This week, we sat down with the founder of Huddle.Care, Dr. Maggie Perry, to learn more about living with anxiety and the difficulties in communicating the experience of anxiety to others. After getting her doctorate degree in clinical psychology from Loyola University of Maryland and training at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, Dr. Perry has committed her life to helping her clients learn to treat themselves with a balance of mindfulness, self-gentleness, and self-discipline.
So, let’s dive right in.
Communicating Your Struggle to Others
Living with anxiety can be a very lonely experience when those around you struggle to understand and empathize with your challenge. But it’s important to remember that what you’re going through internally may not be obvious to the outside world or even to you! According to Dr. Perry, you must understand your own anxiety before others can begin to get on the same page with you.
Learn it. Do your best to educate yourself on what is taking place inside your brain when you feel the sensations of anxiety. Therapy, books and anxiety-focused communities are all good resources. Try to identify your triggers. How do they make you feel? How do you respond to anxiety-inducing stimuli? What is the brain chemistry behind these feelings? Fully understanding, on every level, what happens when you feel anxious will make it easier to explain your anxiety to those around you.
Do it. Improving your understanding of anxiety alone won’t actively change your brain’s response. As you become more self-aware, it is important to start putting what you’ve learned into practice. This can involve rebuilding your emotional groundwork for dealing with anxiety, working through exposure therapy, and/or simply practicing mindfulness a little more each day. Taking small steps towards facing your triggers will eventually lessen their grip on you.
Teach it. In order for others to understand what you’re going through, it is necessary to calmly and positively relay your experience to others, so the next time you experience anxiety around others, they’ll be able to recognize it and know how to react. As you help your loved ones learn more about your struggles, by teaching someone about your experience you will improve your own self-awareness.
Supporting Someone with Anxiety
Living with anxiety on your own can be isolating, but asking for help can be tricky. If someone close to you struggles with anxiety, simply asking them how you can help can make a huge difference.
Understanding. First, it is very important to understand the problem. Because anxiety is so often confused with stress and regular worry, it is important to set aside your assumptions and listen with an open mind. “The ideal case is that the community would learn what anxiety is,” says Dr. Perry. “Research shows that psychological suffering is not so much about the situation, but how a person is responding to it.” Simply understanding a person’s response to their own anxiety, through research and conversation, is one of the best ways to help that person.
Acceptance. “The ideal way to make an anxious person feel comfortable is to help them keep a willful attitude towards their anxiety. Listen and allow yourself to be taught about what exactly is happening in those situations. Discuss it with the anxious person while exhibiting a relaxed attitude, humility, understanding and even humor towards it,” says Dr. Perry. Humor, in particular, may be the most valuable tool of all. “After a while, it can become a game—a humorous part of life that becomes completely disarmed,” rather than something to feel shame or self-consciousness over.
What NOT to do. While it is essential to understand how to take positive action, knowing what not to do is just as important. It is best to talk about it and establish exactly how the anxious person wishes to be treated. “Both, shaming and reassuring can be confusing for the person and can make them unsure of how they are supposed to react,” explains Dr. Perry. So, attempts to dispel their anxiety by pointing out that everything is ok and trying to make them see the “bright side,” can feel like you’re oversimplifying a complex issue that they struggle with daily and can lead to further alienation and dispair. Remember, if it were that obvious and easy, they wouldn’t be needing your help.
Common Misconceptions About Anxiety
False: “Acceptance” is just another word for “giving up.”
A common misconception that is prevalent among people living with anxiety is that accepting your anxious feelings, rather than trying to fight them, is in itself a passive response. However, this could not be further from the truth. In accepting that you experience anxious sensations in different circumstances, you are consciously—and actively!—retraining your brain to temper its response to triggering stimuli.
“Acceptance is actually a really active stance because you’re telling yourself that the thoughts and feelings you have are actually inconsistent with what you value—they’re not true, they’re not worth acting on, they’re not dangerous to you. You can choose to accept the fact that the thoughts and feelings are there, but you’re still able to do the things you care about,” says Dr. Perry. “Over time, this will eventually teach the mind not to be worried about those things anymore, and eventually the mind will not have that sensation anymore.”
False: You simply need to face your fears.
Exposure therapy is a method that involves deliberately seeking anxiety-triggering situations in an effort to learn how to respond when anxious sensations occur in order to lessen that anxiety over time. For people struggling with anxiety, one of the most common—and harmful—misconceptions is that all you need is a ‘just do it’ attitude. “Many people think, ‘I just have to force myself into situations and then eventually my fear will go away.’ If someone, who’s afraid of bridges, goes over a bridge fifty times but is bracing against her thoughts and feelings the whole time, she’s going to continue to feel afraid. They have to do it in the right way,” Dr. Perry explains.
Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t about the act of exposure to anxiety. It is the willful attitude toward anxiety that will inspire and affect change in the long run. “There has to be a pretty active self-talk because the person will still be afraid,” says Dr. Perry. “The uncertainty and fear are still there, but they’re saying ‘I’m taking a leap of faith—it’s okay for me to have these anxious feelings and still do the triggering behavior because I don’t believe I am actually in danger.”
False: Your anxiety is a character flaw.
Perhaps the most frustrating misunderstandings occur between those who struggle with anxiety and their close circle. Friends and family members may believe that anxiety-fueled behavior is simply a reflection of a person’s personality, just like honesty, friendliness or a sense of humor.
“You are not your anxiety. Anxiety is just something that happens to you,” reminds Dr. Perry.
“Not everyone is taught that anxiety is related to the makeup of the brain, that it’s not necessarily a personality characteristic, even though it may feel that way after they’ve suffered for so long,” says Dr. Perry.
Anxiety Management Tip
Dr. Perry states that quick, in-the-moment journaling can be extremely beneficial to someone with anxiety. She says that “any type of thought record detailing ‘these are my thoughts, these are my feelings, these are my sensations,’ can help see what needs to be done in the moment.”
When inklings of anxiety begin to arise, take a step back, consider all aspects of these sensations and write about them as they happen. This is a good technique for reconciling your anxious feelings with what you’ve learned about your anxiety and what you know to be true. In other words, do not believe everything you feel. Journaling provides an opportunity to examine and challenge your feelings.
“There are other times, like life transitions, in which just having someone write for thirty minutes each morning about what they think and feel about that transition will bring down their stress, bring down their anxiety, and make them more resilient against depression because they are more self-aware.”
Visit huddle.care to learn more about to learn more about Dr. Perry’s work!
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