I don't know exactly how long I've struggled with anxiety.
When I first started working on this post I thought it must have been sometime in the fall of 2014, post thru-hike, when I named my struggle with anxiety. But I recently found a journal entry from the summer of 2013 in which I wrote that one of the things I hoped to accomplish in hiking the AT was to "learn how to master my mind, to gain the upper hand on my anxiety tendencies".
Sure enough, when I do a search on the blog for "anxiety" that word starts showing up with some frequency in 2013. I was pretty anxious about our hike and all the many unknowns that accompanied that adventure.
I forgot I wrote that in my journal. I didn't accomplish my goal of "mastering my mind" on the AT or gaining the upper hand on anxiety. It was almost the opposite.
Like many people with anxiety I am a really good manager and if I can manage things "just so" and control situations to my liking the anxiety is less prevalent in my life. Generally, I think I "managed" things really well till about five years ago and then things started to go a little off the rails in terms of my sense of security and I was pretty much destined to come face to face with my anxiety.
I know over the years I've recognized times of fear in myself, and of course doubt, but I didn't recognize the underlying anxiety in my life. I'm pretty sure it wasn't as bad when I was a young woman and young mother. I just don't remember it being an issue. I felt fairly secure and confident at that point in my life and that would have definitely helped to ameliorate any underlying anxiety.
One of the tricky things about identifying something in yourself is that you have no idea other people are different. Doesn't everyone always think of the worst case scenario, anticipate the worst? Isn't everyone hypervigilant about danger and risk? Doesn't everyone catastrophize and ruminate? Etc.
I'm pretty sure that the three short episodes of situational depression in my life - late-winter 2012, March 2013 and my trail depression were due to unrecognized and unresolved anxiety.
I have family members who have struggled with anxiety and depression. This isn't particularly special, it feels like in modern society these are common afflictions. My point is, I probably have a genetic pre-disposition to this struggle.
I'm going to share my experience of identifying and dealing with anxiety in my life. I am not a professional, though I've gotten some recommendations from mental health professionals in my family. I'm not in therapy (but I have people to talk to) and I'm not taking medication.
What I share is my own experience and what I've learned from my reading, research, personal practice and disciplines.
My dear friend and wise woman Krista at A Life in Progress is also writing about anxiety over the next couple weeks. I will update this post as she publishes her posts. I highly encourage you to read her wisdom and experience.
In addition, last year Rachel Wolf published Ten tips to quiet anxiety. Her ideas, though brief, are very useful.
This is a very long post because I want all this information and the story in one place. There are eight sections and you can jump down directly with the following links:
What does anxiety feel like to me?
- an overwhelming negative outlook on a situation
- fear about unfamiliar situations and the future
- the belief that a negative situation I'm currently experiencing is my future
- a deep insecurity about belonging (or not belonging)
- overly sensitive reactions to unexpected stimuli (I freak out easily)
- the belief that I do not have the resources I need to cope with a particular situation
The first thing I recognized when I came to accept that I struggle with anxiety, is that over many years I had developed a pattern of negative thinking, and I was so used to this way of thinking I wasn't even aware of it. I did this automatically.
This was one of the big lessons I learned on the trail, my thoughts could be faulty and toxic.
When I came home from the trail I knew I had to change my thinking. My thoughts were sabotoging me.
I recognized I had a problem, big time, but I also asked myself why the anxiety erupted in my life now. I've always been high strung, "anxious", a worrier, and tend towards pessimism over optimism, but none of that had derailed me the way I experienced on the trail and in the few years leading there.
At that point, in fall 2014/winter 2015, to help me answer the why question, I returned to studying my personality and increasing my self-knowledge. And what was glaringly obvious was that I was deeply insecure. I was crumbling. Some of these insecurities were "real" - the financial instability of our on-line business and self-employment. Others were things I perceived as insecure, and because perceptions are powerful and thoughts can create our reality, these were just as real.
I'm still pretty insecure in a lot of ways, not just related to finances or stability. I'm working on it.
Security & Stability
Security and stability are hugely important to me. I used to be ashamed of this since these traits make me less likely to take risks and more resistant to change. Mindsets that modern people are supposed to embrace in order to keep up with the times.
Years ago, when I met Damien and was assessing if he was "the one", one of the things I looked for was his ability to provide security and stability. These are core needs of mine and we didn't pay much attention to these core needs of mine for a few years. There was a lot of change and what I perceived as risk, and I slowly become less emotionally healthy because of it. (Core needs can also express themselves as core fears and this definitely happened to me but I'm not going into that right now. I talk a little bit about that in the personality section below.)
