It’s no secret that I suffer from anxiety. I’ve written about it at length and have had countless conversations with many of you who suffer as well. This community has become a beautiful place for healing and growth that I’m so grateful for.
Sometimes the internet can be a wonderful thing! Not only have I connected with you, but I met Kimberley Quanlin on Instagram (@kimberleyquanlin) and just adore her. She’s an anxiety and OCD psychotherapist in California and her content has been a great source of knowledge for me personally. I started sharing some of her work on my stories and we ended up chatting.
Last week, we did an IG Live Q&A answering a bunch of your questions about anxiety (It now lives on my IGTV page if you want to watch it) and it was a hit. Kimberley is able to explain anxiety and how to deal with it in a way that feels accessible and gentle.
Today, she’s agreed to answer some of the most commonly asked questions that both she and I get about anxiety.
1. How do I know if I have an anxiety disorder vs. just feeling anxious?
Think about anxiety on a spectrum. On the very left is fear. Fear is a healthy and normal emotion that we experience when we are in danger. Everyone feels fear. Without fear, we would touch a hotplate in the kitchen or walk out into a busy street of cars and buses. When you are exposed to an actual dangerous situation, fear alerts us to move away, or fight the dangerous situation.
Sometimes, our brains misinterpret events as dangerous and set off alarm bells even though there is no imminent threat. This is called anxiety. Anxiety is the uncomfortable feeling you experience that causes irritability, mental rumination, and physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, tight chest, shortness of breath, just to name a few. Anxiety usually comes, not when there is an actual threat, but when we perceived there to be a POSSIBLE danger. Anxiety shows up and alerts us to all the possible terrible things that could go wrong. Just because anxiety is present, doesn’t mean we are actually in danger. This can be hard to distinguish, but with practice, you will be able to separate fear from anxiety.
On the very far right of the spectrum is an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is a degree of anxiety that greatly impacts the quality and functioning of one’s life. There are many forms of anxiety disorder, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety, Phobias Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Health Anxiety. Each disorder has different diagnostic criteria, so see a trained therapist or doctor for information about these disorders.
2. How can I support a spouse with anxiety?
The best way to support a family member with anxiety is to ask them what they need. They will usually know what they need. Most commonly, people with anxiety just need love and need to know that their loved ones will be there for them unconditionally. Sometimes they will need company or hugs, but other times they might need to be left alone.
If your loved ones struggle to identify what they need, it can be really helpful to seek therapy with your loved one for a session or more to help you both figure out how you can support each other in these situations.
Julia’s note: Anel also wrote a really great post on how to support a spouse with anxiety.
3. What is a tip/trick I can use in the moment when I’m having anxiety?
The best trick to use when you are anxious is to bring your attention to the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What does it feel like for the wind to hit your skin? What does it feel like to feel the pull of gravity pull you down?
Julia’s note: I use the 54321 technique, which is similar to what Kimberley is recommending.
Another great trick or tool is the practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion is treating yourself just as you would treat a loved one if they were in your situation. You will be shocked at the difference between how you treat others compared to yourself. Anxiety feels much worse when you are being hard on yourself, so try to be gentle and supportive of yourself as you ride the waves of anxiety. Try to avoid self-criticism and self-judgment. Also, look out for when you are comparing yourself to others. Try to remember that millions of other people are struggling with the same anxieties you have every day. You are not alone.
4. When do you know if it’s time to get on medication?
Only you will know this, but the best person to ask is your medical doctor or your psychiatrist. Most people decide to go on medication when they feel their anxiety is becoming difficult to manage, but everyone is different. I think there are many benefits to taking meditations, but there are side effects also. Speak with your medical doctor to see what medications would be best for you. The main thing to remember is that you are not weak for needing to take medication. If you have diabetes, you would take insulin. Mental health disorders are no less valid then other medical conditions.
5. What is one thing I can do every day to lower my overall anxiety?
There are a few things you can do. Number one, daily light exercise can help you to manage anxiety significantly. It doesn’t have to be high intensity. Just find a form of exercise that feels fabulous for you. Maybe try dancing, walking in the park, or even swimming can be a fun way to get your body moving. Speak with your doctor before starting any exercise routine.
