In my experience, living comfortably with mental health disorders is really all about trying to find ways to manage the symptoms. Even those who don’t have mental illness but struggle to maintain their mental health in times of stress or hardship can benefit from implementing some coping strategies. In this series of blog posts I will be discussing coping tools that have worked for me to help combat and distract from the impulse to self harm, cope with anxiety, get through panic attacks and withstand depression. I am not a mental health professional and if you are struggling with your mental health I encourage you to work with mental health professionals to help develop coping tools that are best suited to you. However, I have worked very hard in partnership with psychiatrists, psychologists and occupational therapists to develop practices that help me manage my symptoms, so maybe some of these ideas will be helpful to others too.
Today I want to talk about how I cope with anxiety. But first it is important to understand anxiety. If you already have a good grasp of anxiety then feel free to skip ahead to the coping strategies. Anxiety is a feeling that is normal and healthy part of life. Everyone experiences anxiety. When you are anxious as a result of being in a dangerous or threatening situation, anxiety plays a role in maintaining your health and safety. A commonly used example would be if a bear is chasing after you and you are anxious, that’s a good thing because it cues you to run! However sometimes our anxiety is disproportionately high for the situation. People can experience a higher sensitivity to anxiety during periods of stress, which can transform situations that would usually cause someone a tolerable amount of anxiety a higher more uncomfortable level of anxiety. There are also cases in which anxiety is disordered, in these cases a threat may be perceived even in cases where none exists.
When anxiety starts to get out of control, it can seriously impact your quality of life. You may even begin to avoid situations that could cause you anxiety. Below I will be describing some of the tools I have success using to handle my anxiety disorders. As my psychologist would say, it isn’t about eliminating the anxiety – that is often not possible, it is about “sitting in your discomfort” or in other words, learning to tolerate or cope with the anxiety.
Preventative Coping Strategies
If you are anything like me you might spend hours, days, weeks or even longer in anxious anticipation of something coming up. Maybe you have an exam or work project in a few days and you aren’t confident you’ll do well. Maybe you have been invited to a party and large groups of people freak you out. Maybe there is a big change coming up in your life like a move in your near future and you aren’t sure how you’ll handle the stress. Anxiety can’t always be foreseen, but if you know ahead of time that you are going to be in a situation that will make you anxious there are steps you can take to prepare yourself. The strategies listed in this section are also great ones to implement on a consistent basis to help keep anxiety in check in your everyday life.
Stick to a Sleep Routine
Have you noticed that your emotions are much more difficult to manage when you are tired? In my experience, nothing exacerbates anxiety quite like sleep deprivation. The difficult thing here is that for many of us our anxiety can get in the way of us sleeping soundly! If you are trying to manage your anxiety during a stressful time or when you are worried about an anxiety-provoking situation in the near future one of my best pieces of advice is to prioritize your sleep. Even if you aren’t able to fit in a full 8 hour sleep every night, try to set a schedule (i.e. I will go to bed every night at 11pm and wake up at 6am) and stick to it. When you go to sleep avoid distractions like electronics, light and especially TV in the bedroom. If your anxious thoughts get in the way of you falling asleep try to distract yourself before bed by reading, listening to an audiobook or calming music as you fall asleep or whatever other method works best for you! The key is to stick to a steady schedule and get as profound a sleep as you can.
Note: If you struggle with mental health issues and aren’t satisfied with your quality of sleep I highly encourage you to look in to seeing a sleep specialist. I recently learned that I have sleep apnea and I have been feeling a lot better since beginning treatment.
Practice Meditation, Guided Relaxation or Yoga
Working on relaxation techniques can help alleviate the muscle tension, fatigue and stress you can feel leading up to an anxiety-provoking event/situation. All sorts of activities can be calming, it all depends on what works best for you. Many people I know benefit from meditation and yoga. I have also heard a lot of people benefit from Progressive Muscle Relaxation. I personally enjoy using guided relaxation tapes, particularly at the beginning of a day that I believe will be high-anxiety. I even keep them on my cellphone so that I am never without them, that way when something unexpected comes up I can take a quick break to readjust and relax. Here are the tapes I use, in case you’re interested.
