The polar connotations of the word “anxiety” can be confusing when talking about it with others. On one end, people mistake “anxiety” for a mere fear, worry or apprehension of a situation. In that respect, anxiety is more synonymous with “worry.” That is not to be downplayed. My experience with anxiety, however, tends to fall closer to the opposite perspective. It tends to be a mental fixation of extreme dread that literally causes physical, mental and emotional responses. As scary as it is and can be, I’ve found ways to cope and deal with managing anxiety, and I think they’re worth discussing.
I started managing anxiety in my early high school years. Since then it has impacted my life sporadically over the decades. Anxiety is now one of those things in the background of my life that I battle and try to forget…until it springs up again. That happens without notice for me. I’ve had panic attacks while flying. And yes, I had them while filming on set, too. I even had one while on a trip to Kenya. It seems to spring up out of nowhere, and it truly does paralyze me.
I know very little about why I deal with anxiety. What I do know is that it’s rooted in a fear of death, and my (lack of) preparedness for my time to go. I’m terrified of my parents dying. The thought of my own death sparks acute anxiety throughout my body, too. It also gets bad at night when my sons are asleep. I worry that I’m going to pass out and no one will know. I don’t have other adults in the house. There’s a sense of fear or what if something happens, who’s around me?
Speaking of my sons, this fear of death got astronomically worse when I had my children. I developed an acute fear of leaving them without a mother. That thought terrifies me! I recognized it when I began traveling via planes regularly. I would always wonder, Should I just exit this plane? Is this trip really worth it? Am I being an irresponsible mother? Warranted or not, those thoughts of my children growing up without me literally left me breathless and out of control of myself. Death, the thoughts of leaving loved ones, and leaving earth before finishing all I’m supposed to do all play a major role in how and why I deal with anxiety.
Know Your Signs and Triggers
I’ve had a lot of time to discover and recognize the signs and personal triggers for panic attacks. Early on, driving on the freeway alone during rush hour caused a great deal of anxiety for me. I lived an hour and a half away from my business in downtown LA. The drive from work to home and back was excruciatingly stressful. It’s part of the reason why I don’t drive anymore. Because I get anxious on the freeway, I feel it’s better to get a driver or use something like Uber and let someone else be behind the wheel as a precaution.
I also recognize that my eating habits, or lack of good ones, can impact when and how often I have spells of anxiety. Back in the day, I would work while hyped up on Red Bull all day while eating very little. It was never a good thing for me. Now, I also realize that too much coffee and infrequent meals throughout the day is still not a great recipe for me.
During this time of COVID-19, personal and professional stress both tend to be big triggers for me. This is especially true with stressors I haven’t or can’t deal with. For example, when I consider the state of the world and realize there’s very little outside of my home that I can control, I get extremely anxious. Staying glued to daily news notifications and social media updates doesn’t really help, I get it. But the reaction is very real for me. When I feel heat on the back of my neck, I realize panic attacks can be near. Such is the same with having an elevated heart rate and breathing issues. Knowing my signs and triggers helps me move more quickly to offset feelings of being completely unable to control myself.
How You Can Cope
After considering all of my triggers, I had to discover what I needed to do to function well and deal with managing anxiety and panic attacks as they happened. Recognizing a moment of anxiety is the first step for me. It’s important that I verbalize what is happening to me in the moment to help me deal with it. Saying it out loud to myself makes it something “real” that I have to deal with. When I don’t say anything, the feelings tend to spiral out of control.
Acknowledging the situation to someone else is my next step. That helps me feel like I’m not dealing with anxiety alone. So, calling a friend is a way that I cope with panic attacks. Because I’m a very social being, having support is always a relaxing feeling. I’ve set up my network of trusted people I can call, and the list even includes friends who don’t even experience anxiety. However, they do know that asking me questions about how I feel helps me start to snap out of an attack and see the situation for what it actually is. Or, they may recognize it and help me get my mind on other things, which can oftentimes help me get through an attack.
Another person on my list of contacts is my sister, who is an EMT. Listening to her helps a great deal, too. She tends to talk me through what I would actually be experiencing in the moment if I was dying. Because I’m not experiencing those warning signs in the moment, I feel better about what is really going on. No matter who it is, talking helps me reset myself mentally and emotionally from the effects of a panic attack. While it doesn’t help 100% of the time, it usually does.
Deal with the Causes
Other ways of managing anxiety include monitoring my breathing and heart rate. I check them both out with my Apple Watch. If my heart rate is elevated, I will work deliberately to bring it down. This helps me feel more in control of myself when I feel like anxiety is trying to control how I feel. Meditating also helps me regulate my heart rate and bring myself back to reality. At other times, watching mindless television shows like Family Guy or American Dad help take my mind off of a moment of arresting panic. I’ve found that laughing helps me not think about whatever caused the anxiety.
After coping in the moment, I’ve realized that the only way to more completely alleviate anxiety attacks is to deal with the underlying stress that caused the panic. Whatever that is will continue to negatively impact my health, thinking and feeling when I least expect (and want) it to. Anxiety is pervasive; without dealing with the roots of it, it can evolve into something bigger with more detrimental results. It’s important to know that you don’t have to do it all alone, either. Until you get a support or contact group to help in moments of anxiety, find a professional counselor in your area who can help you sort through stressors in your life. Dealing with and managing anxiety is never fun, but it is very possible if you can recognize it and make a plan to work on it.