I think it's safe to say we've all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. Some of us can identify the experience by labelling it as anxiety while others (most of us maybe?) flit about in states of spontaneous sweating, digestive upset and a racing heart without knowing what's happening.
I have experienced a heightened sense of anxiety since as early as I can remember. For me, it's always been tied to achievement, or perhaps the flip side, the fear of failure. Only in recent years, with the movement to 'normalize' anxiety, have I actually attached the label. Let me be clear though – I want no part in 'normalizing' anxiety.
Yes, I want all of us to be okay with who we are today. And yes, I acknowledge that it is widespread and extremely common. However, just because a massive amount of people are experiencing anxiety on a daily basis doesn't make it something we should just accept, or pop a pill for. We can do better than naming it normal and accept that it's just who we are.
I am not my anxiety. I am not controlled by it, nor am I limited by it. I work through it every single anxious moment every single day, and every day is an opportunity for me to relax just a little bit more. (Wait, is this my achievement-oriented anxiety worrying about not being good enough at breathing through my anxiety??? Gah!)
Moving right along...
Prepping for a big exam? Yes, that would be a highly anxiety-rich experience.
Getting ready to go out for dinner with friends, or for a typical day of work? No, a fight or flight anxiety response shouldn't be triggered.
I don't ever want my anxious state to be my normal state. I will not settle for an anxious life. Every day I wake up knowing those familiar niggling feelings and they trail me throughout the day. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, or perhaps have never given the label of anxiety to your symptoms, this is how I can best describe it:
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
Anxiety is the feeling in the body of your stomach sinking, as if coming over the peak of a roller coaster, your muscles tightening, your breathing becoming more shallow. You may swing towards feeling hot or feeling chilled. You may feel an extreme heaviness hit your limbs, while your insides begin to feel a bit like liquid slowly gelling. Jaws clench, knuckles clench, shoulders move up to become earrings, and body pain can ensue.
Anxiety can keep you wired at night, and layer on fatigue throughout your day. It can cause repetitive thought patterns, that may have some grounding in reality, or can be a spiral of what-ifs that run away from us.
It's a slippery slope, too. It's often been my experience that the greater the level of anxiety I am feeling at any one time, the less I am able to cope with anything else, thus further heightening my anxious state.
I have been an overachiever my whole life. It didn't come from anyone but me. I won awards, I won scholarships. I was valedictorian, I got lots of jobs, and lots of promotions. I've had lots of businesses and I have this one, now. I wonder every day if the success I have experienced over the last decade was a fluke, a mistake by the universe.
When it came to sit down and write this post, I was filled with anxiety.
I am not one to give in to procrastination and I procrastinated in an attempt to avoid even thinking about this. Getting shit done is one of my most functional methods of channelling my anxiety – and it works in our society. (Look, I just did it. I made my coping mechanism okay.) Productivity is prized in our fast-paced way of living. Being efficient is seen as a valuable quality. I did an Instagram story about having to write this post. I helped one of my team members pull some data on a non-urgent task. I looked ahead to the workload coming for the next few weeks to see if there was anything I could quickly check off. Even, as the first snow of the season began to fall, I decided to put on my coat and hat and walk around the corner to the hardware store to buy some pots and soil and decided that today was the perfect day to replant some office plants.
This is my brand of high-performance anxiety. This is me.
I could allow it to control me, fill me with terror and limit my potential and my happiness. But I don't. At least hardly ever. Okay... Maybe sometimes. But every-time I am reminded that I have tools I can use and so I do. I keep practicing.
How Do I Cope With My Anxiety?
I have never been a fan of the "stress management" way of coping, and I'm also not into the "lean into your anxiety" camp either. I want this stuff out. I want to feel free from the weight of it. When I was 26 years old and healing from Crohn's, I began a regular meditation and yoga practice and for the first time in my 26 years of life, I experienced life on a different frequency. I understood that there was another way to be in the world and I was hooked on the feeling.
This has been my motivation to find tools, strategies and tricks that, with practice, have revolutionized how I am able to show up in the world.
Here are some things you can try that have worked for me.
Tune In To The Sensations
Become aware of the sensation in your body that's associated with anxiety for you, and start to notice what triggers the sensation. Is it a specific thought, or theme of thoughts? Is it a person? An alert from your phone? A substance like coffee or alcohol? There can be any number of triggers and combinations of triggers. Sometimes it may seem like it's nothing at all, and a panic sweeps over you for no apparent reason (or could it be a blood sugar crash? A response to a chemical or fragrance?). Tune in to how anxiety manifests physically and mentally in your body, and once you can address it, you can start to take action to untangle it.
Know What's Real
As I mentioned earlier, there may be moments in life that are genuinely anxiety-ridden and stressful. Most, however, are not. Much of what we have a physical stress response to, are thoughts that are manifestations (or make believe!) of our own minds and don't actually exist, aren't real and aren't happening. A few cues you can try when you become overcome with anxious thoughts is to find the facts. Is this true? How do I know this is true? Or alternately, this is not real and this is how I know this is not real. Our brain response is the same whether we're watching violence on television or seeing it before our own eyes. Imagine the tricks we can play on our brain response when we are manufacturing our own worst fears from our thoughts? Another strategy can be to ask yourself, If this is my worst fear, this thought that I am manufacturing, how will I handle it. What would my solution be?
