I Have Anxiety—and Here’s How It Actually Helps Me

I was diagnosed with panic disorder 20 years ago at age 19. I quickly learned that treating anxiety requires a maintenance plan—for life.

My first panic attack came out of nowhere and left me breathless and scared in a bathroom stall—I felt helpless. I’m not exactly sure where my anxiety originates from, but I’ve learned to treat it like a sort of character trait—I’m free-spirited, funny, creative—and anxious. Because I have chronic anxiety and panic attacks, despite taking medication, I had to find a way to deal with anxiety to get my life back. It may sound crazy, but not only have I learned tricks to control my anxiety, I’ve found that dealing with my condition has made me a healthier person.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults in the United States, age 18 and older. What’s more, women are twice as likely to be affected as men. Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.

“Anxiety can be a positive trait,” says Megan Schabbing, MD, director of Psychiatric Emergency Services at OhioHealth in Columbus, Ohio.  “Someone who worries about being on time or performing at a high level often excels in various aspects of life, both professionally and personally.” She adds that while anxiety is known to trigger excessive worrying and racing thoughts, both can actually help a person function at a higher level. Dr. Schabbing does caution that anxiety should not be a green light to act on grandiose plans—or use it as an excuse for misbehaving. The key is to seek medical treatment first, because—as I discovered—medication and therapy can play a huge role in managing anxiety.

Attractive young woman working out indoors. Side view portrait of beautiful model doing yoga exercise on blue mat. Standing in Uttanasana with palms at the backs of ankles. Full lengthfizkes/ShutterstockAnxiety makes me exercise

Like a lot of people, I find that anxiety makes me feel jumpy and energized. I can deal with this one of two ways: Let my legs shake and mind race while I overthink everything, or I can use that jolt of energy to my advantage. Whether I’m at work, home, or my kid’s soccer practice, there is always a healthy way to channel anxiety. If I’m working, I might grab my water bottle and take the long way to the kitchen to get my steps in. If I’m home, I jump on my exercise bike, take the dog for a long walk, or grab my free weights. Moving eases anxiety and is good for my overall health, keeping me in shape.

“Exercise can combat anxiety because it helps to distract a person and provides an outlet to release stress in a positive way,” says Dr. Schabbing. Plus, exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect.

Artistic tools for drawing paintings on a gray concrete background. Palette, gouache, oil paint, brushes, colored crayons, pastel, colored pencils. Top view.Vladimir Sukhachev/ShutterstockAnxiety has made me more creative

When my 12-year-old son was much younger, I would ease my anxiety by joining him to build with Legos, color, or sculpt with Play-Doh. Focusing on those tiny, bright bricks or shading in a cartoon character with a colored pencil distracted me and calmed me down. These days, I’m not ashamed to say I own adult coloring books and have sat at the kitchen counter during bouts of anxiety with my trusty colored pencils. I also write, paint with watercolors, and spend time color coordinating my closet and bookshelves.

“Engaging in a soothing activity, like knitting or coloring is extremely helpful,” says Dr. Schabbing. “The repetitive motions, exercised during an art project, engages parts of the cerebral cortex while relaxing the brain’s fear center.”

Dr. Schabbing also recommends journaling or even light housework like doing laundry. “The key is that, when you fill your brain with other activities and thoughts, the anxiety is no longer able to take control of your mind.”

Full length side view portrait of smiling young black woman walking outdoors with mobile phonemimagephotography/ShutterstockTaming anxiety reminds me of the good things in my life …

Anxiety used to hijack my brain—I would often jump to the worst-case scenario: “My throat feels tight. It’s closing up and I’m going to suffocate!” During a therapy session many years ago, the psychologist proposed an alternative: “What if you thought of something wonderful, instead?” It was a pretty simple thing to do, so I gave it a shot the next time anxiety struck. Instead of convincing myself the world was ending, I thought about a trip I took to Paris when I was in my early 20s. I found myself thinking about cheese, wine, pastries, and the iron-strong Eiffel Tower; that happy memory took over, helping me gain control.

“Thinking about something good and positive when you’re anxious can help to push the irrational thoughts out and replace them with positive and more reality-based ideas, Dr. Schabbing says. Here’s another trick to tame an anxiety attack.

Raw salmon pieces on wooden board with herbs, salt and spicesLife morning/ShutterstockBattling anxiety improved my health

For the past 20 years, I’ve been managing my anxiety with medication, talk therapy, creative and physical outlets, and natural remedies. Because there is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may ease anxiety, I incorporate them into my diet. Foods, like tuna, salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed keep my diet on track and encourage me to meal plan; I’ve made overnight oats, with a sprinkle of flaxseed a go-to breakfast. I also take proactive measures to omit anxiety in the evenings by using an oil diffuser in my bedroom. According to Michael J. Breus, PhD, AKA The Sleep Doctor, lavender may interact with the neurotransmitter GABA, helping to quiet the brain and nervous system activity, reduce agitation and restlessness, making it an ideal oil to diffuse when I’m feeling restless.

therapist notebookloreanto/ShutterstockAnxiety taught me to ask for help

One of the best things I did for myself was seeking out professional guidance. Anxiety and panic attacks are real and debilitating—I had to tune out all the well-meaning people saying it was all in my head and that I just needed a glass of wine to relax. Once I told my doctor about my troubles and signed up for sessions with a therapist, I began to gain control. They have been excellent sounding boards and helpful in my treatment. “Managing anxiety by talking to a professional in the field about your feelings can help you to avoid physical and emotional symptoms by providing an unbiased outlet for your stress,” Dr. Schabbing says.

Sure, my life isn’t all roses and rainbows, but accepting that my anxiety is a part of who I am as a person has helped me feel less like someone with an anxiety disorder and more like a functioning human who is making gallons of lemonade out of life’s lemons. Here are some more tips for managing anxiety.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on October 14, 2019

Christine Coppa
Christine Coppa is a print + digital journalist with 16 years of experience writing about health, wellness, parenting and lifestyle. She has written for Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Health, Elle, Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping, Parents and their supporting websites. Coppa is also a fact-checker, research editor and brand content copywriter. Her book, Rattled! was published by Crown in 2009. Find her on the soccer sidelines cheering on her son, Jack.