Unread messages. Overflowing inbox. Work piling up. Wanting to respond, follow-through, and catch-up, but needing to close the door and make all the noise stop. The fear of taking action overpowering the love for family, friends, and the life you’ve worked towards or desire. Anxiety isn’t just heart thumping panic attacks, it’s every minute thought that crosses your mind before taking any action or making any choice, and fighting to keep those thoughts away. There are ways to combat those feelings and I’m going to walk you through the ones I find to be the most effective to continue through this game we call life.
It’s common to assume that because someone is doing well, looks well, and isn’t having public episodes they couldn’t possibly be struggling with mental health issues. I’m here to inform you that such an assumption is both incorrect and harmful. I am a successful entrepreneur who continues to push others to excel, the first & last person on the dance floor, and someone who makes it a point to be a smiling, loving face for all. And that’s all you would see and know unless you found me hiding in a bathroom or if I didn’t outrightly tell you that I struggle with the aforementioned inner thought battle on a daily basis. After abuse and gaslighting from my marriage, I was left questioning every thought, every choice, and every action 100 times over. There are days when I am productive or outgoing beyond belief, and then those days are almost always followed by days where I don’t want to move at all, or see or speak to anyone, even if it’s digitally. The very thought of interacting with anyone or even posting on social media from a digital distance is abhorrent and has me wondering if anyone even cares what I have to say or think, or worse – that they’ll belittle me for what I share.
Lucky for me (albeit debatably so), I’m considered to be someone with high-functioning anxiety because although there are days where the anxiety takes over and I can’t bring myself to move past it, more often than not I persevere beyond what I’m experiencing because I convince myself that what I need to do or say is more important. Many do not acknowledge the concept of high-functioning anxiety on the basis that they believe the anxiety is not as bad as it is for those who are completely numbed by it.
What they do not comprehend is the extent of that crippling, numbing feeling of the anxiety I, or others like me, have and the amount of courage and strength it takes to move past those feelings every moment of every day. It’s not that the anxiety isn’t bad, it’s that high-functioning anxious individuals like myself either have no choice but to keep moving on with life or they have found the courage to do it anyway. That does not mean we’re not dealing with the same or possibly worse anxiety symptoms. It just means we are not willing to let it cripple our lives permanently and have chosen to do something about it.
I choose every moment of every day to build a life I love and one with purpose, and I want others struggling with anxiety to be able to do the same. Here are 5 tactics that help me find & maintain the courage and willpower to push past my anxiety when I need to, and I hope they help you do the same.
1. Acknowledging Your Anxiety
They say the first step to recovery is accepting that you have a problem, and that most definitely applies to anxiety as well. The difference is that you must not only accept that you have anxiety, but also the ways in which it impacts you and the extent of the impact. One thing many assume about mental health issues is that, like physical illnesses, they probably impact people the same exact way – if you have a paper cut, it means your skin broke, there is probably blood, and the solution is a bandaid irrespective of how the paper cut you. That assumption is very much incorrect for mental health issues because although the anxiety symptoms may be similar, the extent to which they impact you are entirely dependent upon who you are as a person and the experiences you’ve had.
For example, Person A and Person B both have anxiety. Person A has experienced a traumatic event that triggered anxiety symptoms. Person B has always had anxious thoughts and reacts to the world accordingly. Both Person A and Person B have recurring thoughts questioning their value in life, prefer not to interact with other people if they don’t have to, and have insomnia. Person B has these thoughts because they are trying to find value and purpose in themselves and replaying events helps them do that, but any mistakes torture them and keep them awake at night. Person A, having gone through a traumatic experience, has recurring thoughts because the trauma replays in their mind and tries to convince them that they are of no value, and these thoughts numb them completely if they let them in; making sleep next to impossible because they cannot sit still with their thoughts and need to keep doing something. They have similar anxiety symptoms, but the effect of the anxiety is very different and requires unique care to manage it.
Acknowledging your anxiety and how it impacts you allows you to find a way to accept it, understand how it influences you to act or react in certain ways, and find techniques that uniquely suit your impacts or triggers. It’s about managing the symptoms by trying to understand the root cause or triggers of those symptoms, and that may eventually help you heal past certain symptoms entirely like it has for me.
2. Having a Why
Every individual strives for a purpose in life, a reason or why for existing, and it’s important to look for and know yours because it acts as a guiding force when obstacles come your way. Especially in the case of anxiety, having a why helps push past the anxious thoughts/feelings because you know you have to do what you have to do to fulfill your why.
