Living With Anxiety

by Gail Jankovski on September 15

gail - anxiety - graphicI was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder over 20 years ago. I don’t know if anxiety disorders are actually becoming more prevalent now, or if they are just becoming more visible, but when I was diagnosed I had never heard of them. I knew, and had known for many years, that there was something off about the way I was feeling, but in those pre-internet days I had no frame of reference for what I was going through.

Anxiety disorders can be easily overlooked or dismissed because everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, so it is considered normal to some extent. Anxiety is not a problem in kind, but rather in degree—a few butterflies before a job interview is normal, but obsessive fearful thoughts are not. When it got to the point that I had trouble functioning, was losing weight, and it was severely affecting my quality of life, I finally sought treatment and was diagnosed. It was actually a relief to have someone put a name to it.

When I look back over the years, I marvel at how far I have come. My anxiety disorder no longer holds any power over me, and I am happy I have moved on from it. But I also grieve at how much living and happiness I missed out on, in the years before I was finally diagnosed and treated. I am not an expert, or a doctor, and different strategies work for different people. So I tell my story, sharing what worked for me in conquering anxiety, as a person who has walked that road and come out the other side.

There is no shame in medication

I’ll get this one out of the way first. Yes, I did take medication for my anxiety disorder. Although I know, intellectually, that there is no shame in that, it still triggers me a little emotionally to admit it. Although times have changed, and there is more awareness of mental health issues, I still cringe at the misconceptions and misinformation.

No, I did not turn into an emotionless zombie while taking Zoloft. Although even that would probably have been preferable to the razor’s edge I felt I was walking on every day. And no, meds didn’t just mask the problem so I didn’t have to deal with it. What they did do was show me what it felt like to feel good again. I had been consumed by anxiety for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like to be without it, and it gave me a new baseline of what “normal” was. It gave me hope.

And no, I didn’t have to take meds forever—only about 18 months. But you know what? When I went in to see my psychiatrist three weeks after starting on it, I told him I would take it forever if I had to. It made that much difference for me. The shame for me was not in taking medication, but in waiting and suffering so much longer than I had to because of the taboo and embarrassment surrounding psychiatric medication.

Perhaps if I had the tools I have now, the strategies below that I have picked up over the years, I wouldn’t have needed medication. But at that time, with the resources I had available, it was the best choice for me.

Stay grounded

Anxiety is often accompanied by feelings of disassociation and disconnection, which we experience as a sensation of being “out there,” or not fully connected to our bodies. I liken it to the vacant feeling we sometimes get when spending too long at a computer screen, or on our phones. Being grounded, on the other hand, means feeling fully present—physically, energetically and emotionally—in one’s body. Staying grounded gets us out of that “spacey” headspace that goes hand in hand with anxiety.

Nature is the ultimate grounding tool. Walking in nature, especially barefoot in the sand or grass, and feeling the connection between ourselves and the earth has a profound grounding effect. Walking in water, on the beach, or water running over our feet and hands can also be grounding. Contact with animals—petting, playing, and cuddling with our cats and dogs—also engenders those grounding feelings of connectedness. In my experience it’s hard to feel anxious while cuddling a bunny.

If we notice anxious feelings already beginning to take hold, some simple grounding exercises can help us get back on track in a few minutes. A really quick method is to simply run your hands from the top of your head, down the sides or your body, and press them down to the ground—literally connecting your body to the ground below. Or you can do a simple tree meditation by closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and imagining your feet being pulled down and rooting into the ground below you.

By staying grounded, we maintain awareness of our connections to our bodies, which helps to keep anxiety at bay.

Be present

Similar to grounding is the concept of presence, and while some people conflate the two, I think that they merit individual explanations. While to be grounded is to be fully present in one’s body, being present in time is also important. Anxiety cannot live in the present moment, but rather is rooted in vague fears about the future, or in disturbances of the past.

The events and challenges of our lives can certainly trigger fear, excitement, despair and a variety of other emotions. These emotions are valuable signals which lead us to take an appropriate action. There is no value in anxiety. As it is merely a projection of “what if” it cannot signal us to act, because there is nothing to react to in the present moment to mitigate those anxious feelings. So it simmers and festers and grows.

To be present is to live in the moment. We can cultivate presence by paying close attention to, and expressing gratitude for, “the little things.” Take the time to notice the world around you: savour and really taste your food, feel the breeze on your skin, really hear the music you are listening to. Focus fully on the present moment, and also on your present emotions. Allow yourself to feel any emotions that arise, fully and completely, without judgement.

When we are fully experiencing each moment, and each emotion as it arises, it is difficult for anxiety to take hold. There is no space for it within us.

Observe Without Judgement

Individual experiences of anxiety vary, but for me it would often start with a physical sensation. I would wake up in the morning, feeling fine (for a few seconds), and then that anxious feeling would take hold of my gut. That feeling signaled to me that something was “wrong,” and then my mind would race to pin that feeling on something, anything, that would account for why I felt this way. Whatever worrisome thought came up for me, fed the anxiety, which led to more worrisome thoughts, and thus the mental loop was running for the day.

By far the most powerful strategy I have personally used for dissipating anxiety is to simply observe it without judgement. Whenever those physical sensations of anxiety begin to manifest, however they do for you, simply notice them and accept them, without labelling them. By observing the physical sensations in our bodies, without labelling them as “anxiety,” we can learn to stop the mental loop before it starts. Without being fed by mental thought patterns, anxiety can’t survive.

Ironically, the idea of letting go of anxiety can sometimes be anxiety inducing in itself because it is an unfamiliar way to live. Any feelings and emotions that we have carried with us for many years we begin to integrate into our identity, and we sometimes wonder who we are without them. I even nicknamed my anxiety “my old friend” as it sometimes felt strangely comforting, in a nostalgic kind of way. So we have to remain vigilant so as not to fall into old familiar patterns.

When occasional feelings of anxiety occur for me now, I simply observe them with interest, decide I don’t need them, and let them dissipate. It can take some time and practice to notice which physical sensations trigger our own personal mental loop, but once we do they begin to have less power over us. When we learn to observe those feelings, without “taking them on” as anxiety, we can stop conflating them with our identities. Don’t be afraid to let go of anxiety—I guarantee there are better feelings hiding beneath it.

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Gail Jankovski

Gail is a certified hypnotist, life coach, and aspiring writer and poet. Her approach to personal development is pragmatic: baby steps are OK—and small changes can add up to big rewards. She also keeps busy as an admin assistant, wife, and mom to three grown children.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sue Rawlinson September 19, 2015 at 1:41 pm

Dealing with an anxiety disorder is really difficult . Thank you for sharing what has worked for you, Gail .


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