Anxiety is a silent beast that I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve been battling for 20 years. Medication has been part of my life for almost 13 years, along with therapy, deep breathing, scads of yoga and, if I’m completely honest, stress eating.
The last few years have brought about a slew of overwhelming situations for me and my family. Combined with the natural complications of life in general, I’ve found myself waking up in a soup of anxious thoughts before my feet even hit the floor.
“But you seem OK,” an acquaintance said, when I shared I was deep in an anxiety attack at a local women in business meeting. And sure, I had makeup on and a reasonably ironed outfit. I was smiling on the outside – yet on the inside, I was in a mental fetal position praying the meeting would end so I could escape home.
I know I can’t be alone. As some women become more comfortable with transparency, I’m seeing multitudes of them open up about their own anxiety in online support groups. In fact, within two hours of asking the question – “What triggers your anxiety and what helps you overcome it?” – over 30 people responded publicly and many via private message.
The casual poll offered insight on triggers: not getting enough sleep, financial stress, the news, phone calls from school, crowds of people, being late, loud unexpected noises, feeling like you’re not doing enough, not being useful, being overwhelmed by situations and the unknowns of the future, being rushed, and confrontation with family and friends.
“I have trouble sleeping anyway, … I work two jobs and sometimes can’t get to bed before midnight,” said one woman, who asked to remain anonymous. “My alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and then I’m off to get my children to childcare, and do it all over again.”
Another women said peer pressure about the way she’s raising her kids sends her right into an anxiety attack.
“My husband and I decided that our children are not attending sleepovers until we thoroughly know and trust the family that’s hosting the party,” she said. “So many people have told us to stop being ‘so over-protective,’ and that kind of confrontation sends a flood of doubt in my mind and guilt that I’m not allowing my child to have fun with the rest of her friends.”
The parent went on to explain a story she read in the news about a girl who was sexually assaulted at a slumber party by the father’s friend who stopped by for some beers and ended up spending the night.
“It’s just not worth it, and I’m not going to risk my child’s safety to appease somebody else,” she said.
I sat down to speak with Michelle Salerno, a licensed clinical professional counselor and national certified counselor at Joi Counseling Center in Yorkville, to talk about anxiety, why our society is struggling so badly, and some strategies to press beyond it. Salerno is in my arsenal of trusted women who have the wisdom to offer sound advice.
“A lot of us engage in self-talk which can be helpful or very hurtful,” Salerno said. “When anxiety arises, we need to immediately reflect on what we are saying to ourselves in that moment. The quicker you can catch the negative self-talk, the better.”
Salerno also mentioned she hears about pressure to bury the anxiety and “buck up” among her clients, which is not a good solution.
“Not acknowledging the anxiety keeps us in that downward spin longer,” Salerno said. “Instead, we should take a deep breath (inhale and a good long exhale) and confirm that we’ve felt this way before and we’re going to get through it.”
If anxiety is starting to affect your life and prevent you from performing everyday tasks, causing you to isolate from friends and family members, Salerno has some helpful suggestions:
1. Don’t be frustrated if you can’t find a trigger.
“We can’t always pinpoint where the anxiety is coming from, so I encourage my clients to write in a journal while they’re in the moment, even just to acknowledge they’re feeling overwhelmed and they don’t know why,” Salerno suggested. “Eventually, you’ll get to the ‘why,’ but the simple act of recognizing the fact that you’re struggling in the moment – and reminding yourself that you’ve felt this way before and you’ve survived past it, is an excellent way to cut an anxiety attack off before it gets worse.”
2. Allow yourself to “turn off.”
The idea of “techno stress” is no longer a theory. We’ve erased personal boundaries in an enthusiasm to be available all the time, making it impossible to experience down time to refresh, especially, Salerno said, when it comes to work.
“We feel like we have to be available to everyone all the time. A good example is if your boss emails or texts you at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night. There’s a lot of pressure to respond, and unless you have specifically set expectations for weekend work, the opportunity to dive into an anxiety attack is ever-present.”
Salerno encourages purposeful communication between employees and supervisors to confirm the expectations of responding to messages when you’re meant to be off the clock.
Work-life balance slips off-kilter because of the convenience of technology. Being an entrepreneur, owning a small business, and working from home also have brought about a sense of urgency to always be available.
I can attest personally that as a freelance writer, it means working with multiple clients, many in another time zone. Managing an online social community means the constant pinging of notifications on Facebook and Instagram, and while I love my followers and want them to know they matter to me, I’m still only a human being who has a life beyond my computer.
Many small-business owners manage their own marketing efforts, and working with these entrepreneurs, I’ve seen the backlash when someone’s message wasn’t responded to in 10 minutes.
3. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
“If you find yourself going down the anxiety rabbit hole and all your regular strategies are not working, tap into your five senses,” Salerno said of one coping skill.
The grounding activity starts with a deep inhale and an even longer exhale. Next, scan your environment. Look for five things you can see and say them out loud. Now, how does your body feel? Think of four things you can physically identify and say them out loud. For example: the sun is shining on my skin and it feels warm, or, my socks are tight on my feet.
Next, listen for three things you can hear around you. This could be the sound of people talking around you in a coffee shop, the hum of your laptop, or a car muffler rumbling by outside. Now, say two things you can smell. Finally, say one thing you can taste.
“If you say these observations out loud, you cut off the running of your anxious mind,” Salerno said. “Your thought process shifts and, hopefully, gets you passed that negative spiral.”
4. Be gentle with yourself.
“Everyone’s different, whether … depression is the issue or it’s severe anxiety,” Salerno said. “What might work for one person might not work for all. But don’t give up on yourself.”
When anxiety is starting to interfere with your life, Salerno calls it a huge indication to talk to a therapist. If you can’t immediately seek professional guidance, it’s always good to have supportive friends and family that you can talk to.
“They don’t have to give you advice either,” Salerno said.
“Start the conversation with, ‘I’m really struggling today, will you just listen to me?’”
If you know of anyone battling anxiety, please share this article. If you need immediate support, do not hesitate to contact NAMI, short for National Alliance on Mental Illness, at 800-950-6264. There is no shame in asking for help.
Elizabeth Rago is an Illinois writer and author living in St. Charles. Her online community, “The Modern Domestic Woman,” tells the stories of women around the world, as it hones in and celebrates the simple everyday things that make us tick. You can find more of her writing at themoderndomesticwoman.com. Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.