My thoughts are racing and my heart is pounding. A friend just texted me and said, “I need to talk to you” and then dropped out of the conversation. And immediately, my brain fires away–rendering drastic assumptions. Why does she need to talk to me? Is this pertaining to something I did or said? Is it about one of her kids? Is she OK? Did her husband cheat on her?
Living with generalized anxiety is no joke. I’ve battled the disorder for as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t officially diagnosed until I was in my thirties. That led me to choosing to take anxiety medication after all the natural anxiety-reducing routes failed. I also made the decision to attend therapy for the first time. These steps were monumental in my anxiety journey.
But all the meds, meditation, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and therapy don’t eradicate the anxiety. Instead, my anxiety is no longer dominating my life. It’s more of an annoyance that creeps up instead of a bad boss. However, I’m still triggered into an anxiety spiral when certain situations come about.
One of my triggers is hospital scents. You know, that sterile, alcohol air waft that hits you when you breeze into almost any medical facility? As a breast cancer survivor and type 1 diabetic, the hospital smell immediately brings up a pit in my stomach and the feeling that I can’t quite catch my breath.
I’m also triggered by seeing or hearing about a car accident, even a minor fender-bender. When I was a toddler, I was in 15-car pile up in Chicago–leaving me cold, shaking, and terrified. Even though my family and I weren’t injured, I still struggle with the feelings associated with being helpless and vulnerable.
While some people can have anxious moments over common fears such as speaking in front of a large crowd, a person with generalized anxiety disorder may take an ordinary situation and catastrophize. That means they create a story in their mind of how disastrous the situation could turn out which manifests as physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, a stomachache, breathlessness, dizziness, and muscle tension. Other forms of anxiety include time anxiety, social anxiety, and selective mutism.
It turns out, my friend simply wanted to tell me about a rude comment a lady at the store said about her son with special needs. Her text, though it sounded urgent to me, was her responding to the hurtful situation with annoyance and anger–and commiserating with me. No one was in immediate danger.
I’ve beaten myself up, plenty of times over the years, over my anxiety. I have finally accepted that I cannot just do a single 20-minute meditation session—complete with deep breaths and a relaxed body—to relieve me of my anxiety. It’s like putting a bandage on a gushing wound. It might help a little, maybe, for about five hot seconds.
I do know, for sure, that negative self-talk is not the answer. But not only are the “get it together” lectures I give myself unhelpful, what others say to me in response to my anxiety isn’t helpful either. I’ve been told ever since I was a little girl to “take a chill pill,” to “ease up,” and to “just take a deep breath.”
But not only are the “get it together” lectures I give myself unhelpful, what others say to me in response to my anxiety isn’t helpful either.
Absolutely none of these responses ever lessened my anxiety. In fact, I would leave the interaction more anxious, because I felt that I must have something wrong with me for not being able to let go and just live my best life like seemingly everyone else in the room.
Why are those of us with anxiety constantly told to “take a deep breath” in our moments of panic? There is some reasoning behind it. According to Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, a technique called Belly Breathing is effective in calming the nervous system. But there’s a catch. The person must have been taught how to properly use the technique and have practiced it. Merely taking an untrained deep breath isn’t going to dissipate the anxiety.
Our friends and family want to help us with our anxiety, but what can they do? Dr. Hafeeze told Scary Mommy that instead of rendering a blow-off phrase like “that’s silly” or “you have nothing to worry about”—both of which are judgmental—try some of these techniques.
She explained, “To calm them down, you must break things down for them methodically to make the fear more manageable. Meaningless words like ‘chill out,’ ‘you’ve got this,’ ‘you’re overreacting’ will do absolutely nothing. The anxious person is experiencing feelings that are very real to them, even if those feelings are something you cannot relate to.”
When a person is having a panic attack—characterized by shortness of breath, shakiness, trembling, chest tightness, sweating, intense fear, rapid heartbeat, and uncontrollable feelings of being trapped or stunted in any way—a family member or friend can help.
Dr. Hafeez reported that helping the person discreetly move to a quieter space and distracting them by asking them to recite the alphabet backward or point out an object in the room and describe it can be helpful. If the person is taking a fast-acting anti-anxiety medication, the loved one can sit and wait with the person until the medication kicks in.
Yes, controlled breathing can absolutely be a tool that some people use to reduce their anxiety. But it’s not a magic wand.
Above all, she warned that we shouldn’t order someone with anxiety to “calm down” or “relax,” because this only worsens their anxiety. They feel invalidated or looked over rather than being understood and helped.
Yes, controlled breathing can absolutely be a tool that some people use to reduce their anxiety. But it’s not a magic wand. Anxiety is a complicated beast that cannot be easily tamed. So the best response is one of acceptance, empathy, and distraction—not assumptions.