For example, when I was thrust out of my marriage and freed from my abusers, I was left with nothing – truly hit rock bottom because I was broke and homeless and lost everything I had built until that point in life. It was then that I realized through self-reflection that my why has nothing to do with material things people strive for in life, but rather the basic principle that I deserve to be alive, to be free, and to be loved. Therefore, my why is to never let myself be in a position where I’m not living fully, freely, and in love with who I am and what I do daily. Every time an obstacle comes my way, I’m now able to remind myself of this and it grants me the ability to focus on the part the required action plays in the life I want for myself and push through because I know what I’m working towards is worth it and no anxious thought is worse than letting myself return to a life like my past.
Having a why gives you a base to return to and ground yourself with to reset your focus. I find that this is 90% effective in anxious situations – the 10% being triggered events that require a bit more assistance.
3. Using Tools to Focus
When anxiety hits and attempts to derail you, it can be extremely difficult to catch yourself in the moment and break free. Using your why is a great start because it invigorates you to push through by reminding you of what trumps your anxious thoughts, but sometimes the thoughts or triggers have a stronger impact. In those cases, there are a few tools that can help relax your mind and body to make it easier to reset and focus to break free.
Breathing exercises. There are a variety of breathing methods that stabilize the body and grant the mind more focus. I recommend starting with researching different yoga breathing practices to find the one that best suits you. My go-to method is inhaling through your nose and out through your mouth because it requires you to focus on the breathing method which grounds your mind on something other than what is triggering your anxiety. I usually take 10 of these deep breaths or until I feel like I’m back in control. It immediately reduces my heart rate, releases the clenching symptoms, and relaxes any breathing spasms (for those who are also asthmatic like me). Practice any of the breathing exercises outside of anxious moments so that you are prepared with how to use the tool rather than adding more tension during an anxious moment or attack to try and figure the exercise out.
Movement. Physically changing your position resets the mind and brings back a sense of reality. If you’re sitting, then stand up, walk around, or stretch. Initially, this breaks the train of thought you are in, which is especially helpful if you’re able to recognize that the thought track you’re starting has numbed you in the past. It takes practice to catch this, but once you are able to recognize it and move as soon as you acknowledge it’s starting, you can change the course of that moment. I usually go straight into surya namaskar (a yoga stretch) because it is a combination of breathing and stretching that feels like a fresh start since I do this every morning as well to kickstart my day. By making it a part of my morning routine, I’ve trained my mind and body to consider it as a starting point. I’ll go through the movements 5 times or until I feel centered again. Find the movement that best resets you and practice using it every time a triggering thought crosses your mind or build it into your daily routine. Eventually, it becomes second nature to do this and begins to create a healthy comfort zone to retreat to and reset from.
Thought Diversion. This is a mind exercise that breaks the anxious thought as soon as it comes through and trains your mind to stop the train of thought entirely. Essentially, when an anxious thought crosses your mind, and you recognize it, immediately shift your focus to a completely random thought flow. For example, I tend to experience anxiety during still moments in my day when I’m alone like in the shower. As soon as I recognize an anxiety-inducing thought come through, I pickup a shampoo bottle and start reading the packaging label. This immediately breaks the anxious thought flow and grounds my thoughts on something physically real in my hands and mentally engaging to divert my mind. It is important to note that I do not dismiss the thought, but rather acknowledge that it is going to send me down an anxiously numbing path and I am choosing to break that moment and address the thought later in a more controlled environment. This method works best if you’ve already acknowledged your anxiety trigger, made peace with the thoughts that are creeping in, and have recognized that allow them to flow freely is not going to add any value. It is best at that point to revisit the thoughts and work through them properly in the manner that suits you.
Medicinal/Herbal Elements. There are a variety of medications and herbal/natural remedies to assist in resetting the chemical imbalance that occurs when anxiety hits. If you’re currently seeing a medical professional about your anxiety, it is best to speak to them about what is appropriate and available to you for the best treatment plan. I personally prefer herbal or natural remedies, and rely on the following:
1. Herbal Tea: Each culture has different concoctions under the umbrella of herbal tea, but I specifically recommend Indian Chai with the addition of specific herbs. I use Brooke Bond’s Red Label Natural Care loose tea and add a pinch of turmeric, a pinch of ginger, 1 drop of Young Living’s Thieves Vitality essential oil, and occasionally a spoon of honey. This blend reduces inflammation in the body and relaxes the mind with the herbal ingredients that enhance brain functionality, while also building immunity.
