I live with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Which means that anxiety presents itself to me every day, throughout the day. As much progress as I have made in therapy, I still find myself getting sucked into what I like to call “the anxiety vortex.”
Part of my recovery has involved recognizing when I start to head down into the rabbit hole, and using tools to take a step (or a lot of steps) back. I hear from more and more people that it’s a challenge to identify anxious behaviors for what they are, so here are some of my own red flags, and what I do to help myself when they come up.
An important place to start recognizing your anxious behavior is your own body. Many of us perceive that anxiety is all in our heads, when in reality, it is also very much physical. When my thoughts start to race and indecision kicks in, I turn my awareness away from my mind toward what is physically happening to me. When my breathing has become faster, when I start sweating, when my palms tingle, and when I sweat, I know that my anxiety level is increasing. Our physical reactions to anxiety are highly individual. Some people experience headaches, stomachaches, or backaches, while for others, breaths become quick and shallow. Beginning to notice what happens in my body and how it feels has given me a powerful way to spot anxiety symptoms. Even if I’m not sure what is making me become anxious, taking note of my physical changes helps me to slow down and …
The first time I learned about deep breathing was in the psych hospital. “Yes!” I thought, “I’ll just breathe and the anxiety will stop.” It didn’t work. I was still panicking. While I doubted if it was helping me at all, I stuck with it for months and months. Mainly because every therapist and psychiatrist told me to do it, so I figured there was something to their advice, and at that point I had nothing to lose. It took a lot of practice for breath work to make a difference. While taking deep breaths in the midst of a panic attack will help to a certain extent, I have found that the real power of deep breathing happens every day — when I am thinking ahead about my day, or driving to work, or at my desk, or cooking dinner. I don’t wait until I am in a full-blown anxiety crisis to breathe deeply. As soon as my thoughts start to race, or I feel any of my physical symptoms, my deep breathing kicks in. Sometimes, I leave my desk for a few minutes and stand outside and breathe. Or I pull over and inhale, exhale. It’s something I can use anywhere to help me hit the pause button and reconnect to my body.
For me, anxiety isn’t as focused on major catastrophic events. Rather, it’s hidden in my daily activities. From choosing what to wear, to planning an event, to buying a gift, I become obsessed with finding the perfect solution. From small decisions to big ones, I will compare and check every and all options until I have exhausted myself. Before my episode of major depression and anxiety in 2014, I didn’t think that I had an anxiety problem. Shopping, overachieving, people pleasing, fear of failure — now I can look back and see that anxiety defined many of my personal and professional habits. Becoming educated about anxiety disorders has helped me a lot. Now, I know what to call it. I know what the symptoms are and can connect them to my own behavior. As frustrating as it can be, at least it makes more sense. And I’m not afraid to get professional help or take medication. It sure beats trying to deal with it on my own.
Anxiety is like a snowball: Once it starts rolling downhill, it’s very difficult to stop it. Body awareness, breathing, and knowing my symptoms are only one side of the coin. The other is actually changing my anxious behavior, which in the moment is extremely difficult to do because the momentum is so powerful. Whatever need is driving the anxious behavior feels urgent and dire — and, for me, that is usually an underlying fear of rejection or not being good enough. Over time, I have found that I can almost always look back and see that choosing the perfect dress wasn’t so important in the grand scheme of things. Oftentimes, anxiety isn’t really about what we are anxious about.
These are a few tools that help me intervene with myself in the moment:
Just walking away. If I am getting sucked into indecision and keep checking, researching, or going back and forth, I gently encourage myself to drop it for now.
Setting a timer on my phone. I give myself 10 more minutes to check different options, and then I need to stop.
Keeping lavender oil in my purse. I pull the bottle out and smell it at moments when I feel the anxiety rising. It distracts me and engages my senses in a different way.
Talking to myself, sometimes out loud. I recognize that I am feeling scared and ask myself what else I can choose to do to help me feel safe.
Being active. Exercise, going for a brief walk, or even just standing up and stretching helps me to reconnect with my body and takes me out of the intensity of the moment. Having some backup activities handy helps: cooking, crafts, watching a movie, or cleaning can help me choose a different path.
I have come to realize that anxiety is common. In fact, it’s the most common mental illness in the United States. So very many others experience symptoms of anxiety, even if they aren’t diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. While I don’t wear a sign around my neck that says “ANXIETY PROBLEM,” I do talk to family, friends, and even some colleagues about it. I can’t underscore how much this has helped me. It has shown me that I am not alone. I learn from how other people cope with it, and I help them by sharing my own experiences. And I feel less isolated when things get tough. Those who are closest to me can help me recognize when my anxiety is becoming stronger, and while that isn’t always easy to hear, I do appreciate it. They wouldn’t know how to be there for me if I didn’t share.
Getting to know my own anxiety has been the key to helping me unlock it. I used to gloss over behaviors that concerned me and didn’t tune into how my body reacted to stress. While it has been difficult to face, it’s almost a relief to understand how GAD impacts me from day to day. The more awareness I develop, the less often I find myself sucked down into the vortex. Without that knowledge, I couldn’t get the help I needed from others and, most importantly, I couldn’t get the help I need from myself.
Amy Marlow lives with generalized anxiety disorder and depression, and is a public speaker with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, Blue Light Blue, which was named one of Healthline’s best depression blogs.