How do you live and thrive as an anxious person?
March 3, 2021 3:28 AM   Subscribe

I've made a lot of progress in dealing with anxiety and depression. But the struggle with my BIG EMOTIONS is still a big part of my life. I want to know how to accept who I am, instead of beating myself up for not being [insert vague idea of what a normal person is like, that I can't even imagine]. I need some guidance on how to think about myself as an anxious person in a more compassionate and accepting way. How to stop framing it as being "broken" or unbalanced or wrong. This is tough to do because the anxiety and depression makes me feel so broken, unbalanced, and wrong.

I've been seeing a therapist, but for complex reasons can't go on seeing her right now. I also feel as if I've got what I can from therapy at the moment, and need to apply the lessons I've learnt for a while.
I'm coping pretty well at the moment, meditating, exercising, eating well, trying to build social interaction into my day because loneliness is a big problem for me. But it's still such hard work.
I've learned that it's a mistake to think of my journey so far as progress, (even though that's how I started this question) because that implies that when I, inevitably, have bad moments, then that's proof that I'm regressing, slipping back, "back where I started" and that triggers a big anxiety spiral for me. But I don't know how else to think about the ups and downs I'm experiencing. I feel proud that I've found ways to get through the day and do everything I have to do, but I'm also ashamed that it's such hard work just to stay on a relatively even keel.
If you have similar struggles, have you found a way to accept who you are? I know I can't think my way out of anxiety (that's one of the traps) but I also find that sometimes, reframing my thoughts is incredibly helpful. Have you found ways to do that? Of course, a lot of this has to do with the way the world is right now, but honestly, I was struggling before the pandemic too.
posted by Zumbador to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Would it help to start thinking of something as 'normal for me' or 'normal for me right now'? Like, it's normal for me (right now) to have ups and downs and I have some great tools for helping me with the downs

It's not at all the same, but I cry very easily at things other people don't. I used to feel that this was wrong and broken, worry that people would judge me in some way or think badly of me. I have had a much better time with it since I started saying to myself that this was just normal for me. I don't think I cry any more or less particularly, but I don't worry about it and it doesn't take up much of my mental time. I'm also able to tell other people that it's normal for me and they shouldn't be unduly alarmed.
posted by plonkee at 4:09 AM on March 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

This is gonna sound really sort of woo and silly, but... I tried really hard to see the voice I'm my head as my best friend, talking to me in soothing tones. Sometimes I pictured my "inner self" as an animal I am talking gently to, like an anxious dog. The dog isn't broken, or bad, or unworthy it's just having a hard time. Over time this helped me re-frame my immediate response from blame and frustration at myself to empathy and kindness.

It felt sort of fake at first, I'd sit for a while and imagine a second version of myself, who really cared about me, and then thought about what they would say. Like an imaginary friend, dumb as that sounds, who validated my feelings. After a while it became natural to go "oh dear, you're having a hard time, let's see what we can do to make you feel better" rather than "stillnocturnal you dumbass you know better than this what is wrong with you." I rarely think badly about myself any more in the way that I used to, I'm just a person doing the best they can on any given day, that's enough.

It's hard to be truly kind to yourself, mentally, but it made a massive difference to me.
posted by stillnocturnal at 4:15 AM on March 3, 2021 [35 favorites]

I too have been worrying that I'm trying to work towards a "normal" I can't even fathom, but like plonkee said above, it's about normal for you not the ideal normal person, who of course doesn't exist.

One of the things I've been working on lately that has been helping is to look out for the old stories I tell myself - then working on not telling them again. "I'm broken" is one and I wondered if that was the same for you. "I'm exhausted" is another. I've been using (printed out and stuck on the fridge) 14 COMMON INNER CRITIC ATTACKS to try to help decipher some and I'm currently working on just one - I am learning to enjoy doing my daily activities at a relaxed pace. Dialing down the internal panic has certainly been helping my anxiety.
posted by london explorer girl at 4:41 AM on March 3, 2021 [6 favorites]

I struggle a lot with feeling irreparably weird and broken and abnormal thanks to PTSD and autism, as well as deeply-ingrained perfectionism that spits out lots of edicts about what my life "should" look like, what I "should" be achieving etc.

