How I Learned to Handle Anxiety
Have you ever had a panic attack that you believe to be a cardiac arrest because your heart is pounding hard enough to jump out of your chest? You also find yourself shaking and panting. Luckily, I have never had that experience, but I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder which means I get anxious about anything that has any degree of uncertainty. Although anxiety feels awful, I used to think that it didn’t show and would never stop me from doing anything. But as some of my friends know, I was recently fired from the practicum where I was working, and part of the reason was due to anxiety.
Some background info for those of you who don’t know me that well: I’ve been attending Chaminade University getting my masters degree in counseling. Last fall I began my practicum. I was working with sex offenders, but ironically, none of my anxiety was related to the clients. Some of them were making tremendous strides learning how to feel empathy for their victims. No, all of my anxiety was due to the staff- particularly the director who was not the same director who had originally hired me. Whenever this director had a complaint, she would tell my supervisor who would inform me. One day she told him she didn’t like that I was wearing striped socks and brightly colored sweatshirts. I went shopping and bought a new wardrobe in dull colors. Next, she complained that I was asking too many questions in staff meetings. So, the next staff meeting, I shut up and didn’t say a word.
Finally, she demanded I sign a piece of paper saying that if I didn’t shape up, I could be terminated! At this point, I knew my placement at this agency was in jeopardy, but I naively believed I could overcome all the obstacles until something happened that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I discovered to my horror, I had missed a training given by this director simply because I got the time mixed up. I discovered this about an hour after the training was over. I knew it was curtains. There was a meeting with the director, my supervisor, and my teacher from Chaminade. I was fired, and there was nothing I could say or do to change that outcome. And as I said, part of the reason was because of my anxiety. Although, I wondered was I really fired because I was anxious? Or maybe I was anxious because I knew I was going to be fired. It’s like asking which came first- the chicken or the egg? But regardless of which came first, I knew I had to deal with my anxiety particularly because Chaminade told me I could come back next fall and repeat the practicum under the condition that I sought professional help for my anxiety.
I had been seeing the same therapist for many years, but I only saw him once a year, and then, we would just talk about fun stuff. Now, we began to meet more often and do serious work. He taught me a technique for anxiety that is the best I have ever seen, and believe me I have tried them all. I had taken a course in health and stress management and learned all these techniques for anxiety. Although they seemed to help, none of them ended the problem.
This technique is based on an acronym for the word AWARE. The A stands for Acceptance. This is the most important step, and it was the step I had been unable to take because I thought there was something wrong with me if I was anxious. But if you are anxious over the fact that you are anxious, then you are twice as anxious as you need to be. It’s the equivalent to becoming so frustrated you have a headache that you begin banging your head against the wall. It is obviously not going to help and will probably make things worse.
There are a couple of reasons why it is a smart idea to accept your anxiety. Although, it’s not pleasant, feeling anxious does not hurt your health. Even if you’re having a heart pounding, panic attack, it does not jeopardize your health, and it does not mean you’re going crazy. The other reason it is smart to accept your anxiety is because it will end on its own regardless of what you do or don’t do!
The W stands for Watch and Wait. This is so you don’t take any rash actions you might regret. It’s like counting to ten before you blow up at somebody.
The A is for the Actions you take, but this is a very important distinction. These are not actions you are taking to end the anxiety (because it will end on its own), but rather actions to make yourself feel better while it is happening. It is the distinction I failed to make when I tried all those techniques I didn’t think were working. Actually, they were working. I just didn’t know how to work them.
There are many actions you can take to make yourself feel better when you’re feeling anxious. You’ve heard of breathing techniques. You can also use your cognitive skills to convince yourself there is no reason to be anxious in the first place. But you need to understand that knowing there is no reason to be anxious may or may not end your anxiety at that moment, but at the very least, it will help you to feel better while it is happening, (and then it will end on its own regardless of what you do or don’t do about it.)
The R is for Repeat. You repeat the first three steps over and over until your anxiety ends.
The E is for End. Your anxiety ends. Hooray!
To summarize these steps, remember it is never your job to end the anxiety. Rather it is merely your job to make yourself feel better while it is happening, and then, the anxiety will end on its own regardless of what you do or don’t do.
If you would like more information on this technique, I refer you to the website www.anxietycoach.com/overcoming-panic-attacks.html
As for myself, I know I will be starting my practicum again in the fall. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I’m a bit anxious about that. But that’s OK because now I know how to handle my anxiety. I am also elated to tell you I will be at a different agency with a different director!