July 5, 2018

The Anxiety Toolkit

I wrote quickly in my notes as the speaker explained symptoms of anxiety issues that are found in students. I remember listening to his list of symptoms thinking, but those are totally normal, everyone thinks like that! Then it hit me, do I have anxiety issues?

I drove home home feeling confused and told my family about my weird revelation. They chimed in that of course I have anxiety, they all knew that!

They knew that?! How did everyone know I had anxiety except me? I'm an introspective person, so it really bothered me that I'd been blinded to something so obvious to others. 

I'd always assumed my excessive worrying was a part of my analytical nature and possibly a side effect of mothering. But with my new awareness, I set off to learn how to better cope with my anxiety.

It wasn't long after that, I stumbled across The Anxiety Toolkit in a used bookstore. I snatched it up thinking it might give me a few solutions for my anxiety-ridden mind. It gave me more than a few solutions, the entire book was packed with insight! One of my favorite parts was the section on rumination.


"Anxiety often leads to two types of overthinking: rumination (mentally replaying events that have happened, either in the recent or distant past) and worry (fear about what may happen in the future)."

People with anxiety tend to ruminate over past or current situations, conversations, decisions and end up in a loop spiraling downward. The author, Boyes, had a few tips for stopping this process.

1. Recognize when you're ruminating.

Ruminating can begin without us realizing we're doing it. Our thoughts go over each moment reviewing the events and questioning why we did certain actions. We're often critical of ourselves, nitpicking our choices. 

It can lead to demeaning accusations of ourselves such as: 

  • Why am I so stupid? 
  • Why didn't I just do this instead? 
  • Why do I always do ____? 

But if we can recognize when we're starting down the path of rumination, we can stop ourselves from the dangerous pattern it creates. Instead of allowing ourselves to worry and focus on the bad that could/did happen, choose three ways to work towards a solution.

Shifting our mind towards three things to DO, can give us forward motion and keep us from being locked in our anxious thoughts. It actually re-directs the brain from one function to another. 

It gives us movement outside ourselves. Even if the only solution is taking a walk, or calling a friend; these steps will give us something to work towards. Movement will feel more empowering and give our thoughts a place to go.

2. Become aware of memory bias.

" . . . Don't trust your memory. You might be ruminating about something fictional or at least magnified." 

This has been a good but difficult lesson for me. I've had to learn not to make assumptions. If I feel that something is off, I need to ask the person about it instead of putting my own assumptions on them.

Letting go of trusting your own instincts can be difficult. I've had to recognize that sometimes my instincts are off because of my hyper-alert sensitivities. Sometimes my thoughts are tainted with a bias of expecting people not to like me, or that they'll be disappointed in me; so that is what I see.

Instead of assuming I'm right, I ask them to clarify. Are you upset with me? Did I disappoint you? Are you feeling I'm not a good fit for this?

It's a little more vulnerable to ask these questions, but I've found that often times my assumptions were wrong and speaking up helped restore the relationship.

Since ruminating is in the mind, it doesn't help the situation or bring a solution. 

If I interpret someone's actions as being angry at me, I might pull back and not engage as much. But stepping out of my head and asking a question gives us the opportunity to relate. We can clear the air, even if I imagined a problem where there wasn't one.

3. Accept that you often won't know why other people have acted in a particular way.

"Recognize that if someone acts strangely, there's a very high likelihood that the behavior has something to do with what's happening for that person, rather than being about you, and you're probably never going to know what the reason was. . ."
Determining what we do and do not have power over can help us let go of what is out of our control.

Trying to control people or situations doesn't usually work. The sooner we decide to let go, the easier it becomes to see what we CAN do. We have control over our own actions, relating, decisions and purpose. These should keep our thoughts busy enough.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is giving your mind a helpful focus instead of worry or rumination. It's a way to train your thoughts to go in another direction.

It doesn't have to be sitting yoga-style and chanting (although it can be) but it can be as easy as taking a few minutes to listen to your breath. It can be a mantra that calms you or builds you up, such as, "I accept myself as I am right now." It can be walking through the neighborhood and making sure to take notice of what your eye lands on.

For Me  - after realizing I had anxiety symptoms, I was able to look back over my life and recognize that I've always been an anxious person. I'm wary and careful. I'm vigilant to stay cautious and safe. 

Anxiety has its place and can be very helpful when it comes to surviving. Our forefathers had to stay alert and watch for danger to survive.

But staying alert to danger when there is no danger can lead to missing out on the beauty around us. I'm learning to balance the two and getting better at distinguishing when my anxiety is warranted and when I might be hyper-alert where there is no real danger.

Keeping thoughts centered on what I'm grateful for and what I can control is more productive. Calming myself with breathing techniques works when I sense myself spiraling towards panic.

How do you handle anxiety?

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