Something that helps a bit is reframing the purpose of life, and reminding myself that ideas about what's "normal", what good or normal people "should" be doing or achieving, are just that - ideas. Some people believe in those ideas deeply, some people reject them altogether. It helps to remind myself that I don't have to buy into those ideas, or use them as tools to beat myself with, and that ultimately it's my choice (even if it doesn't feel like a choice most of the time).

It helps when I reframe my life not as a competition or something with inherent goals or a sense of winning waiting for me in the end if I only manage to be good enough, and remind myself that at the most basic level, I'm just here. My existence is a cosmic accident, and it's mine to make the best of the best way I know how, which might not look like other people's best. I can be here for the ride. "I'm here for the ride, and what I'm struggling with today is just how the ride is going today, rather than judgemental information about me or my life or how what those things are going to look like in the future" feels better than "I'm horribly, permanently broken and will never be good enough compared to [other people, external measures of success]".

It's hard, because I was raised by people who believed I only had worth when I was overperforming academically, and that I was worthless and useless during the times when I struggled socially or emotionally. They did such a good job of imparting those beliefs to me that they feel deeply baked into the rubric of my life. But I still have a choice, and I can always choose to believe that I'm here for the ride, and this is just what the ride happens to be like today.
posted by terretu at 4:56 AM on March 3, 2021 [16 favorites]

To be frank, I thrive as an anxious and depressed person by taking drugs to treat anxiety and depression, reducing them to a level that I can easily cope with by using CBT. I can talk myself down from an oncoming panic attack, I can tell myself that my feeling down is just a temporary imbalance, I can cope with difficult situations without freaking out. ... And just this very moment my watch went ping! to remind me to take my daily dose of citalopram 15mg.

So I'd say that if therapy and CBT aren't really helping, you might consider pharmaceuticals. There's no shame in it. And, many drugs are off patent and reasonably affordable even if you don't have pharmacare.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:01 AM on March 3, 2021 [10 favorites]

Can I suggest getting a pet? If that option is available. My dog gives me near unconditional acceptance and love, lowers my anxiety, and helps me accept myself.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:06 AM on March 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow these answers are so very helpful, every single one of them so far. I jumped in here to tell dances with sneetches that I have, indeed, gotten myself a pet - two rats, actually, and they've been a source of joy. I'm not ready to get another dog yet, I'm still getting over losing my dog Pippin and my heart doesn't feel ready yet. But one day!
I also want to say that I've been wondering about medication, but the little brush I had with anxiety medication (using Stressam or Etifoxine for a few months) brought up such a lot of anxiety and hyper focus on the medication that my therapist agreed with me that maybe now is not the right moment.
posted by Zumbador at 5:38 AM on March 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is kind of strange, but I think of my anxiety as a thing. For me, it's usually a little spinning gold motor thing in my chest. Then I can step away from it a bit and say things like "wow, that motor is spinning really fast today!" or "huh, that didn't make my motor spin as much as I thought it would." It also helps because I can think of everyone having a motor in their chest, just mine spins really fast a lot of the time -- I'm not broken, I just have a part that goes at a different speed. I've also heard about people who think of their anxiety as an animal or a bird, one that can be dangerous but is also beautiful and one you are very interested in looking at.

Relatedly, if I'm having a lot of anxious thoughts it can be helpful to step back and try to see the "shape" and "color" of those thoughts. "Oh wow, this discussion is making me feel a lot of spiky neon yellow in my chest."

