Crisis Counselors Reveal the 9 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Anxiety
Crisis counselors and trained hotline volunteers help anxiety sufferers everyday. Here are the coping mechanisms they’ve found work best.
Find a sympathetic ear
Your feelings can be undermined by the belief that you shouldn’t feel anxious, that your feelings aren’t valid—and this can be reinforced by well-meaning family members and friends. Their intentions may be good, but that sentiment is useless during an anxious spell; you can end up feeling guilty on top of anxious. (You can train yourself and others to be a better listener with this advice.) A little acknowledgment goes a long way, says Kate Mallow, manager of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline. Mallow says the phrase she uses is: “It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.” This validates your experience and justifies what you’re going through. Choose someone in your life you can trust, or try uttering affirmations to yourself—it really works.
Look for the active listeners in your life
We’ve all been in the conversation with the person looking over your shoulder, eyes glassed over, looking to interject his or her next opinion. If you’re gripped by anxiety, you need someone who is really listening, and can prove it by asking thoughtful questions or is able to summarize your concerns. (Here are nine things all good listeners do during daily conversations.) Mallow says that crisis counselors sometimes demonstrate active listening simply by repeating back is being expressed.
You’re not alone
Depending on your particular experience of anxiety, there’s a chance loneliness may have something to do with your unease. (Have you tried any of these science-backed tricks to tackle loneliness?) Hearing a personal story from someone who knows the disorder firsthand can sometimes soothe anxiety-related disconnection. Kat Katz, a volunteer for NAMI and CrisisLink, has multiple anxiety disorders. The choice to disclose personal information while serving on the hotline is a complex one. Before sharing parts of her story, Katz asks herself if disclosing will help someone feel connected. If she intuitively feels that the answer is yes, she will share a relevant story. She says, “It helps to talk to someone who can get at least a piece of what you’re going through. I disclose that I have anxiety disorders, that it’s a struggle for me, and I am working on it every day. I’ll talk about what works for me.”
Your senses can save you
Physical awareness can help center a person feeling anxious. Mallow has a favorite coping mechanism for anxiety called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Start by naming five things you can see right now, four things you can touch, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you can taste. This sensory exercise helps ground someone overwhelmed by inner turmoil, allowing them to slow down and be present in the moment. Mallow vividly remembers one caller slowing down to savor the smell of her vanilla scented candles. Meditation can also help ease the stress that leads to anxiety: Here are 10 ways you can meditate every day without trying at all.
Yes, that’s supposed to be an automatic body function. But when anxiety gets its hooks in you, it can make you hyperventilate or breathe erratically; disordered breathing can actually exacerbate your stress. That’s why crisis counselors often suggest callers search for “breathing gifs” online; these guides are remarkably effective at getting people to breathe evenly, slow their heart rate, and calm nerves; breathing can even improve mindfulness. The counselors at crisistext.org often suggest this meditative gif.
Drive yourself to distraction
Mallow often asks callers about the weather to help them reset their focus. Yes, you will have to confront the fears and stressors that trigger your anxiety, but sometimes an off-topic conversation can offer a useful, relaxing break. Eventually, distraction techniques can lead to frustration, especially if you really need to talk directly about your problems. But try a diversionary chat every so often to help you refocus. And you can try some of the phrases that are helpful for calming anxiety.
Develop a plan
Once you’ve found strategies that work for you, come up with an action plan you can turn to when anxiety begins to build. Katz says coping skills won’t always work, especially in severe cases: “Some people think anxiety is something you can just push through and it’s not.” Nonetheless, it’s worth developing a step-by-step plan that incorporates the coping strategies that work best for you. You might start with breathing exercises, and then progress to meditation or yoga to relax your muscles. From there, you might try distraction or calling that trusted person who will listen. You can find examples and suggestions on NAMI’s site, or on anxietybc.com.
Don’t be afraid to reach out
Often an anxiety attack can be internal—and invisible to the people around you. “If you reach out and say ‘hey, I’m struggling,’” says Mallow, “it passes the torch to someone else. Everyone is touched by mental health in some way, shape or form.” You’ll find that people are willing to help you shoulder the burden. “Whether it’s a counselor on a crisis helpline, parents, colleagues, or friends, there is always someone out there that can empathize.” Check whether you can identify a great empathizer.
Know that it will get better
Getting help can look different for everyone. It might involve medication, therapy, reaching out to helplines, attending support groups—or some combination of these approaches. You might even be able to find help through natural anxiety remedies. Prolonged anxiety can be extremely tough but relief is possible, says Katz, just know that it will take time to heal. Says Mallow: “Getting trapped in your own head can be scary. You don’t have to live in a state of anxiety. It can get better.”