keep it in the sunlight

The first time I can recall having anxiety was when I was in high school and in the process of applying to college. I remember feeling like there was something I had to do when there wasn’t, but even though I knew there wasn’t, that feeling wouldn’t go away. I did what I always do when I feel weird or bad or bothered by something, and talked to my mom about it. She said I was having anxiety and to take some deep breaths for a few minutes. Eventually it went away, but it came back again. And again. And again. Repeat forever.

I have struggled with anxiety my entire adult life. Some days are not as bad as others, but it’s always there. It’s worse at night, and better in the morning. Sometimes it keeps me from sleeping. Sometimes it keeps me from leaving my apartment. Sometimes it keeps me from chasing my goals. Sometimes it keeps me from just living.

The dictionary.com definition of anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” I think anyone with anxiety will agree that really doesn’t do it justice.  Don’t get me wrong, I can worry with the best of them. Give me something completely fun and positive and I’ll provide an angle from which to worry about it. I can worry on a plane. I can worry on a train. I can worry in a house. I can worry with a mouse.

But at its most extreme, my anxiety isn’t typically about anything. There’s nothing I can pinpoint, imminent uncertain or otherwise, that is causing it. It’s just…there. Making me feel like I want to crawl out of my own skin, normally at very inconvenient times during moments where I should be enjoying my life the most.

I’ve done a good amount of reading about anxiety and how to handle it, and I hate when I come across an article or blog post that’s like “5 Ways to Crush your Anxiety” and tries to put a positive spin on it and tell you to go for a walk (gee thanks, hadn’t thought of that.) Not helpful.

I initially wrote this a few weeks ago and decided not to post it. That self-doubt crept in and said “What do you have to share? You’re not an expert. Why would anyone care what you have to say?” But then I realized that struggling with anxiety is so much more common than we think, and if this makes someone feel less alone in their struggles, then I’ve met my goal.  

I am not writing this because I think my advice is going to magically cure someone else. I am writing it because (1) I hope it will help people who don’t struggle with anxiety to understand what it feels like, and (2) to say that for me, there has been no magic cure. I used to think there was, and it wasn’t until I stopped treating it that way that I was finally able to find a combination of things that make it mostly better if I consistently adhere to them. To me, it’s kind of like skincare: there is no magic potion, but if you regularly use the right combination of products, you’ll see improvement over a period of time. So, in case it helps anyone at all, here are some of the ways that I’m able to keep my anxiety at bay.

1. Therapy. I’m a firm believer that therapy helps everyone, but it was especially helpful to me in managing my anxiety. I realize that the thought of finding a therapist and calling them and making an appointment and finding a parking spot at their office and asking the receptionist where the bathroom is probably gives you anxiety in itself, but pick a day where it’s not crippling and grind it out. If you have a good support system, ask them to help you find one or drive you there or whatever it is that’s the hardest part for you.

2. Go to sleep. My anxiety is always worse at night. Sometimes I can feel it coming on and even if it’s 8 pm, I grab book or I put on HGTV and I try my best to fall asleep before it’s in full force, and 90% of the time, I feel better in the morning. Along with that, do everything you can to establish a regular sleep schedule, even if it feels impossible. I know sleep prevention is a big symptom of anxiety, but sleep is so SO important.

3. Exercise. Not once, not twice, regularly. I know I made fun of the ‘go for a walk’ suggestion, but there is something to it IF you do it regularly.  If I go a week without exercise, I notice an immediate uptick in my anxiety. I know that not everyone is a runner or loves group exercise, but find the thing that works for you.

4. Call your mom (or whoever). Maybe it’s not your mom, but if there’s someone in your life who has that uncanny ability to say the right thing at the right time, take advantage of that. My mom usually has some calming words or sage advice.

5. Eat some vegetables. If I eat fried food all week, there is surely a bout of crippling anxiety coming shortly thereafter. Maintaining a balanced diet and getting proper nutrition is key for me. And don’t overcaffeinate.

6. Distract yourself. When you feel it coming on, immediately do something else. Watch tv, read a book, put on a podcast – anything that switches the gears in your brain.

7. Keep you space clean. This is so crucial for me. Last week I was having terrible anxiety and I couldn’t figure out why. I started cleaning my apartment and in the process cleaned out a bag of random stuff from my old car that had been sitting in my guestroom for a month. No joke, I instantly felt better. I never would have been able to articulate that, but apparently that bag was really bothering me. If my apartment is a mess, my head is a mess. Plus, this is a great way to get your mind to focus on something else.

8. Don’t procrastinate. Procrastination is a surefire way to bring on anxiety. It’s pretty much impossible to eliminate altogether, but I do my best, and I find I’m most at peace when I know that I’ve done the things I needed to do.

9. Get dressed. I’ve always been a big believer in look-good-feel-good and its sibling, dress-well-test-well (I swear this is how I got through law school.) Getting dressed helps me convince myself that I have it altogether, even when my anxiety is telling me I don’t.

10. Alternate nostril breathing. Mindfulness practices in general are great, but this one has been a lifesaver for me. It calms me down immediately when nothing else works. There’s a great tutorial on it here. If this doesn’t work for you, look into other breathing exercises or mindfulness practices.

Most importantly, if you struggle with anxiety, remember that you are not alone. And if there is something that helps you, share it!

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