Monday Musings…Anxiety is Not One Size Fits All

With anxiety being one of the number one mental heath concerns, you would think that we would be doing a better job at helping Canadians manage it. I can’t tell you how many times I hear: “Well, they (physicians or mental health professionals) told me just to breathe.” This is followed by a downcast look of doubt and confusion. First off, unless the person is hyperventilating in the office, they are already breathing at a normal pace. It is very frustrating to seek help only to be told something intuitive. This is a band-aid solution and does not address what led to the person’s episode of anxiety in the first place. It seems like we are very good at paying lip service to something that can be quite debilitating.

What I have learned from my years of experience in the field, and as a professor, is that too often people are subjected to a symptom checklist, followed by a pat answer or prescription, and then sent on their way. Ten to 15 minutes of interaction, tops. The person leaves with hope that ‘this’ (whatever band-aid was given) will be the permanent solution to their perpetual problem, only to find that the reprieve was short lived. Then, inevitably, the person becomes more anxious about the fact that they are still anxious!

Anxiety is a state where your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours intertwine in a feedback loop. It doesn’t take long for the mental treadmill you are running on to speed up until you fly off the end of it, which makes for a great ‘fail’ video, but only if it’s featuring someone else other than you! On the treadmill of your mind, you start low… thoughts start to develop and you stay on that level for a bit, thinking you can rationalize and keep things going at this pace, or even stop the machine, get off, and resume life. But many times, this is not the case. Suddenly, the speed increases, still tolerable, but definitely the thoughts are now in the fore front of your mind as you try to go about your daily routine. It doesn’t take long for you to add some elevation by catastrophizing, or thinking the worst, or simply overthinking what you have said or done. Before you know it, you are at full tilt and have no idea how you can jump off the treadmill without breaking your leg or face-planting. You hit the STOP button, which brings you back to reality, but you are sweating and exhausted. And then your greatest fear emerges…it’s going to come back! That treadmill is going to start up again!!

So many people are in this daily battle to regain control and live a life where they feel refreshed and energized to pursue their goals. But sometimes, anxiety is so paralyzing, even getting out of bed, is too much. Checking messages or emails creates instant panic, thinking that you forgot an obligation, or that you’ve done something wrong, or that another thing is being expected of you, or that more bad news is on its way…and the list goes on. And you think, why me? And why won’t it stop!?

We need to acknowledge the reality of what our mind is telling us and the emotions that mental state creates in us. To simply breathe, and try and push anxiety out of our mind is never going to work. You can’t tell someone who is anxious to ‘stop it’.

We need to go a little deeper as individuals. What are you really worried about? Are you feeling like you’re disappointing the important people in your life? That you will never measure up to what others expect of you? That others think you are so strong or smart or talented, but you can’t admit that you struggle? That you don’t know who you are and the ‘act’ you are living is getting harder to do each day? That there are just too many pressures and not enough time and energy to meet all the demands? That you fear the absolute worst is going to happen and you can’t think of a way to possibly get through that? That you are trying to push through the mountain of suffering, discouragement and failure, and you simply can’t keep going? I better stop asking questions now, because I’m likely stirring up your anxiety!

I don’t know what the root of your anxiety is. It is unique to you and no one can tell you that “it’s nothing”, “that it’ll get better in time”, “don’t worry, it’ll work out” or that “it’s not the end of the world”. To you, it is a big deal. And for you, it brings on a state of panic. Just as the cause is particular to the individual, the treatment needs to be more specific than simply breathing and taking a pill.

I had just completed my master’s degree and was headed on to my coveted PhD. This had been my dream since my early undergrad days. I had scholarships and research opportunities and I absolutely loved what I was doing. I also loved taking care of my one-year old son. I never thought I would have children, and he meant everything to me. So here I was at a crossroads. After carefully considering my options, I made the choice to stop my education and devote myself to raising my son. I had no anxiety about making that decision until I had to let my department know. I went in with confidence only to be told that I was a “colossal disappointment”, “a failure”, and that I “would not amount to anything”. Those words shook me to my core. It’s amazing how a few simple words can flood your brain, unpackage old wounds and insecurities, and cause you instant fear and doubt. I was in a state of panic. For a moment I believed those words, second guessed my choice, and was ready to take back my discontinuation letter. For a moment. But then, I took control of those thoughts, recognized the validity of my choice, affirmed in my head that this decision was mine to make, and that my future was in my hands, not theirs. I was not going to let someone else’s opinion predict and control my future success. And it didn’t. I have an incredible career and an even more amazing family. I had to recognize my anxiety as a state that I could try and change. I needed to address the thoughts that threatened to catapult me into panic mode and by doing that, I could resume a steady pace moving forward with no fear.

Anxiety ultimately is the fear of “what’s going to happen”. This fear often causes us to think we have no control over the future. So, here are a few things you can control: how you process what people say, the messages you tell yourself when the panic starts to set in, and ultimately how you will respond. Just like the cause of your anxiety, this ‘treatment’ is a unique prescription. When you examine the messages you tell yourself when you are anxious, you may reveal some core issues such as failure, rejection, disappointing others, and the other themes I mentioned earlier. When we uncover the ‘why’ of how we are feeling, it will help us know ‘how’ we can move forward.

So, let’s acknowledge that anxiety is national concern and that we need to get better at addressing the reality of the grip it has on so many people’s lives. We need to educate individuals on the power of their thoughts and the influence that the environment can have as we try to manage our day to day lives.

This week I’ve chosen “You Say” by Lauren Daigle. Her words perfectly depict the struggles people with anxiety have and how she has overcome them in her own life.

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon