September 28, 2020

5 Ways to Make Anxiety Work For You – Not Against You

Have you ever felt this surge of fire flow fast through your veins, up your legs, up your arms, and then tighten firmly around your heart – igniting a claustrophobic sensation of panic, making it difficult to breathe?

Anxiety is described as feeling ‘stressed’, not just a ‘I feel overwhelmed, because I have a lot of work to do’… it’s the blown out of proportion kind of stress, the inability to ‘let go’ of those feelings.

It’s the irrational worry that can cause irritability, restlessness, quick temper, inability to focus or concentrate on your work, racing thoughts, and at times – unwanted thoughts that can become obsessive, and verge on the brink of paranoia.

Another way people describe anxiety is a ‘feeling of impending doom’… this kind of feeling can keep your mind overactive – triggering insomnia in some, and even panic attacks.

Anxiety is a diagnosed mental health condition when worry exceeds the norm. It’s normal to occasionally worry, fear, and have concern over everyday life. It’s understandable to be concerned about the upcoming test at school, the worldwide pandemic, who will be voted in as president at the next election… but when your worry is difficult to shake off and carry on with life, when it begins to cause physical health issues (i.e. headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, nausea, etc), that is when it would be a good idea to consult your doctor about the way you’ve been feeling.

I had someone very close to me approach me recently, asking for some advice on how they could better manage their anxious feelings. I’d like to share with you, what I shared with her that day, in hopes that it can be of some help to others who also struggle to live day to day with the symptoms of Anxiety.

How Anxiety Interrupted My Life After Marriage

For several years (2008 – 2018) I had severe – debilitating – anxiety about being trapped in a confined space. The main thought that triggered the sudden onset of panic, was not being able to access a bathroom if I needed to. Because the source of the majority of the fear was in the car, having to ask to stop multiple times was unbearably embarrassing. I didn’t actually need to use the restroom – I just used that reason to make sense of why I needed to ‘get out’. Over time it became a real sensation when in fact, I was just panicked about crowded confined spaces. I felt like it was a stupid reason to be afraid. I felt like the weirdest-dumbest person, a huge burden to have to travel with. The fuel to the fire were those thoughts that validated the feelings to the anxiety. I was fully aware that it was simply anxiety, but the physical feelings would not go away, no matter how logical I knew they weren’t real. They felt real, but I knew I didn’t need to fear those situations.

I could usually control it enough that I didn’t need to reach out for help. After the first panic attack in 2008 I cried uncontrollably asking Clark “Why am I becoming crazy? Why do I feel this way? I don’t know how to stop it”. He got emotional with me, but we both had no clue what to do. I quickly became housebound to where I’d freak out at the thought of just going to the store it got so bad.

After the first year of dealing with these new feelings, I was sincerely convinced I must be going mad – I was preparing myself to be sent to the psych hospital at any moment that it got to be too much for Clark; and also because the anxiety was driving my depression to also become progressively worse. I often hated being alive.

When I would have panic attacks, they usually came on in overly crowded places I hadn’t been to, like being in an auditorium at a conference or a concert; touring a museum or walking around in a city. Being in busy places that I wasn’t familiar with or waiting to get on a plane and fearing missing it because I have to use the restroom. Travelling was a horrible experience. I hated it and would panic at the thought of leaving, sometimes even if the trip was planned months away.

When I first started having anxiety attacks on a regular basis I would ask Clark to reassure me that we can stop whenever I needed to. That gave me a good start to leaving the house, or leaving or travelling to wherever was a ‘safe place’. A safe place was home, a family’s house, or a place where I knew the environment and had been to multiple times. I needed him to prove it by stopping the first time I asked. After awhile he usually asked me if I could wait 5 more minutes, and then we graduated to longer amounts of time like 10, 15, 20, 30, etc. One other way I would make progress was identifying where the bathrooms were whenever we arrived to our location. This gave me reassurance that I could escape to use the restroom. When I identified them, I immediately calmed down enough that I could proceed with the museum tour or whatever we were doing, without having to use the restroom. Or sometimes I would use the restroom while everyone was waiting and we had enough time. I’d also use the restroom before we left and this usually gave me a satisfying reason to remind myself that I don’t need to stop, I already ‘took care of it’, I’m fine.

The trick for me was having specific tools that gave me reassurances:

— Clark reminding me that it’s OK, I can stop whenever I need to. I’m safe, and I felt safe with his kind, patient, reliable reassurance. He’d prove that he wasn’t upset with me by being kind and non-judgemental about stopping. It was harder when I’d travel with people who I knew or assumed didn’t understand my behavior.

