July 25, 2017
How I Trained Myself To Overcome Fear And Anxiety
by Corrina Thurston
This seems like a good week to write this post. Let’s see, a few things that cause me anxiety coming within just the next week are:
- My book launch for my first e-book coming up next week (August 1st) for How To Build Your Art Business With Limited Time Or Energy
- An newspaper interview for one of their most popular annual issues (more details later)
- Finishing a commission of a very touching portrait in colored pencil (commissions always make me nervous)
- Entering a piece of artwork into a competition for which it was specifically designed (Art Hop Ale for Magic Hat Brewery)
- Plus more…
Anxiety, nerves, anticipation… they all weigh on me. All the time. But over the last few years I’ve learned some tricks and techniques for helping me conquer my fears and letting me move forward to jump outside my comfort zone, especially when it comes to my art business.
What Is A Panic Attack?
There’s a vast number of people with some form of anxiety, and yet it’s not well understood. It’s hard to empathize with someone having a panic attack if you’ve never experienced one yourself.
When you have an anxiety or panic attack, what most people don’t understand is that by that point, you have almost no control over your own body and they’re different for different people. For me it’s as though some form of electricity has taken over your insides and your muscles are twitching, your heart is racing, and your mind is being flooded with thoughts of fear, anger, and doubt. None of which you can control. It’s happening to your body and you’re just a passenger, waiting for it to end, which adds to the fear. All you want to do is curl into yourself and not exist. A lot of people, like me, hug themselves to try and stop the quivering and comfort/sink into themselves.
Once you reach the point of a panic attack, there’s not much you can do but ride it out. That might take minutes, or hours.
There are a few techniques that can help with panic attacks, which I’ll go into below, but a lot of my techniques are daily practices to help avoid having them at all.
What My Anxiety Is Like
I have panic attacks, although thankfully they are few and far between nowadays. A few years ago, they happened every time I tried to leave the house and randomly within the house as well.
My anxiety is like a a pool of water. It’s always there and things that are stressful, whether it’s good stress or bad, pour in as streams, adding more and more to the pool until it’s bubbling and roiled and so high I start to drown.
I was always prone to some anxiety. Whenever I had to give a presentation in school, I would break out in hives and my hands would shake. I’d be so nervous I’d forget to show my visuals for the presentation and I’d start to stutter. But then once the presentation was over, I was okay. I would get overwhelmed with nerves, but I wouldn’t have a panic attack.
After I became chronically ill and was nearly bedridden for 6.5 years, my anxiety was worsened by 1000%. Not only was I no longer used to going out in the world, and therefore had social anxiety, I was sleep-deprived in such a way that most people couldn’t even imagine. My adrenal glands were malfunctioning and pushing out cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, constantly, keeping me forever on edge. Not to mention my Lyme disease and Bartonella messing with my emotions and worrying that whenever I was out I would have a migraine or my fatigue flair up and I’d have to leave suddenly.
Ways To Cope
After much research and practice and experimentation in the last few years, I’ve found ways to help myself cope with my otherwise crippling anxiety.
Here are some of my favorite tricks and techniques:
- Meditation. There are three types of meditation I utilize:
- Breathing focused: This just means sitting, standing, or lying down and taking time to focus on nothing else but your breathing. This can be extraordinarily difficult if you have anxiety because your brain doesn’t want to focus on your breath, it wants to dance around all the things that are making you nervous. For those with anxiety, quieting your mind is nearly impossible. That’s why this takes a lot of practice before you may start to see progress. If your mind refuses to stay still and starts flitting around to other things, that’s okay! That’s normal. Whenever you realize you’ve lost track of your breath and your mind is wandering, just bring it back to your breathing. This will happen over and over again, and that’s fine. The more you do it, the better you’ll be at it, and the more it’ll help you maintain your calm. Make it a daily practice for best results, even if just for a few minutes.
- Gratitude: This involves focusing on your breathing and then turning your mind toward all the things for which you’re grateful. Your family, your significant other, the fact that there’s a roof over your head and food in your belly, your pet, your artwork, sunny days, music, when you receive a compliment, etc. This will help calm you, but it’s best for helping you be happier.
