As we’re wound down our work together, my therapist and I talked about this whole process and what it’s been like(separate post on ending therapy is forthcoming). She brought up the fact that I’ve been very proactive about it, calling my approach to anxiety “methodical”. I started laughing when she said that because yes, I absolutely was. I had to really break down the whole thing and do as much research as I could, and I needed to make sure I was trying everything that was supposed to help even if I didn’t enjoy it.
But we are not all like that, and it’s important to recognize that we each need to deal with anxiety in our own way. The way I manage it may be completely different than someone else, and that’s ok. Just because something has been proven to work doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or that there’s nothing that can help you, it just means that particular thing doesn’t do what you need it to. And that’s ok.
It took me a long time to figure out what works for me. Sometimes that was just a little tweak to something I was already doing; sometimes it was a gigantic life change. Here are literally ALL of the things I’ve tried, and how each of them has worked for me.
Therapy. Therapy is amazing and you guys know how much I’ve loved it. Everyone should do it, not just those struggling with their mental health. I got really lucky and clicked with my therapist on our first meeting, but sometimes it takes a few tries. That’s ok. Read here and here for more of my thoughts on therapy.
Reading anxiety books. This was important for me because it gave me a sense of ownership and responsibility over my own healing. There were some that I wanted to throw against the wall, but I read a few that were really helpful. They are: Panic Attacks Workbook by David Carbonell, Don’t Panic by Reid Wilson, The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, and Daring Greatly and Rising Strong by Brene Brown. These five are my cannon. I will go back to them again and again, especially the Brene Brown books. They are full of techniques, but they also explain what happens in your brain during a panic attack and Brene Brown especially talks about the emotional aspects of letting go and accepting what’s happening, no matter what that is. These five books normalize anxiety and help you to feel less alone.
An anxiety playlist. Guys, I really thought this one would be a winner. Seriously. I love music and I really just thought that if I had a playlist that I associated with calming down, that it would help calm me down when I felt panicked. NOPE. My thoughts just kept right on going and I had to stop using it pretty quickly so that I didn’t start connecting some of my favorite songs with feelings of anxiety. That being said, I did fall in love with John Mayer all over again through this process, and you can read about why here.
Keep it private from everyone except the dude and my sister. For a time, this is exactly what I needed. And that’s ok. But I kept things quiet long after I should have, and it actually started impeding my work with anxiety. This started to get better in leaps and bounds when I started writing this blog and sharing my experiences with people. It made me feel so much less alone, and it made me feel like I can handle this. And if I can’t, there are a ton of people out there who have my back.
Blogging. I’m not going to lie to you guys. I was so scared to start this blog. I really did not want to put any of this out on the internet where my parents or my boss or god forbid my students could read it. But I got to a certain point where I had been dealing with it for so long and had started to accept its place in my life that I was like you know what? Fuck it and published the first entry. And then another one. And then eventually I specifically wrote an entry to my friends explaining what was going on and shared it on my facebook (I hadn’t been sharing the blog before then). I cannot tell you how liberating it was. Please talk about your struggle. The only way to break down the stigma is to talk about what’s going on with you. I promise you, it will feel better.
Meditation. I started meditating because I’d read a lot of studies about how helpful it is. And once I found something that suited me (the Headspace app), it WAS helpful. But only up to a point. I found the Anxiety pack on Headspace to be really effective in terms of accepting the anxiety as it comes but not giving it my attention and escalating it. That was great. But to be honest, I don’t really like meditating, and continuing to do it after I finished the anxiety-specific ones just felt monotonous and obligatory. Maybe if I did it at a different time of day or under different circumstances I might enjoy it, so I’m going to try again while school’s out this summer. (To be honest, though, yoga kind of serves the meditative purpose for me and sometimes sitting to meditate feels redundant.)
Depersonalizing anxiety. This one was huge for me, and is probably one of the single best things I did. I stopped talking about “my” anxiety and started talking about “the” anxiety. This seems like such a minute change, but its ramifications have be extraordinary. Talking about anxiety this way has helped me see that, while it is a part of my life, it is not who I am. I am not an “anxious person”. I am a person who feels heightened anxiety. I am not a “worrier”. I am a person with a tendency to ruminate. Thinking and talking about anxiety like this has helped me to make space for it in the same way you make space for work or friendships. It’s a thing that I have to devote time and energy to, but it’s not taking over my life or my personality. It doesn’t define me. It’s not actually me, it’s my biology. Once I started doing this, it was so much easier to accept it and to not have feelings of shame and guilt around it.