— I’d tell myself that “If I use the restroom before we leave, I won’t have to go until I arrive to our destination”. This worked better and better over time. When we arrived at the destination, I gave myself permission to calm down and feel safe as soon as I identified the bathrooms. I’d either use them or challenge myself not to – because I knew where they were and I knew I could escape when needed. This was hard to ‘reprogram my brain’, but it worked better and better with time.

The panic attacks came in short spells while travelling, and when BIG challenges presented themselves… like a plan to visit a big city (i.e. NYC) or travel on a road that I knew had long distances without the opportunity to stop, or be in a situation like Jury Duty where I knew I couldn’t leave if I wanted to. I’d feel all the symptoms of anxiety at once, and it was really difficult to calm myself down. It was SO embarrassing if I ended up crying in front of others, because I was so overwhelmed with emotion and fear.

The smaller panic attacks I tried to hide best I could to avoid being embarrassed or a burden. This usually involved self-harm by bruising my hands and arms in order to combat the intense emotions. I’d purposely wear long-sleeved shirts or sweaters, even in hot weather. I’d pinch my hands so hard that they sometimes bled or bruised, just so I could feel something stronger than my physical urge to use the restroom or escape the situation in general. I’d scratch my arms that sometimes left scars, bled or bruised. If I was in a spot where I knew no one could see, I’d sometimes even bite my arms. I needed to hurt in that way so I could avoid having to stop again, again, and again and not feel crazy and out of control. Hurting this way was easier than the alternative of feeling the emotions build up.

I knew that I needed to stop hurting myself so I graduated to a fidget cube and other stress-reducing objects. I’d again, tell myself that if I have these, I will be fine. They will help me stretch the time between needing to stop longer and longer distances. These tools helped me lead up to a more ‘normalized’ travelling experience. So I’d have this tool-set that helped me manage the anxiety:

1) Reassurance from Clark. He was willing to be patient, understanding, and non-judgemental. He allowed me to feel the emotions and work with me to manage them.
2) Using the restroom before we leave.
3) Identifying the restrooms when we arrive, or challenging myself to not use them, but I knew I could if I needed to and sometimes did.
4) Whenever a niece or someone else needed to use the restroom, I’d join them sometimes if I needed extra reassurance or validation that “I will be OK”.
5) Using stress reducing objects like a fidget cube in my pocket or purse.
6) breathing exercises.
7) Repeating affirmations taught through therapy. These helped me ‘reprogram my brain’.

I always challenged myself, I always made myself uncomfortable by facing the fearful situations that would possibly bring on a panic attack, and over time I’d needed less and less of the tools, because I became less and less afraid. I conquered those fears.

I am happy to say that as of 2018 I no longer have debilitating-anxiety. My anxiety wasn’t just travel (that was the biggest one), but it also involved driving on the freeway, driving in bad weather, being left alone at the house for a long stretch of time, and a few others. Those debilitating fears are all gone. It is so well managed that all at once I felt it all lift and it was proven to be gone with each familiar or known situations and environments that I faced. I know that with the help of medication and therapy, support from my husband, family and friends, healing from God, I was able to 100% recover.  I can’t even begin to describe how FREEING it feels to be rid of that unbearable burden in my life. I thought I would have it forever and it only added to my depression, but to experience the miracle and confirmation that you don’t have to live with it forever, it’s amazing! Don’t give up. Don’t stop trying. That day will come for you too. 💚

Now, let’s move on to how I have come to believe that Anxiety can serve you, and help you progressively grow into a stronger and stronger version of yourself.

You can learn to guide your mind… YOU guide your mind, do not let your mind guide you…

First, I would encourage you to learn more about symptoms of Anxiety – to better identify in yourself, or your loved one, the signs of this mental health condition. Dr. Daniel Amen breaks down the root causes, he shares brain SPECT imaging scans (comparing a healthy brain to one with Anxiety), breaks down various subtypes of anxiety for better target treatment, and more helpful information here on his website: Amen Clinics – Anxiety

Building Your Anxiety Rescue Kit

When my loved one reached out to me for help, my mind immediately ran through my past timeline, from the beginning when I was hopeless, to over the years, slowly collecting tools and learning strategies to cope… eventually piecing together a course of healing. What truly helped save me was building my ‘rescue kit’ that assisted me in retraining my brain into believing wholeheartedly that I was safe, and there really was no need to worry.

Anxiety Rescue Kit Ingredients

This kit utilizes all 5 senses:

  1. What do I see?
  2. What do I feel?
  3. What do I taste?
  4. What do I smell?
  5. What do I hear?

“Grounding techniques may help people with anxiety or PTSD. The purpose of grounding techniques is to return the person to reality during a panic attack or traumatic flashback. By focusing on the present surroundings, a person can become more aware of their safe reality and start to feel calmer.

