Part 3: Managing Anxiety – a Personal Journey

Read part 1 and part 2 of our Mental Health series.

In all my years as Injury Prevention Coordinator, my articles have never been this personal. Usually, my articles are evidence-based.  Although I will not depart from doing that, I thought it would be a good idea to you let in on my own personal experience with a mental health challenge. About 5 years ago, I experienced a panic attack and an ongoing anxiety loop that seemed to go on for days.   I had no choice but to seek medical help.  I was later informed that I was experiencing General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Here are a few things that have been helpful in my journey.

Step One: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy[i], in my opinion, is a must.  In essence, you learn to recognize and identify undesirable thoughts that lead to undesirable feelings and behaviors, and vice versa.  You learn that your thoughts are not necessarily the reality, and that replacing those thoughts with more positive ones will be more beneficial to you.

Thoughts often trigger our fight, flight or freeze response that was discussed in our last article.  However, in this case, we learn to recognizing that the “bear” or physical threat is not actually present and that we can be in control of what we are thinking instead of playing the dreadful story in our minds over and over again.  We learn to be empowered.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the first thing I began to learn and practice[ii] to cope with my anxiety.  Once I know that there is no real threat present, but I am feeling panicked nonetheless, I remind myself that there is no immediate danger.  When I first began practicing the technique, I chose to wear an elastic band on my wrist and would snap it as if to tell myself to snap out of it.  I would tell myself that there is no actual bear present and that it is my mind getting the best of me.  I let myself know that I am safe. This acknowledgement can be very helpful. Once we know that we can make the bear walk back into the woods where it came from, then we can shift our focus to the present moment in time. We replace the unwanted thought with a more positive one or we simply focus on being present in the moment.  This leads to the second thing I practiced.

Step Two: Mindfulness

Mindfulness[iii] is the practice of focusing on the moment, on the present.[iv]    What do we see, what do we hear, what can we smell, what do we taste, what do we feel against our skin?  Describing the answers to these questions helps us escape the what ifs that are playing in our mind.  It was helpful for me to start living in the present. I began to appreciate the simple things in life more.

Step Three: Proper Breathing

The third thing that I focused on was my breathing.  Are you a chest breather or are you a stomach breather?  If you take short shallow breaths, your chest or shoulders moves, you are likely a chest breather and may have anxious tendencies.  If you tend to take deeper breaths and your stomach fills during breathing, you are likely a stomach breather.  The latter type of breathing is more efficient[v] and conducive to relaxation. Taking slow, deep breaths helps to calm and relax us. Proper breathing takes a lot of practice[vi].  It took me at least 3 months of practicing breathing for stomach breathing to feel natural. That was the third thing I focused on.

Step Four: Gratitude

The fourth thing that I focused on was gratitude.  Once you are in a more relaxed state, you can focus on gratitude.  Think about the things that you are thankful for.  I am sure that you can come up with a long list. I am grateful for my health, my family, my education, my house.  Even if some basic needs are not met, you can be thankful for being mobile, for being able to think and have good brain function, for having a place to sleep for the night…  As we focus on gratitude daily, positive thoughts and feelings follow. Being thankful is known to help with mental health.[vii] Being thankful and having a positive outlook, often helps changes things for the better.

Step Five: Exercise!

Exercise is a natural prescription that can be forgotten. Exercising and moving naturally boost serotonin levels which helps decrease anxiety and depression and improve overall mood.[viii]  I personally decided on taking up yoga.  It allowed me to work on mindfulness, breathing, flexibility, strength, balance and stamina all at once. Exercise can be as basic as walking around and taking stairs instead of an elevator.

Step Six: Pet Therapy

Sixth, one of the best decisions I made was getting my puppy.  I always wanted a dog but didn’t think I had the time.  It turns out the new responsibility of having to care and be home for the dog provided me with more stability and happiness in my life.  I had an extra incentive to go home, and someone always waiting for me and happy to see me.  Pet therapy has been proven to be helpful in treating symptoms of stress and anxiety.[ix]

Step Seven: Saying ‘No’

Are you bad at saying no?  If you don’t learn how to say no, it will hurt your mental health.  You will need to learn to say “No”, if you are to decrease your stress and improve your happiness.[x]  Say it as you wish… “No thank you” worked for me.  Stop taking everyone else’s load, learn to put yourself first.  If you don’t want to do something… don’t do it and don’t feel bad about it.

Step Eight: This Could Be the First Step

These helpful tips may not solve everything.  You should still see your doctor.  I cannot deny that initially, I could not bring myself to do any of these things.  I was so stuck in an adrenaline loop that I absolutely needed the help of medication in order to balance out my hormones.  It helped my body to reset itself.  Once things balanced out, I was able to focus on all these other things.  I managed to be medication-free with the help of all the tips I mentioned along with other resources listed below. Each person is different and the best path to recovery can only be determined jointly by you and your doctor.

Additional Resources

There are several resources that I used online:

Guided meditation for relaxation and anxiety 

Try out a few videos until you find a voice or approach that suits you.  I personally like to fall asleep listening to Jason Stevenson.[xi]

Yoga practice

I began my yoga practice online with yoga with Adrienne.[xii]  I felt comfortable with her.

Online tools

Check out https://www.anxietycanada.com/ and https://adaa.org for more great information.

 

By :
Tara Grenier, M.Sc., CAT(C)
Injury Prevention Professional
Montreal General Hospital- McGill University Health Centre
[i] https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/cognitive-behavioural-therapy
[ii] https://positivepsychology.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/
[iii] https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/
[iv] https://positivepsychology.com/present-moment/
[v] https://www.lung.org/blog/you-might-be-breathing-wrong
[vi] https://www.healthline.com/health/diaphragmatic-breathing
[vii] https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
[viii] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077351/
[ix] https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.htm
[x] https://psychcentral.com/lib/learning-to-say-no#1
[xi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYZBy0Z4ekI&t=347s
[xii] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFKE7WVJfvaHW5q283SxchA

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