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How I manage my anxiety
I’m taking a detour from the essays you’re used to receiving from me and writing this account of how I manage my anxiety. Think of it as a self-help journal entry. By publishing it, I hope to break some psychological barriers and make some things clear for myself. Though, knowing my readership, I’m sure many of you might benefit from the information I have here.
What is anxiety?
I don't have a clinical, objective answer to this question. To me anxiety is a psychosomatic illness that prevents me from attaining a higher quality of life. My anxiety has never had a considerable negative impact on academic achievement, which is why I’ve been able to ignore it for a long time. However, it has severely impacted my social skills, physical well-being, hobbies, relationships, and overall enjoyment of life. I will expand on this later.
The end of my previous relationship and a couple of subsequent mental breakdowns served as a flashing red light that something was wrong with me. In hindsight, I wasn't even noticing the other signs of my anxiety. The physical symptoms were shaking, inconsistent eating, weight fluctuation, insomnia (bad quality of sleep in general), lack of energy, skin breakouts, and periods of nonexistent sex drive. The mental and emotional signs, however, were far more conspicuous: pendulating between a God complex and feeling worthless, anger at people and situations that were outside my control, feeling watched, not wanting to participate in social activities, staying in my room as much as possible, feeling overwhelmed. These are just some of the things that come to mind when I think about what the previous few months have been like for me.
All of the above became obvious when I started comparing my friends' life satisfaction and reactions to various situations/people to my own. Simply put, I realized I had to change my thought process if I wanted to feel happier. Of course, I went on a YouTube rabbit hole to gather more information on how I was feeling, as one does. It was impossible to ignore the fact that I checked all the boxes for signs of generalized anxiety disorder. In addition, I noticed how I experienced symptoms of avoidant personality disorder — which is an anxious personality disorder — and how I had an anxious attachment style in my previous relationships.
I am not an expert — and this is not medical advice — but anxiety boils down to your nervous system constantly being on high alert and triggering a fight-flight-freeze reaction. These reactions manifest themselves physically: looking around, fidgeting, extremely high/low libido, constant tension, etc. They also manifest themselves in your attitude towards various situations. A fight response triggers inadequate anger and judgment; you come off as overly controlling and condescending. A flight response might lead to a constant desire to distance yourself from others and run away from your responsibilities. A freeze response can manifest itself as a fear of being seen/perceived: others perceive you as overly cautious and fearful.
To this, I would add a couple of psychological patterns of behavior: obedience (shame) and dependency. The former entails self-sacrifice and molding your life to conform to other people’s expectations — you are the perfect child. It often leads to feelings of depression and self-hatred. Similarly, dependency manifests itself as a strong fear of abandonment or rejection; you anxiously seek out other people and look for someone to depend on.
Anxiety is part nature and part nurture. If you have anxious parents or your mother was under a lot of stress while pregnant, you have to accept that anxiety will always be part of your life to a certain degree. (Didn't that last sentence make you anxious?) The more privileged you are, the more you can afford to organize your life around it to minimize its impacts (for example, through regular exercise). Nevertheless, a large part of it is learned and can be treated through cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication. For instance, feelings of dependency and an anxious attachment style are more psychological than physiological and usually stem from childhood trauma.
OK. What do I do about it?
I am still in the process of learning more about myself and how to manage my anxiety, but over the past half a year, I have made quite a bit of progress in some areas. More importantly, I have gained a clear understanding of my issues and my triggers. I will hopefully write another version of this post in the future with better results and more advice. Here's what I've learned so far:
Your physical/cultural environment matters
My anxiety naturally decreased in the United States and increased when I came back to Moldova. Since anxiety is also a somatic condition, everything that physically happens around you will affect you. It's not all just in your head. You have to be honest with yourself and consider what the vibe around you is. My neurologist explained it in the following way: two plant species might thrive in entirely different environments. Even houseplants need different watering frequencies and lighting conditions. So, ask yourself the following questions: Do you feel comfortable in your room the way it is? Do you need to rearrange your entire home? Maybe you need to move to a different neighborhood, city, or country. Do you need a new work or academic environment? Of course, making these changes requires a lot of financial privilege and courage. But even being aware that it could be this place — and not you per se — is crucial. You can start paying attention to what triggers you exactly: painful memories, bad infrastructure (that leads to feelings of danger), hostile people, etc.
Exercise, stretch, exercise
I cannot stress this enough! The gym has always been a safe place for me. It's where I disconnect from everything and feel calm. However, weight lifting is not enough. What has worked to decrease my anxiety is running. This past semester, after spring break, I started running daily. You need cardio and strenuous activity to pump the brakes on those stress hormones and your somatic anxiety. The fact that stretching (or yoga) is a must for releasing tension also goes without saying. My yoga mat is my best friend.
The mind-body connection works both ways. While your nervous system is constantly making your body tense and fidgety, you can use your body to get your mind under control.
Avoid people that trigger you
Again, you will need to make changes to your life if you want to get your anxiety to calm down. Sometimes, this includes a harsh evaluation of the people around you. You have to practice adopting a third-person view of how you feel when interacting with others. Are there any people in particular with whom you have a track record of feeling bad, awkward, or judged? Do they trigger a fight or flight response in you? Can you converse with them without fidgeting, getting angry, or becoming avoidant?