Number two, start a mindfulness practice. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to have a mindfulness practice in each day. Mindfulness is the art of being present in this moment without judging it as good or bad. Mindfulness can be practiced while you are meditating, typing at your computer, walking, or even while washing the dishes. When we are mindful, we are not focusing on the future “possible” dangers and disasters. When we are mindful, we are aware of what is happening right now, with self-compassion.
Number three is to reach out to a therapist. There is no shame if you need help with your anxiety. In fact, talking with a therapist might help you to understand your anxiety and help give you the tools that you were never taught as a child or young adult. Therapy is cool, my friends!
6. How do I find a good therapist?
Finding a therapist can take time. First of all, ask your medical doctor for referrals, as they often have a good list of referrals that might be great for you. Also, there are many online search engines that can help you access different therapists and see if that therapist might be a good fit for you. It is totally ok if it takes you a few therapists before you find one that you gel with. When you call the therapist for the first time, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions, like “What do you charge?” “What are your cancellation policies?” “What type of therapy do you perform?” “What are your after-hour policies?”
7. Is it normal for my anxiety to go up and down during my cycle?
There is lots of scientific evidence that show that our menstrual cycle can cause fluctuations in anxiety and depression. Some report feeling significant anxiety right before they get their period, but it is not uncommon to see changes in your anxiety and depression during different stages of ovulation also. I encourage you to track these symptoms in a journal and talk with your medical doctor about your findings.
8. How can I deal with the fear of COVID consuming my thoughts?
First of all, validate yourself. COVID-19 is very triggering and I don’t know one person who is not struggling with all the changes and uncertainty. The trick is to focus on what you can control, such as your schedule, how you treat your body, and how you treat your mind. Self-care is crucial at this time, as is finding a trustworthy support system. If you are struggling, reach out to a friend, your medical doctor, or a trained therapist for support.
The other important thing to practice is to embrace uncertainty. I know this is hard, but it is possible. Just because things are uncertain, doesn’t mean they are dangerous or will go badly. Try to embrace anxiety with kindness and positivity. Try to focus on the positive parts of your life, even if that is that you are breathing and alive right now. That is a lot to celebrate because YOU MATTER! Another important tip is to just take one day at a time. If that feels like a huge mountain to climb, just focus on this hour or even this minute. Find things that soothe you and bring you some joy. This has required many to get quite creative, as I know there are few options when you are quarantining.
For many of my clients, they have found comfort in small activities such as jigsaw puzzles, cooking, baking, learning new languages, or even coloring in. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just pick something and be curious!
9. How can I be a good parent/support my child, who has anxiety?
The thing to remember here is that being a “good” parent doesn’t mean you have to do it perfectly. You can only do the best you can, so try not to be hard on yourself for not getting it right all of the time. Don’t be afraid to talk with your child about their anxiety. I did a whole podcast episode about a really fun way to talk with your child about anxiety and to help them understand what is happening in their brains. (LINK: https://kimberleyquinlan-lmft.com/episode-12-lets-talk-brain-anxiety/
The best thing you can do for your child is to empower them to face their fear. Too often, parents deal with their child’s anxiety by finding ways to help remove or avoid their child’s anxiety. The trick is to teach your child to lean into fear and stare it right in the face. For example, my son is awfully afraid of vomit, so we have fun making vomit noises, making vomit out of yucky food textures, and watching kids vomit on YouTube. I know this might sound crazy, but it isn’t. This is a scientific-proven treatment for anxiety called exposure and response prevention. Exposure and Response Prevention is the art of staring your fears in the face without using safety behaviors to make your fear go away. It is hard work, but it teaches us how to face fear instead of running away from it. This is an amazing life skill that every human should learn, in my humble opinion
10. Anything else you want to tell us?
Be gentle with yourself. Anxiety is not easy and can be exhausting. Every day make a deal with yourself to only use kind words towards yourself and try to always validate what you are going through. I am known for the motto, “It is a beautiful day to do hard things” and I say it every day to my clients and followers. We are mistakenly taught as children and young adults that we should remove all forms of discomfort, but when it comes to anxiety, this can often limit our lives. Try to always find things that scare you and practice doing the things that scare you every day. It is ok if it is just a small thing. You will be shocked at how empowering it is to change the way you respond to anxiety, from leaning away to leaning toward fear!
Follow Kimberley on Instagram @kimberleyquinlan.