The perfect storm had brewed in which anxiety brought me to my knees. Toxic thoughts and ingrained negative thought patterns, an eroded of my sense of security, and a lot of things happening in my life that I couldn't control.
Anxiety is a personal issue but it's also a marital and family issue. How can it not be? So the first steps we took to deal with my anxiety and insecurity were to shift Damien's career back to full-time technology work, increasing our income; and we decided to move to Montreal, and stay here, for the remainder of our active child-raising years. Being able to adequately meet the kids social and intellectual needs greatly reduced my overall anxiety.
It's almost embarrassing to admit that Damien needed to make changes to his career to help with my anxiety, that we needed more money, that we had to change the circumstances, that I wasn't able to rise above this all on my own simply by changing my mindset. These changes haven't been the cure by any means, but it was a step in the right direction.
But that's just the reality, sometimes you have to change circumstances, make shifts in your relationships, etc. to provide the structural support you need so you can make the changes to your thinking. I'm just extremely grateful for a loving husband who recognized what needed to be done, I didn't at the time, and was willing to make those sacrifices for me.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
While I was on the trail a friend and trail angel (and one of the most positive thinking people I've met) told me about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I filed the idea away and came back to it the winter of 2015. I started slow (as I do with all new ideas) with some books from the library and then when we moved to Montreal last summer I got serious with The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety.
What is Cognitive Behavioralal Therapy, or CBT? Basically, it's re-training your brain and your conscious thought patterns and changing your behavior as a result.
The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety is a packed workbook, and the ideas repeat themselves throughout but are presented different ways and with different exercises.
I've been working in this book for 6 months and I'm not quite halfway through. You don't have to do the whole book, you can pick the chapters most applicable to you.
There is so much to say about CBT that I just don't have the time to go into here. CBT has shown me that I've lacked emotional resilience and that has gotten me into anxiety-producing mindsets and situations. It has shown me my faulty thinking. It's helped me identity my big anxiety triggers. It's shown me how my behaviors are a direct result of my thinking. This seems obvious but sometimes we think we're stuck in our behaviors, but the truth is we're only stuck if our minds are stuck.
The hardest part for me of CBT is doing it, putting into action what I've learned; re-routing my negative thoughts, being present in the moment of a reaction and choosing to re-direct that reaction.
Some days I'd rather crawl in a cave, where I won't have to interact with anyone or any situations and therefore can "control" my responses that way. And many times I just wish the the world change to my liking and save me all the effort of re-wiring my brain, but that's unlikely to happen.
CBT is hard work. The ideas are not hard, they make perfect sense. I love thinking about those ideas, reading, making notes, but putting them into practice is difficult.
Faulty thinking is a deadly threat to emotional and spiritual health... (and is) even more dangerous because it operates, for the most part, beyond our conscious awareness. Eradicating this deadly disease requires such radical surgery that it can almost be compared to getting a brain transplant.
Geri Scazzero from the Emotionally Healthy Woman
Another book I read last year and am nearly finished is Emotionally Healthy Woman. My mom gifted this to me and it has been hugely helpful for me. It's not about anxiety, per se, but many of the ideas in this book are straight up CBT strategies and self-awareness principles. I've learned a lot from this book and I love its liberated Christian woman perspective. I highly recommend it.
Diet & Exercise
I have not focused on diet in addressing my anxiety. My diet has changed a bit over the past year, not in response to anxiety, but in response to some life realities: I don't like cooking very much, I have three hungry teenagers to feed, I live in a city with a lot of food options. I'm familiar, on the surface level, with gut mind theories, that what's going on in our gut affects our thinking. I just haven't been able to "go there" yet in my research and experimentation. And I don't know that I will. I'm trying these other strategies first.
And I simply can't imagine giving up my one cup of coffee a day. I'm happy to try every other strategy in the book before that one!
Daily outdoor exercise has been a part of my life for a few years now. I walk, bike, downhill and x-country ski. I recognize the importance of this discipline in my overall health and wellbeing. But I take exception to the idea that all a person needs to do is "get outside for some fresh air" and her anxiety will be resolved.
Things aren't that simple. I disagree with the adage that:
A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world.
This is a popular quote that appears as an image on the web, usually superimposed over a woman running on a beautiful sunny day. I experienced my most intense anxiety, shame, and depression while living in the great outdoors and vigorously walking many miles a day. I didn't need more exercise, I needed psychology, and maybe medicine.
All that to say diet and exercise were not the solutions to my anxiety. They play a role but they are not the answers, for me.
