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How I learned to show my anxiety who’s boss

JoAnn Crohn

My stomach hurt, I felt queasy — then it happened. My heart started pounding, not mild pounding, but rather trying-to-escape-my-ribcage pounding.

I thought, “This is a heart attack. I’m going to die.”

I stumbled from the bathroom and into bed. I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth. Ten minutes later, the pounding stopped. Yet, it took me two more hours to fall asleep.

I didn’t have a heart attack. I had my first panic attack.

My life changed this past summer. My coffee-drinking habits caught up with me, and I developed gastritis: No more coffee; no more alcohol, no more coping methods.

My son started attending preschool part-time so I could focus more on writing. I suddenly had a glorious six hours, three days a week to do nothing but write, which created lots of pressure to achieve my dream.

At home, my six-year-old daughter whined constantly about how she never got to play with her friends (after just having a playdate 30 minutes prior) or how I never serve her the food she likes. Humans need more than macaroni and cheese for sustenance. I told myself I was failing as a mom.

Then came the panic attack. While I had dealt with a moderate level of anxiety my whole life, that panic attack forced me to find help in managing it. First, I went to my doctor who prescribed me a low-dose anti-depressant, and then I went to a counselor — best decision I have ever made.

I learned that my anxiety came from what I told myself about my life — a never-ending slew of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). Here’s how I fixed it:

Pay attention

I would be happy and carefree one moment and then anxious minutes later. I had no idea why this happened and thought it was the nature of anxiety. However, my counselor taught me to pay attention. She said that something sets me off, and the faster I figured out my triggers, the sooner I could get my anxiety under control.

I paid attention. Every time I felt anxious, I asked myself, “What just happened?” I could usually pinpoint my trigger in less than a minute: my son whining, a nasty email or my daughter complaining. As soon as I identified it, I needed to ask myself: 

What negative thoughts do I have?

Triggers and outside situations are beyond my control. However, I can control what I tell myself about them. When my daughter complained to me, I thought, “I’m a horrible mom,” “She doesn’t like me,” or “If I had it together, she wouldn’t be complaining.”

Complete rubbish, yes? But after thinking these over and over again, I started to believe them.

Reframe the thoughts

“I’m a horrible mom” became “I’m teaching my daughter boundaries.” “She doesn’t like me” changed to “It’s hard to learn a new behavior and she is pushing back.” Once I twisted those negative thoughts into a positive idea, my anxiety over that situation disappeared.

While I was still mad, I now had the composure to deal with the trigger instead of letting worry and fear drag me down.

Write it down

I kept a journal and wrote every time a situation triggered me. Consistently going through this process helped me identify my trigger more quickly and reframe my negative thoughts almost automatically.

I stopped counseling in October and just weaned myself off my medication a few days ago. Alex Elle said, “I’m thankful for my struggle, because without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.” My panic attacks forced me to confront my anxiety head-on this year and I won.

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