Kelli Walker understands what it is like to live with anxiety. For over 15 years she struggled with generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and panic disorder. It was only after becoming housebound and completely limited by her anxiety that she made it a priority to understand and address it.
Kelli now works as an anxiety coach, helping people move past their own anxiety in the way she did – by understanding anxiety’s true nature and the ways that we innocently get stuck in the cycle of fear and worry. Kelli is the host of the Not Another Anxiety Show podcast, has been featured in Cosmopolitan magazine, and presented at several summits.
The following are Kelli’s thoughts on changes you can make in 2017 to help you live well with anxiety.
Eileen: There are times when we tend to define ourselves by times we are anxious and times we are not. We might see ourselves as someone who is anxious rather than someone who has an anxiety disorder. How can someone change their focus to be more inclusive of all parts of their life?
Kelli: Our character strengths reflect who we are at our core. These strengths are not our hobbies or interests or history, but rather the characteristics that make up the “real you,” such as creativity, honesty, bravery, and humor, among many others. Sometimes when we’re struggling with anxiety, all we see and focus on in ourselves is the anxiety. We may even define ourselves by our anxiety. We also naturally and innocently start to put our energy and attention into making it go away. It’s this very act of resistance that perpetuates anxiety. Overcoming anxiety is like learning to ski – look where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid!
Focus on who you really are, on your character strengths. Knowing and fostering these strengths allows us to detach from anxiety and see that it doesn’t define us. Fostering our character strengths creates resilience, well-being, and confidence. For example, if one of your character strengths is kindness, then move toward this value by doing a small favor for a friend or spouse. If one of your character strengths is humor, then visit your local comedy club for a show. If one of your character strengths is appreciation of excellence and beauty, take an evening walk and catch a sunset.
I know these things aren’t always easy to do when we’re feeling anxious, but the more we move toward the life we want and who we really are, even if it means letting anxiety be part of the ride for now, the less power anxiety has to persist in our lives.
Eileen: It can sometimes be hard to reach out to others when we live each day worried about anxiety. Have you had experience with this? What did you do to overcome it?
Kelli: I don’t know about you, but when I was struggling with panic attacks and anxiety, I wanted to hide away. Friendships started to fall by the wayside because, like most people in a vulnerable place, I didn’t want to be around others for fear of being judged. However, connecting with those closest to us can act as a lifeboat during stormy times.
As scary as it can be to share the fact that we’re going through a hard time, there is no true connection without being vulnerable. I was so scared to tell one friend of mine in particular about anxiety because she was such a big part of the young “adventurous phase” in my life – traveling to Peru, training to become a whitewater rafting guide, and living abroad in Kenya. I feared she would drop me like a sack of potatoes once she found out I could barely leave the house, but when I finally told her what was going on, she had one of the kindest and most caring responses I experienced.
It brought us closer, and she patiently waited for me and supported me as I took on adventuring again. We’ve since gone on to adventure again – hiking in the nearby mountains and traveling to Mexico. Truly connecting with others requires vulnerability, which can be scary, but vulnerability is oh-so worth it because connection to others is such a strong antidote to the loneliness that often accompanies anxiety.
Eileen: If you could suggest one thing to change in the coming year to help reduce anxiety, what would it be?
Kelli: Research on the benefits of regular exercise for our mental health is pretty conclusive. Exercise not only metabolizes (aka burns off) stress hormones but also releases endorphins (aka feel-good hormones) that boost our mood. Some research even suggests that a regular exercise routine can be just as, if not more, effective than medication in treating depression.
If you’re having trouble getting motivated, start with something that feels fun to you, perhaps something that will make you forget that you’re even working out — it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes on the treadmill. It can be a Zumba or similar dance class, which I confess got me moving again, or a game of Ultimate Frisbee on the beach, or even ice-skating. Whatever form of exercise you engage in, make it fun!
Eileen: There has been a lot of talk about mindfulness meditation to combat anxiety. What are your thoughts on using meditation as a way to reduce anxiety?
Kelli: Meditation is a hot word in the self-help arena right now. Meditation is not a magical cure, but its practice can help us become more aware of our mindless (and often not at all helpful) thoughts, beliefs, and actions. If you’re struggling with anxiety, chances are you are repeatedly having thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t do that,” and then acting on them, often unconsciously, which makes them habit forming. Meditation allows us to create enough distance from our issues so that anxiety isn’t as automatic, providing just enough space where we can choose our response instead of blindly reacting. It allows us to interrupt the anxious habit and change things up.
Research shows that meditation physically changes our brain. Areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation increase in gray matter (aka strengthen) while areas of the brain associated with the stress response decrease in gray matter (aka weaken). If you’re interested in starting a meditation practice but don’t know where to begin, check out the 10% Happier App.
Eileen: Do you have any last ideas for people who are working hard to manage their anxiety but don’t feel like they are making much progress?
Kelli: Anxiety can feel like we’re flailing around wildly in unchartered waters. If you need help navigating those waters, it’s okay! Part of being human is actually needing a little help sometimes, which is why it’s so important to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Seek out professionals, seek out reputable information (think evidence-based peer-reviewed articles), get curious, and learn all you can. I will issue a word of caution: beware of people trying to sell you the “magic cure.” Moving past anxiety is a journey and a process that can take quite a bit of hard work. As nice as it would be if there were a simple cure or an overnight solution, there just isn’t. There is no one-size-fits-all; everyone’s journey back to wellness looks different.
For more information on New Year’s Resolutions:
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.