Work on your anxious attachment and don’t date avoidant people
This is a difficult task because we are blind to the proverbial red flags when we fall in love. Not everyone is aware of their attachment styles and patterns of behavior. If you’re anxiously attached like me, your behavior could often be perceived as overdependence, control, and jealousy. You are the partner that constantly seeks reassurance of love and commitment. You might find yourself often looking for proof of your significant other's love. You often feel afraid — and it's crucial to identify this feeling — that you'll be abandoned. Moreover, you probably convince yourself that this is what being a proper lover entails because you have the moral upper hand. Anxious attachment often manifests itself as loyalty, sacrifice, and security for the better of your partner and your relationship. And while you'd make a great parent, and your virtues would probably be cherished and respected, it’s hard for someone to love you. You are so stuck in a paradigm in which you have to fight for love that you don't even notice how your anxious attachment often makes you shift the attention from your partner to yourself. You are probably bad at listening, and at some point, your fear of abandonment becomes stronger than the feelings of love. All of this comes from your childhood and your relationship with your mother. Therapy and awareness will help you manage this anxiety.
And while a victim mentality might not be a problem in a relationship with a securely attached (or similarly anxiously-attached) person, being together with an avoidant person will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of triggers for both of you. The more dependent you are, the more they will run away from you, hurting you and making you more afraid of abandonment. You'll demand more proof of love that will be met with even more avoidance. The hard truth is that the moment your communication turns into a battle for the future of your relationship, you — as the anxiously-attached partner — have already lost. An avoidantly-attached person will seek to run away from the relationship, while your fear of abandonment will prompt you to save it no matter what.
Unless you are both aware of your attachment styles and value your relationship sufficiently, you won't have a happy future together. I've lived through this and listened to many stories from avoidantly-attached friends, showing me the opposite perspective. Thus:
I don’t even think this needs elaboration. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is probably the best. You will need to work through much childhood trauma to undo the psychological patterns of your anxiety.
I also suggest exploring shame in particular as a topic of deeper reflection. I never paid much attention to the connection between shame and anxiety until I read Beyond Shame: Creating a Healthy Sex Life on Your Own Terms by Matthias Roberts. While the book focuses on shame around sex (from an evangelical Christian perspective), it made me think of how growing up in a shame culture affects my anxiety. You have to distinguish shame from guilt: the voice of guilt is “I did something wrong.” The voice of shame is “I am something wrong.” The former incentivizes us to correct our wrongdoing, while the latter makes us want to run away and hide. Sound familiar?
I am still exploring what shame I carry and how it triggers my anxiety. However, I'm sure my parents and my environment taught me to feel shame. It's what I experience when I walk into a crowded space or when I'm afraid to go up to someone. Shame and anxiety are often synonyms. Only mindfulness, new experiences, and therapy will help you break the cycle of recurring toxic beliefs.
Meditation and breathing exercises
I do about 20 minutes/day of guided meditation. I am not always consistent, but I did have a monthly streak by the end of the semester. It helped me calm down both physically and mentally. The thoughts I had racing through my head became quieter and quieter.
I recently started doing the 1-minute breathing exercises on my Apple Watch. I’ve always ignored this feature, but I’m finding out how helpful it is now. It’s like a concentrated dose of a meditation session.
OK, here’s my take on antidepressants: most of us don’t live in our grandparents’ world, never leaving our home village or having any existential thoughts. Our generation is bombarded by messages of constantly achieving more, especially if you’re a perfectionist. I go to an Ivy League school, and I experience first-hand what cut-throat competition means. There is no break for you if you have to maintain a 4.0 GPA while showing off your abs on Instagram and expanding your social circle. I have internalized many social standards, and not always meeting them triggers my anxiety, especially when I can easily find people who do have everything I aspire to have. Regardless of where you are in life, if you live in a culture obsessed with achievement and perfection, you will feel pressure, even if it’s subconscious. Social media further exacerbates feelings of inadequacy and anxiety.
Unless you isolate yourself from the rest of the world, you should figure out a practical way to deal with all of this. Modern problems require modern solutions, and maybe medication is the right way to go about this.
A bit of honesty here: I am currently on Lexapro (escitalopram). I am feeling better than I did before. My mind is much clearer. So do talk to a psychiatrist if you feel like medication could help you.
To deal with anxiety caused by our modern lifestyle, I have a few more tips I’ll share in a later post.
Journaling is good for mental health in general. But specifically for anxiety, it would be a good idea to keep track of two things: your achievements and when you feel shame. An achievement journal will help you with feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy. It will help create a different set of beliefs than the destructive ones you currently might have. A shame journal, on the other hand, will help you identify what triggers you the most and help break the automatic reaction your nervous system activates.
Fundamentally, it’s about reinforcing the control of your prefrontal cortex (your conscious decision-making self) over the reactions your emotions (such as fear) might trigger. If you cultivate a mindful approach, you will also be more in control of your fight-flight-freeze response.
Supplements and diet
I had no idea I was deficient in vitamin D and B12 until I got a physical. I also simply started eating more, which gave me more energy. As you know, anxiety can have debilitating effects on your ability to carry out simple tasks. Adequate nutrition is extremely important to fight drowsiness.
If you suffer from anxiety, I hope this post has provided you with awareness and helpful suggestions on how to tackle it. Just remember, it’s not something you should just brush off. Anxiety disorders have a considerable detrimental impact on your quality of life: your physical and mental health, your relationships, your professional success, and other areas of life. It’s also not just in your head. Greater awareness of your triggers and environment can help you decide how to orient your life in a way that will minimize your anxiety. Therapy, meditation, and medication are some of the most effective ways to tackle both the psychological and the somatic aspects of your disorder. And finally, don’t forget to stretch and breathe.