2. Essential Oils. These are plant extracts, not greasy oils like many assume, and have many benefits for the mind and body. I recommend you use 100% pure essential oils that are targeted towards physical and mental relaxation to combat both the symptoms of anxiety and to ignite focus. I use Young Living essential oils because they have a Seed to Seal guarantee of purity and their potency is immediately effective. I apply their Stress Away blend daily on my wrists to start the day off relaxed, and use Frankincense to increase mental acuity. Stress Away is also effective in the moment anxious thoughts arise – I find immediate physical relief and mental focus return within seconds of applying it. For more details, please visit my wellness page.
3. Mehndi/Henna. Many do not know this, but the properties of mehndi (referred to as henna in the western world) include cooling and relaxing the body. It is one of the reasons it is applied to brides before their wedding day to bring a sense of calm to the mind and body before such a stress-inducing life event. You can apply mehndi anywhere on the body and many use it as a hair mask for a natural reddish-brown hue along with the cooling sensation directly on the cranium. Mehndi is one of my favorite things in this world, so I take any chance I can get to get my hands covered with it. For those looking to be more subtle, find a good mehndi artist to make small tattoo-like designs wherever you want or buy a cone and play with it on your own!
4. Having an Outlet
One of my favorite philosophies is that you should have 3 hobbies in life: one to keep you in shape, one to make you money, and one to keep you creative. I love this philosophy because it’s about finding useful applications for your passions. Every anxious individual knows there is a lot of pent up energy in anxious moments, and directing that into a hobby or passion as an outlet is a healthy release. Many choose workouts as a combination outlet for physical release and mental redirection to the physical task. This is an extremely effective outlet if you are consistent with it and enjoy it. Journaling is another tried and tested outlet that acts as a safe space to release or work through your thoughts, and the act of writing requires physical engagement as well. Personally, I use dancing and writing as my outlets. I dance as my workout method because it has all the benefits of physical movement with the added benefit of bringing me immense joy! I then also write in a few formats: blogging for intellectual release, journaling to work through my thoughts and inspire myself, and poetry for emotional release. Identify your passions and see how they can work for you.
5. Rationalizing Your Thoughts
This is one of the most effective yet most difficult tactics. It leverages some of the aforementioned methods, but requires the courage and willpower to convince yourself that you do not need to be hindered by the anxious thoughts and reason your way out of the derailment. It starts with breaking down your anxious thoughts one-by-one, understanding where the fear/worry is stemming from, and then analyzing the outcome or worst case scenario of taking or not taking the expected action.
For example, when I’m feeling anxious about opening a message or responding to it, I walk through these thoughts.
Anxious source: Overall my fear is failure because if someone is messaging me, they likely need something and I don’t want to let them down.
Analysis: I then rationalize that 1) not everyone who messages me needs or wants something – they may want to just say hello, and 2) even if someone does need something then all I can do is provide what I do know or a direction for what they need because 3) I can’t possibly have the solution for everyone.
Weighing the Outcome: It’s the third point of analysis that really checks me out of my anxious moment because I’ve convinced myself that if I can’t have the solution for everyone, then the worst thing that will happen is that I won’t have a solution for this individual and they will have to find help elsewhere. On the positive side, if it’s something I can help with, then I would have been able to help, which is something that makes me very happy! Either way, it’s not the end of the world. In scenarios where the message is from a known individual for a mutual need, I also use my why to recognize that I need to engage in order to move forward with my why. This takes courage because I risk my fear for the sake of my why because I’ve convinced myself that the action is in the direction of my life goals, and that’s more important than any potential negative outcome.
Rationalization diffuses the thought and helps heal the anxiety pertaining to certain actions entirely once you get comfortable with that rationalization and fully accept it so it doesn’t trigger you anymore.
Anxiety is hard, but it doesn’t have to control your life. Life is a combination of the cards you’re handed and how you choose to play them. You may have been handed the anxiety card, but how you play that card is entirely up to you. You can let it run its course (and your life), or you can use these tools and/or professional help to manage it so you can live your life on your terms. The choice is yours alone, but know that you’re not playing by yourself. We’re all in this game together, and I’m betting you can play the game just fine.
Doing the needful
Is extremely fearful
A message, a call
Anything at all
That creeping thought
Just wanting to cry
A hug or embrace
A loving space
Is the only need
To be truly freed
This game of life
Is full of strife
But I am there
In this game to share
Every smile & every tear
You’re not alone, never fear
– Akiti –