Amygdala & Supplements
In the process of reading The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety I learned about my amygdala, which was a lightbulb moment. For years I have called myself a panic mom, not in that I get panic attacks (I've never experienced that), but I react and over-react to simple things. The kids know this about me. I freak out easily.
If you have a sensitive amygdala, you'll have lots of false alarms. You are more likely to overreact to things when they are not where you expect them to be, as well as to strange sounds, quick movements, or unexpected changes in emotions.
from The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety
The amygdala contributes to negative feelings by increasing your perceptual sensitivity for negative stimuli.
from The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety
As I've gone through the journey of understanding my anxiety I have experienced many "aha" moments when I realize I'm not the only person like this. Learning about my amygdala was one of these moments.
I'm fairly certain I have a sensitive amygdala.
I did a bunch of reading about the amygdala, mostly online, and started taking supplements for the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I hate that label, I don't consider myself to have a disorder, I prefer "imbalances in my limbic system".
With a focus on correcting neurotransmitter imbalances in the limbic system, as well as hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction, clinicians can choose from several scientifically supported nutrients and herbs the ones that are most appropriate for each patient to modulate these pathways and change the course of this disorder.
from Natural Medicine Journal Treatment Considerations for Generalized Anxiety Disorder
I'm currently taking magnesium and ashwagandha specifically for anxiety. And just recently I added St. John's Wort to help me get through winter. I also take a multi-vitamin which includes 2,000 IU's of vitamin D and 1250 mg (750 mg EPA and 500 mg DHA) of omega-3 fatty acids daily.
Supplements and dietary aids for anxiety is not my area of expertise or research. For that I direct you specifically to Krista's blog, she will be posting about this shortly and I'll update this post with the link when it publishes. Or you can start following her blog. Krista is a certified holistic nutritionist who lives and breathes this kind of knowledge, I can't wait to read what she has to say.
Last winter as I read, researched, and listened to podcasts (and interviews like this one on CBC with Dan Harris) it become clear to me that meditation would probably be really helpful. So last June I asked my friend to teach me how to meditate.
Not surprisingly, meditation and mindfulness shows up everywhere in my "how to deal with anxiety" research and reading.
I started meditating because I recognized the power of my mind and my thoughts. And I could see that my reaction to situations, my anxious responses, were driven by my subconscious.
I'm still learning how to meditate but the most important part is just showing up and making it part my routine.
My intention in meditating is to drive down truth into my subconscious. I want to react and respond from beliefs that are fundamentally different than the negativity and fear that drives me. I want to respond instinctively from a place of freedom and truth. This feels like a very tall order.
I don't do an "emptying of my mind" type of meditation. I'm very purposeful in my meditation.
Meditation for me looks something like this:
- Focus on my breathing (and bring my focus back to my breath over and over again throughout the 10 minute session).
- Clear my mind by focusing on my breathing.
- Choose an image, phrase or mantra to "meditate" on. This is the part about driving down truth into my subconscious. I usually meditate on a Biblical truth, last fall I mostly focused on my identity and I come back to this often. Sometimes I will meditate on a few simple verses from my daily/weekly Bible reading. Sometimes I will take myself to a place in nature and "be there" in my meditation.
This is my goal in meditation (and CBT in general):
It’s creating the conditions whereby we can embark on a way of life that is not dictated by our instinctive reactivity, our habits, our fears, and so forth and so on, but stems from an openness, an inner openness, that is unconditioned by those forces, and that allows the freedom to think differently, to act differently, to respond more fully. And in doing so, to allow the human person to flourish. To realize more fully the potentials that each one of us has.
from OnBeing interview with Stephen Batchelor, The Limits of Belief, The Massiveness of the Questions
Learning how to breathe and relax my belly is part of my morning meditation, but I do those things throughout the day also to release anxiety and tension in my body. Deep breathing and relaxing your belly are very easy strategies to implement.
Personality & The Enneagram
I've been studying my personality since I was thirty-five. In fact, thirty-five was a threshold of self-discovery for me, when I started to want to deeply know and understand myself. It was very exciting.
My introduction to personality typing was Myers-Briggs, and oh how I do love that system. It was thrilling for me to read descriptions about my personality. It was a very validating experience, but also puzzling in some ways because I couldn't make sense of my rebellious, non-conforming behaviors within the structure of my personality type, which is ESTJ/ISTJ.
I really like Myers-Briggs and all it has taught me, and recently I've been learning about the cognitive functions of my personality type - how I learn and make decisions - and that has been fascinating and again, validating (yes, I need lots of validation).
MBTI has helped me understand my anxiety by validating the importance of tradition, security, and structures to my wellbeing (when those feel threatened, my anxiety increases), but I found the Enneagram provided greater clarity to understand the root of my anxiety.
