In the quest for wellness and an abundant life, we often overlook the most important aspect of truly thriving: mental health. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues in America. As a society, we’re getting more stressed out and less capable of handling that stress. We’re overstimulated and under-supported. We use flimsy distractions and coping mechanisms to get through the day, and only really deal with our mental wellness when we’re in a truly dire state that we can’t ignore.
People are often reluctant to admit to anyone—including themselves—that they have bouts of acute or chronic anxiety. Even when they do acknowledge it affects them, they usually don’t really know how to deal with whatever they’re struggling with. I completely get that, because despite all the advice out there on managing stress and anxiety, the information often seems a bit glib and sometimes even trite. Breathe through it? Um, ok, thanks. Focus on something else? Yeah, not working for me, bro. Go for a walk? Uhhhh…super enlightening.
The first step to managing anxiety is to be vulnerable and admit you’re struggling with it in the first place. This can be uncomfortable, and it takes both humility and courage. Just remember every single person at some time or another is in the same boat as you. We all struggle at times, and by admitting this, we’re able to connect with others to both find support and give it.
For me personally, I tend towards depression more than anxiety, but I definitely know what it’s like to have my mind switch to freak out mode. These are my top five ways of dealing with my brain on overdrive. And yeah, for sure meditate, light some incense, take a walk, practice breathing technics…do all the things. Anxiety isn’t a one-size fits all, and neither are coping mechanisms. The important thing is to incorporate daily methods that help manage and reduce our reactions to stressful situations to prevent anxiety from increasing and getting out of control. If you’re in crisis mode, that is absolutely, 100% the time to schedule an appointment with a counselor or therapist. The quality of your life depends on your mental health. Your life depends on it. We get annual physical checkups with our physicians, and sometimes we need to get a mental/emotional checkup with a therapist. It can make all the difference in the world.
1. Recognize anxiety is how the body & mind communicate something is off balance.
We tend to think of anxiety as something that’s “bad” because it sure as hell doesn’t feel “good.” Here’s the thing, anxiety is actually a useful tool if we learn to tune into why we’re feeling anxious. Uncomfortable feelings and sensations are how the body and mind communicate with us. If you are religious, please do not view anxiety as a lack of faith or trust in God. Anxiety has nothing to do with spirituality. Whether you are religious or spiritual, throwing verses and inspirational quotes at people or yourself might be putting a bandaid on a gaping wound. Is there power in religious verses and uplifting quotes? For sure. But not if it ignores the deeper need behind the symptoms. We can sometimes offer well-meaning advice or quotes to people who actually need a lifeline. We can sometimes do the same thing for ourselves, and not realize we need to address the root cause of our anxiety. Anxiety tells us something in our lives is off-kilter and needs to be readjusted. We might not be able to change the entire situation, but usually we can find at least several things we can adjust to make life feel a little bit more balanced.
- Sit with the feeling. Don’t immediately try to push it away, ignore it, or pretend like you’re not feeling a certain kind of way. Ask yourself what is your body and/or mind trying to tell you? There is usually a specific reason (or reasons) for your anxiety.
- Identify the cause: Is it work? An unstable or toxic relationship with a partner or friend? A deadline or school project? If your anxiety is strictly physically related (lack of sleep, going out too much or not enough, eating poorly, not taking time to consciously come to stillness and rest etc), address those topics separately. If it’s mental, the first step is to identity the potential reasons. Often, it’s a combination of both physical and mental. The two usually go hand in hand.
- Ask yourself if what tangible changes you can make and what is within your control. Once you’ve identified the cause of your anxiety, make a list of things you can tangibly change (not just shift your mental perspective). Keep the list short so you don’t feel even more overwhelmed. Writing items down is actionable, and taking action greatly helps with anxiety, even if the action is small. Use paper and pen. Research has shown the act of writing on paper (not the computer) is both therapeutic and soothing for the mind. Identify what is within your power to control, and focus on how you can apply your personal strengths to the situation. Example: I’m stressed about work because I feel overwhelmed by this presentation I have to so, and I don’t feel prepared. I’m worried people won’t receive it well. Tangible change: I will organize and review my outline, add research some key points so I can make sure I have some strong material to present. I will run through the presentation two times and then set it aside. I can’t control how people respond or receive my presentation, but I can control how I use my words, tone of voice, and word choices. When you find something you can actually do to improve the situation, it can help lessen the anxiety. Doing can be a pressure valve for pent-up stress. Anxiety can make you feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, so tell yourself over and over again: it is always within our power to make changes (however small or large) in any situation to make it feel less stressful.
- Identify your strengths, and how you can apply them to the situation. Know your weaknesses, and give yourself grace. Using the example of feeling stressed about a presentation: I’m good at speaking to a group of people and I really know this topic well. I excel at research and organizing ideas. I struggle with needing to please others, so I will give myself grace and allow myself to not make this about my own merit or garnishing any kind of recognition.
