Anxiety has been a companion of mine for a good long, long decade. It’s hard to think of a time when it wasn’t pushing its way through the crevices of my brain and knocking on my temples like a five-year-old child going, “Pay attention to me. Pay attention to me. Oi! Pay attention to me.”
In that time, I’ve tried a sizable amount of techniques and attempted to build habits; I’ve been hesitant to use medication and refused completely and gone back around to ‘yes, let’s’; I’ve accumulated a long list of shit that doesn’t work — much of which makes me angry, too — and a much shorter list of shit that works — well, sometimes.
Sometimes still beats never, so I’m going to share those things that make living with anxiety a little easier on me.
I’m putting the most drastic tactic first. The rest of this list is a lot more predictable, which is why I’m including a place to start for each item besides this one. I wanted to be actually helpful and not just regurgitate what you see everywhere.
What do I mean by quit? Well, obviously I’m not saying you should quit your life. (Please don’t. I know the feeling. If you’re at that point, there is help available.) But we all have stressors. Anyone with anxiety can probably list five or ten off the top of their head. Right now, some of my stressors are: my work backlog, financial anxiety about going back to London, anxiety over how I’m going to bring all my stuff back, the thing where I can’t get alone time to work, my bad eating and sleeping habits and the guilt that comes with them, my rebrand and how big and unsurmountable it feels given all the other things I have to do and situational hindrances.
All in all, it’s not that bad. A few months ago, my biggest stressor was financial, too — but it was the kind of thing where if things went wrong, I was really fucked. They did in fact go wrong, and I was so fucked that I moved back home. I no longer have to worry about rent. I’ve traded it off for living with my family again, but boy, has it made a difference to my general mindset.
It could be a job that’s stressing you out. A hobby that takes up too much of your time. Maybe you’re a freelancer and you’re not giving yourself enough time off. (Been there!) I’ve also been in a place — back when I first got a room of my own, same month I first got on paroxetine — where a hobby had become my only source or measure of productivity, and it had become unhealthy. I was in a place in my life where I was able to quit that and be listless for a few months, and that’s how I ended up feeling confident enough to start a business.
It could be a person. Anything from a friend you don’t see eye to eye with to a relative who puts you down to a close family member who’s abusive. I understand how hard it can be to let go of people, both emotionally and practically. I live with my father right now, and while his abuse is less frequent than it used to be, he’s still someone who continually hurts me. I wish I could let go of him. I told you letting go of rent worries was a trade-off.
But maybe there’s someone in your life you don’t have to put up with, and maybe that’s key to making your anxiety manageable.
So: identify where the stress, the dread, the worries are coming from, and see if you can let go of some of it. Delegate it. Postpone it. Simplify it. Trash it. Whatever works. And yes, go cold-turkey. Don’t still do a bit of it. If it’s a real stressor, if it’s the kind of thing that’s filling you with dread? You need to let it go.
It doesn’t mean you can never come back to it. But if you can afford to quit something that’s making you miserable — even if it doesn’t only make you miserable; even if it also makes you happy, but mostly you just want to never think of it again — I genuinely encourage you to do it.
2. Make time for fun
In the vein of ‘quitting,’ I think many people with anxiety — including me — end up in these lifeless, funless ruts where all they do is work, if anything, and they spend their downtime entertaining themselves with unfulfilling [insert choice of game/TV show/youtube/blog that they don’t enjoy that much] that takes up little energy, little headspace, and they don’t care about enough to be fully present in the moment and enjoy.
It happens to me a lot. I tweeted about it last week — I often avoid things I really, deeply enjoy because I don’t think I’m in a good enough headspace to get the most of them. Lately, that’s because I’m tired and hot and out of it. When I was in London, one of my little dreams was to be caught up on my work and actually take a day off to go to Starbucks with a physical book and no tech. This is not ‘how to fix anxiety if you work from home’, but if you have that problem, I recommend scheduling your time and scheduling breaks as well as an hour beyond which you will not work. I managed the last thing for a while, and it was wonderful: after 9 PM, I put aside my work and cooked my dinner, and watched a movie, or some TV.
But this can happen even if you have a standard job, or if you’re in school, or if you’re not working for whatever reason. (That reason could even be your anxiety.) So this is where I tell you to make time for it. Make time for that book that will have you giddily screaming into your sleeve. Make time for the movie that will make you cry fat tears of bittersweet joy ten minutes in. Make time to play guitar. Make time to play a game you can truly get invested in. Make time to read some fanfiction. Put it on your schedule and do it. Let your mind drift off and be comforted for a while.
There are many ways you can take this. You could write a journal. Putting your thoughts and emotions down on paper can make them seem clearer, less scary, maybe even surmountable. In the same way you could journal, you could also find a therapist, and talk it out, if that’s available to you. You could talk it out on a voice recorder, if you want the privacy.
You could find something else to do on paper that helps out. Maybe that’s to-do listing every tiny task so you get the joy of crossing it off. Maybe it’s drawing, sketching, painting, doodling, collaging, scrapbooking. Maybe it’s worksheet exercises you can find on the web. Maybe it’s one line a day. Maybe it’s writing daily about what made you happy — what some people approach as a ‘gratitude journal.’ I have issues with the word ‘gratitude,’ but I admit that keeping track of what’s made me happy has helped me a few times. Most recently, I did it for a Simply Health campaign on twitter of all places, and it was interesting how by the last day, I had a significantly easier time thinking of things that had made me happy — and it wasn’t even a particularly good week.
The great thing about ‘things that make me happy’ is that you can do it in so many ways. Many, many people blog or vlog weekly about their progress. It can be a way to keep yourself accountable, if you commit to having a post up about it every week. Many podcasts — like one of my first faves, Pop Culture Happy Hour — have a regular section where everyone talks about something that made them happy. You can instagram it, if you’re a visual sort. It can be a photography project. Whatever it is, and as many issues as I have with general ‘think positive’ attitudes, singling out the positive can truly help you be more aware of it going forward. And that will definitely help your anxiety.
