If you caught this post last week, you learned about my life long struggle with anxiety and depression. In the comments someone asked me how to cope with anxiety, so I decided to do a post on how I've coped with anxiety over the years.
The first two things I tried were therapy and medication at the age of 17. I think for where I was at during that time, the medication was the biggest thing that helped. I was struggling with PTSD and kind of a zombie on so many levels that as a senior in high school, therapy was more about showing up and making sure I wasn't going to commit suicide, then actually developing lasting coping skills.
When I went to college I started seeing a counselor through the counseling center on campus. *If you are a college student, I strongly recommend taking advantage of those therapy sessions! You usually get around 8 per semester as part of your tuition, but most students don't take advantage of this* My counselor(s) at the University of Florida (I had two individuals counselors over the course of my education there) advocated for me with the school to waive the cap on my sessions, so I could see them every week. It was during that time that I really started to shift the way I saw things.
I started to notice my internal dialogue, the signs I was on the verge of a panic attack, and began learning about positive self talk.
During my second year my counselor recommended I begin going to group counseling. This was extremely powerful for me for a lot of reasons, most notably because I've had horrible anxiety in group settings since elementary school and it really negatively impacted my ability to build friendships. Entering into a controlled (our group was closed, meaning it had a finite start and end date, the members in the group were the same every week, and if you missed more than once or twice you were no longer a part of the group, no new members were ever added) safe place. I would still see my individual counselor at the same time, which was important as I worked through a lot of my social anxiety and thoughts.
Once group therapy completed, I began going to the biofeedback lab in the counseling center. Basically electrodes were attached to my skin and I wore a finger sensor which would monitor my physical response (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, muscle activity, etc.) as I would go through modules on this computer system specifically designed to help people relieve stress. I would do things like have to breathe "normally" to get the balloon across the screen without popping it (if I breathed to heavy it would burst, if not enough it would fall to the ground). During these exercises I finally started to realize that I did not breathe like other people. Due to the trauma as a child and young adult, I began to either hold my breath or hyperventilate. To this day I have difficulty sometimes, but I understand what is happening which helps.
At some point during college I began going to the gym with a friend which was really helpful in teaching me how to work out "normally" (I have an addictive personality and would go to extremes with working out in high school), she would take me around the gym to work on different muscle groups and get 30 minutes of cardio in. I started to feel the benefits of a healthy workout as I began taking care of my mind and body.
At some point I tried yoga, boy I could probably do an entirely different post on mental health and yoga alone! Over the years I've learned so much about the pros and cons of yoga on our mental health and how different types of yoga can effect our nervous system and mental health in different ways. In short, if you are someone with anxiety or trauma, stay the hell away from hot yoga and bikram yoga for sure (in my opinion... science backs it up too; but you will have people that swear by it).
Other forms of yoga can either be really helpful, or hurtful if you don't know what's going on. Sometimes certain poses when held for long periods of time (in Hatha, Yin, or Restorative yoga) can lead our bodies to having very primal and emotional responses. This is okay (and even good for you to work through the response), it's just weird if you don't know what's happening then you start crying or having flashbacks to trauma in yoga. In short, you probably should look for a yoga class that has moderate activity, and constantly has the teacher talking to anchor you into the present, here and now. Remember the most important thing with yoga and anxiety, is to connect every movement to the breath, not push yourself into uncomfortable places to land every pose perfectly.
Over the last five years it's been a combination of using all of the above, while earning my Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling. I think having an understanding and awareness of what is happening or coming up for ourselves during anxious or depressed spells if very important.
When we have that awareness we can talk ourselves through the experience as well as communicate it more effectively to those around us. For example, do you like or dislike to be rubbed, held, or left alone during a panic attack? When you are starting to get worked up what positive statements can be made to bring you back to the present rather than projecting and spiraling the situation? How do you feel supported during tough times?
Remember that while anxiety and depression often have a chemical imbalance associated with them, they are often symptoms of other things happening in our lives which we can develop the skills and tools to work through.
Do you have any questions or experiences about coping with anxiety? Drop me a comment!