For most of my 51 years, I have lived with a diagnosis of anxiety. Anxiety is a condition that affects all of us differently. For me, it meant being so afraid to embarrass myself socially when I went to dances, I would sit alone the entire night. Even when girls would approach me to ask me to dance, I would refuse. Though I am a grown adult now, my relationship skills are sorely lacking.
To this day, I also experience unending nervousness and worry when I’m in a vehicle that I’m not driving. I have a friend who has never been in an accident in 20 years of driving, and I still sit on the edge of my seat, and even warn him about things that are no real risk.
Anxiety can be debilitating. A waitress at my favorite restaurant was once the top student in her class in medical school and had to drop out because of anxiety.
There are ways to lessen the effects of anxiety. I am going to share my top seven methods below.
1. To overcome anxiety, be comfortable in your home.
If you live with a spouse, make sure they aren’t crossing your comfort boundaries. If they are, talk to them about it. If you have a hard time talking to them, write them a letter. You may have to write a few drafts of this to make sure it says what you want to say without putting the blame on them. Focus on things that make your relationship stronger, not what someone may have done wrong.
If you live with a spouse and talking to them or writing to them doesn’t help, consider couples counseling. You may be able to get free or low-cost therapy through your church, a charitable organization, or a local university's internship/training program for psychology students.
It is also important not to isolate yourself in your home. I live on my own now because I have work and things to do outside of my apartment, but when anxiety had a bigger hold on me, I was much better off living in a supportive group home. If anyone had any problems, they were able to call a house meeting and staff would come and discuss the problems. We could also just go to the staff privately.
When I was concerned about living alone, a psychiatrist suggested that I put up an ad for a roommate at the university and try to find someone who was studying psychology.
2. Connect with friends who understand your mental health struggles.
There are no friends like old friends. Well, any friend can be good or bad. If you have toxic friends, for example, ones who like to drag you to a bar when you know alcohol may decrease short-term anxiety but increase it in the long term, make a list of friends you can count on to support you and help you cope with your anxious tendencies in a healthy way. If it bothers you to be around friends that drink, you don’t need to drop them from your life, but you may want to try and schedule your time with them during hours you know they haven’t been drinking.
This is where a journal can come in handy. You can write for pages about what is bothering you and over time track your progress. Try putting a number from 1 to 10 on how bad your anxiety was that day. Some people consider their journal their best friend, and people who experience anxiety need all the friends they can get.
As far as old friends go, it can be good to make a list of friends you haven’t seen in a long time and get back in touch with them. I found it can be so great to talk with old friends and catch up on all the news, but sometimes there will be awkward silences when we talk. I will write out ideas to talk with my old friends about, such as, “How are those headaches you used to get?” or “What does your son think about his university studies?” Soon you will find you have gotten through some excellent, rewarding conversations and you will have sidestepped much anxiety.
When I first was diagnosed with my mental health issues, a friend suggested that I keep a list of 5-6 friends I could connect with easily, and to keep in touch with them, but not put too much pressure for support on any one of them. This can be very helpful when you maintain friendships that help support your anxiety issues.
3. Practice being a good conversationalist to help yourself overcome anxiety in public and social situations.
Do you ever get anxious while waiting in line to pay at a grocery store? Try asking the person behind you if they are going to use their bell peppers in a chili. When you get to the till, start a conversation about the cashier’s haircut or his necklace. Starting casual conversations in difficult social situations can get your mind off the anxiety. You may even find that you see the same cashier in your favorite grocery store and can develop a friendship. You never know when you may learn something about a stranger, like when I learned a young woman running a till wanted to become a social worker. At the time, I worked for an agency that was hiring social workers and gave her ideas on how to get a job with them in her field. Little things like this are how friendships begin, and when you know someone in a place you used to feel awkward in, anxiety goes way down.
4. Get to know others who are working to overcome anxiety.
There are many groups you can get into, online and in person where you can congregate with people going through what you are. I know of one person who found a great deal of comfort in attending a 12-step group called Alanon, which is for people who are affected by other people’s drinking. Knowing you are not alone in a problem is always a liberating experience. It may be difficult to go to these meetings at first, but as time passes, you may find you have something to say that makes you feel better and could be just as helpful for others to hear.