- Be honest about what is not in your power to change: Let go of the things you can’t control. Honey, I repeat, let that shit go. We are not meant to control all things at all times. It’s not always easy to mentally disengage from situations and potential scenarios outside our control, but it’s necessary. When there is something I’m stressing over that I can’t/shouldn’t try to control, I’ll mentally picture myself picking up the situation, setting it out in front of me, and offering it up to a higher power to control. For me, this higher power is God. Whatever it is for you, at some point, we have to let go and know all things work together for good. This is called faith. It’s not a feeling, it’s a belief in something more than ourselves.
Key takeaway—> anxiety isn’t “bad”. It’s a way the body and mind let us know something is off. Identity the cause, pin-point what is within and outside of your control. Find an actionable change, and consciously surrender the areas that are outside of your control. The shit that’s out of your control works itself out. It always does. The universe has a way of looking out for us. You’re still standing right? You’ve made it through every situation in your life so far. You can make it through this stressful time too.
2. Yoga: Just Do It.
I mean, you knew I was going to add this as a way of dealing with anxiety, right? How could I not?! Yoga has been incredibly instrumental is my own mental health and wellness journey. Buuuuut…there’s a huge caveat pertaining to using yoga for stress management: Yoga does not fix everything. What? Gasp! Sacrilege! But it’s true. Yoga is only as effective as we choose to let it be both on and off the mat. Attending class or going through a sequence at home can certainly, abso-fricking-lutely alleviate symptoms of anxiety, but it doesn’t mean your anxiety won’t come back. Furthermore, yoga is only really effective on a long term basis when we cultivate a faithful practice, which is at least three times a week.
The true power of yoga is applying what we learn on the mat to our off-the-mat lives. This mean learning to view uncomfortable feelings as neither good nor negative, and to simply observe them, breathe through them, and let ourselves rest in the eye of the storm. Life can be a tornado whirling around us, but we can use our breath as a focus point to slow down our thoughts. We learn to find stillness and calm during awkward, uncomfortable postures on our mat, so we can find that same sense of equanimity off the mat. Yoga isn’t just about asanas. It’s a way of life.
3. Avoid the comparison trap.
Comparison is truly the thief of joy, and few things will cause more anxiety than falling into the Comparison Trap. There are two types of comparison that usually punch us in the face: 1) comparing yourself to another person, and 2) comparing your present self to the ideal concept of what you think you should be.
Comparing yourself, your life, and your accomplishments to someone else is a major fun-sponge move that we all do at some point or another. We look over at another person and see they have more, do more, seem better off, and they are LIVING THAT LIFE. And you’re not! Oh my god, why aren’t you! Why aren’t you vacationing in Aspen with your meticulously dressed children and adoring, perfect spouse?! Why do you not have a million degrees and speak at conferences across the country? Why is their dog better behaved than yours? WHAT IS THIS LIFE?!!!! We subconsciously or consciously begin asking the “why not me?” question when we compare ourselves to other. The only answer is a big fat lie, but a believable one: that you aren’t enough. You aren’t doing enough. Cue anxieeeeeetyyyyy! And throw in some depression and a giant bottle of wine on the side, because everything sucks.
Comparison throws off our mental equilibrium. It launches a message to our brains that we’re in deprivation mode, and therefore need to hit the overdrive button. The problem is, there aren’t many places to go once we begin comparing and finding ourselves lacking. There’s nothing to immediately fix, there’s usually not much (if anything) that we can (or should) change, but our brain thinks we need to. So we get anxious AF, but have no where to go except run around in mental circles of hell.
Let us cease and desist comparing ourselves to others. It will never, ever, ever lead to a feeling of empowerment. If we compare ourselves to another and manage to feel superior, we’re being giant jerks. If we compare ourselves and feel inferior, we’re robbing ourselves of joy. If you find yourself falling into the Comparison Trap, get the hell out ASAP. Code Red that situation and back right on out.
It’s ok to ask yourself what you felt drawn to when you’re comparing yourself or what you have to another person’s life. Maybe something about what they’ve accomplished or have resonates with you, and you can find value in it. Example: that mom seems to really create special memories with her children and has her act together. (Spoiler alert: no one has their act together, let’s be real). What you can recognize in this is that creating special moments with families really matters to you. And that is something you can change or enhance in your life. But seriously, no one’s life looks like what you see on the outside. Some parts are way better, some parts way worse. Take what you’ve been given with gratitude. We’re all hot messes just trying to do the best we can.
