Understanding and coping with anxiety

January 2, 2017

I think most of us would agree that anxiety is quite common among the dystonia population. It is not a feature or symptom of dystonia, but given the major changes that often take place in one’s life when dystonia intervenes, anxiety can become an issue. Fear not though, for it can be managed.

Dystonia is a very confusing health condition to live with. There are many unknowns about the present and future which can cause worry and fear. Also, looking and feeling different than the average person (and our former selves, sometimes to the point where we don’t recognize who we are anymore) can make us angry, self-conscious, and depressed; all of which are fuel for anxiety.

Further, if we have doctors and people close to us who don’t listen or understand what we are going through, or write us off as hypochondriacs, this can cause guilt and shame, adding to the internal chaos we already experience from the mental and physical pain. With all of this going on, it is no wonder anxiety is so common!
I know all too well what anxiety is like. It was so bad for me at one point that it took every ounce of courage to leave my house. One of my former triggers for anxiety and panic attacks was driving, even very close to my home. To read more about this and how I overcame it, please see my article in The Mighty.

So what exactly is anxiety?
Anxiety is the apprehension, uncertainty, and fear one feels when anticipating a threatening event or situation, whether the threat is real or imagined. It is often accompanied by restlessness, problems concentrating, muscle tension, and fatigue. Put simply, anxiety is an unpleasant state of inner turmoil. Panic attacks often accompany an anxious, stress filled life. You can read more about anxiety and panic attacks in my book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey.

Anxiety is actually a normal, instinctive and automatic human emotion that everyone experiences at times. It is a temporary call to action to fight or flee to keep us safe in the face of danger. When worry and fear are constant, a person is caught in fight or flight mode, which can be crippling. The most seemingly harmless stimuli, thought, event, etc., can be overwhelming for this person, making it feel impossible for their brain to slow down so they can genuinely enjoy their life.

The key to switching out of an anxiety state is to fully experience and accept all the uncomfortable feelings, and allow time for them to pass. Let them come. Let yourself feel all of it. Breathe and let your rational mind enter. Speak to your anxious thoughts with that rational mind, understanding that these are just harmless thoughts that have no meaning other than what we choose to give them. Just let them come and let them go.From personal experience, this is SO MUCH easier said than done which is why letting go needs to be a daily practice with steadfast dedication. Changing our mindset involves small, repeated steps. Each step builds on the one before it, and this takes time. Be okay with this. There is no rush. Remember that your mind has been doing what it has for a while and it will take time to unlearn its habits. Be patient.

A tool I find very helpful is called AWARE, an acronym for dealing with anxiety from the book, Anxiety Disorders and Phobias: A Cognitive Perspective, by Aaron Beck and Gary Emery.

A: Accept the anxiety. Welcome it. Don’t fight it. Replace your rejection, anger, and hatred of it with acceptance. By resisting, you are prolonging the unpleasantness of it. Instead, flow with it. Don’t make it responsible for how you think, feel, and act.

W: Watch and Wait. Look at your anxiety without judgment. It’s neither good nor bad. Become detached from it. Remind yourself that you are not your anxiety. The more you can separate yourself from the experience, the more you can view it as a third party observer.

Even though there is a powerful urge to run away to try and escape anxious situations, postpone that decision for a little bit. Stay in the situation. Don’t tell yourself you can’t leave. Keep that option open so you don’t feel trapped, but remember that you don’t need to run away to get relief. Let relief come to you.

A: Act with the anxiety. Act as if you aren’t anxious. Function with it. Slow down if you have to, but keep going. Breathe normally. If you run from the situation your anxiety will go down, but your fear will go up. If you stay, both your anxiety and your fear will eventually go down.

R: Repeat the steps. Continue to accept your anxiety, watch it, and act with it until it goes down to a comfortable level.

E: Expect the best. What we fear rarely happens. Recognize that a certain amount of anxiety is a normal part of life. Understanding this puts you in a good position to accept it if it comes again. You are familiar with it and know what to do with it.

The first several times you try this you might not notice much. Your anxiety may even get worse for a little while. Eventually, the more you practice, the greater your ability to harness the strength of your powerful mind and make it work more in your favor. You will learn that you will always have what it takes and that anxiety is a feeling that comes and goes, just like the weather.Along with using the AWARE strategy above, coping statements can be very helpful. Check them out at The Anxiety Network.

It is also helpful to use affirmations which are described in more detail in this article. You can also take affirmations a step further by asking yourself questions or making declarative statements. This added focus makes them more real and practical. For example, instead of the standard way of stating an affirmation such as, “I am strong”, ask, “why am I strong?” or, “I am strong because…” and list as many things you can think of.

Other examples include, “what do I find joyful?” or, “what I find joyful about (blank) is…”; “why am I blessed with great friends?” or, “my friends bless my life in the following ways…” You can write this all out on paper or just let your mind run with it.Don’t ever forget that you are a fighter. You are brave, strong, and resilient, and you have everything you need inside you to deal with anything that might stand in your way!

Tom Seaman is a Certified Professional Life Coach in the area of health and wellness, and author of the book, Diagnosis Dystonia: Navigating the Journey, a comprehensive resource for anyone suffering with any life challenge. He is also a motivational speaker, chronic pain and dystonia awareness advocate, health blogger, and volunteers for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF) as a support group leader, for WEGO Health as a patient expert panelist, and is a member and writer for Chronic Illness Bloggers Network. To learn more about Tom’s coaching practice and get a copy of his book, visit www.tomseamancoaching.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dystoniabook1 and Instagram.


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