A little while ago I posted a guide to Travelling with Anxiety (See it here!) and it turned out to be pretty popular. I want to write more on the topic of anxiety because, as those of you with anxiety may know, it is an ongoing and ever-evolving thing, so why not write about anxiety in all its forms from manageable/non-existent symptoms to epic meltdowns in the middle of very public spaces (EMBARRASSING.)
Traveling is, and will probably always be, a massive trigger for me. I have had many, many horrible experiences in tiny airplane bathrooms and in hotel rooms on the opposite side of the world from my home (including one time a woman literally had a miscarriage in the aisle beside my seat and I barfed for the rest of the flight and into the following day). But, I have also sometimes been just fine! The trip to Ho Chi Minh City that prompted my Traveling with Anxiety post went pretty smoothly, once I made it to Shanghai. A few months ago, however, J and I flew to Orlando, Florida to “do something fun” at the tail end of my stress leave and it was surprisingly difficult for me (but really, I was already on a stress leave so what was I expecting haha).
We had initially booked a different holiday for February but at that time I knew my mental health was poor and that I wouldn’t enjoy the trip, so we postponed. Seems to have made little difference though as a few months wasn’t enough time (the credit was about to expire) for me to get myself under control and things didn’t really go as we had planned. I overestimated my ability to handle huge crowds and long lineups, wrecked a whole day for both of us, plus wasted a ton of money. It’s hard not to take these things to heart, but there was little I could do at the time. But what can you do when you can’t stop yourself from having a massive meltdown?
1. Tell Yourself to Chill
A lot of people usually go the “Calm Down” route when dealing with someone having an anxiety attack, but telling an anxious person to calm down never works, ever, and it can feel very belittling. We know we need to calm down, dude, and that’s probably what we’re trying to do.
But it’s ok to tell YOURSELF to calm down. I like to focus on the words “My anxiety does not control me, I control it” (be careful that you don’t start chanting “I don’t control my anxiety, it controls me” because I have definitely caught myself doing that, ha!) YOU RULE. The anxiety is not winning, you are just experiencing it temporarily before you use your fantastic brain to return things to normal. And you have the power to do that. Sometimes it can take a while to calm down, and sometimes I get it in my head that I can’t do it and then everything goes downhill, but the more practice you have the better you will get at calming yourself down. Remind yourself that what you are experiencing is panic and that you will be fine.
And if you’re like me, comedy really becomes an outlet at times of great stress (just call me Chandler Bing). A coworker once showed me a funny video (You need to caaaalm doooown) and it really stuck in my mind for some reason. Now when I’m trying to calm down I end up putting on the voice and telling myself to caaaaalm dooooown and it makes me laugh, which brings relief. Laughter is a HUGE help when you feel crappy. Laughter is the best medicine, or whatever ❤
2. Take a Time Out
Find a quiet place (a bench, a bathroom stall, go for a walk, etc) and do some deep breathing. There are apps to help deal with anxiety, and sometimes they can be helpful. Think about the times you were able to travel (or insert blank ___ ) without anxiety and know it is possible.
A lot of the time when I have anxiety, deep breathing does absolutely nothing to help and I just have to ride it out. But it’s still worth a try, even if just to give you something to focus on. In through your nose, out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth. You may also find it helpful to have an anti-anxiety fidget, I have a cube with lots of clickers on it (if you like clicking pens, you’ll love this thing) and it is pretty soothing.
It may also help to stop everything and try to do something “normal” for a bit to reset. Sit down and have a cup of tea or coffee or a small snack (green jello anyone?), take your makeup bag to the bathroom and focus on your face or hair (if you’re like me you look like the joker right about now), or put on your headphones and listen to your favourite song on repeat. You may be jittery at first but sometimes doing something familiar can help bring you back down to earth.
3. Feel the Feels
As I mentioned in my original post, sometimes the fight against feelings of anxiety is what makes it worse. When the thought that I might feel anxiety enters my brain, often that’s enough to trigger it. Then I immediately feel the dread of a pending freakout and the stress of thinking about what could happen is enough to make the anxiety take over.