- Yoga Nidra: I suffered from severe insomnia, so bad I was shaking and hallucinating for years. I still have trouble sleeping, even though it’s a lot better than it used to be. For days where my migraine is acting up or I feel particularly drained, I lie down and practice yoga nidra, which is putting your brain to sleep, while maintaining your consciousness. It’s hard to do, so find a YouTube video or a CD that you can follow to try it. You’ll know when you’ve reached the sleep phase. For me, my eyelids flit, I create a little more saliva, and then the pain in my body disappears because I’m technically falling asleep, so I feel light and almost cold. If sleep is one of the problems contributing to your anxiety, try this.
- Yoga. Yoga is good for a whole host of things but it’s great for helping center yourself when you have anxiety. I find that inversions, like downward dog or forward bend with your head down, are the best for helping calm you.
- Power Poses. I saw this on a TED Talk by Amy Cuddy. If you want to, check it out here. It’s a great talk and is immensely useful. The idea is that you can use positive and confident body poses, of which the most popular is the Superman pose with your back straight and your hands on your hips, to change the chemistry in your body. Power poses, where your back is straight, your head is up, and your shoulders are back, actually decrease your cortisol and increase your testosterone, which in turn make you calmer and more confident.
- Music. Music is great for getting you out of your own head, boosting your confidence, and increasing endorphins. Listen to your favorite music to help calm you or pump up your confidence.
- Singing. It’s been studied and proven that singing increases your endorphins and helps calm you down as well. So go for it and sing!
- Visualization. If you have a speech or presentation or interview coming up, visualize it before it happens. This will make it seem less scary when you actually do it. I visualize everything. When I’m driving or walking or before bed, I visualize whatever it is I’m going to be doing that has me anxious. My anxiety is especially active when I’m doing something new, like going to a new place or meeting a new person, or when I’m going to be in the spotlight, like giving a speech. Visualizing those situations helps them not feel quite so unfamiliar.
- Breathing. Not just any breathing, but breathing deep from your belly. Another interesting talk is by a woman named Caroline Goyder for a TEDx Talk about the importance of using your diaphragm, which you can view here. The idea is that when you’re feeling confident and relaxed, you naturally breathe more deeply and slower. When you’re nervous your breathing turns more shallow and speeds up. If you can recognize this happening, you can consciously force yourself to slow down your breathing and breathe more deeply, tricking yourself into feeling more confident.
- Positive Thoughts. Sometimes that voice in my head will get me down and rile up my anxiety. People won’t like me, my artwork isn’t very good, I’ll fail, I’m not good enough, I ruin everything… We all have this at times, but those of us with anxiety have this a lot. It takes practice to recognize this voice speaking inside your head and to then bash it over the head with your own confidence. Things like: NO, I am successful, not many people could do what I’ve done given my circumstances, I do matter, I am loved, I deserve good things, I’m a good person, good things are coming my way, things will work out, I am worthy.
- Exercise. For me this means walking or yoga, but whatever kind of exercise you like. This will help you stay healthier, but it also increases endorphins and boosts your confidence, while simultaneously relaxing you. You work some of that anxious energy out, and if you focus on your breathing, what you’re grateful for, give yourself positive thoughts, and visualize your success while you’re doing it, you’ll be left with just the energy that comes with confidence and excitement.
Where Does This All Lead?
I’m not free of my anxiety, and I doubt I ever will be. However, I have seen a DRASTIC decrease in my anxiety and it’s been over a year since I’ve had a full-blown panic attack.
I still freak out before every speech I give. I start breathing heavily and wonder why on Earth I decided this was a good idea. I get jittery and begin to tear up from the stress.
Then my training kicks in again. I am important, what I have to share is useful, people like me, I am worthy, I look fine, I am here for a reason. I then lean over for a minute (inversion) and focus on my breathing. As I stand back up, I strike the Superman pose for a couple minutes as I visualize what I’m about to do, something I’ve already done many times leading up to the event. I breathe deeply, from my belly. I move around, I stretch, I keep giving myself positive thoughts, and I smile. I can do this.
When I walk out to begin my speech, even though I can still feel my pool of anxiety sloshing around me, I’ve blocked off enough of the stress streams leading into it that I’m not drowning. My head stays above water and I can focus.
A helpful thing to remember is: No one is perfect. You don’t need to be either.