11 Steps I Took to Overcome My Anxiety

Anxiety” by Mariana Zanatta. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I grew up with a lot of anxiety, and have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There were times when it took over my life, both in how I thought and how I acted. It came to its peak sometime in the first half of this year, when, on one occasion, I spent five days unable to eat anything — even the thought of putting food into my mouth, chewing, and swallowing was too overwhelming. I woke up every day with a pounding heart and a feeling of heaviness that weighed me down in my bed for hours before I could force myself up.

One day I got up and could barely even walk. I felt dizzy, and my room started spinning all around me. I thought I was going to faint, and had to lie down and call the health helpline (a service in many Canadian provinces providing free medical advice). When I told the operator my symptoms, she told me to rush myself to the emergency room. Thus began my journey to beat my anxiety once and for all.

The struggle was exhausting, and at times I was about ready to give up. But it was all worth it, and I’ve never felt better or happier in my life.

Here’s a list of some of the things I did that I believe helped me tremendously:

1. I took control of my life.

While some people are more predisposed to anxiety than others, anxiety often has an origin, such as an element in your life that takes control of your life away from you. For me, this element was my father. My father’s control of me led to me seeking control in all the wrong places: because I had no control over my life, I acted out my desire for control on my environment.

My constant fear of my father also induced anxiety in me. He had high expectations of me that I could never meet, and that internalized in me a belief that everyone in the world has similarly high expectations of me. This put me on edge whenever I was in a social situation, because I felt that I’d always disappoint people around me, whether close friends or complete strangers.

Perhaps the most important thing I did that tackled my anxiety from its very core is discovering its origin and confronting it head-on. I opened up to my father about how he affected me throughout my life, and how his control still affected me, and I took space for myself to be able to heal. This had astounding, resonating effects: My OCD symptoms started withering away like magic, and my social anxiety became much more manageable once I became conscious of the fact that I was reflecting my father’s expectations of me onto the entire world. Whenever I thought people were judging me, I reminded myself that I’m only reflecting my childhood experiences onto them.

Taking space from my father also improved my relationship with him and made it healthier, because I no longer feel subservient to him; instead, our relationship has become one between two adults.

2. I took control of my treatment.

I’ve gone through many mental health professionals, most of whom wanted to put me on a program or give me a treatment I didn’t have a choice to reject. Sometimes they contradicted each other, such as when one psychologist told me that I need cognitive behavioural therapy and one psychiatrist told me that therapy wouldn’t work for me and that I need meds.

This, I believe, exacerbated my anxiety. I sought to take control of my life, and having people tell me how to treat my anxiety without much of a choice of my own was detrimental to that.

That’s not to say one should dismiss mental health professionals, but it’s important to find someone who works with you and gives you the option to choose the course of action to take. One of the best things I did for myself towards overcoming my anxiety was finding a therapist who gave me autonomy in my treatment.

3. I started meditating.

Meditation was one of the first steps I took towards overcoming my anxiety, and I credit it for many of the changes I made. It made me mindful of my thoughts and actions, and consequently enabled me to control them, rather than allow them to control me.

Anxiety often develops into habits and routines that we’re not aware are anxiety-induced. It’s important to break those habits, and the first step towards doing that is becoming mindful of them.

4. I got off Facebook.

One of the biggest changes that meditation allowed me to make is getting off Facebook. I became mindful of how obsessive I was about Facebook, and how anxious it made me. I realized it was time to get off.

Additionally, meditation enabled me to be mindful and present in the moment while not on Facebook, meaning that I wasn’t thinking about Facebook while I was off it. This was a drastic change to my previous experiences, when my mind would be on Facebook even when I was taking time off it.

5. I stopped reacting to my anxiety and started responding.

Now that I had developed mindfulness and become aware of my thoughts, I realized that my anxiety can’t harm me, no matter how bad it is, and I have a choice over whether to give in to it or not. Whenever I become anxious, I use it as an opportunity to challenge my anxiety and break out of old habits, replacing them with new ones: When I wake up anxious, I remind myself that anxiety doesn’t harm me, I get up, and get on with my day. Habits such as this one become easier the more I reinforce them, because now I know — from experience — that anxiety really cannot harm me.

6. I started working with my anxiety, rather than against it.

This is a tricky one. While it’s important to be resilient and not give in to your anxiety and let it control you, it’s equally as important to accept and work with it rather than resent it and yourself for having it.

I constantly pushed myself to step out of my comfort zone, but I started recognizing when I was getting too uncomfortable and felt I would snap back if I didn’t back off. I accepted that my anxiety is real and I cannot imagine it away.

I stopped holding it against myself when I stumble and fall. I give myself a break, because I know I can always get back up. While it’s with me, I use my moments with anxiety to become intimate with it and understand it, understand where it’s coming from. This allows me to shelf my anxiety where it belongs, making it a lot less generalized and more specific, thus more manageable.

7. I cut out refined sugars.

I used to rely on refined sugars, such as candy, to provide me with the instantaneous energy I needed when I was too anxious to eat. However, studies have shown that refined sugars exacerbate some of the symptoms of anxiety: the energy rush followed by inevitable crash leads to a dopamine imbalance, which your brain interprets as anxiety.

8. I started working out.

Studies have shown that exercise reduces anxiety. And speaking from personal experience, I tend to feel more present in the moment and not stuck in my head when engaged in a physical activity.

However, tying in to point 6, I started by developing a workout routine at home for the first couple of months. I had tried many times going to the gym regularly, but I always stopped after a couple of weeks — it was too overwhelming. Once I had established a routine, and once I developed the mindfulness that empowers me to not give in to my anxiety, I signed up to a gym, and haven’t stopped going since. The gym stopped being a source of anxiety and started becoming a refuge away from it. No matter how anxious I was during the day, once I entered the gym and started working out, I forgot all about my anxiety.

9. I stopped fearing meds.

I used to have anxiety about taking meds, thinking I’d become dependent on them and never be able to really break free from my anxiety. But once I built the momentum in my struggle with my anxiety, I realized that meds, like meditation, are a useful tool that can help rev up my engine if I hit a roadblock.

10. I practiced my new habits mindfully, to ensure they don’t turn into obsessions.

I took breaks from my daily meditation, I took breaks from going to the gym, I didn’t stress out when refined sugars (and other unhealthy foods) were my only option. The same is true for every habit I pick up, whether or not it’s on the journey towards overcoming my anxiety. I make sure not to turn my habits into anxious rituals that I feel obligated to do even if I don’t want to do them. This ensures that anxiety doesn’t sneak back into my life and my routines.

11. I decentered my anxiety.

Last but not least, I gave many of the things I started doing to overcome my anxiety, such as working out and cutting refined sugars, a purpose of their own: I work out not only to overcome my anxiety, but also to build muscle and lose fat; I don’t eat refined sugars not only to ease the symptoms of my anxiety, but also to be healthy in general. This allows me to knock anxiety out of the centre-stage of my life and to experience life beyond my anxiety.

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