I have found it helpful sometimes to stop resisting the feelings and just feel them without trying to change them. What happens when you feel anxiety? I get alternating body chills and hot flashes, I start sweating, and my stomach clenches. These feelings can hit me in waves and I usually end up sobbing like a maniac. (As I hysterically cried at the airport this time around I made such a scene that the woman sitting nearest me in the food court asked if someone had died, and between sobs I managed to get out “No, we’re going to Disney World!”)
I have also tested out the theory that if you tell yourself you’re excited instead of anxious you can turn your plummeting stomach of doom into cute little butterflies. It sorta works, and anything is worth a try! If you think about it, that stomach twist you feel before you give your presentation to a room full of people or as you walk down the ramp and board the plane could really truly just be excitement. Have you considered that you’re actually excited to be going on vacation instead of dreading it? When you frame it that way sometimes you can get things under wraps. After all, excitement and butterflies are super normal reactions to stressful situations too.
What would happen if instead of trying to force the feelings away, you just felt them without judgement? Take a moment to think about where you are. Think about your body and the space it occupies and list 10 things about where you are that make you feel comfortable. More often than not I am with someone I know and trust, I am comfortably dressed, and for the most part healthy and happy. Know that the anxiety will pass and your body will continue to exist and you are NOT going to die. It feels bad right now, but it will pass like it always has before.
4. Remove Yourself from the Cause of the Anxiety
When you have anxiety, sometimes thing are just going to blow up in your face. Meditation won’t work, breathing won’t work, Ativan does nothing. You want to chill, but your body has other plans. When this happens for me the only thing I can do is remove myself from what is freaking me out. We went to Disney World and there were so many people there… all it took was feeling trapped in one 25 minute lineup (Pirates of the Caribbean! Duh) for the bottom of my stomach to fall out. I tried all my usual methods which was enough to get me through the ride itself, and I hoped the feeling would pass once we were back out in the park. Surprise! Things got worse. I was really trying but nothing was working and I told J we needed to leave. I never expected to be that woman in her 30’s having an epic toddler-style meltdown in the middle of the Happiest Place on Earth, but alas, it happened. The second I knew we were leaving I calmed down immediately, and even tried to go back into the park thinking the anxiety was manageable at that point (a few times). But once we started walking back into the park the feeling would come back so we had to give up on the day completely (and our non-refundable single day tickets which were a truly ridiculous amount of money). In the end all I could do was leave the park and go back to the hotel where it was quiet.
5. There is No Shame in Having Anxiety!!
Wrecking everyone’s plans because you are at the mercy of your anxiety can leave you feeling pretty upset with yourself, but know that it is NOT YOUR FAULT. If the people you are with aren’t being supportive of your needs in a moment of anxiety then that speaks volumes about who they really are, and you probably don’t need people like that in your life anyways. Mental illness can be debilitating when it’s at its worst, but it can also be non-existent when you are feeling good. Always remember that the bad feelings will go away eventually, and there is nothing wrong with you. Some of us are just a bit more sensitive than others, I guess. I feel like it can be really helpful to get to a place where you accept your anxiety, and then even when you are at your worst you can maintain perspective on things. Yes, you may be acting like a spazz, but we are all allowed to do that from time to time! Don’t be embarrassed about things that are out of your control, but do try to put in the work to be comfortable with it (even when it makes you wildly uncomfortable.) Be patient with yourself. Be kind. And if there is someone in your life that is shaming you for experiencing feelings out of your control, just stay away from them because you don’t need that bullshit. And that includes all negative reactions including telling you to “suck it up”, being angry with you for your reactions to “normal” activities, and people who straight up ignore you when you are having anxiety and/or deny your anxiety altogether. Chuck ’em.
If you need help managing your anxiety there are lots of options out there ranging from speaking to a counselor or therapist, trying new medications or increasing existing doses, or practicing mindfulness (be wary of self-medicating and/or doing things that can be harmful like abusing prescriptions or other substances. It can complicate things!) What works for some people might not work for others so it’s also important not to shame people for doing what works for them even if it’s something you disagree with (like taking medications including medical marijuana etc). There are also scores of people online with the same exact struggles as you (I promise you are not alone), so seek them out for some support if that’s something you want to do! There are also lots of articles online, so fall down an anxiety internet hole and see what you find. Buzzfeed is a good start:
Best of luck my fellow anxiety-sufferers!