“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” ~Jack Canfield
When I was in my twenties, I was confident and fearless, and I lived life to the fullest.
I remember going on vacation, and one of my friends was terrified to get on the plane. We had a four-hour flight ahead of us, and I thought her anxiety and fear of flying were ridiculous.
I thought she was being pathetic and selfish, and spoiling it for everyone else. I remember having a ‘quiet word’ with her and berating her for talking absolute nonsense. I had no empathy or compassion for her feelings. In hindsight, I wasn’t being a very good friend.
It’s funny how things can change. In June 2006, life as I knew it collapsed around me because a business I’d put my heart and soul into didn’t work out. I began to feel panicky, disconnected, scared, lost, weak, vulnerable, utterly ashamed, and broken.
Simple daily tasks I once found easy became a chore. Even more disturbing was the realization that everything I previously enjoyed had become a source of fear and dread, such as going away, meeting friends, driving, and ironically, getting on a plane.
Every minute of every day was filled with fearful thoughts; I overflowed with insecurities, self-doubt, and self-loathing.
Physically, I felt nauseous, shaky, and dizzy. Day after day, my anxiety was relentless and exhausting. I was trapped on a never-ending emotional rollercoaster, and I couldn’t find any peace.
Inappropriate anxiety makes you believe that there is something wrong when there isn’t; it eats away at your confidence and affects every part of your life.
I was scared of my own thoughts and bodily sensations, constantly on red alert for the next attack. I spent my days trying to gain back some control by constantly monitoring my feelings and avoiding situations in which I felt anxious.
I went on like this for ten years and spent a fortune on trying to ‘fix’ myself.
I realize now that there was nothing to fix. I was the source of my own pain and suffering.
The painful truth was that no amount of books, therapy, or money could get me out of the living nightmare. They would help me along the way, but true recovery came from within—the only way out was through.
The Turning Point
My turning point came one day when I had a panic attack in my car. I chose to sit with it and observe it. I didn’t add any more fear to it; I simply welcomed it and tried to understand it.
I experienced my body calming down on its own, without any intervention from me. I then consciously decided that I wouldn’t revisit the experience in my head by worrying about it, analyzing it, or telling other people about it.
The more I did this in various situations, the more my anxiety lost its substance.
I acknowledged that my anxiety was like a dear friend, working for me and not against me. It had my back, warning me about pending fearful situations like an overprotective mother would. The only problem was, there was nothing to fear.
I recovered by allowing myself to feel the anxiety without trying to suppress it, ignore it, or get rid of it. I learned how to accept it as my protector, and to be comfortable with anxiety being part of my life until my mind found other non-anxious ways.
I gave up analyzing it, researching it, and looking for quick fixes. I stopped talking about it with others. I undermined its power by learning how to stay in the present moment and remain strong in the knowledge that it was just a feeling that would eventually pass.
The more I did this, the more my confidence grew. It took time and patience, and there were many blips along the way, but by changing my relationship with anxiety, I eventually found my peace.
I showed myself compassion, just like I should have showed it to my friend all those years ago on the plane.
How You Can Help Yourself
Anxiety is the body’s way of telling us we need to address something about ourselves.
For me, my anxiety manifested because I’m a perfectionist; I’m also ambitious, but didn’t feel fulfilled in my work; and I generally take on too much, which puts extra stress on my body and mind. Throw in the fact that I’m a people pleaser, and anxiety is sure to thrive.
Anxiety can be messy, but it’s possible to fully recover.
Here are the things that helped me.
1. Tackle your stinking thinking and anxious behavior.
Recognize your anxious, negative thinking patterns, and be bold enough to challenge and change them. It takes time, but it works. It’s a huge breakthrough when you realize that you are not your thoughts.
Before, I constantly feared the worst, dreading upcoming situations in case I felt unwell and anxious. This is called catastrophizing, when you think the worst will happen even though you have no concrete evidence that it will.
Other unhelpful thinking patterns include:
Over-generalizing – assuming that something will happen again just because it happened before. “I’ll mess up again, because I remember that last time I did.”
Mind reading – assuming you know what others are thinking of you and situations. “She ignored me because she doesn’t like me.”
