I’m happy to say that my anxiety has gone from an “8” to a manageable “2” intensity, in just a few months. Why? What changed? It wasn’t my life’s circumstances. I didn’t wrap myself in a cocoon and avoid all triggers. I learned how to stop anxiety attacks with mindfulness.
I’ve had anxiety all my life, although I didn’t identify it as such until a few years ago.
In the past, it showed up as shyness and social anxiety, then as postpartum anxiety, financial anxiety and relationship (attachment) anxiety.
Learning about all those iterations of anxiety was helpful, but didn’t help me heal. It’s mindfulness that has helped me manage all of them. The particulars don’t really matter. The trigger doesn’t matter. The anxiety loop can be unlooped, with mindfulness.
Another thing I experienced, that I didn’t know was related to anxiety, were frequent bouts of psychosomatic illness (mostly, stomach pain but also muscle pain). It’s those symptoms that led me to seek therapy when no health care provider could find a physical cause.
In January of this year, my anxiety was out of control.
While I was seeing a therapist regularly, I was still experiencing panic and anxiety attacks. Several times, I had to leave work early or call in sick because of the physical symptoms: heart palpitations, chest tightness, dizziness, nausea.
Tests showed that thankfully, my cardiovascular symptom is in excellent shape. My symptoms were caused by anxiety.
I’ve been diagnosed with cPTSD, religious trauma syndrome, and generalized anxiety disorder. So, I’d been reading about anxiety for a couple of years, and had learned a lot about where anxiety comes from, and tips and tricks to manage it.
But it was this book that absolutely blew my mind and helped me understand the real mechanism of anxiety, and how to break the cycle permanently so I could stop an anxiety attack while it’s happening: Unwinding Anxiety by Dr Jud Brewer.
The book illustrates that anxiety is simply a bad brain habit.
This is in no way to be construed as victim blaming. It’s just the way our brains work.
In a sense, the brain becomes addicted to the cycle of anxiety, just as it becomes addicted in every other habit cycle.
It starts with a Trigger. Which leads to a Behavior. That ends in a Result.
Smoking, alcohol addiction, nailbiting, you name it. This is how all habits, good and bad, work.
The trick to stopping an anxiety attack is to become aware of the cycle and interrupt it with mindfulness.
The word mindfulness conjures up an image of a person sitting in meditation, or perhaps sipping a cup of tea they’ve prepared in an elaborate ritual.
I’m not knocking those things, but they didn’t work for me.
I do love taking walks in the woods, and exercise in general, for my overall mental health. I also employ journaling as a tool for managing anxiety and understanding my triggers (more on this in a bit). Talking to a therapist, friend, cuddling a child or my cat, splashing my face with water or holding an ice cube – these are wonderful tools as well.
But mindfulness is superior, because it can be done anywhere, anytime, for free. It requires no tools or anything outside of me. It doesn’t require another person (a therapist, friend, etc), who may be unavailable (or who may be the trigger of anxious thoughts).
Mindfulness is a tool inside myself, which is where the anxious thoughts and feelings emerge from.
This is what makes it so powerful, and a better weapon than the other things. So here’s what mindfulness looks like for me.
How I Stop Anxiety Attacks with Mindfulness
- A trigger happens. This could be a sentence that enters my head, seemingly from nowhere. It could be something I see on TV or something someone around me says or does. It could be seeing a person who reminds me of someone who hurt me. Triggers are everywhere.
- When I feel the trigger, I simply NOTICE. I don’t judge myself. I don’t beat myself up for being weak, or too sensitive, or not “over it”, or for being anxious, or whatever. I observe it without judgement or shame. I don’t allow it to overtake me. I stop the spiral by staying present. I get CURIOUS and feel the emotion of curiosity, which is rather pleasant.
- I stay in my body. Meaning, I get OUT of my head. I notice my breathing. I notice where my feet are on the ground or my butt in a chair. I listen for sounds, I look for something pretty, I notice what I can taste and smell. I engage my senses and stay in the NOW.
- I give myself love. Depending on how the anxiety feels, I take one of two approaches.
If I feel small and scared, I’ll do some re-parenting by asking, “How old are you right now?” I visualize myself hugging the girl I was at that age. I tell her I’ve got her, that no matter what happens, I will never abandon her. That she is safe with me.
If the anxiety feels more like worry than fear, I will thank my brain for giving me anxious thoughts in an attempt to keep me safe. “Thank you, brain. I know anxiety was an important tool that kept my ancestors alive. Worriers noticed danger and stayed alive long enough to breed. I appreciate you scanning my environment for danger. But I’ve got this. I’m ok. I’m safe now.” Sounds corny, but it works.
After doing this quick process mentally, the anxiety attack immediately deescalates. Sometimes it goes away entirely, other times it reduces in intensity enough for me to focus on something else.
All of this takes just seconds to do.
Noone knows I’m doing it. It’s silent and invisible. I can do it while driving a car or spending time with loved ones. I don’t need to take a walk in the woods, or talk to my therapist or a friend, or call my mom, or cuddle my pet, or drink a glass of wine, or write in my journal, or rage-clean, or throw paving stones to watch them smash (I did that once!) or do anything outside myself.
What I don’t do to stop an anxiety attack is use logic to think or reason my way out of it.
That simply does not work. If you’ve ever tried to use logic on a child (or honestly a person of any age) having a meltdown, you know this. What they need in that moment is someone to empathize with their feelings, not throw reasonable-sounding words at them.
During an anxiety attack, the logical part of the brain is offline. That’s why it’s crucial to get out of the mind and into the senses.
Journaling to gain insight into anxiety’s cause and triggers
While journaling, like the other tools in my anxiety toolkit, don’t stop an attack when it’s happening, it has been an effective tool in helping me understand my triggers, why they exist and where they come from, and reduce my overall anxiety so I have fewer episodes overall.
Journaling for me is like diet and exercise. It doesn’t help while you’re having a heart attack, but it does help prevent it.
After journaling by hand or in a Google document for years, I now use an A.I. journaling tool called Mindsera. I love it! (Disclosure: I don’t earn money recommending Mindsera, but I do get a free month if a referral signs up.)
Mindsera takes journaling to a whole new level. If you’re curious, try it out for a couple of days for free to see if you love it as much as I do.
Mindsera has a ton of cool features you can explore. Want to get advice from mentors such as Anais Nin or Eleanor Roosevelt? Done.
One of my favorite features is Analysis. After writing an entry, I ask it to analyze my writing. It makes a bullet point list summarizing my entry and the emotions present. It analyses my personality and looks for cognitive distortions in my thinking. And it gives me advice. It even creates a little piece of artwork to illustrate my feelings.
You can see an example below.
I loved it so much that on the second day I paid for an annual subscription, which incidentally costs the same as one therapy session.
Do you experience anxiety? How do you manage it?