How do you feel when you wake up in the morning?
For me, it varies.
For a while I used to wake up and instantly have a tight band forming around my head, a queasy fluttering deep in my stomach coupled with restlessness, shallow breathing and a bombardment of thoughts swarming my mind.
This constant backchat begins the daily dialogue to my every move throughout the day.
Heart rate speeds up.
Unproductive is a fear.
Headache kicks in.
I can’t waste days away.
Unnerving to have at now 7am in the morning before even rolling out of bed or making my morning coffee.
But for a while this was just "normal" morning routine for me.
Anxiety had manifested itself in my life since I was about 15 in many different forms & I'd learnt to cope using different (unhealthy) strategies that enabled me to avoid the anxiety rather than face it, such as binge eating, anorexia, over exercising, bouts of self-harm.
But then the migraines started.
Queue the sleepless nights.
The pENNY finally drOPPED
waSn't so NORMAL AFTER ALL?
Symptoms such as not being able to stay calm; restlessness; interrupted sleeping; heart palpitations; nausea and headaches/dizziness are all symptoms associated with anxiety.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety may seem like a pretty pointless emotion; uncomfortable & at its worst debilitating. But it actually serves a pretty important protective function.
It forms part of our "fight or flight" response, triggered when the brain perceives a threat. Your body is preparing for the attack, adrenaline is released, cortisol (stress hormone) levels rise.
Like most things it is experienced on a spectrum & within moderate amounts can be beneficial, but above or below personal thresholds can make it hard to function. But most of the time anxiety is just doing its normal survival thing.
It isn’t debilitating and can actually help us perform better.
When we are out of our comfort zone this is when we grow the most; no one ever develops in confidence, strength and ability when sat in a safety bubble.
Context Is Important
Whether you're running from a lion, worried about exams, or unsettled about a first date your body can't tell. But you'll be prepped for battle or bailing (not generally ok to battle or bail on a date guys...), to take flight or to fight.
But sometimes things go wrong and our brains begin perceiving threats, triggering anxiety out of context.
Like me, waking up at 6am clouded with anxiety & restlessness.
Where's the threat there?
Our brains can use anxiety as a self-preservation technique. Cute really but actually really unhelpful.
Anxiety was wound up in my anorexia. On a surface level is came out in catastrophic fear of eating and weight gain. Just the smell of food would ignite a tidal wave of fear.
A bit like Pavlos famous dog and bell experiment, it was as if my brain conditioned to respond in a faulty way.
Prevented recovery & caused relapses.
But the actual anxieties, fears &str stress were nothing to do with food or body weight, that's just how my brain decided to cope.
Anxiety isn't a stable state
FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real
That to me really sums up anxiety.
Anxiety is all those catastrophic thoughts and beliefs about a given situation we feel is out of our control.
These feelings usually coincide with what Psychologists refer to as "cognitive thinking errors" or "distorted thought patterns".
Everything becomes a bit "black & white"; We are either ok or we're not, things are either good or bad. In control or out of control.
We fail to see a middle ground.
Other common anxiety driven thinking errors include projection; projecting your own insecurities onto others so you believe they are thinking badly about you when they're not & Catastrophic thinking; you are preoccupied with the worts possible outcomes.
You're brain becomes a detective, actively search for reaffirming evidence for your faulty beliefs, whilst disregarding any opposing evidence.
Perpetuating that anxiety response instead of questioning the rationale behind.
But our anxiety responses can change.
The fears we have can change.
We can learnt to ride out the tidal wave & look beneath the waves to change our perceptions in order to challenge instead of merely cope with anxiety.
Anxiety is like a wave. Just as every wave must reach its peak and then come back down so must anxiety. Riding this wave without turning to damaging coping mechanisms helps that wave become smaller & smaller to ride each time.
How Our Perceptions can change the Experience of Anxiety
Do you see anxiety as a threat or a challenge?
Depending on how you approach it can impact your response.
Whether you cope or collapse.
Anxiety can take many dysfunctional forms in people's lives working to avoid the roots instead and cope in the moment.
Just like a plant needs firm foundations and roots to thrive so do disordered anxiety patterns. So if we work at digging them up the less likely they are to flower into weeds.
“Feel the fear but do it anyway”
It’s the best step towards changing distorted eating habits & faulty thoughts.
USING Anxiety To Your Advantage?
Anxiety can be an alarm to wake up an cover up something deeper
Now when I feel anxious and its out of context, or proportion to the situation, I know to look a little beyond the situation and "check in" on what's going on in my life, and how am I translating this onto myself, my body, as a threat.
Then CHALLENGE those beliefs.
Understanding how anxiety manifests in our lives is key to overcoming it.
Allowing you to control the anxiety before it has the chance to control you.
Changing how I perceived the anxiety was key to conquering it.
So what can we do to help change our perceptions of anxiety?
1. S E P E R A T E Y O U R S E L F
My biggest problem was allowing myself to be tied up in the anxiety. I saw the anxiety as part of me "I was anorexic; I have anxiety" so in order to change I had to separate myself from it.
I had a choice to see the anorexia & its counterpart anxiety as either wrapped up in my identity or as an illness leaching life from me.