There are also online mental health support groups and sometimes even mental health clubs where you can get and give support. Being around people who have mental health issues can be a great way to decrease anxiety because no one judges you because of past behaviors or general stigma surrounding your mental health issues.
It may not be a bad idea to see if counseling is covered by your health insurance, and if it isn’t, always ask about a sliding scale. You may find that paying for a course of therapy will be so useful it is worth the expense.
5. Join a church or spiritual community.
If you feel you have some faith in a creator and it doesn’t bother you to seek out places to nurture this, consider attending a local church. According to research studies, people who regularly go to church have less depression and anxiety. This is something I am very much aware of in my own life. At one point in my 20s, I was having some problems with anger and other symptoms of my illness, and a friend told me he considered me a much healthier person mentally when I was attending church. I can’t say if you are always blessed by a higher power if you go to church, but I do know it can be a very supportive, nurturing environment. I sometimes attend a service near my home, and I have met so many nice people, and the service always seems to address issues that are going on in my life or relationships with others. At one point, I thought it was necessary for me to take a course and become a member of the church I attended, but later I met a hospital chaplain who told me the whole idea of the course I was taking was to make a person a part of a community.
I have now lived in the same area for over 20 years, I have established that community and don’t feel obligated to attend every service or achieve any level of spirituality. I do read the Bible sometimes, but even in the Bible, the Apostle Paul says at one point that love is even more important than faith. Consider attending a church and see if it helps alleviate your anxiety over time.
6. Join a club or volunteer group to overcome anxiety in social situations.
There are other ways to connect with a community. For example, I volunteer with my community newspaper as a photographer. I love taking pictures and seeing them in print, and I get to keep up with everything going on in the neighborhood like an upcoming celebration at our local rink where I know there will be food, fun, and friends.
No matter what your age or occupation, there is a club out there for you. When I was in my teens, I took a course taught by a volunteer from our local Toastmasters club. It seems now the Toastmasters course and high school typing class were the most important educational skills I learned growing up. I have a part-time job now giving presentations about my lived experience with mental health. Speaking to hundreds of people and giving multitudes of talks has really increased my confidence and speaking ability. I plan to apply to give talks for large events, but I first want to hone my skills as a public speaker. Toastmasters is great for developing communication skills. They coach you and train you to think on your feet, write speeches, and give presentations, all of which can benefit someone’s career. It can even help people meet others and feel supported while they learn a skill. There is a membership fee, but the meetings welcome guests without payment or obligation.
My dad used to enjoy being a member of the Lions Club. He met a lot of people, got involved in Air Cadets, which my brother and I attended, and even won a “Lion of the Year” award for his efforts. Then there are activist organizations like Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Above all, the important thing is to find a way to connect with your community, do something you enjoy, and use the process to grow as a person.
7. Avoid short-term, unhealthy coping methods that will not help you overcome anxiety in the long run.
All of us experience some measure of anxiety. Unfortunately, some of us learn the wrong ways to deal with it. As a teenager, I found out by experimentation that I could manage to ask a girl to dance if I drank a few beers. Later, the beers seemed to replace the fun of dancing and music. I didn’t drink every day, but in grade 12, hardly a weekend went by without a binge. I started to realize things were getting out of hand when I got extremely drunk at my graduation party. During the week that followed, I had constant cravings for more alcohol. I knew then I had to do something about it, that I was headed down a dark path.
It was three more years before I found places that could help. I went to a lot of support groups, did a lot of journaling, and went to 12-step meetings, which all did the same thing. They allowed me to open up about being intoxicated or mentally ill and helped me to realize and accept what I had to do to never go back to those states of being.
Today, I have a stable life, many friends, a great community, and family who support and respect me. I like to think that I overcame anxiety just one small little bit at a time. There have been setbacks, I experienced way too much isolation during the pandemic, but I now have the knowledge and the skills to beat anxiety without drugs or alcohol, and life is wonderful because of it.
Image by sangoiri on Deposit Photos
Leif Gregersen is an author of fiction and non-fiction, and has published 12 books, of which 4 are poetry collections, 3 are short story collections, 2 are short novels, and 2 are memoirs of his life experience with mental illness.