The two systems are quite different. One of the main differences, that I see, is that the Enneagram provides a very honest assessment of your weaknesses and explains the unhealthy expressions of your type, but then also provides a path to healing and psychological and spiritual growth.
I don't want to spend too much time talking about the Enneagram here but I do want to say this. I'm a Type 6 and after all the soul-searching I've done the past year it was pretty easy for me to type myself.
All three personality types of the Thinking Center have a problem with anxiety, but Sixes, as the primary type, have the greatest problem with it. They are the type which is most conscious of anxiety—"anxious that they are anxious"—unlike other personality types who are either unaware of their anxiety or who unconsciously convert it into other symptoms..... Even though they belong to the Thinking Center, Sixes are also emotional because their feelings are affected by anxiety.
The Enneagram Institute Overview of Type 6
I could go on and on with quotes and links. "Sixes want to have security, to feel supported by others, to have certitude and reassurance, to test the attitudes of others toward them, to fight against anxiety and insecurity", etc. etc.
I could talk about how my personality type - my loyalty, my anxiety, my desire to be under trusted authorities, my fear of being unsupported - a complex stew - affected our marriage in unhealthy ways, which then increased my anxiety. But all that will have to wait. I do plan to publish that someday.
Suffice to say, looking back through the lens of the Enneagram and MBTI has given me a lot of insight into why my anxiety exploded the way it did.
A lot of people are initially discouraged or disappointed with Enneagram typing. It's not pretty to see your faults, weaknesses and your emotional unhealthiness in black and white. But for me, it was liberating. I'd already identified my junk. I've written it. I've journaled it. Cried it, prayed it, talked to Damien about it.
I wasn't ashamed to see it in a book, I was relieved.
I've looked into my heart and mind and observed things about myself that are not pleasant. I understand how people can do dark and evil things because I saw how in a really unhealthy place I could do the same.
What the Enneagram did for me was shine a light on what I already knew about myself and provide a path forward.
Understanding my type within that framework has given me great hope in my quest to overcome my anxiety.
One of the key features to the Enneagram is what is called integration, which I'm not going to explain here. But what was really cool for me to discover was that the activities I've been engaging in for the last six to eight months in attempting to address my anxiety are the behaviors and attitudes of my type moving in the direction of integration.
In other words, I've been instinctively moving towards mental and emotional health. The Enneagram is giving me language to understand that process and a vision for what it looks like to be a healthy individual with my personality type. And honestly, that vision excites me. I just wish I could be there, now.
Truth & Identity
For a while in my life, perhaps a long while, I had lost sight of my true identity. And I don't mean my personality. That's not my identity. My personality helps explain the way I think, interact with the world, make decisions, my weaknesses and strengths but it is not my true self, or my Essence.
When we are willing to say, "I want to be who I really am, and I want to live in the truth," the process of recovering ourselves has already begun. Riso and Hudson, The Wisdom of the Enneagram
Last year I found my true self again in Jesus Christ. My true self is not a role: "mom, homemaker, wife, writer". It's not my personality type, preferences, or issues: "anxious, traditional, beauty-seeking, etc."
Who I am in Christ is none of those things.
The list of my true identity is vast, but there are certain truths that have really resonated with me over the past year. These are the things I meditate on, as they speak to my particular need, at this point in my life.
Here are two truths that have really impacted me since last summer:
I am hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) - For me, this feels like the ultimate position of safety and security.
I am free forever from condemnation (Rom. 8:1) - I felt so much shame at the height of my anxiety and I needed to cling to this truth.
Jesus is setting me free from my anxiety because my identity is in him. He died and then conquered death to set me free. This my birthright as a child of God.
I wish I could say I don't struggle with anxiety and insecurity because I've kicked it to the curb with Ninja-like CBT practices, Tibetan monk meditation discipline, and continually living (and acting accordingly) in the knowledge of my true identity.
I fall, fail, and trip up a lot but I am confident I have the tools, resources, and knowledge I need to fight this. Anxiety made me feel broken and that there was a problem with my essential self. But I know that's not true.
I have a vision now for what it looks like to be an emotionally and psychologically healthy person of "my type": she's self-confident and self-affirming because she recognizes and trusts her inner guidance. Her faith in God and God living in her manifests as outstanding courage and leadership. She leads from a deep understanding of people's insecurities and frailties. She is filled with the presence of God and feels solid, steady, and supported, as if she were standing on a massive bed of granite. She knows that this rootedness in the presence of God is the only real security in life, and this is what gives her great courage.
This post has affiliate links.