Anxiety is often worsened by the feeling of loosing control. When I am anxious I have difficulty adapting to the unexpected. One of the best tools I have for this is simply planning ahead, being prepared so that when my anxiety is provoked I have anticipated it and can maintain control. I try to know as much as I can about what I am getting in to so that I can prepare for it. The more you can anticipate what will provoke your anxiety, the better prepared you will be to navigate it once it comes.
Create an Exit Strategy
This one is pretty specific to the types of anxiety I face (agoraphobia and social phobia) but it is probably my #1 coping tool so I feel compelled to include it. One of my greatest sources of anxiety is finding myself in a situation that triggers me and I can’t leave. So whenever I leave the house or make plans with other people I always have an exit strategy. Obviously, there are a lot of situations that provoke anxiety in people that you can not just run away from. And running away from an anxiety-provoking situation can sometimes be detrimental in the long run when you could use other skills to make it through the situation instead. But if you are getting in to a situation that causes you a lot of anxiety and are worried about feeling trapped, an exit strategy can be a real saving grace. In my case this usually involves making sure that I can leave and I have a way to get home as soon as I decide I can’t tolerate the situation anymore. Going in to an anxiety provoking situation with the knowledge that you can leave when it feels necessary can make the anxiety all the more bearable.
Coping Strategies to Use While Experiencing High Anxiety
These are the coping tools I use most frequently when my anxiety is at its highest. These strategies may help you feel more in control and less overwhelmed when anxiety surfaces. When anxiety hits it is important to do whatever helps you withstand it, and remember that your high anxiety won’t last forever!
Play with Fidget Toys
Do you find that you shake your legs or tremble when you are anxious? If you do you may find using a fidget toy helps. I find that using a fidget toy is a great way to channel my excess anxious energy in to something without distracting me too much or causing muscle tension. I personally use Tangles and wood block puzzles that I keep on hand all the time. The repetitive movement is part of what seems to help me stay calm.
Engage Your Senses
Our senses of smell, touch, taste, hearing and sight can help soothe us. Think of things that you enjoy the smell, touch, taste, sound or sight of – could you envision yourself using any of those things as a calming tool? Perhaps you could eat a candy from your pocket, wander over to a piece of art and examine it while deep breathing, squeeze something soft, etc. You may find that you are in tune to some of your senses more than others, lean towards those ones. I think this works because when you engage your senses you are creating another feeling to compete with your anxiety which can help the anxiety feel less all-encompassing and inescapable.
Anxiety can make your breathing erratic, even escalating into panic attacks when the anxiety is not resolved early. One of the best ways to tolerate anxiety is to maintain a steady breathing pace. Sometimes you may need to take a break to focus on your breathing in order to regain control. Your goal should be to inhale through your nose, allowing the air to fill up your abdomen, then exhale slowly through your mouth. There are several techniques out there that are taught to encourage deep breathing. Box breathing is a common technique where you breathe in, hold your breath, breath out and pause for a slow count of 4 for each step.
Use Your Support Systems
If you are feeling anxious and have access to see or talk to someone who is supportive that can be a huge help. My husband is my main support system and helps me get through anxiety provoking situations. I can squeeze his hand or give him a hug for a quick release of tension. I can talk to him or have him encourage me to take breaks when I need to and recognize when I have reached my limit. Even if you don’t have a way of communicating with a loved one in the moment, there are still ways to use them to calm down. A couple of ways I do this is by keeping recordings of my phone from friends and family, encouraging me and telling me I can handle whatever is causing me anxiety. I also carry notes from my husband with me which are similarly supportive.Sometimes pets are great support systems too, my dog Midnight is a huge help to me when I am feeling anxious, petting him is almost meditative. Even just looking at photos of people you love on your phone can help. It is always okay to lean on your support systems when you need them.
