Anxiety and How to Train Your Mind

By James Heaton

Anxiety comes in different forms for different people. Along with the mood changes, the crippling depression and sever manic phases, people who suffer from bipolar disorder can also experience severe anxiety. But what is anxiety?

Its common to experience some anxiety in our everyday lives but when it becomes debilitating then it converges into the realm of a disorder. In our everyday lives we experience anxious feelings along with other emotions, like happiness, sadness, elation, worry and so forth and so on. Anxiousness is our body preparing for a situation and exploring the different outcomes. Our mind, the most complex computer ever created, routinely examines the things we are not only experiencing but the things we are going to experience. Take for instance, starting a new job. Our first day at the new job we do not know exactly to expect, but our minds considers all the possible variables and outcomes and constructs a series of virtual what ifs. It explores the different possibilities that could happen, and it develops appropriate reactions to those possibilities. In essence our brain creates problems that don’t actually exist, and then it develops reactions that we may or may not have to those problems. For instance, imagine going into your new job and you are asked to introduce yourself to your co-workers, your brain has already exploring that possibility and has practiced your response. It prepares you for those moments, but the anxious mind doesn’t know when to stop. It mutates and creates multiple scenarios, each terrifying. This internal focus becomes distracting, and we simply want our minds to stop. But these anxiety disorders take over and flood our minds with chemicals and chemical responses that overwhelm us and cripple us from actually completing the task.
Social anxiety disorder is one of the more common disorders that affects people. And it isn’t just bipolar people, it happens to all sorts of people. The closer we get to the time of the event the more overwhelming the feelings become, until we decide to forego the event altogether. We feel safer wrapped up in a blanket on our couch or bed, watching our favorite movie or tv show. We hide from the thought of having to meet a new person, we fear that our reactions will be embarrassing. The thought of saying too much or appearing weird or abnormal is terrifying. We might as well be going to a haunted house! Our minds have created a world where everything is scary and the thought of engaging with others or being in crowds is all but impossible.
We create these comfort zones where our minds are aware that we are safe. Favorite blanket? Favorite food? The comfort of our well worn couch? All these things are safe in our minds, we have experienced these things and we have proven to our minds that they are all safe and void of danger. So, in times of stress, we focus on those comforts and our minds promote that we seek those things out. Mood disorders are very similar to anxiety disorders, in that they are all chemical responses to our environment. With anxiety disorders we record the emotional responses to past events and instead of realizing that those responses were directed at a one time event, our minds associate a location with those responses. Think about your favorite song, more than likely your experienced a positive emotion when you first heard that song. You might have been very happy, felt safe or maybe you were at a fun place or with people that you love. Your mind associates those feelings with the song. For example, I had my first car wreck when I was seventeen. I had been out late the night before and headed to work the next morning, I was very tired. I wasn’t paying attention and cut across traffic to turn onto a road. But I wasn’t focused and pulled in front of a car before I could correct my turn, I struck the other car and crashed. The song on the radio was by The Beatles, it was called Matchbook. Anytime I hear that song I immediately flashback to that wreck. It is permanently embedded in my memory. We associate smell, color, and sound to certain memories. The same thing happens with certain emotions, and that is how PTSD can trigger responses in people who have experienced trauma. Loud yelling can trigger a person who was abused as a child, fireworks can trigger a war hero who was exposed to explosions in combat. Our brains trick us into believing that we are in danger when we clearly are not. It floods us with emotions causing us to react, and that is how anxiety can destroy our day, week, or year.
So how do we combat these attacks from our own minds? That is a lot easier said than done, but with some tricks we can convince our minds that everything is fine.
Let’s looks at a few of the disorders associated with anxiety. The term “anxiety disorder” refers to specific psychiatric disorders that involve extreme fear or worry, and includes generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is also a disorder that is associated with anxiety. Our minds will create complex answers to simple questions, which in turn lead to these disorders.
