When I was 17 a friend explained the sensation of anxiety to me and how to help someone going through it.
This was long before I myself had become aware about changes in my mood to label them so accurately.
My friend was going through a tough time. An unexpected and sudden death in the family had intensified their anxiety.
They knew how to talk about anxiety because 1) they lived it and 2) they were in touch with their emotions.
They were genuine.
Many people dismiss their emotions as part of their nature. Mental health, in many cultures, is still a taboo topic. So, it makes sense why we still don’t talk about it much.
However, it’s not the fault of any single person that they are not self-aware. We can’t and mustn’t put the blame on ourselves.
Unfortunately, for many people, the change comes after a shock event that puts life into perspective and forces us to engage with our inner thoughts.
Anxiety hits us when we least expect it and that’s what makes it so dangerous.
Anxiety is a natural part of our emotional regulation. The same with anger, excitement, and sadness. We all have the capacity to feel these emotions. However, we don’t always know how to label them or talk about them.
We need our friends to help and support us. We need to be friends to those suffering from anxious episodes.
We need to continue to raise awareness as to what anxiety can feel like, how to learn to cope, and how to support others experiencing the same pain in careful and sensitive ways.
In this blog, I’ll share my anxiety story. I’ll also share those tips my friend passed down to me for coping and supporting as well as others I’ve picked up along the way.
It was December 2016 and I was abroad on holiday in Pakistan.
I felt unwell and it had got to the point where I couldn’t see how I was going to get better.
I felt I had lost control of the situation and wasn’t in commission of my own senses.
I began to worry and stress that I wouldn’t make the flight home.
All I wanted to do was leave the situation and never return.
Since then, I’ve had travel anxiety.
For example, if a train stops in between two stations with no word from the driver, I start to feel worried — trapped.
I’ve always had anxiety about food especially in new places; although I’ve, for the most part, managed to control that now.
I have some social anxiety where I ‘should’ feel normal and I can’t stop overthinking.
Since 2016, I’ve been aware of these emotions and triggers. However, they’ve been there all along.
What does anxiety feel like?
“The first sign is a sinking feeling in the stomach.
Next come the sweats and fidgeting.
After, the mind starts to race thinking up all the horrible possibilities which could come next.”
This is what it feels like for me to have an anxiety attack. It happens in a matter of moments.
It’s scary. It’s like something has come over me and I just can’t shake the feeling.
It’s a constant worry that something could go wrong or get worse without any fault of my own.
I try to stop this worry because I don’t want to manifest it, but I only make it worse.
It comes and goes with no warning. It’s a part of me and always will be.
How did I learn to cope?
My parents were a big support in seeking professional help in the first instance.
I sought therapy.
Therapy helped me to see me for myself. It was the first time someone had taken the time to care. Caring is not easy because there’s a sense of trust that needs to be established.
Therapy truly changed my life.
It helped to establish practices for self-awareness, such as a daily blog. I write a short emotional splurge every day and publish it to the web. It makes the mundane interesting and the exciting boring. This is more an accountability feature for me than anything else. I know I’d forget if I wrote it in a personal diary.
It’s also a great way to chart the ups and downs of life on an everyday scale.
I’ve also come up with mental models to help to alleviate any anxiety I may be sensing or feeling coming on. These are not backed by science but my own personal experience and what works for me. These help me to think things through before overthinking or worrying about something that can lead to an anxiety attack.
The first is what I call the emotional middle. Instead of accepting that I can either be happy or sad, I worked to establish what my ‘normal’ energy level is and try to achieve that everyday.
It’s a hypothetical thing and the blog really does help to bring me down to Earth or put things in perspective. My ‘normal’ or emotional middle changes over time but it’s generally slightly happier than indifference.
This is a great way to put life into context of those ups and downs. In needing to regulate the highs and the lows, I find the most fulfilling life has come from keeping things in equilibrium.
This helps me to stay grounded and focus on my mental health before taking in comments from others. If I feel safe and comfortable with how I feel then that should be all that matters.
The second is asking myself the following:
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
This has worked well in the travel anxiety where I’m stuck on a train. The worst thing is I’ll likely miss my day’s events and have to reschedule my life. That’s not the end of the world, despite how prophetic I believe it to be at the time.