Meditation helps with learning to take this step back, though I'm sure you're sick of getting recommendations for meditation!
posted by EmilyFlew at 6:44 AM on March 3, 2021 [10 favorites]

oooh stillnocturnal I like it. adekllny-spouse is very mindful, and has a healthy mindfulness practice, and so has practiced the "distance between stimulus and response." But I have struggled with that; however, I would never talk to my kids (or let my kids talk to each other) the way that I talk to myself. And the way I read your comment, the question is "why would I let anybody talk to me that way? Including myself?" and "if I can soothe a frantic kid or pet with calm words and cup of tea, why wouldn't I extend that same (very effective) strategy to myself?"
posted by adekllny at 6:48 AM on March 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

I found it somewhat helpful to think about the utility (I know I know) of anxiety. I think about how my anxiety is here and is trying to protect me from the unknown, the dangerous, the scary. I actually visualize my anxiety as a "scared little crab" in me, that is trying to protect me. This helps me put a bit of distance between myself and my anxiety, and allows me to be more empathetic to how my anxiety is attempting to help me. I also visualize the "opposite" of the scared little crab -- which is an eagle for me. And, when I am feeling anxious, I think about soothing the little crab, and asking myself what an eagle might do to help balance my views out.

When I started an anti-depressant, a lot of my anxiety feelings have also quieted down in frequency and intensity. So, that is food for thought.
posted by ellerhodes at 6:55 AM on March 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

Anxious people are early warning systems. We need anxious people. Anxious people are the early warning system that notice things that are sub-optimal before they disaster out.

I'll give you an example. My sister recently moved into a basement apartment which has drain flies. Her landlord thought they were fruit flies at first. My sister could pretty much control them by putting plugs into the drains and sealing up overflow drains with tape and such but she was still anxious because the odd one got into the apartment so she went around with tape trying to seal places where the pipes went through the walls and there might be a knife blade thin crack. Drain flies don't sting although they can carry germs from the drains where they breed. She spent basically two weeks fussing constantly about drain flies.

She noticed a tiny stain next to the back door, on the floor and thought it might be connected to the drain flies. She insisted further investigation take place.

Next thing you know there is a huge hole in the backyard, followed by the revelation that the person who renovated the house next door, which is a flip, had disconnected her building's sewer lines during the summer. Since the summer all the sewage from her house had been going into the ground under the neighbour's front yard and collecting in the earth and seeping around the foundations. Fortunately it does not look like the two houses will have to be demolished in order to deal with the mess but the situation is regarded as a public emergency. Major excavation and civil litigation suing the flipper for construction without permit, violating this and that and sabotaging both houses is underway from every direction, current home owners, municipality etc. My sister just saved her landlord's house from needing to be demolished out from under three families. If the issued had been allowed to go on until the spring it likely would have been more than just the two houses.

This is what anxious people do. They notice small things, they worry about things that are suboptimal, they remain vigilant. When an anxious person carries on, "But the baby might get too cold! The vibrations bother me! But you don't actually know this guy, Dear! The cars on our street are going too fast! Are you sure you should be drinking so much? I'm not spending enough time on my homework! What if I oversleep?" they are anticipating problems and alerting people to disasters that might be about to occur.

It's not much fun being a smoke detector. You feel like you are annoying everybody, you are loud and shrill, you even annoy yourself, people who like to fry at high temperatures hate you, you go off when someone takes a hot shower and there never was any danger of a fire, just steam, you need to have your batteries replaced and people forget about it and neglect you - but Dear God, are you ever essential when there is a fire. You're the difference between twelve deaths in an apartment complex, and one person having to open their kitchen windows and flap a tea towel.

Yeah, ninety-nine times out of a hundred your anxiety appears to just be there to exhaust you and annoy you and make you feel like the most petty person on earth, but where I am coming from you are the delicate instrument that senses things the rest of us clods don't notice. You're the seismic system that gathers data - vibrations again - and lets us know if it's just morning rush hour, it's fine, or if we are aiming for critical structural failure or building up for an earthquake. A lot of people don't notice those things, they wander around oblivious, which makes life easier for them, but not safer.

Your anxiety is a very, very valuable tool, as valuable as smoke detectors and seismographs, and public health statistics and guard railings, lifeboats and warning signs, health and wellness checks, domesticated dogs and diagnostic imaging. Your anxiety is the reason we have all these things. Sometimes it sucks to not be able to let your guard down and just relax and forget about it all. Most of the time a slight stain on the floor near the back door is just a leaky boot tray after all. But you've been given a talent and a tool that many people lack, even if you haven't been taught how to use it with precision. You've got a skill set and an aptitude that every tribe needs, whether or not they celebrate having members with that talent. I am glad you are around and make the world a much safer place.