Fortune telling – thinking you know what will happen in the future. “It won’t work, so I won’t try.”
Critical mind chatter – negative thinking about yourself. “I’m such an idiot.”
Black and white thinking – where you can’t see any middle ground, such as “my job is awful and I hate it” rather than “I don’t enjoy my job right now, but it could be worse and I’m going the make the best of it.”
Here’s some helpful ways to deal with negative thoughts:
- Recognize and label the unhelpful thinking pattern.
- Challenge your thoughts; for example, if you think, “I’m not good enough,” think of some scenarios of times when you were good enough, which will dilute your initial negative thought.
- Recognize extreme words you might use such as “I always fail,” and change them to “I sometimes fail, but that’s okay because I’m only human, and failure is simply feedback of how I can do better.”
- Write down negative thoughts and journal next to them a more helpful way of thinking.
- A negative feeling such as low mood generally starts with a negative thought process, so try to link the two. If you’re feeling low, ask yourself what you’ve been thinking that led you to that low feeling.
When I listened to my own thoughts, I realized how negative my mind was most of the time. No wonder I felt anxious!
If you continue challenging your thoughts, eventually, more balanced thoughts will become second nature. You will become more skilled at it as time goes on, but do remember to pay attention to your thoughts and do the work needed to change them.
2. Practice acceptance.
Accept that you have anxiety. Don’t suppress; instead, try to understand it, and see it as your friend and protector. Your body is working perfectly fine. Yes, anxiety makes you feel scared, but it’s meant to; that’s its job, right (fight or flight)?
My anticipation anxiety was truly horrendous. The thoughts and feelings I experienced before going away even for one night were so strong that I often cancelled my plans. Once I saw anxiety as my overbearing protector, I could calmly tell it that I no longer needed its protection, and slowly it learned to back off.
This requires you to be bold and strong, and to go against your natural instincts. It feels weird and scary at first, but keep going and you will find the anxiety eventually retreats.
Acceptance means understanding that, for this moment in time, you are dealing with anxiety, and will still feel anxious while you’re going through the recovery process. There will be a period of time when negative thoughts keep popping up; this is only natural. Just learn to accept it as an anxious thought and move on.
3. Look after yourself.
Good nutrition, good sleep, and exercise set great foundations for tackling anxiety head on. Give yourself the best chance possible to beat this.
Do as many things as you can to help you to relax, connect with your inner being, and make you laugh. Surround yourself with positive things and people. Be kind to yourself and make it your number one priority to fully recover.
4. Look at your lifestyle.
Are you in a bad relationship? Do you feel unfulfilled? Are you trying to please people? Ask yourself what anxiety is telling you to address in your life.
What got you anxious in the first place? Is this something you are still continuing to do, and what could you do change this?
5. Don’t avoid.
Don’t avoid the things you previously enjoyed and were able to do comfortably pre-anxiety. No matter how bad you feel, just keep on pressing through, knowing that anxiety cannot hurt you and will eventually pass.
What helped me was to see every fearful situation as a challenge. I got excited about impending anxiety because it was an opportunity to face and overcome.
I know all too well how it feels when every bone in your body tells you to avoid a fearful situation. In these instances, it’s beneficial to not engage in the negative thinking. Simply float through the feelings and know they will naturally pass.
All avoidance does is teach your brain that there is something to fear, when there isn’t—that’s what keeps the anxiety alive!
6. Don’t engage.
Don’t feed the anxiety by monitoring it, engaging in conversations about it (even with yourself), or trying to fix it, suppress it, or wish it away. Allow it to be present for as long as it needs to be, and it will naturally diminish.
See anxiety as your old habit. Like any habit, it will take time to heal, but by constantly engaging with it and worrying about it, you’re making it important and keeping it alive. Make your day structured, and fill it with fulfilling activities that keep your mind focused on something other than anxiety.
7. Never give up!
Never lose faith in yourself. Know that you are strong and resilient, and you can recover from this like many others have before you. Anxiety is, in fact, an easy thing to cure once we know how.
Finally, if you’re suffering with anxiety, please know that you can and will recover. I now see my anxiety as a blessing because I’m a much stronger, more positive and compassionate person. Anxiety has taught me to live my life to the fullest and love every moment.