There are medications that are used to treat these disorders. Medications for anxiety are citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), fluoxetine (Prozac), fluvoxamine (Luvox), paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva), sertraline (Zoloft) as well as valium and some other benzo based medications. Medications are typically reserved for extreme cases where the anxiety is so overwhelming that a person cannot function without help. But the best way to deal with anxiety is to examine your responses to certain things and to convince your mind that you are safe.
First we must learn to control our breathing. In through the nose and out the mouth. This seems simple enough but most people who are having anxiety attacks begin to hyperventilate and that can disrupt the oxygen needed by your brain to cope. Practice deep breathing throughout the day. When you feel the slightest bit of anxiety, try to begin the deep breathing. Fill your lungs with a deep breath through your nose, physically feel your lungs filling with fresh air, and then slowly blow that out through your mouth. Let it become hypnotic, if you can add music with this it as it can help with the rhythm.
Breathing is the first step to correcting the behavior, but I must suggest that you prepare for the anxiety / panic attacks before they happen. How do we do that? So, imagine preparing a survival bag that you keep hidden away in case something horrible happens. What items would you pack? A flashlight, a blanket and maybe some water. How about a box of matches and maybe a knife or a tool? The more you think about it the more items come to mind. Same thing with our Anxiety Survival Kit!

Believe it or not one of the things that can bring us anxiety can also help us with attacks. Our phone! We all experience anxiety from social media and the news. Harsh comments, criticism, reports about impending doom, politics, religion, family members who say mean things. All these things are gas on the fire when it comes to anxiety. And all those things can come from our phones. But lets turn it around and make our phones safe. So instead of hateful messages from family members, let’s explore pictures of things that bring you joy. Maybe pictures of baby animals, or cats? Maybe you love the ocean and pictures of the beach can bring you joy. Create a folder on your phone and fill it with all the pictures that bring you joy. Place that folder on the home screen of your phone. Because what we want is to fill the home screen of your phone with an abundance of happiness. Playlist of songs that promote joy, or songs that put you into a trance, make those songs easily accessible. For me I always turn to a video of Carl Sagan talking during the intro to the show, Cosmos. His voice is so peaceful and the sound of the ocean in the video as well as hearing him discuss space always soothes me. I keep that link to the video on my home screen, so that in a seconds notice I can open it and get lost in his voice.
Create your survival kit on the home screen of your phone. Load it up with all the happiness you can find. When the anxiety starts to fill your mind, pull out your phone and start going through all the things that bring you joy, all the while doing deep breathing. Your creating a distraction, telling your mind that its okay, nothing can hurt you.

But what about the crippling anxiety that prevents us from showering or brushing our teeth? And let me say that this is perfectly normal and common amongst people with anxiety. Your not the only one who cant muster the strength to stand up and turn on the shower. Many of us have been there. How do we work around this? Why don’t we make the shower a pleasurable experience? How about some really cool lights, for $16 you can order a fifty foot roll of led lights to decorate your bathroom with. How about some incense? Or maybe essential oil and a diffuser? Create an environment, something that brings you joy! A Bluetooth speaker and your favorite playlist can enhance the bathroom and make a nice hot relaxing shower all the more enjoyable. Work toward the goal. Maybe not a daily shower at first but a shower every three days. Then every other day and eventually you can adjust to showering daily without having to work toward it.
Do you see a pattern? We have to turn all the negativity into joy. All those things that cause panic, fear, resistance, we have to convert those emotions into bliss. Why? Because our minds have created this horrible illusion that bad things are going to happen. We fear people, we fear talking in public, we fear getting in the shower and how difficult it is just to bathe. We have all these lies in our brain, things that have become twisted and untrue, and we have to go one by one and change those emotions.
But lets take small steps! There is no need to push ourselves so hard that we have anxiety about dealing with our anxiety! Lets take one thing that causes us extreme panic and analyze it. How about a popular one, going to the store. I have so much anxiety when it comes to going to Wal-Mart. I have anxiety about other stores, but Wal-Mart is a huge trigger for me. So how do we approach it so that it is less stressful?