Keep fussing and I promise to take you seriously.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:35 AM on March 3, 2021 [38 favorites]

I have struggled with this forever but am actually making progress now. One thing that has helped is meds, but not the typical kind. Instead I have some Beta blockers (originally for high BP) that I have when I need to calm down for things like interviews or dates, and I use CBD oil to help calm me before bed and deal with my high level of body irritation. There are lots of different things that can help besides the heavy ones you are avoiding.

On the mental/therapy side I spent a VERY long time trying to "figure out" my anxiety, which was helpful in the beginning as it increased my awareness. But I got to the point you are now and it started making things worse, because it was the opposite of acceptance and I found myself inventing new very specific things to be anxious about to avoid getting more anxious about things. Meditation kind of made it worse for similar reasons. But lately I've realized the one true reason behind 99 percent of my anxiety:

Something in the past sucked. That's the entire reason, and my anxiety is echoes from past events that I cannot control and don't need to fully understand. I don't need to understand it more than I already do because most of the things that built my anxiety were kind of random and unimportant on their own but made me feel awful. This realization has made it easier to accept my anxiety, because it's mostly the same as accepting that the past happened. I am who I am and I can accept how I got here because I can't change it. My anxiety is part of that so I don't need to monitor or understand it. Instead I can focus on the proactive thoughts and actions I take in the future. Good luck with finding your own path!
posted by JZig at 8:10 AM on March 3, 2021 [7 favorites]

Here's a tiktok that gets across my attitude about this (and makes me laugh like a hyena every time). It do be like that sometimes! But not all the time.

I think a worthy adjustment to your framing is decoupling the idea of "progress" from a mental image of a straight line. Progress is a scribble. Progress is every day you are deciding to make good choices and doing your best with the toolbox you have cultivated. Some days are harder than others, even with the toolbox, but as long as you're trying, that's what ultimately counts.

My mental image for this is the weather. The weather is broadly linear where I am (in winter, things become colder, mostly; in spring, they warm up, mostly). But there's not really a progression day-to-day of things like rain/snow, sunshine/cloudiness, the color of the sky, etc. The weather doesn't organize itself so you get all of your summer-allotted thunderstorms at once - you just get thunderstorms when you get thunderstorms*. And that's not an indication of the character or strength of the weather, it's just an indication you need to use your umbrella.

To take this further, the brain weather that you have is not the same as anyone else's brain weather. So comparing them and wondering about how hard you're working in comparison is like noting that Cuba has sunshine while Alaska is snowy. The statement could be true, but at the same time isn't necessarily useful.

At the same time, humans are definitely pack animals. We get worried when we see we're the only person worried. So my suggestion is that you find some communities of people who are actively working on their mental health. (If you want, you could start with me. Hello!) The discussions may help you feel validated, and, pending the flavor of the community, there may be beautiful and consoling art, or humorous takes. As you may guess from the links, I've collected a lot of these through tumblr - memail me if you'd like my tumblr and mental health tag.

The community thing does come with a caveat, which is that communities themselves can be unhealthy! It's a way to cope that requires active management and checking in with yourself and saying, Are these people modeling behaviors that I want? Encouraging attitudes that center my recovery and wellbeing? etc. In non-pandemic times I attend a depression support group facilitated by licensed psychologists and those always helped me feel like my internal weather gauge was calibrated correctly, so to speak. And that I wasn't alone!

I am so happy you reached out for support and am cheering you on.

