Keep Calm and (fill in the blank). If you use social media or take notice of novelty tshirts, you’ve undoubtedly seen versions of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan in recent years. Originally created as a motivational poster by the British government in 1939, there are hundreds of adaptations easily found in print in 2014. A variation that caught my attention recently was a tshirt that read “I Can’t Keep Calm because I Have Anxiety”. It certainly is a tongue-in-cheek way to highlight the irony of the message anxiety sufferers often hear from others, to “calm down”. Relax. Keep calm. I’ve never found this advice to be effective for anyone in the midst of anxiety.
So what is anxiety? I remember taking an Intro to Psychology class in high school and asking this question, naively unaware of having experienced this feeling. Nervousness? Yes. Blushing, racing heart, nausea, butterflies in my stomach? Yes. Worry? Yes. Hyper-planning, organizing and perfectionism? Yes yes yes. So again, what is anxiety? It’s a feeling characterized by experiences of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes and is something we all experience. However, people with anxiety disorders experience the feelings, thoughts and physical symptoms in ways that cause distress and interfere with their functioning. They may find themselves consumed by persistent thoughts or worries and may avoid certain situations out of worry. They have powerful physical symptoms such as tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, stomach upset, dizziness, and hot flashes. These physical reactions are mostly related to our automatic fight-flight-freeze response, the same response that kept our prehistoric ancestors alive in the face of danger. Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Phobias are some examples of anxiety disorders, each with specific diagnostic criteria.
If you can relate, beginning strategies include:
Learn more about anxiety
Increase your physical activity- exercise, yoga
Practice mindfulness: being in the present moment can help counter anxiety as it is usually future-focused.. There are many mindfulness exercises you can find in books and online to get you started.
Learn and practice diaphragmatic breathing, an antidote to the shallow rapid breathing that often accompanies anxiety.
Practice thought-stopping to interfere with intrusive thoughts.
Keep quotes, affirmations or a mantra that you can repeat to yourself during highly anxious periods, such as “this is my anxiety and it is temporary. I don’t like it but I can survive it by ______” or “I can feel anxious and still deal with this situation”.
Talk to a professional to help with all of the above and more.
If someone you love struggles with anxiety:
Become more educated about anxiety
Be aware of the power of your words. Rather than “calm down”, try an empathizing statement like, “It sounds awful to feel that way” or “I can tell how stressful/hard/painful this is for you”. Ask if and how you can help rather than giving advice, criticizing, minimizing or problem-solving.
Set limits on your own reassuring behaviors and other accommodations that may be reinforcing your loved one’s anxiety.
Maintain your own support network and consider consulting a professional if you feel overwhelmed, angry, or hopeless.
There is hope. Anxiety doesn’t have to control your life.