First off, lets make a plan. So, we say, tomorrow is the day we are going to the store. We pick a time, preferably a time that we feel more adjusted. Mornings are horrible for me, but later in the day is better so lets say 7pm. I’m going to put that in my calendar. Tomorrow at 7pm I am going to attempt to go to Wal-Mart. Let me say that a calendar is my number one weapon for fighting anxiety. Why? Because I can visually prepare for the days and times that are worse for me. I use a calendar app on my phone as well as a large desk calendar stuck to my fridge. I put EVERYTHING on that calendar. Every second of every day is laid out on that calendar. I get creative with highlighters and circle the days that I know are going to be stressful. I prepare all week for the upcoming event, to the point that nothing is left unaccounted for. Does this help? Yes! My stress went down 50% by implementing my calendars. I make it a rule with my family that if they need me to do anything for them, I need 24 hours or more notice. No calling me up and asking me to jump and help out. I need notice, and that is a boundary. I use boundaries to build up my kingdom. I make it very clear that my time is valuable, and I refuse to do anything on a second’s notice. Does this upset people, sure. Do I care? Nope, I don’t. But it took me over a year to implement this system. I had to train my family and friends in my ways of doing things. Did I lose friends? Yes I did, but I don’t regret it. We have to do what’s best for us and our mental health. So back to our trip to the store, we picked a time. We are giving ourselves notice and preparing. One of the things that bothers me most about my trips to Wal-Mart are the people. Surrounded by so many people. They walk close to you and sometimes they feel it’s okay to talk to you. So, I use headphones. I go into to Wal-Mart with my big giant Sennheiser headphones with Noise Reduction. My music is loud, and I am lost in my own world, ignoring all the crazy people around me. I have my list of things I need plotted out. I put my list in order of where they are located in the store. Five things on my list and I get out of my car, put on my headphones, music playing and off I go. First item, then second item and on and on until I have everything I need. I head to the checkout and my music is still playing. I feel like I am in a giant bubble, protected from the craziness of the store and people. My music is loud, and I am focused on checking out and then heading back to my car. I don’t have time for anxiety because I am hyper focused on completing the mission. But what happens if they are out of the shampoo I need? What if they don’t have the brand that I was so focused on buying? I’m prepared for that because my list has two options for every item. Pick an alternative before you go! No surprises, if you want orange Gatorade, list your second choice. So, your list would read, Orange Gatorade or Red Gatorade. When you get there and they are out of orange, you can easily choose red.
One of the problems about anxiety is that your mind is always thinking about what’s next. You cant enjoy the moment your in because you are preparing for what is happening next. This is where we have to learn to live in the moment. Enjoy what you are doing while your doing it. Shut out any thought of anything other than your focal point. And like everything else we need to practice this. The more we practice the better we get.
For example, you take a look in the mirror, and you see an underdeveloped body. But you would prefer to see a muscular body that is healthy and beautiful. How do you go about getting that body? Well, you have to join a gym, you have to change your diet and work out every day. You have to put in the work to get the results. Your brain is no different than your biceps! It’s a muscle that your have to train. You have to work at it to get the results. A little change everyday and eventually you will have the skills you need. I cant say this enough, it takes practice and time. Coping with anxiety and stress is a talent and a skill that needs practice.
Anxiety is complex and there are no easy answers. If you are more advanced in your issues, I suggest working with your doctor and maybe introduce some medication that can help ease the complexities. But don’t rely on that medication to be the answer. Instead allow the medication to work like training wheels. Retrain you mind while you use the medication as a means of support. Eventually you can back off of the meds and rely on your skills to help you cope with the stress of daily life. You aren’t alone, there are millions of people out there who suffer from complex anxiety disorders.
I suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder for years. It started when I ignored my bipolar disorder, instead of seeking medical help and taking medications I thought I could just live with it. Pushing it deeper and deeper into the void. I tried daily to just cope, to work through the pain. But it got worse and worse. At the time I was working as a detention officer, and I spent everyday in a county detention center. Our shifts were 12 hours long and we were forbidden from going outside for breaks. All day long I was locked in a jail with thousands of inmates and the horrible smells and filth eventually wore me down. Everything was stagnant. The air that circulated inside the building had been in circulation for thirty or more years. There were no outside vents that brought in fresh air, it was too much of an escape risk. The only fresh air came in through the doors whenever they opened and closed. The people were often filthy and many of them did not bathe regularly. I became more and more aware of the smells and the thought of germs everywhere. I began wearing latex gloves all day long. Having to touch the inmates or their soiled clothing sent me into a panic. My main job was working as an escort for the inmates. I had to lead them through the jail from booking to their housing pods. Everyday it got worse. I was washing my hands thirty to forty times a day, often burning my hands with the hot water. When I got off work I would go home and strip down. My work clothes were washed in hot water, and I would shower in scalding hot water for an hour. My skin was dry and cracked. My hands would bleed from the tiny little cracks. To combat my anxiety, I began organizing everything. My clothes were organized by color, my socks and underwear were all lined up and placed perfectly in order. My work involved a certain amount of chaos, there would be daily fights and I was always prepared for that chaos. Hypervigilant at times, living in a constant fear of the next inmate who would throw a chair or punch an officer. I was constantly stressed out and my anger had gotten the best of me from time to time. I yelled at my daughter and my wife, I punched holes in doors and walls. The fear of home invasion was always in the back of my head. Crime wasn’t something I would occasionally read about in the news; I was seeing it daily. There were so many inmates and hearing their stories and how they took advantage of the less fortunate stuck in my mind. I installed multiple locks on all my doors, and I began locking each lock three times. If I didn’t lock them three times in a row I felt like the world would end. Everything had to be in order. Books, kitchen utensils, clothes, and I became obsessed with soap. I washed my hands so much that I developed a skin disorder. Eventually I lost the job because I was unable to control my anger. An inmate through a chair and struck me in the head. I had a three inch laceration above my eye, and I lashed out at that inmate. I fought him and beat him very badly, to the point of blacking out with my rage. Other officers had to pull me off of him. I was told that I needed help and that I was no longer employed. It was the thing I needed to push me to get help.
It took me years of therapy and medication to be able to function outside of the obsessive compulsive desires. I had to trick my brain into believing that I didn’t need to wash my hands every few moments. I would carry out the trash and then come back into the house and refuse to wash my hands. I did this day in and day out. I limited my hand washing to four times a day. Forcing myself to sit with dirty hands, at least they were in my mind. I was convinced that I could see all the little germs swarming on my fingers. But they weren’t there, and if they were, they wouldn’t kill me. Over three years I went from keeping forty bars of soap neatly stashed in my bathroom to having one single bottle of soap. I would leave a pile of clothes sitting at the foot of my bed, forcing myself to look at it every time I passed by. I made myself be okay with unorganized clothes. I would stop myself from listening to the same song on repeat all day long. When I started taking care of my bipolar disorder I was able to focus on my overall health, eventually the OCD subsided, and I could control it. I started therapy, took my meds, and worked the program daily. I used a rubber band on my wrist, snapping it anytime I had obsessive thoughts. Over time I was able to take back my life and live with my disorders.
Today I still have five locks on my front and back door. I limit myself to washing my hands only when they are dirty or a maximum of four times a day. It’s been years since I put a song on repeat, although I do replay my favorite set list while I work. I have a pile of clothes at the foot of my bed that I refuse to put up. Just to push the button and show myself that I don’t have to do what my mind commands. I created boundaries with myself. I set limits and I stuck to those limits. We have to create and follow boundaries with not only other people but with ourselves. We cant get lost in our own minds, we have to live in the moment and be aware of our surroundings. One step at a time. If you fail today, you can succeed tomorrow.
So, if you are sitting on your couch or your bed, unable to leave for work or visit a friend’s home, and you want to change the way your living. If you want to be able to make these choices without your mind dictating what you can or cannot do, today is the day you get to take back control. One step at a time and if you fail, its okay. You can try again tomorrow. Pick one thing that you want to change, work at until you can change it. Then pick another and another and so on. Its your mind and you can control it. I believed in myself and made the changes I needed to make. I believe in you, and I know that you can make the changes you need to make to live your life free of anxiety.


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