If it is not already completely obvious, one of the things I am the most passionate about is mental health, and specifically mental health awareness. However, I believe this awareness starts at the individual level, and involves getting to know the very thing some of us want to run and hide from: the mental health condition itself.
For those of you who don’t know, I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, also know as GAD. I spent YEARS running from GAD, trust me. I treated GAD like an infection… like something that I was afraid if I got too close to would contaminate everything around it, and in my life. Little did I know that running from it was preventing me from doing the very thing that would eventually help set me free: getting to know GAD.
So, eventually I decided to try to do the unthinkable, and make friends with GAD. I went on walks with GAD. I introduced GAD to my friends and family. I took GAD out to coffee. As a result, I got to know GAD so well, that now when he appears, I don’t get scared or run away anymore. Instead, I greet him, I acknowledge him, and I live my life knowing that the sooner I embrace him, the sooner he will be on his way.
This post is the first in a 3-part “coffee date” series.
What is my baseline?
I have this belief that everyone lives at a certain “baseline” of anxiety. What I mean by a baseline is the numerical rating on a scale of 1-10 that you would give yourself on an average day in your life. This is not necessarily a number that is stable over time. It can change, depending on your circumstances. I would say that my number is typically a 5. On my best days, it is maybe a 4. This is the baseline level of anxiety that I live with. Having an awareness of what that number is on a day when I am really anxious is helpful, because it shows me when the scale might be tipping a bit. It is also helpful to have an awareness of what the numbers higher up mean for you. For example, at what number should you reach out get help? It will be different for everyone, but for me I’d say when I get to about a 7, I know to start reaching out to my therapist, or someone familiar with me and my mental health needs.
What things trigger my anxiety?
As long as I am living with anxiety, I know that I will likely be discovering new triggers to add to this. It is just the nature of living. I don’t live my life in fear of this, I just keep it in mind so that when things come up I am not too hard on myself. If anything, I try to praise and reward myself for discovering something new about my anxiety. I also know that having triggers just comes with the territory. These are going to be different for everyone. For example, one of my triggers is being separated from friends when I am in a large crowd. Since I know this about myself, I know not to put myself in a situation where this will usually happen, and if by chance it ends up happening anyway, I remind myself that I am feeling anxious, but just like other feelings, it will pass and I WILL be okay.
What are some physical signs that I am becoming anxious?
Some of the typical signs I experience in the moment include a racing heart, sweating more than usual, shaking or “tapping,” and a feeling of restlessness. Anxiety at its worst goes so much deeper than that though. A lot of stress and anxiety-related symptoms tend to manifest as physical symptoms. For some people, this can mean that they get ulcers, acne break-outs, diarrhea, or all of the above. I tend to have a lot of digestive issues when I am going through a bad period of anxiety.
What are some mental/emotional signs that I am becoming anxious?
There are some signs indicating that I am anxious that are pretty obvious to me. For example, having racing thoughts that don’t seem to let up, or experiencing more agitation than normal when dealing with people around me. Again though, a lot of the symptoms go a lot deeper than that. For example, I’ve noticed that when I’m severely stressed or anxious that I begin to have more nightmares. In fact, there is a recurring dream that I have during periods of anxiety which serves as a sign to me that I am experiencing a higher level of anxiety than usual. I also tend to have more issues with my memory during those times, and when I am performing an activity like reading, I need to read the same page sometimes 5+ times to really soak up what I am reading.
What are some things I can do to cope?
Most of the things I do for myself when I go through periods of anxiety are related to self-care/relaxing. I prioritize making sure I get enough sleep, and I maintain good sleep hygiene by turning my iPhone on “night mode” (the blue light from the screen messes with our R.E.M or deep sleep), drinking herbal tea (my favorite is chamomile), and reading or writing at night instead of watching TV or looking at screens. I also do my best to only drink decaf or to stay away from caffeine altogether when I’m going through a period of anxiety. It really does help! Also, if you’re like me and take an SSRI, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the medication guide. Until I read that, I had no idea that caffeine messes with the medication I am on. I also cope by spending time with people who make me feel safe, love, and heard.
Who are some people I can talk to about this?
As I have gotten to know my anxiety, I have also gotten to know who has been there through it, and who has been willing to listen to me talk about what I am going through. I have a few designated people who I feel particularly safe talking to about my anxiety, and I tend to hold these people especially close during difficult periods of anxiety. I also have a therapist I see regularly who I feel safe with, and who I have a good relationship with who is willing to be with me during those difficult periods.
How do I know when it is time to reach out for help?
Just like any other physical illness or mental health condition, when anxiety begins interfering with your daily functioning, it is time to reach out. When it is interfering with your work, it is time to reach out. When you find yourself isolating from other people because of your symptoms, it is time to reach out. Every person has a different emotional distress tolerance, so this is going to look different for everyone. However, try to be mindful of your baseline, and recognize the point at which YOU need to reach out.
Stay tuned for my next “Coffee date” post. Next time, you’ll be meeting my OCD!