A 4-Part Framework to Reduce Anxiety (Back to School Edition for Students & Parents!)

I often feel a twinge of imposter syndrome when I write. It’s that nagging ‘do I really have much to offer’ self-doubt that we all face when putting ourselves out there. But writing about anxiety feels different. I feel like anxiety is a space where I can draw on a lifetime of experience to provide an educated and experienced perspective.

I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder in 2005. It is important to remember that only a psychiatrist can diagnose a mental health disorder, so if you feel you need that kind of assessment, ask for a referral from your family physician. Your aunt, friend on facebook, or WebMD are not viable substitutes for a psychiatrist!

In 2005, I was experiencing daily panic attacks while trying to navigate the second year of my undergrad. I completed a major in Psychology, which gave me all the information needed to attempt self-diagnosis. I don’t recommend it! I had thought it was far worse than G.A.D, so felt lucky when I was given this information and my first prescription for anxiety medication.

At first, I thought it would just go away with time and meds. But this didn't happen. Instead, I felt like I had no control over my thoughts or emotions. I withdrew from much of my life. I used drugs and alcohol to cope in social settings. I stumbled into and fought my way out of addiction. I always thought that 'once ______ happens, I will be ok.' But nothing external ever changed my lived experience. My better days required a lot more internal work, which I will reflect on here. 

For those who are unfamiliar, anxiety feels like;

  • racing negative thoughts
  • racing heartbeat
  • inability to focus
  • unfounded fear 
  • body enters flight or fight mode (pupils dilate, trembles start in your hands, digestion stops and you go pale as blood rushes to the muscles and brain to support quick thought and escape)
  • consistent dread of the future
  • losing control 

Life is fostering more and more of these experiences in so many of us. If unchecked, it can take over your life. So I have tried to capture and list 4 actions and shifts in thought that can help you navigate anxiety and put them in the context of back to school in 2020. These are approaches to take when the relaxing baths, weekend yoga retreat, or hours in the garden are no longer enough to curb the voices of worry in the back of your mind;

1. Acknowledge that anxiety is an experience, nothing more;

  • Concept; It is easy to get in the mindset of 'I am anxious' as if it is as much a part of you as your love for family or your elbow. It isn't. It is an experience and you know well enough that like all experiences, it will pass.
  • In Action; Say 'I am experiencing anxiety right now, I wonder why that is?' and start to welcome it as a response to something you have thought or observed. Take the time to hone in on those thoughts or external factors, and rationalize your way through them. Working through the obstacle is the way to peace and confidence.
  • Background; This is a mix of the buddhist practice of acceptance and the cognitive behavioural therapy practice of analyzing thought distortions.
2. Find comfort in the dichotomy of control;
  • Concept; All things fall into two camps; those which we can control, and those which we cannot. There is ZERO value in worrying about that which we cannot control, which is pretty much everything.
  • In Action; As you analyze the thoughts or circumstances that trigger anxiety, identify whether it is within your control and therefore sensible to focus on, or out of your control, and therefore useless to think about.
  • Background; The dichotomy of control is from stoic philosophy.

3. Trust the body and the moment, not the thought;

  • Concept; Our bodies will react in predictable ways in this moment which will allow us to hack the body to relax. Our thoughts, especially while feeling anxious, may be distorted, so we cannot always trust them as being in our best interest. Example; how many times have you called yourself fat, stupid, incapable, etc. and has that ever helped you?
  • In Action; Deep rhythmic breathing, meditation, exercise, stretching, and the list goes on. Don't think about it. And focus on all of the physical, sensory experiences such as the flex of the muscle, the scent of the room, the sensation of the breath in your lungs, and find your physical body in that moment
  • Background; Centering yourself and focusing on the moment is central to mindfulness and meditative practices.

4. Reinforce positive action and thought;

  • Concept; Our bodies and our minds are moldable. We can work upon them with practice. There are no On/Off switches, so all of this is a PRACTICE and I don't expect to ever be done with mine and I have often slid backwards when I let my practicing slide. The more we practice reinforcing positive action and thought, the easier it is to draw upon it in the moment. 
  • In Action; I use a number of daily practices, including journalling, listening to mindset or meditation podcasts, and trying to shower affection upon myself (it is ok to focus on loving yourself first so you can love others once full). This last one can be tough, as I am very self-hating at times (not good enough, don't work hard enough, don't (fill in any blank) enough). These positive reinforcements help to build your resilience for the next occurrence of anxiety, making 1-3 much easier to do. 
  • Background; This is part of the Law of Attraction and I have found that clearly visualizing allows me to better understand what action (things I can control) I should take next to try and influence that outcome.

How I might use this framework for back to school (done through the student eyes returning to university, but easily adaptable to parents of students at any age);

  • Acceptance and thought analysis;
    • Take the panic of 'what ifs', and start to really analyze them;
      • Do I know how my school is being proactive?
      • Do I know my role in this proactive plan?
      • Do I have what I need to play my role?
      • How will I react if I feel symptoms?
      • How will I react if I see symptoms?
      • How would I react if there was an on campus shutdown?
      • What should I keep stored in case of a shutdown?
      • If I have to study from home, are we equipped to do so?
      • Who can provide oversight support should parents be out of the home?
  • Dichotomy of control;
    • Break down my worries into controllable (actionable) and out of my control;
      • Out of my control (deserves NONE of my time);
        • a second wave
        • a shutdown
        • the behaviour of others
        • the choices of administrators or people in positions of trust to make decisions on behalf of myself and others
      • In my control (deserves my time);
        • acquiring equipment to work remotely
        • using personal protective equipment
        • getting commitments from grandparents or others to move in and help support in a shutdown
        • maintaining a 2-week supply of basic necessities
        • make a plan for returning home
        • make a plan for how we would need to react within the home should a family member become sick
        • monitoring communication channels from authorities
  • Body in the moment;
    • If I start to feel as though I am losing control to anxiety in any given moment, I will;
      • remove myself if possible (physically or even mentally by using headphones)
      • start a breathing exercise
      • focus on physical sensations in and around me
      • repeat until finding a sense of calm and ability to rationalize through the thoughts 
      • take note of any external situation and try to mitigate in advance or avoid in the future (I used to work out before classes so I could reduce anxiety more easily once in a class setting)
  • Reinforce positivity;
    • Create a routine and stick to it
    • The only person you hurt when you break your commitments to yourself, is yourself - give yourself as much energy as you would a dear friend
      • Morning
        • Up early enough to not rush
        • Make your bed
        • 10 Minutes writing in a gratitude journal
        • 10 Minutes showering love upon yourself
        • Good food
        • Physical Activity
        • No phone
      • Night
        • Reflect on day
        • What did you do well
        • How will you do better next time
        • Plan for tomorrow
    • Stop accepting Negativity
      • Leave negative conversations
      • Remove yourself from negative relationships

I hope you find some of these actions and shifts work for you. Keep your head up. Better days are always ahead. And don’t delay. Today is always the best day to start reaching for better.