pushed into those feelings and tried to increase my anxiety. I actually began to feel more anxious and eventually I was experiencing an anxiety attack. For me, there are two tell tale signs that I experience. I get a lump in my throat and my palms sweat. Once I started feeling anxious, I continued to imagine driving and I began to calm myself with deep breathing (which I had been practicing for a few months prior) and by calming myself using a mild form of meditation. Soon my anxiety disappeared.
Over the next two weeks, I was able to go from making myself anxious while imagining driving and then calming myself, to not being able to make myself anxious at all while imagining driving. I simply lost the fear of pretend driving. That was great, but now it was time to try it for real. My first step was to drive by myself and try to make myself anxious. For some reason, the only time I became anxious is when I had other people in the car with me. I never became anxious while driving alone. I used the same techniques that I did with the imagery, minus closing my eyes, as obviously that wouldn’t have worked very well. I went through the exact same process and within a few days, I could no longer make myself anxious while driving alone.
Remember what I said about baby steps? I decided that for my first drive that I would only take one other person with me. I didn’t want to overwhelm myself with a car full of people. My wife has been by my side through all of this and she was kind enough to volunteer to go for a ride with me. If I may, I would like to stray for a second and say, if you have someone in your life that “gets you.” Recruit them if you can, it makes things so much easier when you have another person on your team. Anyway, for our first drive, I decided to stay in the neighborhood and at speeds 20 MPH and under. I drove around for about ten minutes and realized the anxiety monster was not going to show up. I usually only experienced the attacks while on the freeway.
So, I called out to him and invited him to a fight. I used the exact same process that I did when I was sitting in my favorite chair (except for the eyes closed). And when he showed up, I calmed myself and made him go away. By this point, I had done it so much, I felt in total control. I felt like I had a new super power, I could almost control my anxiety at will. This was very empowering for me because I had experienced anxiety in one form or another for over the last 20 years. I was doing so well, that at that moment, I decided to take my wife for a ride on the freeway.
During that trip, I actually had to think about being anxious, because it was not happening on its own. I know it sounds counter intuitive to try and make yourself anxious, but this was an important step for me, I had to show the anxiety monster who was boss. Try as hard as I may, I was only able to bring my anxiety level up to about a three. In any case, after being mildly anxious for a few minutes and realizing that I was not going to get any more anxious, I began my calming thoughts and literally within a few moments the anxiety was gone.
About a week later I was driving on the freeway, this time with my entire family in the car with me. Traffic around me was moving pretty fast and I was going with the flow. I came up on a long curve in the freeway and had to slow a bit because of my speed. At that moment, guess who showed up. If you guessed the anxiety monster, you would be right. My first reaction was to hit the brakes a little harder than I should have. My wife actually looked over at me and asked if I was okay.
I was so unprepared at that moment to experience anxiety that it actually caught me off guard. But that’s how it usually happens isn’t it? It often shows up when you least expect it to. At that moment, I actually felt a full blown panic attack coming on and my first thought, as it had been in the past was to pull to the right shoulder. I slowed down and moved into the slow lane and then I remembered all the practicing I had been doing. I suddenly realized what a great opportunity this was going to be for me to actually calm myself in the face of a real panic attack.
You see, all the previous times, it was easy because I had been working on it for a few days in a row, but now, here I was a week later and I was caught unprepared. It was time to see what I was capable of. I do have to say, I felt very confident in my ability to lower my anxiety level, I had done it several times before and was pretty sure I could do it again. The first thing I did was to get my breathing under control. I started taking deep breaths, almost as if I was trying to yawn (I actually did yawn a few times). As soon as I focused on my breathing, I realized that I was taking short rapid breaths, I never really noticed that I was breathing like that until I started focusing on my breathing.
