Anxiety is a terrible emotion that can be crippling to deal with. Most people will at some point feel tense or fearful but severe anxiety can be overwhelming; you are completely powerless within your own body. Panic attacks and feelings of dread can occur out of the blue and it’s not unusual for a sufferer to hide away indoors in an attempt to avoid these feelings.
In 2009 I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which can occur following a traumatic event. My anxiety was severe: I’d be gripped with fear just sitting on my sofa, I couldn’t sleep (when I did, the nightmares would make me wish I hadn’t) and my muscles were so tense they hurt. Worse of all were the panic attacks; my heart would feel as though it was going to burst out of my chest whilst I struggled to catch my breath, my palms slick with sweat.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, it’s important to consult your GP or a health-care professional for advice. I went to my GP, who prescribed me medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions. Neither were quick fixes but eventually I began to reclaim my life.
Several years on and my anxiety is (mostly) under control but I struggle with public places, especially if they are crowded. My absolute worst place for triggering an anxiety attack is the humble supermarket. I’m not sure why, but I cannot walk down those food aisles to this day without experiencing moderate anxiety, or even a full-blown panic attack.
Sounds stupid, right? Inside, I think it’s stupid too and I know there’s nothing that can hurt me in a supermarket but anxiety isn’t rational and it’s really very difficult to control the resulting emotions.
Here are some of the strategies that have worked for me:
Face Your Fear
It’s natural to avoid something you’re afraid of or that makes you feel uncomfortable. However, avoidance can make the issue worse. Recognising that you’re feeling anxious is the first step to moving forward. Acknowledge your emotions and that you’ve dealt with them before can help your feelings of anxiety to pass.
My CBT therapist told me to think of worst-case scenarios, so that I could recognise that I wasn’t actually in any danger. For example, if I began to feel anxious in a supermarket, I could think of the worst thing that could happen to me and how likely this would be to happen; the rational part of my brain would then begin to relax as it accepts the reality of the situation.
If telling myself everything was ok didn’t work, the next coping mechanism I was given was to focus intently on a particular object until the feelings began to subside. For me, this was usually a tin of tomatoes or something similar but this did work and has become my fall-back strategy.
Your breathing will generally get faster if you begin to feel anxious and erratic breathing is a symptom of a full-blown panic attack. Therefore, controlling your breathing can help calm you before your emotions escalate.
Try inhaling for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of four and then exhaling for a count of four. Repeating this, like focusing on an object, gives you something other than how you’re feeling to focus on.
I practise Yoga and often use other breathing techniques but the count-of-four one has been the most effective for me.
Phone A Friend
Mostly, I am not alone when I go out. My boyfriend is my rock and his embrace can be enough to make me feel safe if I get anxious in a public place. Even just talking to him about how I’m feeling can help me control my emotions.
However, part of my ‘facing your fear’ therapy was going out alone – first for a short walk and building up to shopping or visiting a cafe solo. This was incredibly difficult but did help to re-build my independence. I still don’t feel entirely comfortable being out in public alone, but I can do it: I have my life back.
That said, there are always going to be days where I’m not feeling very strong; maybe I haven’t been sleeping well or I am stressed about work. Being out alone at these times can be daunting, so I’ve found calling a friend or family member and just chatting to them for a few minutes can help me feel as though I can cope.
Choose A Mantra
Sometimes, just uttering some comforting words can help. I don’t know who first said either of these sayings but they’ve both given me strength. If something bad happens, I tell myself: ‘This too shall pass’ and if I feel like my life is spiralling of track I remind myself: ‘Everything will be ok in the end; if it’s not ok, it’s not the end.’
There is a life after anxiety, I can promise you that. Seek professional help, experiment with complimentary therapies and accept the help of those who love you and you’ll soon find yourself again.