Like yoga, but without the physical effort. No, seriously. I first tried meditation a few weeks ago, hoping it wouldn’t make me feel ridiculous, and it was very, very similar to doing yoga — except I didn’t have to expel a drop of sweat or leave my lungs on the floor trying to hold a downward-facing dog pose for longer than my admittedly pathetic endurance can handle.
I know some people just, like, meditate. They can zone out and empty their minds and let all thoughts go. I can’t do that. I can’t even do that when I’m trying to sleep. I need someone to guide me. Now, if you have access to slash can afford a personal trainer, or like group classes, that’s for sure an option! Me, I have no disposable income and I don’t have the greatest track record with group things involving exercise — granted, that was high school, but I doubt a group class will wait for me to catch up while I wheeze — so I found some guided self-help type stuff on the Internet.
If you want to try meditation and you have a smartphone — Android or iOS! possibly other systems — you’re in luck. There are quite a few apps that will offer you a range of meditations you can pick based on your mood, what you need to accomplish, what works for you, how long you have, and other factors.
Breathe2Relax was a nice quick foray into simply breathing without it being a part of a yoga exercise, though it’s not the nicest thing to look at.
However, the one that really turned me onto meditation was Stop, Breathe & Think. You can keep track of your progress, which meditations you’ve tried, how you felt before and after them. You even get stickers! I love having a way to cross things off a list, as it were, that doesn’t require me to remember to put them on my to-do list. Also, it’s beautifully designed. These things matter to me.
So yeah. I’m sure making meditation as a habit can be good for you, but as it is, I know that taking a few minutes to not think about anything definitely is. And a guided meditation — just because it’s telling you to listen, and focus, and you’re paying attention to that — does just that.
Right, so you like the meditation thing, but you also want the physical effort. Maybe you need an extra thing to focus on, and poses (or other types of exercise) will do the trick. In that case, yoga’s the obvious choice. It’s so obvious I feel silly even putting it on here, but honestly. I won’t pretend to be super knowledgeable about yoga, because I’m not, but I’m going to point you to a website I’ve used that has free sample recordings of some of their lessons — most are 20-40 minutes long, they’re doable, they address different issues, and you can get PDFs of the poses to go with them. If you sign up for a membership, you get unlimited access to even more lessons, video, and a bunch of other stuff.
The site is YogaDownload. I can’t vouch for the premium stuff (and this is not an affiliate link), but I can vouch for a number of lessons. The Gentle Hatha set is fantastic for someone just starting out — someone who isn’t very flexible or strong or energetic. It’s also great for anxiety. It runs you through a number of poses, all doable, some harder than others (I really do find the downward-facing dog the hardest one there), and at the end, you’re lying on the floor spread out thinking “can this just go on for a while longer? Like an hour? A year? Shh, outro music. Shh.”
I can tell you from personal experience — as someone who avoided all forms of exercise for twenty-one years, flunked PE once in primary school and rage-quit it near the end of high school — that exercise is fucking amazing for mental health. I mean, seriously amazing. The trick, if you’re not into sports in general or have the endurance of a block of spam, is to start as low as you truly feel, and go from there.
Listen, I’m going to tell you the truth here: the summer I got my room to myself for the first time, got on antidepressants and quit writing, I also got into watching gymnastics, and that gave me motivation to work out. When the Olympics were over, I started Make It Or Break It. Following concepts I explained in #3: Write, I created a super complicated exercise chart full of little exercises I wanted and felt capable of doing, and every day I wrote down how many repeats I did of each. I chose the exercises! And I followed programs like OneFiftyDips and TwoHundredSitups and HundredPushUps, though I’ll admit I was pretty easy on the last one because push-ups suck. I hate push-ups, and that’s okay! I was surprised I was able to start a few weeks into the first two programs, but I tested myself first.
The rest of the exercises on the chart? Jumps. Mini leaps. Straddle stretching. Pike stretching. Shoulderstands. (I can’t do headstands. I tried with my sister and nearly broke my chin. I’ll try again, when I find a gym that I can pay for and that has massive mats to fall on.) Roll-ups (for real). Jumping jacks, sometimes. Squats, sometimes. Walking en pointe and variations of ballet walking. Turns.
I spread these out throughout the day because doing too much at once made me sweaty and I didn’t want to waste hot water or clean clothes changing again.
Somehow, what had seemed impossible for so long became easy and fun and something I looked forward to. It gave me energy. And I felt happier.
So what I’m saying is, exercise can be awesome. There are loads of programs out there. You can pick a sport you love and do that — another little dream I have is being able to hire a gymnastics coach, but I would also go for tennis lessons. You can create your own workout.
Don’t force yourself to do things you can’t do. It’s funner when you start where you are and actually accomplish things, step by step. Most of all, do what works for you.
And that goes for everything here. Anxiety, like any other mental illness, rarely looks the same for two different people. What works for me may not work for you, and viceversa; what works for me may work differently, or better, or worse, for you than it does for me. None of this is a cure, and sometimes depression knocks you down so you can’t try it at all — I’ve been there, and that’s why antidepressants are a choice I make.
Regardless, I wrote this post to give you an idea of where to get started with helpful life habits, and I hope it serves its purpose!
Do you have anxiety and hate it when people tell you to think positive? Let’s commiserate!
Disclosure: This post contains no affiliate links and I wasn’t paid to mention anything in it or write it (which is outrageous, frankly; it took forever) but Simply Health will donate a small sum in my name to the organization Mind in exchange for my participating in their campaign and including their link in this post.