Grounding techniques tend to involve using the five senses to become aware of the present surroundings. For example, listening to traffic sounds or touching a plant can help people connect with the environment and disconnect from upsetting memories or emotions.”

Grounding techniques: Step by Step Guide and Methods” – Medical News Today

In the sample kit I built for them that day, I included the following items:

  • Fidget Cube
    “The clicking, spinning, and twirling children and adults can do with fidget spinners and cubes help to keep hands busy and provide a distraction or sensory stimulation for those with specific mental health issues.” – Time Psychology
  • Candy – something to taste
  • Elastic – something to stretch or flick the wrist to distract the mind…
  • Rocks – something to count or sort…
  • Essential Oil ‘Wild Orange’something to smell…
  • Fresh Lavender Herb – something to smell and touch…
  • Fresh Spearmint Herb – something to smell and touch
  • Small piece of bark – something to pull apart and touch…
  • Ice Pack
    “This technique can help you divert your attention away from a panic attack, especially if you’re in the throes of a particularly intense attack. Take out an ice cube and hold it to your hand for as long as you can (you can put the cube in a paper towel). Then, place the ice cube on your other hand. This focuses your mind on the discomfort, de-escalating your symptoms.” — How to Halt and Minimize Panic Attacks” – PsychCentral
  • Pen & Small Notepad

“In fact, a study showed that expressive writing (like journaling) for only 15 to 20 minutes a day three to five times over the course of a four-month period was enough to lower blood pressure and improve liver functionality. Plus, writing about stressful experiences can help you manage them in a healthy way.”

5 Powerful Health Benefits of Journaling” – Intermountain Healthcare

In the notepad I added reminder notes about calming scents and edible herbs [for herbal tea or supplements] that can help with anxious feelings:

Calming Scents

Calming Herbs

I also included some example affirmations, these are ones I use often:

Retrain Your Brain Through Affirmations

  • I am safe”
  • I am loved”
  • My mind & body are healing and growing stronger every day…”
  • I am beautiful”
  • I love myself”
  • People respect me when I respect myself”
  • I find it easy to say ‘no’ and own my life”
  • I love myself, and I love that I am different from others”
  • I allow God to fill me with His healing light and love”
  • I know God has a special and unique purpose and plan just for me, and my feelings and life experiences are teaching me and preparing me”

“First, learn to identify negative thoughts so you can nix the negativity as soon as it enters your mind. For example, if you found yourself thinking, “I’m going to look stupid if I go to that party alone,” identify the negative thought and correct yourself in the moment. Consciously decide to reframe and move your thoughts into a more positive direction…

…Sometimes positive thinking can be taken too far, so it’s important to remain grounded. When positive affirmations become unrealistic, they can actually trigger more anxiety as your subconscious mind notes that the ideas aren’t realistic. You can find yourself more stressed if you start convincing yourself that you can do things you’re not prepared for, and the reality of failure hits hard.”

Positive Affirmations to Relieve Anxiety and Stress” – Very Well Mind

Some books I highly recommend for learning how to simplify expectations of yourself are the following quick reads (Also great as audio books!):

Boundaries Are Healthy

Learn to say “No”. Setting boundaries is a way to reduce anxiety and create self care.

“Setting boundaries is an important, if not the most important thing in self-care. It is hard to set boundaries or to say no.  It is not always a popular decision, but it is a huge relief to stop doing what you don’t want to do. Most of the time, (especially for people who are more sensitive, caring, pleasing, etc.) setting a boundary comes with a feeling of guilt. And still, there is nothing more helpful and important than keeping healthy boundaries. Remember, you are as important as other people, if not more, and setting boundaries is taking care of your needs and what’s important to you.”

Setting boundaries as a way to reduce anxiety and create self care” – Eyal Goren, MFTi

Here is an excerpt from a very helpful article by Psychology Today on how to establish boundaries:

Establishing Healthy Personal Boundaries

I decided that setting healthy boundaries was important especially since I continued being a counselor educator and a therapist. I had to maintain the boundary between myself, my students, and my clients.

Trust and believe in myself. I had to recognize that I was the highest authority on myself. I knew what I needed, wanted, and valued. I recognized that healthy boundaries allowed me to take better care of myself—emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually.

My needs and feelings are as important as other people’s needs and feelings. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn for two reasons. First, the spiritual lessons in my youth expected me to put other people first. Second, modeling from my parents supported the belief that we should care for our fellow man. I didn’t go so far as to believe that my life should be sacrificed; however, I thought that whenever possible I should try to put other people first.      