* if you are in a part of the world that has a monsoon season I apologize. I hope the idea comes across anyway.
posted by snerson at 8:22 AM on March 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

Anxiety does feed on itself. When I'm feeling stronger, I'm able to do more things that provoke anxiety, and this helps reduce the anxiety I feel at more vulnerable times doing those things. (desensititization)
When I can't sleep because of intrusive thoughts, edible marijuana helps; I use it sparingly.
There's some research that vagal stimulation reduces anxiety. One way to stimulate the vagus nerve is a cold wet washcloth to the face. I find it really helpful, even if it's just a learned response at this point.
I've been taking magnesium for muscle cramps, and it seems to help with anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness is super-popular and used as a cure-all of sorts, but i do find that recognizing that the uncomfortable feeling I have is anxiety, that it's a gremlin that lives on my shoulder, is helpful. Breathe in light, breath out stress helps me reduce some of the physical manifestation.
I put everything in my calendar, and that helps me go do stuff despite anxiety.

I understand and share the self-judgement and self-criticism about anxiety, and it's a vicious lie. Some bodies are built this way, it is *not* a personal failing, more of a burden to carry for which you should get recognition. It's hard to carry, but you do it.

Anxiety is a physical as well as mental response. It's generally helped by making sure you have adequate nutrition, Vitamin D, exercise, sunlight, nature, music. Music, especially, can provide a distraction from negative self-talk, as well as rhythm that helps with mood regulation, and helps me get moving/ get out the door. I'm interested in the way the brain works; there are parts of the brain that specifically process music, that's how important music is to our well-being.
posted by theora55 at 9:37 AM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

For me, what works is a combination of Sertraline (generic zoloft) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). While I have lots else going on (ADHD, chronic pain, complex PTSD) being able to assess whether I can do something about what I am anxious about is extremely helpful.

It also helps that there are four modules, and the one I'm in right now is Interpersonal Effectiveness, and Social Anxiety is especially a thing for me. And surprisingly, does not go away in isolation.
posted by bilabial at 11:20 AM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

There's a great tumblr post about anxiety that uses the metaphor of anxiety being a superpower. While I think there is a danger in trying to always frame things that are genuinely difficult to deal with as positives, in this case it was really helpful to me. There are so many stories these days of superheroes with powers that they don't know how to control, and the framing on those is not that they should be embarrassed but that they need to work to make use of the superpower where they can and to mitigate where it might become destructive when out of control.

In a similar way, anxiety is helpful and a motivating force for me, but keeping that balanced with also being able to healthily function is an ongoing process. So, even as I work to keep that balance, I can have some pride in the places where my foresight and situational awareness serves as important and valuable super-skills. And when it's too much, then I try to remember that it's not something to criticize myself for--it's just a time that I need to put more care into controlling what is a powerful force.
posted by past unusual at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

What is helpful for me is realizing that everyone is "broken" along at least one axis. Mine is mental health but basically everyone has these. Some people talk about them, some people keep them hidden, but it's kind of a myth that "most people" are basically normal-functioning-everything-ok person, we just don't know what is going on behind the scenes with a lot of people. I'm pretty good at assessing "I have good days and bad days, today isn't one of the good days" and then trying to be gentle with myself, talk to myself as a friend would (and having friends who actually can be there for a pep talk occasionally is good, though constant reassurance-seeking actually makes things worse so I try to be mindful of how often I do this) and, if I can, set myself up for better days ahead out of a toolkit of Things That Help. I try to be honest with other people about my struggled which is a lot easier during COVID because it's basically ok to be exhausted or unable to cope in a way that maybe it wasn't in the Before Times. I treat a few things (exercise, decent sleep, decent eating) like it is My Job and try to see positive linkages between that and better days.

Therapy has been helpful, some as-needed medication has been helpful (mostly for sleep which is one of my anxiety triggers), trying to be around people who are good and not bad for my mental health has been helpful, HALT (am I Hungry Angry Tired Lonely?) and two things that really made a difference:

- having some boundaries with my online spaces (which is hard because they are also my job), so I'm offline the first 45 minutes and last hour+ of my day, seriously I set a timer
- meditation, I do a regular very short meditation every day and it's helped me, a lot, get some distance from those feelings. I still have them, but I can be more like "Jessamyn, why are you thinking that super negative thought, today was an okay day?" instead of just getting stuck in it and feeling bad.

