What does it feel like to live with the anxiety? For some people, it’s never-ending worry. For some it’s panic in certain situations, while for others it’s like listening to a recurring audio loop of doom and gloom. As the following stories illustrate, whatever the form of anxiety, there are tools that can help people manage their symptoms constructively.
Bonnie, a fifty-year-old woman with a sunny personality, has dealt with anxiety off and on since adolescence. For her, anxiety manifests as catastrophizing a situation and imagining worst-case scenarios. Her heart races and her thoughts feel like they are running amok. When she feels this way, and seems to be having an outsized reaction to a problem, her husband often reminds her to “back away from the cliff.” Then, she changes the tape and reminds herself that she doesn’t want to expend her energy worrying about something that may never happen. Instead of asking “What if?” and imagining the worst, she will challenge herself to imagine “What if….” everything turns out okay.
For Bonnie, one of the effects of living with anxiety is that it causes her to back away from social situations. She’ll avoid making plans and will spend more time alone, even if that’s not what she really wants. Bonnie laments time she has lost enjoying her life and the people in it due to anxiety. She doesn’t want to miss out on further experiences, so she does everything she can to mitigate anxiety’s impact.
Bonnie has found working with a therapist and joining a support group to be helpful. She is now able to employ strategies to manage her anxiety symptoms. For example, when a worried or unhelpful thought pops up, she says, “Cancel. Cancel.” This helps her interrupt those thoughts and replace them with positive self-talk (“It’s okay. I can handle this.”).
She has also found that being open to serendipity can be an unexpected support. Coming upon a kindness rock with just the right message, or an online quote, can help bolster her intention to stay ahead of her anxiety. A while back, she salvaged an assortment of wooden letters at work. Later, a few of the letters got tossed in a box that she brought home. From the original assortment three letters remained: “c” “A” and “n.” Bonnie placed them together on a shelf and leaves the message “cAn” undisturbed, a reminder that she can overcome her negative thoughts and can experience life on her terms.
Because she has learned some hard-won lessons, Bonnie was eager to share her experience with others. In addition to working with a therapist, Bonnie cites the healing power of nature and physical movement to calm her thoughts. She wants others suffering with anxiety to know there is hope and that change is possible.
By the age of three or four, Talia and her husband knew that Hannah had a tendency to worry. Hannah bit her nails, had heart-breaking difficulty being weaned from a pacifier, and always seemed to need an object to fiddle with in her hand or her mouth. Hannah cried when a picture she colored wasn’t “perfect.” She cried when it was time to ride the bus to kindergarten, needing to sit behind the bus driver every day.
Early on, these behaviors, while difficult, didn’t seem to her parents to be cause for undue concern. After all, lots of children have a hard time letting go of their pacifier and are afraid to ride the bus. Yet, when Hannah, finding herself without something to fiddle with or chew on, got her hands on some broken glass and began to chew it, her parents knew they needed professional help to address their daughter’s needs.
As Hannah grew, her anxiety worsened. In first grade, Hannah worried about her performance in school. While studying for spelling tests, she would become so worried about disappointing her teachers and parents that she pulled clumps of her hair out of her head. She had paralyzing fear in new social situations, avoided making eye-contact and found making friends difficult.
After having Hannah evaluated by a neurologist, Talia brought Hannah to a psychiatrist for weekly appointments. When Hannah was younger she couldn’t put into words the thoughts that caused her anxiety, but the psychiatrist helped Hannah voice these thoughts. For example, when Hannah cried about getting on the bus for school, it wasn’t because of shyness or fear of the bus itself. Her real fear was that if she rode the bus, something bad would happen to her parents.
Talia credits a series of therapists and teachers with helping Hannah learn coping strategies. One professional recommended the book, What to Do When You Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner, which is organized in workbook fashion. Talia and her husband worked through the activities with Hannah and learned such techniques as confronting your “Worry Bully.” Your Worry Bully sits on your shoulder and says things like:
Hannah is learning to recognize when anxious thoughts are coming from her Worry Bully. She was pleasantly shocked when her parent said she could tell her Worry Bully to shut up- a turn of phrase otherwise not allowed in their home.
Another technique Talia says helps her daughter is to think of her anxiety like a tomato plant. If you feed and water a tomato plant and give it lots of attention, it will get bigger. If you give your anxious thoughts attention, that allows them to grow bigger, too. When Hannah starts becoming anxious her parents ask whether she’s “feeding” her anxiety and what she can do to stop.
Hannah, now almost twelve, has made great progress. Whereas in the past complete meltdowns were a daily occurrence, now they occur only once or twice a month. Hannah still worries about her performance in school, but cries less when she makes a mistake. Her therapy sessions are down to once a month. She is able to practice self-care when needed. When her thoughts start to get the better of her, she will say to her family, “I’m not okay, right now,” and head to her room. She reads or writes in one of the many notebooks her parents have provided for her. She reminds herself to take deep breaths. She knows now that the anxious feeling is temporary and that the moment will pass.
Talia expresses frustration that anxiety, which is so common, is often an unspoken struggle. Like Bonnie, she wants to share her family’s experience because she hopes others will feel less alone reading their story.
Then, there is Josie. A forty-something mother of three, Josie never experienced anxiety in her younger years. Even after a diagnosis of Type I Diabetes in her teens, Josie didn’t worry too much about her health or future complications from her disease. It wasn’t until she lived through three extremely high-risk pregnancies and life-threatening asthma episodes that she realized things “can go wrong” and began experiencing panic attacks. During one pregnancy, she developed Proliferative Diabetic Retinopathy (PDR), which causes blindness. Correcting the PDR required a year of multiple eye surgeries and other painful procedures.
Driving is often fraught with worry for Josie, especially when her children are in the car. Understandably, she worries that while she is driving she may have an insulin reaction or an asthma attack. The idea of driving with her children on the highway is frightening, so she avoids it. One day, she tried to push aside her worries to take them clothes shopping only to have panic set in. Ultimately, she had to pull off the highway to collect herself and return home on backroads.
Although Josie’s anxiety began because of specific concerns about her health, she also experiences a more generalized anxiety. For example, when summer comes she is plagued by dreams of her children drowning. She does not allow her husband to drive all three of her children in the car simultaneously, for fear she will lose her whole family in one hapless moment in the road. Similarly, driving together as a family causes her intense fear.
Like Bonnie and Hannah, Josie has learned what helps her manage the symptoms of anxiety. Focusing on her breath and positive self-talk help her when she finds herself beginning to panic. She tells herself that even health flare-ups are temporary and she is more than her illness.
Josie wards off anxiety by remembering positive comments from her doctors and repeating them to herself like a mantra. When she’s feeling particularly worried, her husband will soothe her with those same words as she’s falling asleep. Josie also sings in a musical group and gives hours-long performances, which are immensely healing for her. In her words, it’s one way of saying, “Let me show you what I can do,” to her illness.
Even though individual circumstances may be different, the symptoms of worry, fear, and imagining the worst are some of the hallmarks of anxiety. Bonnie’s or Josie’s or Hannah’s story may sound familiar. Each of them has felt that their anxiety was unmanageable, would never end, and that they were doomed to always be at the mercy of their thoughts. Each has learned that none of that is true. Anxiety can be managed and each incidence will pass. There is hope and help is available.
Stewart, Laurie M., “Negative Self-Talk: Stop the Tape!” September 2010.
Suttie, Jill. “How Nature Boosts Kindness, Happiness and Creativity,” March 11, 2016.
Huebner, Dawn. What To Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. Magination Press, 2006.
Boyes, Ph.D., Alice. “Breathing Techniques for Anxiety,” Psychology Today, July 12, 2016.