Exercise. I never did sports in high school unless my gym teacher told me I would fail if I didn’t participate. The only exercise I did in college was walking to class and maybe going to a couple of yoga classes with a friend. This has been the biggest and most difficult life change, but it has also been one of the best. It was a real challenge for a long time to a) find a consistent workout schedule and b) find the right type of exercise. After trying 3 days/week, 5 days/week, every day, yoga, weightlifting, biking, HIIT, walking, rowing, I EVEN RAN A LITTLE, I’ve finally found something that works for me. There was a lot of trial and error, and the biggest issue for me was not the exercise itself but the accountability. I use the Strong app to track my weightlifting and cardio, and that helps keep me accountable because I can see on the calendar all of the times I’ve worked out. For me, the schedule that works best is a non-negotiable Wednesday, Friday, Sunday routine of weightlifting (my arms are starting to look super awesome) and HIIT on the bike. If I feel like it, I generally do yoga and/or a long walk with the dude on Tuesdays and Saturdays. I definitely don’t adhere to this all the time – I took a nap last Friday instead of working out and my poor yoga mat has only been out three times since we moved – but I’m trying. I just feel so much better when I exercise, which in itself blows my mind on a regular basis.
Keeping a panic diary. Cataloguing my symptoms in a panic diary was really helpful because I started to see patterns emerge, and from there I could begin to identify triggers and underlying causes. This in turn helped me not only to make room for anxiety but to start expecting it in certain situations. No longer do I go into traveling with the mindset that I’m not going to feel any; now, I expect to feel some, and that makes it a lot easier to handle when I inevitably do. There are other situations where I’ve learned to expect it, and that has actually lessened the symptoms because I’m not fighting them. I’m just letting them be.
Tracking my symptoms. This one took me a while to figure out, and I think I may have surpassed the point of its usefulness. At first I tried the SAM app, but it just didn’t work for me. I had no regular way to track what was going on because I often forgot in the moment of anxiety, and while some of the activities like breathing and coloring were helpful in calming down, this didn’t really provide me with the understanding that I needed to really actually accept my anxiety and learn. Even in the moment I struggled to find it as helpful as I needed it to be. This was over a year ago, so they may have changed it or it might affect me differently now that I have some understanding. Give it a try if it sounds interesting to you. After that I tried Symple, which helped some more in identifying patterns. I’ve written about it before, but I do I think I’ve moved beyond its helpfulness for me personally. I love this app and its concept, I just don’t really need it anymore.
An anxiety check list. I’ve talked about this before, but this has also been really helpful. Through a lot of trial and error, I have a list of go-to, sequential steps to take when I start to feel anxious. I haven’t had to go past grounding myself and breathing for a long time, and that’s awesome. This list also reminds me of all of the work I’ve done, and that this has happened to me before and I made it through.
Advocacy. I’ve really started speaking out about mental health issues, both in person and my various social media. Maybe that’s annoying for people who know me, maybe it’s not, but I want the people in my life (and all people, really) to understand that this is an important issue and it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and each other about it. Two years ago, I never would have told anyone who hadn’t seen it what a panic attack is like. But I found myself describing one for my dad over dinner a few months ago, and as I watched his eyes get wider and wider, I realized that this is why it’s important to talk about. This man, a physician, had no idea what it’s like. And that’s not his fault – he’s never had one and it’s not his area of expertise – but describing it for him helped him to understand that when I text him and tell him I’m having anxiety and can’t come to dinner, that that’s a real thing. It helped me to understand that people have no idea what it’s like until I tell them, and that’s a huge part of why we have a stigma around mental health. It was an important step not just for our relationship, but in helping to advocate and provide understanding. I had a similar experience with my mom, who said she had some questions she’d like to ask, if I felt comfortable answering them. The process was actually really cool, because I could hear the understanding develop in her voice. We need to talk about this and tell people what it’s like. We need to show them – by living our lives – that we can be dealing with this and also remain the interesting, complex person they knew before they found out about our mental health issues. I get it if you don’t feel comfortable talking about your own experience. If that’s the case, maybe there’s a way that you can advocate for mental health in general, or help raise awareness. If it’s sharing an article on facebook or sending a link to this blog to someone you know, that’s awesome. The stigma remains unless we do something.
You might have already figured out what works best for you, or you may feel totally bewildered and not know where to start. If that’s where you are in your journey, my suggestion is to start with therapy. Yes, it’s daunting. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it can be expensive. But it is worth it, because this person can guide you through everything else and you won’t have to do it alone. If you’re already in therapy, then I suggest working on depersonalizing anxiety and exercise. We are in this together. You can totally do it!