Understanding Anxiety and Effective Strategies for Coping
Two years ago, I was going through the IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) process. I was 39 years old at the time, and my doctor told me basically to just get on with it. Because of my age, it was likely that my geriatric eggs were the root cause of my infertility, and IVF was the next step in the process. As it was my first experience, all of the steps were foreign to me. I was required to visit the clinic every other day for bloodwork (not a fan of needles to say the least), and an ultrasound (again, not entirely comfortable). The clinic was completely jam packed with patients, also going through the process. It was an assembly line of sorts - bloodwork, ultrasound, see a nurse (who you will probably not see the next time) to review your results, understand what the nurse is telling you, receive instructions for daily injections, wrap your head around giving yourself a needles multiple times a day, pick up your medication (assuming you’ve been given the right amount of the right drug for you), and finally, go home to do all the things you normally do in your day, such as work, kids, and household responsibilities. Overload much?
Here’s the thing about the IVF process. Most of it is out of your control. You are in a high-stakes, vulnerable and emotional situation in which you must surrender to the clinic and its staff. It’s scary to say the least. When I was given the instructions for the injections, my mind could not focus. I was so petrified that I couldn’t process the steps she was giving me. It seemed nuts to me that they would just hand out needles, and say, “Off you go.” My stress levels were off the charts, and I was fearful of what the future would hold. I felt out of control and unsafe. But what was surprising to me was the dizziness I started to experience and the shakiness I felt in my body. This, is Anxiety.
"What surprised me was the dizziness I started to experience and the shakiness I felt in my body."
I didn’t realize it right away because they were symptoms I had never seen before. I thought it was a virus, or vertigo. As a psychotherapist, anxiety most often presented itself in the form of shallow breathing, heart racing, and panic attacks. However, anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways, such as: the desire to control people and events, difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep, feeling agitated or angry, showing defiant or other challenging behaviours, having high expectations of yourself, avoiding activities or events (work and school), pain in your stomach, headaches, dizziness, the sensation of needing to urinate, struggling to pay attention and focus, intolerance or uncertainty, crying and difficulty with managing emotions, over planning for situations and events, or feeling worried about situations.
It is estimated that 5% of the Canadian population is affected by anxiety. It is the most common mental illness in Canada, and one in four will experiences anxiety once in their lives. As the root of anxiety is an experience of feeling out of control; a sense of powerlessness, the solution is about regaining a sense of personal power. Part of that process is about dispensing that overload of negative energy that has built up in your body. Here are a few recommendations of techniques that have helped others in the past:
1. Physical Activity - Any physical activity will help to release cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, while at the same time increase your serotonin levels; the neurotransmitter contributing to feelings of happiness and well-being. Exercise also increases self-confidence and improves sleep, which can strongly affect anxiety levels. So find an activity you enjoy whether it’s running, dancing, tennis, or boxing. Just don’t stay seated. Get up and move!
2. Meditation - Whether it’s a guided meditation, mindfulness meditation, or a body scan technique, meditation increases activity in the brain correlated with anxiety, and helps to focus your attention on the present, while eliminating destructive thoughts contributing to anxiety.
3. Counselling - Speaking to a therapist can help to release negative emotions, gain new perspectives on difficult situations, and provide therapeutic tools, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, to help both prevent and manage anxiety. Some practitioners can also prescribe medication if that is the right route for you.
4. Hobbies - Between work and home life, we can get overwhelmed and need a break. Hobbies can provide another dispensary for negative energy, build social relationships, provide a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment, meaning, and regain a sense of control. Eg. Singing, Dancing.
5. Social Connection - Spending time with others improves the mood and mental functioning by keeping the mind active and serotonin levels balanced. It also provides feelings of support when we’re going through a tough time.
6. Gratitude - Practicing gratitude enhances self-esteem and reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Gratitude also plays a significant role in overcoming trauma. A 2006 study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. Recognizing all that you have to be thankful for, even during those tough times, can foster resilience.
7. Journaling - Writing your thoughts down accesses your left brain, which frees up your right brain to create, intuit and feel, while the left engages in analytical and rational thinking. Journaling creates a louder, more rational voice that helps us to focus and organize our experiences, thoughts and feelings. Finally, journaling can speed up emotional recovery and prepare us for the future.
8. Healthy Eating - Choosing healthy options helps to improve mood and enhances self-esteem.
These are a few different techniques that have worked over the years as a practicing psychotherapist. However, what works for one may be very different from what works for another. You job is to try them to see what feels right for you, and which provides the most value. And don’t forget, counsellors are always here to support you along the way. Lots of love, health and happiness. Jaime