I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to go an entire day without worrying. Is that even possible? As a naturally anxious person, I can’t even imagine feeling so carefree that nothing bothered me. And I’m a writer, a profession known for inviting judgment, so you can imagine how the wheels in my head are always spinning. That being said, I’m grateful that my anxiety is manageable and doesn’t dramatically impact my day-to-day life. For many people, however, this is not the case. Some anxiety disorders can be debilitating and life-altering.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1.5 percent of the US population suffers from agoraphobia at some point in their lifetime. Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. To put it in perspective, that’s 4.5 million Americans who suffer from this every day.
In his new book, Un-Agoraphobic: Overcome Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Agoraphobia for Good: A Step-by-Step Plan (Conari Press), Hal Mathew courageously exposes his personal battle with agoraphobia and explains how he retrained his brain by using visualization exercises, writing every day, and cultivating new eating habits. Here, from the book, are four techniques you can apply today to overcome your phobias and take back control of your life:
Journal on a Daily Basis
Putting your thoughts on paper can help you clarify your feelings and provide a new perspective.
Writing gives permanent voice to your thoughts, ideas, and discoveries. What’s more, the act of writing helps create new neural pathways, changing the makeup of your brain….Think of writing as a tool to explain your feelings to yourself. Think of writing in your journal as being your shrink.
As your own therapist, Mathew says to ask yourself:
“What is the history of my excessive or inappropriate anxiety? Do I have a theory of how it started? Was there high anxiety in the home or similar environment?” Describe it. Be as specific and objective as you can while writing this. Describe your anxiety as if you were talking with a psychiatrist who mostly wants to hear about your feelings. Don’t make this the story of your life but rather the story of why you feel so fearful that you are ruining your life.
Simplify Your Thinking
Simplicity is a key component to managing stress and controlling the chaos in our lives. Simplifying your thoughts comes down to processing things as they happen, in a calm, rational way, and focusing on one moment at a time.
Remember it is possible to simply observe chaos. It is also possible to avoid a lot of life’s madness by tuning in instead to the things that are meaningful to you….Your job is to become so attuned to your very basic nature that you can see a trigger for a panic attack for what it really is….Focusing on the essentials will relieve your mind from ideas or situations that make you anxious. The path to simplicity is a process that will affect everything about you, including your thought patterns—which I guess is the point. You will also learn that simplicity is the gateway to creativity….As you more fully develop your creative side you will gain increasing confidence, because to a creative person, all things are possible. A creative person can afford the luxury of coming to each new problem or project with nothing but a completely open mind. By embracing your own creativity, you learn that you can create a way to live life confidently, serenely, and happily.
Numerous studies have shown that repetition is essential to changing neurological patterns. If you can learn to mentally escape to a safe place when your anxiety escalates, it will eventually become a habit. Mathew recommends several visualization exercises, including the “Normal Minute”:
Each day take a small imaginary trip or visit a circumstance that makes you fearful—maybe it’s a trip to the store, standing in a long line at the department of motor vehicles, going to a movie, or driving to the next town. Get into your daydream conveyance (make it a Corvette or a Jaguar) and turn on the music, yawn, slowly pull out onto the street, closely observe everything on your trip, whistle or sing on your way to wherever you are going….Fill in the rest and make it a comfortable, pleasant little experience.
When it comes to visualization, it’s important to understand that it’s not one-size-fits-all. By experimenting with different exercises, you can figure out what works best for you. When done earnestly, visualization can become one of the most valuable tools in your recovery.
Change your Diet
There is a lot of truth to the saying “you are what you eat.” Mathew found that altering his eating habits and becoming physically healthy led to a positive mental shift.
What to Drink: Avoid caffeinated beverages like coffee and soda and juices high in sugar, as they overstimulate the nervous system. Instead, stick to water with lemon—lemon juice treats throat infections, indigestion, strokes, and other conditions. Mathew also recommends iced or herbal teas. He enjoys a spicy cup of ginger tea in the morning to start his day.
What to Eat: Find different ways to incorporate berries and nuts into your meals. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and cranberries are at the top of the list of fruits that contain the most micronutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Also, walnuts are packed with omega-3 fatty acids—shown to alleviate panic attacks and depression.
Dive into research on food, and keep detailed notes in your journal. There are at least two ways you will improve by doing this:
- Your body functions will calm down while you’re researching foods.
- Eating the right foods will calm your entire physiology.
You can change your metabolic rate by changing what you eat. All in all, your focus on healthy this and healthy that will be drifting into your subconscious, bearing the message that your world is generally safer.
For people struggling with agoraphobia, these tools may be helpful, but they can also be used to combat day-to-day worries and stresses for those with less severe anxiety issues.
Click here for more information on agoraphobia symptoms, causes, and treatment.