I'm also in the "trying regular medication" phase and it's a pain in the ass but I've got a lot of friends who it's been helpful for so I am going to, slowly, keep at it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on March 3, 2021 [4 favorites]

What helps me as a complicated person (anxiety, ADHD, CPTSD, chronic illness):

* Medication (no SSRIs or SNRIs for me)
* Yoga
* Grounding techniques (notice your feet on the floor, your butt in the chair, your back on the chair, etc)
* Intense exercise of any kind helps in acute crises unless I'm in freeze response.
*Remembering there is no normal.

People do their best to hide their issues but everyone has issues of some kind. Just because they aren't obvious to me doesn't mean those people aren't also broken somehow.

If my mood was even all the time, I would feel like a robot. The upside to my sensitive system is that I can also relish and experience deep appreciation for rather mundane things, a gift that more even temperaments don't typically have.

Really though, the grounding stuff has helped me get out of my head so much. It makes it a lot easier to notice when I start looping now that I know what I feel like to not be looping. If you have health anxiety grounding brings awareness of bodily sensations that can trigger you but it's been my most effective solution besides medication.
posted by crunchy potato at 1:04 PM on March 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

It's hard to be truly kind to yourself, mentally, but it made a massive difference to me.

The kinds of self-compassion practices stillnocturnal described have been useful for me as well.

I learned a lot about the concept of self-compassion from this MeFi post a couple years ago.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:09 PM on March 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

I like this series to help with anxiety - it focuses on how to take actions that can help counter spiraling, and I find it calming to watch when I'm anxious.

One thing that has helped me is to look back on past events and remember how even though I was "doing fine" aka functioning outwardly, I was extremely wound up internally and near my breaking point. Bad days now are horrible, but at least I'm aware that they're horrible and I'm not unaware of my own misery, and good and bad days come and go more fluidly than before. I can look back and see large arc progress (not sure if this is the case for you, but it might be if you go far enough back).

Another thing that helped was reframing things that would typically trigger a lot of anxiety (for me this is a lot of overwhelm at any project or responsibility) as not necessarily anxiety inducing and focusing on doing it step by step. I remember the first creative project I finished start to finish just by plugging away at it day by day. I didn't even know it was *possible* to finish something without anxiety! So that was a turning point as far as self trust and confidence moving fwd to tackling other scary things.

This is also pretty common advice for anxious people, but I think redirecting your attention towards the things in your own control does actually help me quite a bit. If I'm anxiously awaiting a text message, I can go exercise in the meantime and try my best to relax. And I accept that I'm going to be stressed until the text arrives, so I do something to mitigate that instead of judging myself for being stressed. If I'm afraid of doing my taxes, I can do the very first step which is like, open an email from my accountant. Getting through menial tasks and day to day life without drama seems like a step at least towards thriving, because it means more energy left over for better things.

I am still figuring the "thriving" part also because despite being very anxious I also need a lot of stimulation and novelty to feel alive, but doing that often overwhelms me. It's a delicate balance, and I'm trying to get through to my brain that sometimes it's time for boring safe things and sometimes it's exploring stimulation time.
posted by internet of pillows at 5:23 PM on March 3, 2021 [5 favorites]

I know this is going out on a bit of a limb, but a bunch of the things you said made me immediately think of ADHD: big emotions, feeling like a failure, beating yourself up, feeling broken, feeling like you’re backsliding, feeling like “normal” stuff is just such hard work.

It can CAUSE anxiety and depression because it makes so much of life so much harder, and is so underdiagnosed, esspecially in adult women. This article in the atlantic proabably changed my life by convincing me to get evaluated for it. And lo and behold, treating the adhd radically helped my anxiety and depression. And I want to shout about this from the rooftops!!

Also the book Feeling Good is incredibly helpful for reframing my thoughts. When I’m feeling down and can’t shake it, revisiting that book is sometimes all I need. Ymmv. I really want the equivalent book for anxiety.
posted by squasher at 10:46 AM on March 13, 2021 [2 favorites]

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