The second type of comparison is actually the one I struggle with the most. I don’t know why, but I don’t really give a flying flip about what other people have or are doing. I think I just live with my head in the clouds, and truly believe the universe has enough for us all. BUT, man, do I struggle with comparing my present self to the ideal concept of what I think I should be/should do. Perfectionism is such an ugly thing. It’s a joy-drain, and it causes major stress. What’s tricky about this type of comparison is it disguises itself as Goals and Aspiration. Goals are great, but not when they make us feel like our present accomplishments are shoddy or insufficient. Take note on whether you’re allowing your goals to diminish what you’ve achieved, and more to the point, if reaching for those goals is not empowering you but instead stressing you out. If you can’t find joy in the journey, honey, get on a different path. And I am preaching to the choir, because this is my lifelong struggle.
4. Limit social media and news.
Limit social media: Ditching social media was one of the absolute best things I ever did for my mental health. Oh, and also for my productivity, but who cares about that. When I got rid of my personal accounts, I thought I might miss it or be seized by horrendous FOMO, but the opposite was true. It became so much easier to focus and bring stillness to my mind. It was like eliminating horrible white noise that I didn’t know was stressing me out on a small scale. The communication I have now with friends is more authentic and intentional.
Very little interaction on social media has any real value. We log on, and we’re hit by a barrage of ads, personal opinions, agendas, air-brushed pictures and staged lives. It’s enough to send the brain into mega overstimulation mode. Not to mention, very little content on social media is actually empowering or uplifting. Where the mind goes, energy goes. What we feed becomes stronger. I don’t really need to read people’s well-intended Facebook rants. I don’t necessarily gain anything by seeing their 1,000,000 million pictures of their babies (sorry not sorry, I enjoy my friends’ kiddos, but in moderation. Real talk, ya’ll). It doesn’t make or break my day to see their selfies or vacation pictures. The point I’m making is social media rarely adds much value to your life. It’s not all bad, and I’m not trying to say social media is a giant trash dump (buuuut…maybe it mostly is? I dunno. Jury is still out on this one, kids). I’m simply saying it’s ok to evaluate whether or not it enhances your life and to what degree you want to invest your time and energy into social media.
I personally keep the bare minimum social media accounts, and they pertain strictly to yoga and this blog. I follow accounts that I actually find value in or want to support, and it’s made my life a million percent less stressful.
Have a specific purpose when you log on to social media: respond to direct messages, post a picture, look up ideas about x, y & z, but whatever you do, don’t get sucked into the vortex of social media. That is one dark, negative hole and I doubt you’ll feel awesome once you finally resurface. Obviously, this excludes all and any accounts related to animals being adorable, funny, or meme-worthy. And if it’s an account of baby animals being precious little love-nuggets, I will lose my mind and like all the pictures. Then I’ll send them to my friends who post a million pictures of their kids, just so they know I think that baby animal is cuter than their child. JUST KIDDING. I send them to my husband, to let him know I want him to buy me more pets. Give me all the animal accounts, and I will give you several hours of my life without blinking an eye. It’s impossible to feel anxiety while looking at memes of baby animals. That tip is completely free and subjective to your love of fur-babies.
Avoid the news like your life depends on it: A really big factor of anxiety for me and many other people is the news/current events.
I don’t have to tell you why, do I? We know news is divisive, negative, and pretty dark these days. The news today is like realty TV. It’s designed to spark a trigger response, inflame and excite, divide and conquer. The news is anything but objective, and it’s impossible to read any article without getting worked up, depressed, or anxious.
Being aware of important current events isn’t the same thing as drowning beneath them. I approach the news much like I do social media: I avoid it, unless I have a specific purpose in mind. If I need to research a topic, I’ll read up on it and decide if it’s within my power to act on it. If the news doesn’t serve you and empower you, steer clear. Reading about how horrible people are, how the world is going to spontaneously combust from global warming, and how everyone hates everyone else is only going to make you crazy-pants anxious.
5. Know that this too shall pass.
Anxiety sucks big time, and it can be difficult to anticipate when it will hit us and what circumstance will cause us to have a mental melt-down. But that’s the most important thing to remember when feeling anxiety: circumstances are not permanent, and they do not last forever.
I heard a quote a while back that always stuck with me: most of the things we worry about never even happen. We worry in advance about things that almost never happen. Sometimes—rarely—they do. And during those few times when our fears are confirmed, it’s important to know this too shall pass. You’ve made it through hard times before, and you can make it through this circumstance, too. Even if you don’t feel like you can, you can and you will.
Have faith that even in the darkest times, someone or something greater than yourself is looking out for you. The universe has a beautiful way of working all things out for good. When I look back on times in my life where it felt like the world was ending, I see now that it was actually the doorway to something far greater, better and more beautiful than I could have imagined. Whatever you are going through, it is never the end. It’s a paragraph that leads to a new chapter.