Anxiety is NOT "just stress"

I was enjoying a mid-flight nap on a return trip from Chicago when I woke up in a panic. My heart was pounding, I was very hot, and felt like I HAD to get out of my seat! I didn't know what was happening! I wasn't afraid of flying. I wasn't stressed out. I was just panicking for no reason!

My seat mate was comforting and the flight attendant cooled me down with ice to the back of my neck and my wrists. The moments seemed to pass very slowly, but it was soon over and the realization that I had just experienced a panic attack soon settled in.

I had never had a panic attack before, but I recognized the signs. I imagine that it would have been a terrifying experience otherwise.

As a clinician and someone who has had a great deal of experience in managing my own anxiety, there are a few tips I'd like to share to make the road easier for you or your loved one.

1. You are NOT alone.

EVERYONE experiences anxiety. It can be from the thought of speaking in front of an audience, financial uncertainty, or just living a busy and/or demanding life. Generally, we are able to manage these emotions by focusing on something less stressful or using a little positive self-talk, but sometimes, the worries and fears occur more frequently and may become disruptive to your daily routine.

2. Your friends and family may not understand.

People who have never experienced what comes with higher-than-usual levels of anxiety may have a difficult time wrapping their brains around what you're going through. They may tell you to 'stop worrying' or suggest that you are just 'stressed out and need to relax.' While all of these things may be true, your loved ones may not understand that you have limited control over these feelings. Try not to take it personally. I'm sure your friends/family really do mean well:-)

3. Yes, worrying about worrying IS a thing.

So, you've had your first experience with anxiety hijacking your day and now you can't help but to wonder if or when that beast will strike again. Will it happen when I'm at work? Will I be safe if it happens while I'm driving? It sort of felt like I was having a heart attack the last time...what if I actually have a heart attack?!? These questions are very normal, but they can increase your level of anxiety and, unfortunately, lead to additional symptoms. The most common of these symptoms is insomnia. If you have trouble falling asleep or wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and you can't stop thinking...anxiety may be the culprit.

4. There is help!!!

If you realize that anxiety is getting the best of you, do not be afraid to seek help. Professionals, such as Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs) or Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) can help you understand what is causing you to be anxious and help you develop the skills you need to counteract the symptoms. If you are already overwhelmed, counseling can sound like one more thing that you don't have time for, but trust me, it will be worth it.

Counseling for this type of concern does not have to take forever. When you are choosing a therapist or counselor, be clear with them about your goals for treatment. If you want to learn skills that you can use to control your anxiety and reduce panic attacks, don't be afraid to say that. If you get the impression that your treatment goals will not be respected, find a new therapist. It is more important for you to get what you need than for you to not hurt our (professionals) feelings.

If you are in Raleigh and are struggling with anxiety, give me a call! We can do a brief (and free) telephone consultation to figure out if we might be a good fit. Brighter days are on the horizon!

Scotia Burrell, MSW, LCSW Owner, Burrell Counseling Group


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