In the 17th century, coffee was first introduced to England, where it was originally thought to be medicinal for people with a “nervous disposition”, although it quickly spread as a stimulant to the general population. In the 1980s, the big buzzword was “stress”. Everyone talked about how “stressed out” they were. Now in 2019, everyone talks about their anxiety and how it limits what they are able to do. During the first week of school, I got multiple calls from teenage clients who wanted to talk to me about the anxiety they felt about beginning school, and the impact of pending divorce litigation had on their ability to perform in school. The same week, a friend posted on social media that she had an anxiety attack because Costco had run out of 1% milk, and commented that anxiety is a real thing.
Anxiety is a real thing. The fact that we hear more people talking about it means that people are no longer feeling as ashamed about when things become so overwhelming to the point that they are triggered into a fight-or-flight reaction. Anxiety, even if it doesn’t get to the point of having a full blown anxiety attack, happens to all of us. Mine? Anytime I fly for more than 4 hours when I have a bad cold. I can’t breath because of the cold, I am squeezed into a seat where I have difficulty moving anything, especially my feet, and at some point, I become convinced that the whole concept of hanging in the air in a heavy piece of metal is the most insane idea ever, and we are going to run out of air. Or being in a crowd, and trying to go in the opposite direction than where the crowd is moving. Chances are good that you have heard about anxiety in prior generations, your parents, your grandparents, and how they struggled to deal with it when it wasn’t recognized and coping strategies were not talked about.
Here is the problem with people’s being open about identifying anxiety: people stop at identifying the anxiety, and wait for the people they are talking to solve the problem of what is causing their anxiety, staying in that anxiety state, motionless. What are some coping mechanisms to allow you to work through that anxiety state?
Try to identify why the particular event triggered anxiety. The friend whose anxiety was triggered over Costco running out of 1% milk? Chances are good that she had a long difficult day, she just wanted to get her milk and get home to fix dinner, and it was the last thing that tipped her over the edge. It wasn’t really about the milk, it was about all of the things that happened before the milk.
Break up the anxiety into more manageable segments. If you feel anxiety because of a pending divorce litigation, don’t feel that you have to resolve everything all at one time. Think about what it will take for you to get through the one day that you are in, not about what it will take to get through the next year. One day is too much? Think about what it will take to get through the next hour, or the next five minutes. If you are feeling extremely anxious, think about what you need to do to get through the next breath.
If you feel panicked, and feel as if you can’t move, you feel as if you are going to strike out at someone: yoga breathing. Deep breaths in, 5-6 seconds long, deep breaths out, focusing on nothing other than breathing. As you get extra oxygen into your lungs, and you are able to focus on nothing but breathing, your brain starts working again, and that’s when you can tell yourself that the airplane has enough air in it, and it is not likely to drop from the sky. You replace the recording in your head that tells you that there isn’t enough air with a recording that says there is enough air, you are breathing air, and you are going to be able to keep breathing.
Identify what you can control and what you can’t control. The teenagers who were anxious about starting school when there was a high conflict divorce between their parents imploding their world, don’t have a great deal of control over getting their parents to react in a calmer fashion. My advice to them? Focus on what they do have control over: their English assignment, their history paper. They are worried that a vindictive parent might come to their house where they live with the other parent and let their dog out? They can control putting a identification tag but they can’t control the property dispute between the parents.
If you can’t control something, let it go. If the thoughts that cause anxiety keep coming back into your head, replace it with a thought of “I can’t control that” and “I can control this”.
Get organized! What pushes me, and many others, to the point of that one small thing that triggers anxiety, is when your physical belongings are not organized, you cannot find things, and that builds anxiety to a breaking point. It’s also a great way not to buy 3 restaurant size spices because you can’t find where you put the first or second one!
Get the task that you least like to do out of the way the first thing in the morning. This is counter-intuitive to me. Shouldn’t I start with the highest priority task, which may not be the most unpleasant task? The problem with that idea is that the unpleasant task always gets pushed to a position where it doesn’t get done until it becomes a crisis, and then dealing with the crisis triggers anxiety. If you don’t get it off your list, the unpleasant task stays in your head, interfering with your ability to get other things done, that have higher priority.
Don’t rely on your memory. We all laugh about having “senior moments” long before memory loss is physically a problem. If your short term memory is overloaded, something is going to slip through the cracks and not surface until it causes a problem. Write it down. If it is a task, you get the pleasure of crossing it off the list. If it is information that you need to remember, put the information in a place that you will think to look for it again. If you don’t rely on overloaded short term memory, less things are going to slip off the list and create a crisis, triggering anxiety.
Schedule emotional down time. We have more and more things that are readily available to us to do, read, watch, respond, with an expectation that everything can and WILL be done within minutes. The reality is that we are not more efficient when we try to do too many things at once. Recognize that different people have different capacities to manage tasks and emotional issues. As a divorce attorney, I handle about 100 or more divorces a year, and I try my very best to give each client and each case the emotional and intellectual energy that the case needs. It means that I recognize that I need to do something else on the weekends, even if it is nothing more challenging than spending an hour pulling weeds. I have actually developed an entire “Zen of Weeding” because it is a time when I am emotionally recharging, and can get a different perspective, even on weeding!
Look for the one good thing in every situation, no matter how small! This is also known as having an “attitude of gratitude.” Thinking about the positive things in your life lowers all of those anxiety hormones that convince you that you are going to have a meltdown that instant. It also gives you some perspective that is bigger than the immediate problem.
Let’s put this all into practice. You are in the process of getting a divorce. Your estranged spouse is texting you, emailing you, calling you, sending messages on social media, and you are barely holding it all together. You find yourself crying hysterically when you come up to a light, and it turns red right before you get to it, way over reacting to the red light. What’s really the issue? It’s not the red light, it is the constant barrage of demands for reaction that feels overwhelming. Break it down. You are not going to solve the problem of getting divorce during the time that you sit at a red light, but you can get through the amount of time that it takes you to get home, or get through the day. Breath!! If you are crying at the red light, you need to get yourself under control enough to safely get home. If you can’t make it home, pull over and breath until you are calm enough to get through the next step. What can you control? You can’t control crazy texting and demands for attention and reaction by someone else, but you can control HOW and IF you want to respond. Unless your child is in the emergency room with a life-threatening injury, most information does not need to be dealt with immediately. Get organized. Let the communications build up, and then tackle them as a whole when you feel more emotionally able to do so. Get that unpleasant task out of the way when you have emotional energy to do so. Decide what the issues are in the texts that you are able to do anything about, and let the rest go. You can’t control someone else being demeaning to you, but you can choose not to hear it, and not to react to it. Sooner or later, the other person stops the barrage if they are not getting emotional satisfaction from getting a response. Keep those communications, however. You never know when they might be helpful in litigation, and you have them in writing. Put yourself in an emotional time out from having to deal with the communications, whether it be having a cup of coffee in front of the fire at the end of the day, or taking a weekend to do things that you like to do and not look at communications. Lastly, be grateful that you are getting divorced. You are better off than you were when you were living together, and you will be better off when it is done. You can see an end in sight, when the nastiness will impact your life less and less.
Yes, anxiety is a thing, but it doesn’t stop there. You can find a way to cope and get to a place where you like the path you are on!