Acknowledging anxiety can be scary. It can also be transformative.
Have you ever felt like an imposter? Loosely put, imposter syndrome is the feeling of being a fake, and ever since I can remember it’s how I’ve felt about having anxiety.
I’ve always described myself as an anxious person, but someone with anxiety? Before 2020 I would have said I’m just nervous. It’s a confidence issue. I’m just high-strung.
For years, I’ve given my anxiety every name under the sun except the one it actually deserves: a mental health problem. But that all changed during the pandemic.
It was a Monday morning much like any other I’d spent working from home. A list of to-dos, a steady stream of coffee, and the clacking of my keyboard gently launching me into the working week.
Then I opened an email giving me notice of a meeting I didn’t feel prepared for, and it all changed.
My breath caught. My heart started racing. My stomach churned. An uneasy feeling crept over me, arresting my chest and shoulders. Before I knew it, I’d worked myself into such a panic that I was crying, choking back heavy sobs, and struggling to catch my breath.
This was the day I finally admitted, after years of denial, that I have an anxiety problem.
Denying anxiety can be pretty easy. It’s simple to write it off as nerves or being dramatic.
For the first time during quarantine, my anxiety no longer had a place to hide. The pandemic gave me countless hours to investigate it, to reflect on my responses, and begin to see them for what they were.
I began to see that what was going on was something bigger than nerves. Small events would trigger undue amounts of panic. With the drawn out uncertainty of the pandemic, there was plenty of opportunity to look anxiety square in the eye.
Panic attacks became more frequent simply because it felt like there was more to worry about. More and more circumstances were out of my control, and that meant more uneasy, anxious feelings in the pit of my stomach.
I often wonder if the pandemic hadn’t caused my anxiety to flare in the way it did, would I ever have come to this conclusion? Maybe I would have always explained it away as nervousness or just being ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of the world.
I’d spent a very long time telling myself that everyone else was better at life than me and better at handling its little curveballs. But a global pandemic meant I could no longer avoid it.
Now I knew that I wasn’t struggling because I was useless. There was something deeper going on with my mental health.
It would be easy to see this experience as a negative. Realizing I have a mental health issue in the middle of a global crisis probably doesn’t sound like a good thing.
Surprisingly, it’s been freeing.
The reactions I’ve had to certain events throughout my life now make sense, and I’ve stopped beating myself up for them.
In the past, I’ve given myself a hard time for not being more confident and for seeming to be so easily riled by the variables in life. Through this new lens, I’m able to be more gentle with myself.
Learning the signs
You might say it’s somewhat ironic that realizing I have anxiety was the very thing that helped me bring it under control. I started keeping a diary and began to understand my triggers.
This meant I could often anticipate anxious feelings. When something unexpected happened, I’d notice the creeping uneasiness that often signals an attack is on its way.
After a while, I began addressing that feeling. When I’d experience an edginess creeping into my shoulders and sitting at the pit of my stomach, I’d say “Hello there, anxiety.”
Knowing what something is and giving it a name can transform the way you interact with it.
Over time, I got to understand what steps I could take to manage my anxiety. I recognized my limitations and set tight boundaries around them.
I stopped taking on too much, and learned to say no when I needed to. I kept a worry journal for the days when nagging worries threatened to spiral into something more.
I also researched a variety of methods that would help calm me during an attack, and discovered that breathing exercises and distracting myself were the most powerful tools in my arsenal.
The pandemic gave me the pause I needed to put these into practice.
When I wasn’t in the middle of an attack, I focused on controlling the controllable by amping up my self-care routine. The pandemic had given me more time in my day, so I put the extra hours to good use by taking care of myself.
To do this, I started keeping a gratitude journal every morning which helped me to keep things in perspective and ensured I started each day on a positive note.
I reached out to the people around me. Being more open and honest with friends was transformative. Letting them in on my anxiety gave me a network of support I could access when I started to feel anxious. Many of them knew exactly what I was going through.
By combining all of these practices, I can now say that I deal with anxiety less frequently. When I do, it’s less severe.
This year has taught me that there’s no shame in having anxiety or any mental health concern. Denying it or downplaying it isn’t going to help.
In fact, I found that addressing anxiety meant that I could handle it better.
If you suspect there’s more to your anxious feelings than simply being a “born worrier” or a nervous type, allow yourself to examine what you’re feeling in a nonjudgmental way. You might find that by understanding what’s going on, it no longer seems as scary or all-consuming.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned during the pandemic is that you can’t manage something if you refuse to acknowledge it exists.
Taking the first step to honestly look at what’s going on can be scary. It can also be transformative.
Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, personal development, and well-being, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things. Find her on Instagram.