Check Your Crisis Kit
A crisis kit is a little kit you assemble of things that can help distract you or comfort you in times of anxiety. Kits can be kept in things like a shoe box you keep at home, a pocket of your backpack or a bag of its own. Personally I have 2 crisis kits, one that I carry with me inside a pocket my purse at all times and a larger one that is in it’s own bag that I bring with me for higher anxiety situations. I plan to give a tour of my crisis kit in another blog post, but here are some of the items that I carry in them:
- fidget toys
- iPod and headphones
- a note from my husband
- tea bags (to engage my sense of smell)
- hard candy (to engage my sense of taste)
- small smooth rocks (to engage my sense of touch)
- photos of my friends and dog
- a colouring book and pencils
- a journal
Accept Your Anxiety Without Judgement
Anxiety is frustrating, especially when you experience it frequently. It is natural to vilify it and get upset or feel guilty when you feel it coming on. One coping tool that I am working hard to embrace is allowing your anxiety to come without judgement. Instead of thinking, “I just want to have one car ride without freaking out!” I try to reframe my thought to, “Okay, I’m starting to feel anxiety which happens sometimes when I am in the car”. Judging your anxiety or beating yourself up about it only serves to worsen it. Whereas if you practice accepting your anxiety at face value it is much easier to move on to addressing it instead of fixating on how unhappy you are about it. Full disclosure: I am not good at this, but when I do put in the effort try to reframe my thoughts about anxiety I have found it helpful. This takes practice, but trying to allow anxiety to present itself without attaching additional negative emotions to the experience is worth the work.
Coping Strategies to Help Resolve Episodes of High Anxiety
After an episode of high anxiety I like to use coping tools to help me put the episode behind me. There can be a lot of unresolved feelings after you feel high anxiety. Allowing yourself the time to release the build up of anxiety and emotion you are feeling can help prevent you from carrying your anxiety forward. These strategies mostly focus on expressing yourself or showing yourself compassion after high anxiety. Resolving the anxious episode instead of swallowing it helps prevent me from avoiding the same situation the next time I am faced with it.
Write in a Journal
Writing out your experience with anxiety can be a great way to work through it. By writing in a journal you may be able to pinpoint some of what your most common anxiety triggers are and learn more about what most effectively helps you calm down. A journal is also a great place to vent out your frustrations so that it doesn’t spill out in to your interactions with people you care about. There is no right or wrong way to journal, just write in a way that feels good to you. You can write in poetry, as though you are speaking to a friend or an analysis of how you are feeling.
Express Yourself Artistically
If you are a creative person, artistic expression may help. I like to sing, paint or use adult colouring books to express myself. There is no limit to what you can do – draw, play an instrument, dance, sculpt, make crafts, etc. I find artistic expression particularly nice on occasions where I am not in the right head space to journal.
Take a bath, read a book, play with your pet, go for a walk, give yourself a manicure, spend time with your best friend, play a video game, go to the gym, eat your favourite meal… Whatever makes you feel good! Take time to care for yourself and enjoy yourself. Avoid stewing in your anxiety or punishing yourself for it. Instead, indulge (within reason) in what you love. Self care helps me refuel so that I am better prepared to keep control of my anxiety going forward. A wise bard once wrote, “Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting”. And if Shakespeare wrote it, that’s good enough for me!
I hope these suggestions of anxiety coping tools will be helpful to some of you. I want to reiterate that I am not a mental health practitioner. These coping tools are ideas I have been taught in therapy, groups, psychiatry appointments and hospitalizations that have worked for me. The best way to find coping strategies that work for you is to try out a bunch that sound good to you and see what you find most helpful. I promise, finding coping tools that help you manage your anxiety is worth it.