When we catch diseases like the flu or cold, we know what to do to bounce back from the bed. But we're suddenly unsure what to do when it comes to mental health problems like anxiety.
We fumble around in the darkness.
And with more than 19% of the American population suffering from anxiety every year, it's even more apparent that knowing how to care for yourself in such circumstances will be crucial. Especially if you belong among people who suffer from nervous symptoms long after the event that triggered the anxiety is over.
Why It Won't Go Away
When you first experience intense anxiety, it can be so novel and overwhelming that you can literally think you're dying. Feeling like spiders are crawling under your ice-cold skin is almost unbearable. Having cold sweats, racing pulse and unable to inhale properly makes you think you have a heart attack.
It's scary and uncomfortable, so there's no wonder you want to get rid of it as soon as possible. However, as anybody who has already experienced it would tell you, it doesn't work treating it like a headache.
Because we have pills for most things now, it's our preferred choice to take one and be ok in a few hours. And even though pills help limit physical symptoms, they don't get to the root cause - which is a hyperaroused nervous system. It is fear of your own bodily sensations.
It developed because if the feelings frightened you enough, you'd probably be on high alert; what if it happens again. And this cascade of thinking and feeling makes anxiety stick even if the original cause is long gone. As psychiatrist Claire Weeks puts it: "It is very much an illness of your attitude to fear, panic. You may think it is an illness of how you feel (it most certainly seems like this), but how you feel depends on how you think, on what you think. Because it is an illness of what you think, you can recover."¹
The Path to Being Yourself Again
So, the question is - how do you calm back down?
Putting it simply, by being ok, you're not calm. By being ok, you're anxious. You can't just wait until you feel better. Because, most likely, it won't happen.
It's like when you have a bad mood. You won't stop (hopefully) doing everything you have on your schedule just because you feel low. You don't lie in your bed for two days waiting to be happy again. Instead, you continue with whatever you need to do and eventually, your mood lifts again.
The same works for anxiety.
Doing nothing because you are frightened only makes you more frightened. The inactivity is your major enemy, letting you fall deeper into the spiral of hopelessness. But If you get up and get yourself doing something useful, you are immediately on the path to recovery. Maybe you'll feel only slightly better in the beginning, but even that's progress, and progress will compound if you keep going.
For example, on the first day, take a shower while being shaky. On the second day, go grocery shopping even if you're afraid you'll be sick. On the third day, perform a quick exercise despite being nervous and tired. Continue like this every day, gradually expanding the number of things you can do while anxious.
That's how you get back to being yourself.
It seems like a paradox, but it's true.
The more you're ok with all the discomfort, the quicker it goes away. Then, finally, there will be a point when you become so used to doing anything despite various bodily sensations that it won't bother you anymore. And when that happens, your nervous system finally starts to calm down.
However, it's important to point out that this process takes a different amount of time for different people. Somebody will be ok in a few days, and someone else will need a few weeks. It all depends on your individual circumstances. But no matter how long it will take, have patience and be gentle with yourself while you recover.
1. Weekes, Claire. Hope and Help for Your Nerves (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.