If you keep up with my blogs, or have hung out with me in the last 2 months, you would know that I've been recently batting anxiety. I've spoken to several people near my age who have confessed they deal with it too. I've learned a lot in my research to help me overcome my suffering that I want to share in hopes that you will find some things to hold onto like I have and help you overcome too. Anxiety runs in my family, and I have been plagued with it before. I remember literally worrying myself sick when I was in junior high and would have to go to the dentist the next day. I don't know what I was so afraid of--by that time all my crazy brace-face adventures were over, and I never had many cavities. I also remember this same plague when the stomach flu was going around or someone in my house was heard puking. I read in my Bible one night, "Do not worry about anything." The grammar of this statement struck me. It was not a suggestion, it was a command with the implied "you" at the beginning. YOU, do not worry about anything! Something switched and I didn't really deal with worry much anymore.
That verse managed to pull me through high school and college. But once I started on the career stage of life, it came back to rest on my shoulders. The tension and nausea have returned worse than ever before. It heightened to a ridiculous amount in December with all the crazy preparation for Christmas in my classroom--trying to make it wonderful for my kindergartners while also slowly depleting my own strength. It ended with a bang and I got sick two days before Christmas break. I knew I couldn't keep going like I had been and began doing my research on anxiety and what I could do to fix it.
A lot has been involved in my search, and I wanted to share some of the things I've learned and some of the things that have especially helped me as I strive to overcome.
One thing I did was go to the doctor for my tension headaches. I spoke of the stress increase in my life since becoming a teacher and the nausea, recent insomnia, and continual headaches. She told me I needed to balance things out. Right now, I had nothing going on except teaching and sleeping. She said I should start taking the zumba class I mentioned and go hang out with people my own age. These seem like two little things, but I took away that I needed to branch out with what was happening in my schedule. I needed to stop making things hard on myself with difficult projects in kindergarten, to stop grading every single paper, to stop freaking out if everything didn't get done, and to have a social life, some exercise, and hobbies. My New Year's Resolution was to revamp my schedule. I added in walks on my lunch breaks, a new small group, zumba once a week, worship team twice a month, hangouts with friends once a week, and varying times for leaving work each day between 4pm and 5:30pm. I shortened my morning routine to 20 minutes for getting ready and leaving for work. I prep as much as I can the night before--pack my lunch, pack my car, pick out clothes and shoes, shower, even down to peeling the shell off my boiled egg for snack time, and filling my mug with water for my morning tea. When morning comes, I wake up at 7am, get dressed, zap my tea in the microwave while I go pee and set my lunchbox by my purse, drink tea and eat a muffin or piece of toast while putting on make-up, straighten my hair and leave for work. In the books I've been reading about anxiety disorders, stress is a huge component. It continues to talk about making lifestyle changes as opposed to having quick fixes.
Another thing I've learned is the importance of unwinding. It's so easy to race from one thing to another without any time to breathe. Breath itself is huge; in more than one place I've been advised to concentrate on my breathing. Lie down for 20 minutes, empty your mind, stretch your arms above your head and reach, hold your breath, let it out, and then lie there and just breath from your diaphragm, or your stomach. When anxiety comes, taking slow, deep breaths is very helpful. But as a whole, "taking time to breathe" means not just physical breaths but slowing down. It's important to unwind from stressful situations slowly. It helps avoid a sudden drop in adrenaline, which is the main "problem" component in anxiety and panic attacks. When you first get home from work, don't go and crash in front of a screen. Take a little walk. Enjoy the slow wind-down. Smell the flowers. Attend to "unfinished business" in your thinking. Do a "mental wash" and clean out any unresolved resentment, anger, or disappointments. Let go of stuff that is not really your responsibility. Listen to the birds. Then go home and putter around for a while. Then sit and read. Finally, relax completely. I think the 10 minute walk I take on my lunchbreak is an unwind for me in the middle of the day. It allows me to be in a different setting and detach myself from the stress and things that need to get done at work. I used to go home and sit in front of my laptop. Now I unload my car, talk to my mom, and pack my lunch. I get a little computer time before dinner. And I always turn off my computer or the TV an hour before I go to sleep. I usually spend that time journaling or reading for enjoyment. Reading is lot better for my brain and helps me wind down as opposed to sitting in front of a screen. I would get tired and lethargic and would have a hard time falling asleep. Unwind slowly.
