One of the most important things to learn during Anxiety recovery is how to get space between your anxious mind and your true self. Obviously, when facing physical illness it’s easy to differentiate between your illness and your personality. When you have the flu or break your leg you’re very much aware that this is something that is happening to you. An outside force has inflicted an injury or infection on your body and you must now allow that ailment to heal. It might be frustration or difficult, and you might even feel fed up or low, but you’re able to easily acknowledge that your broken leg wasn’t your fault, recovery isn’t something you can rush and your injury doesn’t affect who you are as a person.
By contrast, conditions which affect our minds and emotions can feel intrinsically linked to our personalities, our morals and our sense of self. This is one of the most difficult parts of dealing with Anxiety or any other mental health issue and, in my opinion, the reason why so many people who’ve experienced both would choose a physical problem over a mental one in the future.
So what can we do to get achieve this distance and separation? How can we view Anxiety as a separate entity, in the same way we would an infection or a broken bone?
Visualisation is by far and away my preferred technique for creating distance from Anxiety. During my earliest therapy sessions we discussed how I could imagine Anxiety as a separate entity and how to confront or work with that vision.
For example, I imagined Anxiety as a dark, chaotic figure and every time I felt that rush of panic, fear or overwhelm I would force myself to visualise the Anxiety figure knocking at a door in my mind. I would imagine opening the door and saying “Okay, come in and take a seat. I know you’re only trying to help me but I just don’t need you at the moment so please just sit in the corner and do your thing while I get on with something else.” When you’re doing this visualisation every time you sense an anxious thought or feeling it can be very exhausting but after a while it really does work. And once you get used to the visualisations you can adapt or shorten them to make it easier.
The beauty of this technique is that by repeatedly visualising the Anxiety as an outside source you’re able to create that much needed breathing space between you and it.
Another time I used visualisation was when managing intrusive thoughts, then I used the concept of movies being projected onto clouds. Read more about that here.
Remember the old you
It can be really helpful to look at physical reminders of the person you were before you became unwell. For me this meant looking at photos of when I was happy and healthy in the past, listening to familiar music and watching warm, familiar television shows. Although it can be painful to remind yourself of how different your life was to how it is now it’s also a really important tool for reminding yourself that the Anxiety you’re experiencing is just temporary and it can’t take away your history or your identity.
Remind yourself that it’s just adrenaline
Although it feels complicated and overwhelming, Anxiety is actually pretty straightforward. It’s simply an excess of adrenaline in your body. Your mind has become temporarily stuck in the fight or flight response that is common to all human beings. Once we learn not to react to that adrenaline; not to fear it or tense against it, then it’s perfectly possible to get the balance back to a normal level. Whenever I worried I was “going insane” I would keep telling myself that it’s just an extra bit of adrenaline.
It can be easy to get caught up in thoughts which are predominantly self-abusive when we’re struggling with an Anxiety disorder. We continually beat ourselves up for being weak, stupid, hysterical, not being able to cope etc. None of this is helpful; every time we indulge in this anger or self-pity we’re fuelling the Anxiety.
Being kind to ourselves instead is really useful but obviously a lot easier said than done! I found a self-kindness journal was a good tool – I would write down a positive message to myself every night, as if I were talking to a friend, and list something I’d achieved that day (no matter how small). Read more about how I use lists and journaling in recovery here.
Generally speaking I wouldn’t advise distraction as a positive technique for managing Anxiety. Distraction is an avoidance strategy and running from Anxiety only makes it more powerful in my experience. However, if you’re looking to create space between Anxiety and the true you a little distraction isn’t a bad idea. Spending time with people from your pre-Anxiety life or going to places you used to go can be a good way of reconnecting with your real self.
I hope these techniques are helpful and, if all else fails, just repeat this over and over – You are NOT Anxiety.