I have struggled with anxiety ever since I was 13 years old.
Sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, nauseous stomach, overthinking brain… it’s all too familiar for me. I remember waking up to go to school and throwing up in my bathroom right before the yellow school bus arrived. Every single day.
At 18, after I started university, my symptoms worsened. I had moved to a new country to study, and the overwhelm I felt utterly consumed my body. My appetite reduced, my heart rate was high for most of the day, and the panic attacks began. The panic was so intense that I couldn’t focus on anything. I knew I couldn’t go on like this.
That’s when I decided that I needed some help.
I booked an appointment with a therapist who practices Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and what came next honestly changed my approach to life.
In our first session, my therapist asked me, “Can you tell me who you are? Describe yourself in a few words.”
Sounds simple enough, right?
I was blank.
I couldn’t think of anything. Was I scared to tell her who I thought I was? What if she perceived me differently? Or did I even know myself? As I stared at her silently, these thoughts unraveled wildly in my head.
Sometimes, the most straightforward questions can astound us and leave us puzzled, grappling for someone to tell us the truth and answer the question. But that’s not how it works. We are the only ones who can answer. It’s in us, and we just have to unlock it.
And that’s what we did over the next six months. We dove deep into my strengths, weaknesses, desires, habits, all of it. And here are some of the lessons I took from this journey.
Note that these are just some tips that work well for me. Since therapy is a highly individualized process, you may find yourself seeking other strategies that could better fit you. But if any of these points strike a chord with you, feel free to use them as you please.
Here are 5 powerful lessons I learned from my therapist
Lesson 1: Accepting uncertainty
When my therapist and I arrived at the topic of anxiety, we discovered that my main fear was uncertainty. I didn’t like what I couldn’t predict. I had to know in advance.
Many of us have this fear, actually. We like routine. But for some, this fear can be debilitating. We are so afraid of what is unfamiliar that we stop giving chances to the unknown. Because that is a way of preventing possible pain. It creates an illusion that we are in complete control. But are we really? Uncertainty is a part of life, no matter where we are.
So, I asked my therapist how I could learn to be okay with it. And she used a beautiful analogy that I think about even today:
Therapist: “You drive to university every day, right?”
Therapist: “Why are you not scared of the uncertainty of driving there?”
Me, confidently: “Because I’ve been driving for two years.”
Therapist, nodding: “So you know there’s a tiny chance of something bad happening?”
Me: (paused) “Yes.”
Therapist: “And it doesn’t bother you?”
Me: “No, actually. It doesn’t”
Therapist: “That’s the answer to accepting uncertainty. By believing in the greater chance of it being okay. And knowing that even if something bad happens, you know how to get out of it/cope/heal. It can take time, and you may need to gather some tools in your anxiety toolkit, but you know it’s with you.”
When you think of it like that, things don’t seem as scary anymore.
Lesson 2: Tuning into your desires
As we go on with our daily routines, we often forget what we really want at a given time.
What would you say if I asked you what you wish for this second?
It could be something as small as a cup of tea or hearing a friend’s voice.
Some people chase this thought and go through with it, but for others, it is easy to ignore and go on with their day.
Especially for individuals with anxiety, it can be challenging to put our desires first and hear them out clearly. We’re often too engaged with our surroundings and what the world desires from us. But it is time to stop and pay attention to what we want.
My therapist encouraged me to label these actions as “spontaneous things” that I can do to be more present in the moment.
Start with the five senses grounding exercise. Think of five things you can see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Then ask yourself, “what do I want to do right now?” And just do it! Ask yourself what you want in this moment and listen intently.
This is an excellent way of being more mindful and reclaiming your life in small ways. It gives me joy whenever I listen to this side of my inner voice. To put it bluntly, do it because you want to.
Lesson 3: Preventing overwhelm
Here are some coping mechanisms you can use as preventive strategies before your mood flares up. My therapist suggested three specific daily habits for me:
- Drink at least three liters of water every day (keep a big bottle or track it with an app)
- Walk for one hour every day
- Practice deep breathing for 10 mins every day (four breaths in, hold it for four breaths, four breaths out)
These habits can reduce heart rate and blood pressure, improve clarity of thought, get your blood pumping, balance emotions, and improve attention. I have also added yoga to my list since then, but I truly stand by it.
These practices don’t make the bad days stop, but they make them less frequent.
Lesson 4: Healing mantras
A mantra is a sentence or saying designed to help block out extraneous thoughts and soothe the mind. Repeating it a couple of times can induce a state of relaxation as it gradually attempts to change your current thought pattern.
The mantras my therapist taught me were self-affirming statements and guiding steps that reminded me what to focus on.
If you tend to compare yourself with others, you can use a mantra like this:
“I’m not better than these people. I’m not worse than these people. Just different.”
If you are not comfortable being alone with yourself, a mantra that hints at the key to acceptance is:
“I am at peace with myself”
If you find yourself panicking in a non-threatening situation, repeat to yourself:
“Hey amygdala, I’m not in danger. I am safe and I am loved.”
The amygdala is the almond-shaped cluster of cells in your brain that define and regulate emotions and activate the fight-or-flight response. When activated, it is our brain’s way of saying it got a little spooked.
This quality was beneficial for our ancestors, who participated in life-threatening activities such as hunting. But now, it is often confusing because this part of the brain does not accurately assess the level of threat. Our amygdala cannot differentiate between a wild bear and an assignment. So, this mantra helps remind it gently that it’s a misunderstanding.
Lesson 5: Coping with waves of sadness
Sometimes, we know the reason for our overwhelm or anxiety. It could be an upcoming event, a looming deadline, or a particular situation in our life. Those are easier to identify and think of possible solutions. But what if you’re just feeling a wave of sadness out of nowhere?
Yes, sometimes it is a sign of a repressed emotion or problem that must be explored, but other times it can simply be because of changes in your environment (e.g., bad weather, poor diet, or lack of exercise or self-care).
If this is the case, my therapist invited me to just sit with it. Think about why you feel this way if you don’t know. But it’s okay if you can’t come up with a reason. Just know that your body can’t be filled with happy dopamine hormones all the time.
It’s okay. Take it easy. Watch some TV, talk to someone close to you, or just sit with it. Don’t feel the need to fix it or run away from it. We want to escape at the first hint of discomfort but sometimes acknowledging your emotions and seeing them for what they are makes all the difference.
I’m still in therapy and I have a long journey ahead of me, but I hope to fill my life with small pieces of wisdom such as these with every step I take in this beautiful world.
And I hope you find the strength to do the same.