Overcoming anxiety attacks has been the biggest challenge, but I'm a lot better at handling them than I used to. I no longer feel paralyzed by them; I feel in control. One of my books has a list of twelve steps to personal empowerment for anxiety sufferers. I printed it out and posted it on my wall by my bed. I read through the list when I feel tense at night and practice breathing. The idea behind these is that you commit one to memory at a time and really work on using that one until you have it down before moving to the next one. 1. Claim your strength in Christ. Claim promises from God's Word. (I always recite Phil. 4:13) 2. Feel the power that Christ gives you. Move beyond the cognitive. Let Christ's power seep into your bones and lift your courage. (This is a hard one for me because I feel so much of my anxiety is in my thoughts.) 3. Take control of your fear. The difference between panic and recovery is that recovered sufferers have overcome their fear of panic. (This concept is huge for me. Don't be afraid of having anxiety or a panic attack. It will pass, you won't die from it.) 4. Drop the "What-ifs" in your life. Change your attitude to "so what?" 5. Overcome personal passivity.. Anxiety doesn't take your control away, you surrender it. 6. Increase your power by finding out all you can about your disorder. Knowledge and understanding are your allies. You know your body better than anyone; don't let "experts" push you around. You be the expert. 7. Don't be demoralized by helplessness. Remember, knowledge is key to overcoming feelings of helplessness. 8. Be compassionate toward yourself. Sufferers are their own worst enemies. Don't self-accuse. (I'm stupid, What's the matter with me?" etc.) 9. Don't let your problem dominate your life. Relegate it to a secondary position and give priority to living. 10. Beware the pitfalls of self-pity. Instead of saying, "Woe is me!" try saying, "What can I do about it?" 11. Find a good support group. A group of understanding peers can help build your personal power. Isolation frets. 12. Never, never, never, never give up.
It is also extremely important to speak truth to yourself when you're dealing with your anxiety. My body tenses up and I feel apprehensive when my anxiety starts coming on. At this point it hasn't developed into a rapid heartbeat or an upset stomach. At this point, I tell myself: 1. I don't need to fight my feelings. They only last a short time, then they go away. 2. I am going to focus my thoughts away from my anxiety feelings. 3. So I feel some anxiety right now. So what? Everyone feels anxiety some time or other. 4. I am going to be alright in a short while, so I will think about something else and continue what I am doing. 5. Anxiety is as old as my body--even older! I don't have to allow it to control me; I can control it.
These 5 things have helped me the most so far. It was a revelation to me when I first read that panic attacks don't last very long. I stopped and thought about how long my attacks usually lasted. 15 minutes was my average of nausea--even less for the panicky thoughts and tension. That's hardly anything to sneeze at. It gave me a reason to be calm when I'm starting to panic. I can remain in control for 15 minutes by averting my thoughts. I just need to brush it off my shoulders--tell myself that the anxiety wasn't a big deal, and not try to fight it--just let it run it's course and then I would continue to go about my everyday activities. All of that was HUGE in overcoming the misery I had felt--the hopelessness in those times of panic.
Stressful situations can also trigger anxiety, so learning to deal with stressful situations has been important as well. When going into a stressful situation, I tell myself: 1. I've been in stressful situations before and survived. I will survive this one as well. 2. This may seem like an impossible situation right now, but I must avoid feelings helpless and move forward with courage. 3. I have more control over the stress in my life than I give myself credit for, so I will face it head-on. Look out trouble, here I come! 4. This too shall pass. Troubles don't last if you outlast them. 5. When this is all over, I'll be glad I stood up to it and won the battle. One of the biggest things I get anxious about is throwing up. You might think that's weird, but I don't. Just being honest here. I'm terribly afraid of it. I get anxiety attacks when I hear others puking, when I know the stomach flu is going around, and I fall into a vicious cycle whenever my stomach is feeling a little uneasy. When becoming a teacher, my biggest fear was how to deal with kids puking in class. Again, if you keep up with my blogs, you know I've had MORE thank my fair share of that happening my first year of teaching. I remember reading about the above 5 steps about stressful situations over Christmas Break, and on the first day back to school, I had a student raise his hand proclaiming, "Miss Neal! I'm going to throw up!" and running to the trash can. I stood there asking God if He thought it was funny to put this on me my first day back with all the work I'd been trying to do to alleviate the anxiety I was having. I had also read though that many counselors will practice anxiety simulation. They put you in the situation you get anxious about so that you can face it with the new tools they've taught you to overcome it. I figured God must just be giving me a simulation of the stressful situation that could cause anxiety so I could practice. So I gave myself the 5 step pep talk, and manged things very well.
Yesterday I started a seven week worry break. Each week has a different task to complete to help figure out what the biggest worries are, how I deal with them currently, and how to get rid of them completely. This week I have to write down every worry I have, the time I worried, and what I did about it. At the end of the week I'll be evaluating them, asking "Which worries actually came true?" and finding a theme in what I'm worrying about most often. That will be the worry I focus on for the remaining weeks. This practice shows progress I've made already; I only worried two times yesterday--both in the morning, and have yet to worry about anything today.
All of this research has helped me so much. I no longer feel helpless. I always felt a tug of frustration on both ends that if anxiety is all a result of what was in my mind then I should be able to just stop thinking about those things and not deal with it anymore, while on the other hand, when an anxiety attack would hit, I would feel so powerless to stop it. Yes, the anxiety is a result of my thoughts, but the nature of my thoughts gets my adrenaline going--my fight-or-flight response standing at the ready. It all throws me into a chemical unbalance. But now I know the symptoms, and I know how to calm myself down before it gets to that point, and the anxiety passes. I've been working on this for about a month and a half now. I've only had one anxiety attack in that time in comparison to the week before I started this research when I had one 5 days a week. God is healing me and helping me. Anxiety is no longer something I fear though I know I will most likely continue to face it my whole life. The key is that now I know how to deal with it.