Learning to separate myself enabled me to challenge anxiety without perceiving the threat against me.
I didn't care if my anorexia felt threatened, this meant I was digging up those roots!
Being out of control was a way for me to gain control in the long term; short term pain for long term gain.
Disconnecting from the anorexia anxiety also enabled me to build back my own identity away from being known as the "anorexic".
I saw myself grow, change, accomplish new things that built up my confidence.
I developed passions, had vision, gave myself purpose.
I began to feel grounded.
The anxiety slowly lessened.
Anorexia no longer served a purpose in my life.
This can apply to any other coping mechanism you use; distance yourself, disconnect from the anxiety, challenge the thoughts, create your "non-anxious" identity.
2. E X P E R I M E N T
Challenging the anxiety is all a series of experiments.
Some will be successful and you'll learn to ride that wave with a perfect landing.
Other times you'll fall off your board and be engulfed.
Learning new healthy habits is all practice.
As is changing negative thoughts to positive ones. Challenging distortions, behaviours.
The more you practice the better you become.
In fact you'll be able to spot the wave a mile off; know exactly what thoughts and feeling are about to come, how to handle them.
Or maybe the wave will lose all its power and you'll get to hang up your board and retire early.
Recovery became a series of experiments trialing new ways of thinking & responding to anxiety (not all successful....) until I found a place where I was comfortable in my own ability to manage it.
Form healthy habits & live a fear-free life.
Becoming self-aware & looking at what lies beneath the surfacing symptoms is paramount to coping.
Journalling is a fantastic way to do this.
Keep a journal and write down patterns you notice: Triggers, Initial coping responses, thoughts, beliefs, how is it impacting your relationships, daily activities, energy levels, sleep?
Develop strategies suited to your individual triggers & thoughts. Overtime you'll know how to challenge these and eventually change anxiety driven habits.
Remember to reflect on those journal entries, are those anxious beliefs and triggers are still there? Track progress, see where changes need to happen & identify where extra help is needed.
To help you kick start your anxiety management strategies below are my top 6 tried and tested tips for riding out that wave.
4. stay social
Have trusted friends and family who you feel 100% at ease with. Go for walks, coffee dates, send texts and be honest with them when things aren't all peachy.
I have certain friends who if I'm around or know I'm seeing all my anxiety evaporates.
They offer new perspectives, angles on situations I have failed to see. I'm uplifted & re-energised.
Some social situations may trigger anxiety so being aware of those situations and having a close friend or family member you can stick by during those times can help. Even when you don't want to go out just making the effort can help you get out in the fresh air, lift your eyes upwards and off your situation.
Social support also comes in the form of professional services; talking therapies & counselling can be a useful way to confidentially explore your anxiety with someone who can help you work through any deep rooted stress.
Mindfulness and meditation is huge at the moment.
The whole idea is you are slowing the body down, breathing deeper into your chest and shutting up the racing thoughts often produced by the fast-paced, highly strung society we now live in.
Whether it is meditation apps, yoga, prayer. Try finding a quiet spot away from people somewhere comfy or outside in the fresh air. Focus on breathing deep from your stomach counting in for 6 and out 6. Repeat for 10 times or until feeling calmer. Acknowledge thoughts coming into your head with no judgement, allow them to pass, telling them "no" if they're stubborn and repetitive.
If you have longer try using aroma therapy candles and any calming music whilst doing this.
5. prioritise "you" time
It's easy to use avoidance techniques to distract us from looking at what's causing abnormal anxiety.
But you do not want to end up like I did allowing it to escalate to such extremes you are waking up already under threat and attack.
Having routine to your day can be really useful. This can keep you focused and provide a good platform for experimenting with healthy coping habits; regular meals, snacks, exercise, work you enjoy.
Focus on the tasks & activities that are accomplishable for you.
And don't forget to have time for you to unwind. Anxiety increases the stress response and you need to be de-stressed in order properly function.
6. ART & EXERCISE
Art is amazing for distracting the mind away from busy anxious thoughts as it engages a different area of the brain.
Adult colouring books are awesome for this, stick on a podcast and get colouring.
When I was in inpatient wards I used to do cross-stitching whilst watching DVDs in the evening, and got really into collaging, scrapbooking & acrylic painitng.
SO therapeutic, I wasn't very good to start with but that didn't matter.
Exercise is also a fantastic stress relief. It helps aid neuroplastic (brain changing) responses and the release of feel good hormones (dopamine, norepinephrine, opioids). Exercise also makes you breathe deeply, and can build your self confidence as you see yourself get stronger and fitter.
It is a double edge sword though, during recovery from anorexia this wasn't appropriate for me as it could easily get obsessive.
If your anxiety is tied up in distorted body image and eating behaviours then exercise may be feeding these negative beliefs and easily engaged in for the wrong reasons. You need to be in a place you can fuel your body independently of exercise, and be honest with yourself, are you feeding your eating disorder or challenging it.
Only you know you.
Disclaimer: these methods may very depending on the type of anxiety you experience and the triggers fuelling it. It is important that if you are experiencing low mood and regular panic attacks you seek professional help as well.
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