This post is Part 4 of a four-part series on anxiety. You can find some general thoughts about anxiety in the Prologue, some ideas for dealing with anxiety in the moment in Part 2, and ways to head off anxiety as it hits in Part 3. Please note I am not a medical professional. In these posts I am sharing my experiences and insights in the hopes they will help others. Seek medical help if you need it.
Dealing with your anxiety over the long term is just like any other kind of long-term solution. That is, it’s not that glamorous or exciting, it doesn’t usually have an immediate pay off and it sounds too easy. There has to be a trick, right? Getting in better shape can’t just mean exercising regularly. The key has to be a certain set of exercises, a correct time to work out, just the right sport drink or workout pants.
Most long-term maintenance is pretty simple on paper. Just a few simple steps. But those simple steps need to be put into effect daily. As is every day. And every day after that. Doesn’t seem like that should be so hard, yet somehow it is. Maybe it’s because these steps are not one-time fixes; they are new habits we need to develop. Maybe it’s because they involve a shift in mind set, in this case, permission to not be anxious. Maybe it’s that they are actions to take, and those of us who deal with anxiety tend to be head-based; we want to solve our problems by thinking our way out of them. Maybe it’s that there isn’t an immediate payoff for doing them nor is there an immediate consequence for not doing them.
I am going to share four simple thing I strive to do to manage my anxiety and build my long-term emotional health. I slip up. I forget. I get lazy. But the nice thing is all I need to do to get back on track is just start again.
Meditation. Meditation allows you to slow down and lets your stress hormone and adrenaline levels drop. I think of it as a way of “spinning out,” like a top running out of energy and wobbling over. Some people use the term “reset.” Regular meditation not only slows me down during the mediation exercise (which is good all on its own), but after a few sessions, the effects start showing up throughout the day.
One of the biggest effects for me is a longer time between something pushing my buttons (action) and my anxiety (reaction). A tiny little space gets created – maybe only a second or two long, but that’s all it takes to weaken my reaction. Some of the power is gone from my anxiety. I also have, in those few seconds the space to see the anxiety coming, to name it, to honor it and most importantly to question it.
I have been meditating for about 10 years. The last few years I lapsed a bit and it was a struggle to get back at it regularly. Someone recommended the take 10 app from Headspace. The first ten days are free. It’s bit costly after that, but I have found it very helpful, both in getting me back on tracking and on giving me tools to use at other times during my day. Even if you don’t want to get the app, check out the website for some great information and tips on meditation.
Daily Reflection. Think of this as making the emotional “cleaning house” [link to 3] less of a spring cleaning thing and more as a daily chore. I like to look back over my day and ask myself: when I was anxious, what pushed my buttons, was the danger real, how did I react, when did anxiety win, when did I win?
This time is about just noticing. No judgments, no recrimination, no beating myself up – for heaven’s sake no being anxious about how anxious I was. The more consistently I take the time to notice my reactions and mental habits, the easier it is to change them. Sometimes they even seem to change themselves.
Daily reflection also helps me notice what situations (and sometimes people) routinely make me anxious. I may not be able to avoid them, but if I know I will am likely to be in a situation that will push my buttons, I will be able to double down on my self-care beforehand.
Recently I have gotten into the habit of doing this on my drive home from work. I started doing it at a way of dealing with the stresses of a new job and now use it as a way to shift gears from work life into home life. I want to get back into the habit of doing a review right before bed.
Do What Feels Good. As I notice what I do and what pushes my buttons, I begin to notice what gives me some space between action and reaction. I am still amazed at how my reaction to very real feeing dangers “out there” is influenced by what I have done hours or even days earlier.
The most blatant example is what I used to call my “Three O’clock Freak-out.” During a particularly stressful time (the last few bad months before I lost a long-term job and the first few months of unemployment) I would lose it about 3:00 every day. Restlessness, almost unbearable anxiety, and at the end, a daily 3:30 cry. Then I read about breakfast. Yes. Breakfast. Seems people who skip breakfast (*cough*) experience a drop in blood sugar mid to late afternoon. This can lead to low energy, poor concentration and even effect a person’s mood.
I started eating breakfast and sailed through my afternoons with no freak-out, even though my circumstances had not changed. Now when I do my daily review and notice I was more anxious than usual, I look at what I had for breakfast. More often than not, on my more anxious days, breakfast was caffeine and sugar based.
There are other things that make me feel better, not only in the moment, but long-term. Exercise. Choosing music over news as my background noise. Being outside. Touching base with my loved ones. My daily review can help me notice patterns of what makes me feels better and when I have been cheating myself out of those activities.
Train Your Support System. There are people who love you and want to help you. If someone says the wrong thing when trying to help you while you’re anxious, chances are they mean well, they just don’t know what to do. Now – when you are not anxious – is the time to train them up.
One of the things those of us who deal with anxiety don’t realize is how distressing our anxiety can be to other people. People are truly distressed when someone they care about – even casually – is distressed. They want to help, sure, but at some deep, primal level they just want you to stop feeling bad so they stop feeling bad. If they don’t know what to do make you better, they get anxious – they just want to make this feeling stop.
I have found it very helpful to let my close friends know what I need. I let them know assurance might backfire, but I still need it. I tell them the best thing for me in the moment is distraction, maybe a little humor.
This isn’t a one-way street. To a certain extent, I have to agree to be assured, I have to let myself be distracted, I have to give myself permission to not be anxious. [link to 1]. I also have to be clear both with myself and with the person I am talking to what I need right now. My BF taught me a wonderful shortcut, based on White Men Can’t Jump. If I really just need him to tell me he knows what it’s like to be thirsty, I tell him right up front. If I am open to a glass of water, I let him know that, too.
I am hope you’ve found at least something in these four posts to help you manage your anxiety. I am not sure anxiety ever leaves any of us. It might be a medical condition some people just have to live with. It might be part of the human condition. Whichever, I know these things have made my life better and as hokey as it sounds, have made me a bit freer to be myself.