We know this one. It's not anything new or shiny or requires you to buy a device or download an app. Your breath is your anchor and it is with you all the time. Take. A. Deep. Breath. And repeat. Again. Again. Again. That is it. If we can, at the moment that a wave of anxiety washes over us, begin to use those physical sensations as a wake-up, a reminder to breathe, it can all change. Five deep breaths, expanding your chest, then your belly, holding for a pause and then exhaling all the air in your body from the belly to the chest and holding a beat, then repeat, is how you take a deep breath. There's a very, very good chance that if you have not consciously taken a breath today, then you have not taken a full, complete breath, let alone five. Science calls this diaphragmatic breathing and numerous studies have shown the positive effects on both physical and mental health.
Get movement into your life every day in a way that makes you feel good. Focus on movement for feeling good, not looking good. They are not always one and the same. Going for a walk, perhaps a meditative walk, maybe even in nature, can dramatically reduce your feelings of anxiety. If a nature walk is plainly ridiculous given where you're at when panic strikes, just get outside and go for a walk around the block – that can also provide benefit. Again, I know this isn't earth-shattering revelations here but the solution, as with many things, is in the simplicity. Roll it back to the simplest action that requires minimal planning or interaction. Whatever you decide to do, make regular, dare I say daily, movement part of your life. Your quality of life depends on it.
Find Solutions To Your Worries (Maybe?)
Why everyday anxiety can be so exhausting, chronic, taxing, and debilitating is because the worry is typically associated with everyday circumstances – relationships, work, money, housing, health etc. The benefit of everyday anxiety is that it is typically associated with everyday circumstances. See what I did there? I say benefit because it also lends us the opportunity to find solutions to help us cope, process and upgrade our reaction. There is no sense in worrying about something if you're not going to do anything about it. First, determine if your primary concerns are things you have any iota of power to change. If not, then your work is to change yourself and how you respond or react to that set of circumstances. Now, if your worry is within your power to affect change, then start putting actions (or one action, just one!) in place. Finding solutions to those challenges can help you to feel empowered, and of course, there is the ongoing practice of upgrading your response to one that is less jarring for your soul.
Clean Up Your Life Hygiene
This is the tough love portion of the piece.
Are you knowingly dating people, taking jobs, reading books, watching shows, eating foods, drinking drinks, scrolling through social media, staying up too late, or doing any number of other things that perpetuate the cycle of anxiety? Stop. Like, right now, just stop. You can't mop up the floor with a leaky bucket. Can you make a list of the things you knowingly do that may provide a little instant gratification but that you know full well will leave a hangover of anxiety? Start cultivating the discipline to break the patterns, replace anxiety-causing habits and hobbies with life-affirming, joy-filling ones. No one wants to hear about your love life drama. No one wants to hear about your horrible boss, your weekend binger, or what your grade five boyfriend's wife is wearing to a wedding. Simplify. Reduce your exposure to the things in your life that create a sense of need, or not enough, or that make you feel more physically or emotionally unwell. This is all stuff that only you can change.
Find Your Calm Muse(s) And Practice
There has never been greater access to every flavour of wellbeing leaders, healers and spiritual teachers. There is something for everyone, with every podcast you listen to, every book you read, every person on the planet you encounter, there is something you can learn. There's a trick though. You can read every book there is to read on vulnerability, big magic, the power of now, loving what is, full catastrophe living, the wise heart, and radical acceptance (those are all titles of great personal development books, by the way), but if you do not do the work, put the teachings into practice today, tomorrow, the next day, next week and next month, then it's just an academic exercise, not life movement.
Try It Out – Like Actually Do it!
The strategies outlined below are not new. We don't need new. What we need to is to just start practicing them, and every day. For a while! Not once.
- Physical Activity: When the buzzing feels too much to handle, physical activity takes me out of my mind and into my body like nothing else. Whether it's going for a walk, trying to do a headstand or giving time to a more traditional workout, physical activity can take out of the cycle of thoughts.
- Deep Breathing: Start with five full belly breaths as a daily morning practice.
- Body Scan Practice: Can be really helpful for tuning in and becoming aware of the sensations in your body. There are loads of body scan recordings available on iTunes and youtube.
- Yoga: Slow movement connected to breathing helps us become aware of what we are feeling as we move through different areas of the body. Beyond the proven ability for yoga to reduce anxiety and depression, becoming aware of the body itself can be a powerful practice.
- Journaling: Getting your thoughts down on paper can help stop them from spinning in your mind. This can also help you to read them back in a more critical way when you're not in an anxious state. As you write your thoughts, consider underlining the stuff that isn't actually real and instead is a fear based on a made-up circumstance or possible scenario that hasn't happened.
- Meditation: It is impossible to be bad at meditation. That's like saying you can't breathe or blink or scratch your head. It may take time for you to find a practice and a rhythm and the discipline to do it, but that bit is up to you and your desire to find what works for you. Meditation classes and studies and online groups are popping up like crazy and for good reason.
Your Next Steps FOr Moving Through Anxiety
You don't get calmer, less anxious, more grateful, healthier and happier by reading and listening all about it. It comes from doing the work. Though most one-hour yoga classes have become more like fitness classes, at the core, it is a practice of movement and breathing. The breath is intended to keep you present. Meditation is hard. Sitting down and being still while your monkey mind does somersaults until you want to puke can be excruciating to the anxious person – but that is the work. And what happens when you sit to meditate, when you take time to journal, when you go for a walk, when you slow down when you really want to run (like literally – highly anxious people often love high intensity, endurance sports), is that you are holding up that mirror. You are facing the ickiness and the stickiness of life. It's working.
The miracles and the magic, and the practice of living fully and happily, with calm and contentment comes from the time in between those periods of work.
Putting that work into life every single day, in every single moment is how I cope with my anxiety.
Today I am doing really, really great at it. Yesterday well, yesterday gave me the opportunity to be better today, relax into life with a little more equanimity, and marginally less anxiety. Every bit, every effort, counts.
Photo: Catherine Farquharson