Learn to say no. Unfortunately, I have been a people-pleaser which, early on in my career, put me at a disadvantage. I had put my personal needs on the backburner. I learned that a certain amount of “selfishness” is necessary for healthy personal boundaries.

I have a right to personal boundaries. I need to take responsibility for how I allow others to treat me. I recognize that boundaries are filters that permit what is acceptable in life and what is not acceptable. My boundaries protect and define me. I need to set clear and decisive limits that others can respect.

Why is it Important to Have Personal Boundaries?

To get started on learning what boundaries are needed in your life, check out the ‘Five Things’ method as listed in this Psych Central article by Jane Collingwood:

The ‘Five Things’ Method

— List five things you’d like people to stop doing around you, for example, criticizing absent colleagues

— List five things you want people to stop doing to you, for example, being rude or inconsiderate, or ignoring you

— List five things that people may no longer say to you, for example, “you always give up” or “you’ll never get promoted”

Think about your current boundaries and ask:

— How much attention do people expect from you at a moment’s notice?

— Do you always make yourself available? (e.g. do you answer the phone no matter what’s going on?)

— How much praise and acceptance do you receive?

— Why are you popular with your friends?

— How do you feel after spending time with each friend or family member

As time goes on, your boundaries may require updating.

The Importance of Personal Boundaries


  • Your first action step when anxiety rises to the surface, is to utilize the 5 senses to help reroute your mind to a healthier thought pattern… ground yourself back to a clearer mind…
  • Boundaries = LOVE, because you’re being honest with yourself, and your loved ones— avoiding feelings of resentment (and anxiety).
  • Learn to manage and guide your mind — YOU guide it, don’t let it guide you.
  • Be realistic with your planning, adjust time or remove tasks as needed.
  • The goal of each day should be to set yourself up for success. Intentionally make daily tasks easy. Leave room for bonus items.
  • Honor your REAL feelings.
  • Your emotions are gifts— learn to listen to what your body and spirit are trying to tell you.

It’s one thing to know you don’t need to worry, it’s a whole other matter when your mind and body are stuck in panic-mode – completely ignoring logic sense.

One very important key truth that I learned during that span of 10 years, 2008-2018, was that true happiness and confidence – despite what I previously viewed as flaws or shortcomings due to my Anxiety; true confidence and joy wasn’t rooted in how others viewed me, but in finding happiness and value in being unique and different than others. I was OK being ME – ‘flaws and all’! That was an empowering self-discovery, one that anxiety helped me discover!

Somehow I led myself to believe, for too many years, that I was somehow broken. That these feelings of anxiety and panic were a curse, because they triggered so much shame and embarrassment – believing I must have been a burden to everyone around me.

But this fiery chaos, this all consuming feeling of hell was actually a refiners fire… I rose out of the flame a phoenix, reborn as someone who survived and was no longer a victim. I became a stronger, more confident person because I lived through these years of forced-self discovery. I was forced to face what I was capable of – despite that which tried to cage me as a prisoner. Instead of believing I was forever disabled – I chose to see the feelings of anxiety as a gift – something that makes me special and unique. I am capable of feeling a much wider range of feelings and emotions than most people. I can use what I experienced and learned, to help others. I can use this unique part of me, for good!

I know it can be difficult to remember that when in the thick of the emotions, but remember that what makes you different than others can be used for good, a source of empathy that as you learn to manage those strong emotions, you become capable of helping to lift others once you find stable ground. I hope that by sharing my personal journey of learning how to manage those feelings of anxiety can begin to help you find stable footing and hope in your journey ahead.

If you find this article helpful, please feel free to share with your friends and loved ones. 💚

If you or a loved one is feeling suicidal, or you may feel they, or you, might be a danger to yourself, please call 911 or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255…

About the author

Becky Cooper, Certified Brain Health Coach. Often times we find ourselves in need of support in accomplishing life, health, and mindful goals. It takes a great amount of courage to recognize that you can’t do everything alone— we sometimes need someone to help us be accountable to what we truly desire to accomplish in life.  It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child; I feel it takes a tribe to help raise each other [up]. This is at the heart of what I do. 💚  I have completed the Brain Health training course directed by Dr. Daniel Amen, graduating with the official certification as an Amen Clinics Certified Brain Health Coach. This certification provides me with access to Amen Clinics specialized assessment instruments, tools, resources and continuing education programs to help my clients improve their brain functioning. Read More...


Anxiety, Mental Health Monday

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