This way of thinking particularly helps the racing thoughts that I have. I try and think logically before I panic and lose control. It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s great to know I have it in my back pocket.
The third is asking myself if what I’m going through is emotionless or emptiness.
Emotionless is that indifferent feeling where I feeling nothing
Emptiness is where I feel alone and out of touch.
I’m more concerned and take breaks, go for walks, and write longer blog entries if I’m feeling emptiness over emotionless. If it gets back, I know the door for therapy is always open.
This works as a temperature check for me and how I’m feeling. It’s a nice mechanism to know if I’m spiralling or just having a bad day.
Most of these little tricks are personal to me but finding what works for you is the golden ticket that comes with time and exploration.
Like many people, I didn’t know what anxiety felt like till I went through it.
Now I have, a final way I’ve learned to cope is by spreading awareness and my knowledge.
I’ve participated in Mental Health Awareness Month on social media and now I have been working with the McPin Foundation, a mental health research charity, on the KeepCool project.
KeepCool is a series of educational videos by young people for young people backed by science, to learn about and cope with emotions such as anxiety, sadness, and anger.
I have been involved in this project as a young person and it has really shown me that young people can have a voice in their own futures.
Through managing my own emotions, I’ve been able to pass on the tips I use to help others. This is very rewarding as I am able to assist others going through a similar situation or supporting loved ones who might be.
How do I support others?
My friend taught me to watch out for these types of things but it’s never as raw as the real deal.
Now that I’ve gone through it, I’ve been able to help others.
But what about those who haven’t experienced it and want to support friends, family, loved ones?
Here’s 4 tips:
- Active Listening: if a friend has taken the leap of faith to open up and be vulnerable about how they feel, they must trust you. The best thing you do here is let them open the floodgates while you acknowledge and reassure. Try not to debate things with them even if you think what they are saying is right or wrong, rational or irrational. It’s likely they want to speak freely and they are trusting you to listen. Active listening requires not only hearing the words but understanding the complete message. This includes facial expressions, hand gestures, and any other movements. You can reciprocate these through head nods and acknowledging affirmations. Let them know you are really there. It takes a lot of nerve to speak up and can be a really important step for them.
- Be careful about projecting your own experiences: while you’re listening, the best thing if you want to make a point or put things in perspective is to relay the same example back to them. You should actively try to normalise how they are feeling and maybe use your own life experience to do that. However, it’s worth judging the situation. Sometimes using your own experience to help someone else is futile because the only way through is realising for themselves what is the issue and how they might try and address it. Many people won’t internalise what someone else tells them, they have to believe in themselves first to start to see a change. It’s best to actively listen first and see what approach to take.
- Offer empathy not sympathy: empathy is the ability to understand someone’s feelings without having direct experience yourself. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. The person trusts you, they don’t need your apologies. They need someone who can help them to work through their emotions. The world can feel ever so small in these situations; they want someone to care.
- Encourage not escaping the situation: if you are to give a single piece of advice, this would be it. The thought and action of escaping a situation, I’ve found, only reinforces the belief that in future situations you can do the same. This is not healthy because there will inevitably be some scenarios where you can’t.
The COVID-19 Context
COVID-19 has exacerbated anxiety for millions around the world.
The clashing of the world coming to a stop on top of life’s existing worries has led many of my friends and loved ones to seek therapy this past year.
We have to be very sensitive in these times.
We have to judge the conversation and be careful with our words.
Many of us, myself included, have found ourselves hanging by a thread at times.
All of what I’ve said above is relevant here and even more so. The mental health crisis always existed; COVID-19 intensified its prominence.
The KeepCool project, which has been working on emotions that have intensified during COVID-19, released the first video on anxiety last week. You can watch it here:
The most important thing is to find your little corner of peace and quiet during this time. Staying connected to friends, family, and loved ones as much as you can is another great way to stay in touch.
Doing what feels right for you is a priority.
5 Top Reminders
Anxiety hits you when you least expect it.
Anxiety is not your fault.
It’s okay to admit you have anxiety.
Find what works for you to cope with anxiety.
Deliver empathy to friends dealing with anxiety.
This blog is written purely from the author’s own personal experience and should not be taken as medical advice.