How to master your anxiety and live again

I consider myself an expert in anxiety — from professional and personal experience.

Each day in my family practice, I counsel patients suffering from the stress of personal conflicts, loss and illness.

I treat individuals suffering from generalized anxiety, phobias, panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some require prescription medications, but all benefit from the empowering practices of mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and positive visualization.

Those who have suffered from anxiety for years find it hard to believe that they can feel any other way — that they are capable of change. Those who practise their new skills on a daily basis — as regularly as any prescription medication — through the power of neuroplasticity will transform their own minds.

Our life experiences and how we make sense of them — our personal life stories — form the foundation of our core beliefs: what we believe to be true about ourselves, others and our relationships with them.

Our core beliefs shape the running monologue of our self-talk. That self-talk at best is compassionate, kind and empowering. Too often, our self-talk is judgment of others and ourselves — makes us feel separate, different, better or worse than others —  emphasizes the negative and minimizes the positive.

And that self-talk — the content of our ruminations — takes us away from the real experience of life in the present moment, the only place we can enjoy happiness.

I grew up in the days when playgrounds were not so safe — our kids have it softer today. In Mount Pleasant’s Douglas Park, the monkey bars were made of slippery curved steel and embedded in a floor of concrete.

As a preschooler, I fell from the top of those monkey bars and knocked out my front teeth. For years, I waited for my big kid teeth to grow in. Self-conscious, I didn’t smile.

I developed social anxiety. I felt physically uneasy around anyone outside my immediate family and closest friends. My shyness held me back from speaking up in class, meeting new people, expressing myself and talking to my own cousins.

My playground fall made me uncomfortable with heights and I avoided the potential for injury in contact sports. My older brother excelled in soccer and basketball, but I chose running and swimming.

Anxiety and fear held me back from fully enjoying my life and living my potential, but in my twenties, I immersed myself in the Burnaby Public Library’s self-help books. I used the relaxation response to calm my mind and body. I learned to meditate and practised cognitive behavioural therapy to challenge my negative self-talk, and I used self-hypnosis to visualize my goals.

I overcame my unease with heights on the flying trapeze. Even after seven rib fractures (involving five ribs, two fractured in the front and the back) from one challenging trick, I was back flying after two days.

I challenged my fear of public speaking with media training, live radio and TV interviews and regular public health talks. My focus was not on myself, but on what I could share.

Though I suffered from social anxiety in medical school, I eventually felt at ease teaching medical students and physicians and leading committees and nonprofit organizations. Motivated by the needs of others and living for a purpose bigger than myself, anxiety no longer limits me. 

I know from experience that you can rewrite your life story, challenge your core beliefs, change how you think, feel and act, and expand your comfort zone.  

In my next column, we’ll explore the power of neuroplasticity and effective methods to master anxiety.

Read part one of this three part series on anxiety at vancourier.com.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

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