My wife, who I love dearly, has always been very supportive with my anxiety. But, unfortunately at this moment, she actually became a distraction for me. You see, as I began to control my breathing, the next part of the process was to calm my mind. The problem was, my wife sitting next to me in the passenger seat was staring at me and began asking me if I wanted to pull over and let her drive. She was doing this because she was trying to help me, but in fact it was distracting me from being able to calm my mind. I told her to give me a few minutes, but within those few minutes she asked me several times if I was okay and if she needed to drive.
The great thing about the way this happened is that it was as real of a situation as it gets. Most of the other times that I had fought the monster, it was under controlled circumstances. But this time, I had the entire family in the car, I’m on the freeway, the panic snuck up on me and my wife won’t stop asking me if I am okay. When I think about it afterwards, I realize that was the perfect situation to fight the monster in, because if I could beat him there, I could beat him anywhere.
I told my wife once more to give me a few minutes and I refocused on my breathing. I was already breathing pretty well, I had been practicing deep breathing for some time now and every time I did it, it was easier and easier to do. With my breathing good, I began calming my mind. I used imagery for this. When I was a little kid, I had an uncle that used to take me fishing at a lake nearby. It was one of my favorite things to do as a child. Previously I had begun using that lake and that time with my uncle as my calm and safe place to be. In practice, I would imagine myself back at the lake with my uncle, it was very peaceful and restful and no harm could come to me there.
With my eyes open (for obvious reasons), I envisioned myself on the shore of the lake. I was with my uncle and we were both fishing. The day was beautiful and warm, the lake was serene. I was at total peace and all was good. I began recalling minor details of those times, the way my fishing pole looked, the way the air smelled, the lunch that my aunt always packed for us. I realized how good I felt and how happy I was.
It was only a matter of minutes before I realized that I was fine and that the panic had left me as quick as it had shown up. My wife, who had been quiet for several minutes, finally spoke up and I will never forget what she asked me. She asked, “Why are you smiling?” I hadn’t even realized it, but I had a smile spread across my face. As she asked this, I looked in the rear view mirror and sure enough, I had a grin on my face. I looked at my wife and simply said, “I made it go away.” I have to tell you, that was one of the most powerful moments in my life. I suddenly felt like anxiety would never be a problem for me again.
Fast forward five years later and I have some retrospective comments to make. First, unfortunately, it was not the last of my anxiety. I still to this day occasionally feel anxious. What I have come to realize is that it is never going to go completely away. But, and it’s a big BUT, since that day I have never experienced anxiety over a four. Before I allow it to go any higher, I calm myself and bring it back down. I used to experience full blown panic attacks where I would suddenly stand up or stop what I was doing and feel completely lost and confused. I would think I needed to call 911. It was that bad, not anymore though and for that I am thankful.
The second thing I realized is this, the reason I was able to get my anxiety under control that afternoon driving with my family, is because of all the time and practice I put in before hand. You have to understand that the first time you try these techniques, they are not going to necessarily work. Especially if you try to use them while you are in full blown panic mode. You must practice your breathing, you must practice calming your mind, then and only then will it start working for you.
It is funny, this article actually took me a few days to write. This morning while I was dressing for work an interesting thought occurred to me. I recently had a job change within my work. This job change required that I start wearing a tie to work. I have always been horrible at tying a tie. So, I found a youtube video and learned how to tie a double Windsor knot. For the first month, while putting on my tie, I would take my I-phone and set it down in front of me and follow the video step by step. It was the only way I could successfully tie my tie in a double Windsor knot. This morning, as I have for the last few months, I was tying my tie while looking in the mirror and I was amazed at how easy it was to tie a double Windsor knot. I watched as my fingers deftly maneuvered the tie until I was finished. I realized, just like my anxiety, I was only able to accomplish this task after several weeks of practice.
Isn’t that just like everything in life? The more we do something, the better we become at it. No matter what you want to accomplish in life, the more you try, the more you do it, the more you practice, the better you become at it. There is no difference with anxiety. It may take you weeks or even months, but if you stick with techniques mentioned in my site you will eventually master them and then you will master your anxiety.