It was August 2003. New York City lost all power. Just like that, computer screens went black, elevators stopped between floors, and subways stranded riders below the streets. Panic and fear set in as people wondered if this was another act of terrorism.
“Kjirsten, did you see the pictures of people in NYC breathing into paper bags because they were so scared?” a co-worker asked me. I had not, but images came quickly to my mind, and I felt a familiar feeling of fear wash over my whole body leaving me feeling light-headed and weak. In that moment, I relived the many times I had relied on a paper bag to help me breathe. Growing up I experienced regular anxiety, although almost no one knew. I believed that what I felt made me broken and weak, and my perfectionist tendencies required me to hide what I was feeling at all costs. I couldn’t risk being found out! In the times when my anxiety got so bad I couldn’t breathe, the only tool I had was my paper bag. While it helped calm my breathing in the moment, it did nothing to teach me that it was ok to talk about what I was experiencing or how ask for help. As a result, I continued for many years to try to manage what was sometimes intense fear or panic, all by myself.
It makes me sad to think about how alone and scared I often felt, and that I never asked the people in my life who loved me and were there to support me for help. But I can’t go back. So, as I look back, I choose to focus on the gifts I discovered in my fear. Courage and adaptability are the ones I am most thankful for and proud of. The courage it took for me to face everyday situations that terrified me, and the ability to quickly evaluate a situation, the people and the environment to design my survival plan have served me well throughout my life. I now channel that courage and adaptability not to survive, but to thrive.
My breath used to be a symbol of fear and weakness for me; I now consider it a source of strength, calm, and presence. My mental health practice is as big a priority as my physical health practice. While I still experience fear and anxiety more than I would like to, I don’t see it as a weakness; I don’t see myself as something that needs to be fixed. So, in those moments of anxiety, with greater awareness, self-acceptance, courage, and the skills to talk about what I’m experiencing, I am more likely to pause, take some calming breaths and consider how I might take care of myself to successfully manage the situation. And…I’m not ashamed to ask for help anymore.
We have all experienced feelings of anxiety. Why is it that when we experience something related to our mental health, we shamefully hide it for fear of being judged, but when we have a physical health condition, like broken bone or the flu, we have no problem letting people know and asking for help?! What if we were more intentional about treating both mental and physical health similarly in terms of our beliefs, the conversations we have, and with a focus on preventive care, including building lifelong health practices, as well as treatment?
If you can relate to my experience, you have probably developed practices that help you manage your anxiety. Here are some of the things that I do:
- Develop awareness about what triggers my feelings of anxiety. The obvious triggers were easy. When I paid close attention, I realized I had other less obvious triggers as well.
- Create a practice to proactively manage my triggers. For example, I used to write “breathe” on the top of my paper at work when I anticipated a meeting that might trigger me or when I was particularly overwhelmed (I eventually got “breathe” tattooed on my wrist 😊). I’ve written intentions on post-it notes and placed them on my computer screen to remind me how I want to show up with a particular person. I’ve said, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and need to pause and take a deep breath” during a phone meeting, and everyone paused while I took my breath. That mini break was enough to reset me and get me through the call. Oh…and afterwards, a couple of people thanked me and told me they needed a deep breath also.
- Build a support team with people I trust and that care about my well-being. I don’t dump all my burdens on them, however, when they ask how I’m doing, I will tell them how I’m actually doing, and they listen with genuine curiosity and care.
- Develop a mental health practice and prioritize it. I attend regular yoga classes (mental and physical health all in one!), use Insight Timer (my favorite app) for meditation and calming music, get outside as often as I can, and do the things I love with my favorite people.
- Reflect and find wisdom in situations that didn’t go well and those that did go well. I think about what I can learn from my experiences. What contributed to the good and not-so-good experiences and outcomes? What can I change to create a greater probability of success next time?
If you can’t personally relate to me or others who experience anxiety or other mental health conditions, here are some suggestions to help you be more supportive (I continue to work on these myself):
- Ask, “How are you?” with the intention of hearing how someone is actually doing. Listen with curiosity and care, rather than a place of fear (about what you might hear) or with the intent to solve it or fix them.
- Honor what they tell you as their truth. You may not understand or even believe that what they tell you could be real; accept it as real for them.
- Be thoughtful about the language you use. Even with the best intentions, you may say something that has a very different impact. For example, these phrases are not helpful and even when well-intended, can feel insulting: relax, calm down, you’ll get over it, it’s all in your head. Instead, you can paraphrase what they’ve said. If they tell you they’re feeling overwhelmed, you might say, ”It sounds like you’re really overwhelmed. What do you think is most contributing to that feeling?” That will send the message that you’ve heard and accepted what they have shared with you. You can ask them if there is something you can do to support them.
So now, before I post my first blog ever, I am going to take a moment to breathe, the way I have learned…with strength and courage.
Yours truly and perfectly flawed,