By Brittany –
Anxiety is most commonly perceived as worrying, and someone who doesn’t have anxiety may have a hard time understanding how anxiety feels. You may hear “stop worrying,” “it will be fine,” “it’s all in your head.” These are discouraging and frustrating phrases for people with anxiety to hear.
Thankfully, we live in a time where people are more open about their struggles with anxiety, and because of that, stigma is becoming less. However, we still have a ways to go.
About 10% of the population now have anxiety and/or depression. People with chronic and invisible illness are more likely to develop these mental illnesses. In fact, those numbers are increased to 20% in people with episodic migraine (less than 15 headache days per month) and can go as high as 80% in people with chronic migraine (more than 15 headache days per month).
I developed anxiety, without knowing or understanding it, early on in my chronic migraine journey. My migraine was triggered by a slip and fall accident where I sustained a concussion. As a result of my injury and the invisible illness that has followed, I’ve had to learn how to live a new life, not only with the struggles of living with chronic pain, but the struggles of anxiety and depressive episodes that have inevitably followed.
Every day I continue to learn how to manage my pain and keep my anxiety in check. Some days are better than others, but I usually have a breaking point around day 9 or 10 of high pain. These breaking points consist of extreme fatigue, high pain, anger, irritability, tears, guilt and a whole bunch of negative self talk.
These are 5 things (along with a little bit of humor, since laughter is the best medicine) that help me cope on those tougher days.
1. Finding my voice
This is one of the most challenging, yet rewarding tools I’ve learned. I was so afraid of my anxiety for a long time, especially before I knew what it was. All of a sudden I would be cranky, irritable and overwhelmed. My heart rate would increase, I would start sweating or shaking, my breathing would change, and my pain would spike (a lot of the time my pain would spike first, and the rest would follow).
I didn’t seem to have an explanation for all of this rapid change within my body and mind. I felt irrational and out of control. I felt guilty for lashing out at the people in my life. Once I was able to put a name to how I was feeling, I found it easier to talk about my experiences. Initially, I only talked to a very few close friends, for fear of judgment and stigma. When I realized how understanding and supportive a lot of my support system was, I began to open up more. Being able to say “my anxiety is high today” gave me freedom to either talk about what I was feeling, or gave me the space to feel like I didn’t need to provide any further explanation at the time.
When I didn’t feel comfortable to talk out loud about my anxiety, journaling provided me a safe space to release all my thoughts and feelings, whether rational and logical, or irrational and emotional. There was no fear of judgment and I could fully express myself at my own pace. I was able to gather my own thoughts, which helped me find my voice when I was ready to talk more openly about my anxiety to others.
3. Using Air Quotes
Anyone with anxiety knows the struggle of discerning the difference between logical and emotional thoughts and feelings. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in all the negative self talk and to make up stories of worst case scenarios. When my anxiety is high, worst case scenario is the first place my brain goes. Logically, I know the chances of worst case scenario happening are slim to none. And logically, I know my negative self talk is BS and false, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have those thoughts and feelings.
What I’ve started doing when I have those experiences is I put air quotes around them, whether I’m writing or I’m talking it out. Air quotes are my way of acknowledging those negative thoughts and feelings, while recognizing that they aren’t true. Even though they aren’t true, they still need a voice as well. I learned the hard way that stuffing them and not giving them a voice made them compound and eventually everything would bubble over, causing more harm and emotional turmoil than what was necessary.
4. Coffee Breaks and Mindfulness
Thank goodness coffee isn’t a trigger for me because coffee is life. In fact, it can sometimes alleviate my migraine symptoms temporarily. Even though it doesn’t give me a boost of energy, it provides instant comfort and makes my insides do a happy dance with the first sniff and taste.
I usually only have one coffee in the morning, but if my anxiety is high, taking a coffee, tea or even a smoothie break helps me reset. I use mindfulness to help by feeling the warmth or coolness of the beverage on my hands, then I take in all the different scents, observe the variety of color, and then when I take a sip I observe the texture, temperature and all the different flavours. Slowing down, taking a break and using mindfulness does wonders for anxiety!
5. Moving My Body
When my anxiety is high, I can’t sit still. I have too many things to do, and even if my body is begging me to lay down or take a break, I don’t feel like I can relax until all of the things are done. So I either push through on the momentum I’ve created, which may or may not make things worse, or I take a breather to move my body in a healthier way by going for a short walk or doing some simple yoga.
If my to-do list can wait, I can extend my walk or yoga practice. Getting outside for some fresh air does wonders. I live very close to Lake Ontario, so if I have the energy to walk by the water, I’ll take a break and watch the waves, observe the birds soaring above, watch the planes take off and land. Now that the weather is nicer, I can take my yoga practice outside. I keep my movements simple, but active enough to increase my heart rate a bit.
I also consider deep belly breathing movement as well. Place one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly, inhaling through the nose, feel the chest and belly rise beneath your hands and then feel the belly and chest fall with your exhales out of the nose or mouth. Notice other areas of your body that gently move with the rhythm of your breath.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some days where I do all of these things and I feel minimal to no relief in my pain and anxiety. There are also days where I’m so stuck in my head and anxiety that I say to hell with it and enjoy a pity party. But most of the time, doing just one of these 5 things will release the control my anxiety has over me.
If you have any tips for me, please feel free to share in the comments! Together, we will all get through this to help release the stigma and control mental health has over us chronic illness warriors.