Part Two: Coping With Anxiety. For Part One CLICK HERE
by: Genrys Goodchild
In part one of this series, I shared with you some of my personal experience and understanding of anxiety – particularly generalized anxiety (a disorder I was diagnosed with nearly a decade ago). We looked at what anxiety can feel like and where it can typically come from.
We now turn to exploring all of the ways I have learned to cope with this illness and methods I’ve tried.
But first: It’s important to note that in no way am I, nor is Muse & Mystic, a licensed medical professional. All the information in these posts is for informational purposes only and cannot take the place of consultation or treatment with a licensed medical professional. We urge you to consult a doctor or other another medical professional if you have any questions related to any medical concern.
I’ve divided this post into two sections – body and mind/emotion. Of course, as I mentioned in the previous post, all of these things are interconnected and inform each other. But this is just a handy way to separate them out as unique methods for dealing with anxiety. Also! What works for me might not necessarily work for you. There’s no pressure to adopt methods which feel pointless to you. Pick what works and leave the rest.
Many of us who struggle with anxiety (and indeed, depression) can easily be disconnected from our bodies or suffer from ailments or chronic conditions that may not appear to be immediately connected to stress, but actually are. Dr. Bessel Van De Kolk titled his book The Body Keeps the Score for a reason. As he explains in the book, “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.”
One way to stop hiding from yourself, especially at first when emotions and memories might still be far too overwhelming, is to learn how to grow more comfortable inhabiting your body.
Yes, okay. This one seems very obvious. But it’s obvious because it WORKS. Anxious or depressed people typically produce less ‘feel good’ hormones than people without, and exercise is a crucial way to jumpstart producing more of those hormones and chemicals. It can be something as simple as a half hour walk to dancing to soccer to horse riding. It just needs to be something you enjoy doing enough that you can commit to doing it regularly. I notice a big difference in my mood and anxiety levels if I go even just a few days without exercise.
Though a form of exercise, yoga is a more targeted practice. There are thousands of videos you can follow along to at home if going to a yoga studio is too daunting or not affordable to you. Yoga has shown itself to be a great way to reconnect you with your body, notice sensations and learn to tolerate them. In fact, yoga can be so effective that therapists are developing psychotherapy programs combined with yoga practices specifically for trauma survivors. If this interests you, I encourage you to look up programs in your area!
Aromatherapy, Salt Baths (The Power of Magnesium!)
I try to have an epsoms salt bath once a week. Suffering from chronic anxiety means you can hold a lot of tension in your body, leading to very sore muscles. A hot bath with Epsom salts is both a way to unwind and get more magnesium in your system. Magnesium is an essential mineral that most people (in Western societies) are deficient in due to the deteriorating quality of soil over time, and it isn’t produced naturally in our bodies. Magnesium is best absorbed transdermally (through the skin) so I also use a magnesium spray every day. (I simply spray my feet and legs with the spray, let it sit on my skin for at least 20 minutes, and then rinse off. It might sting at first, so use with caution!). Magnesium has shown to help with feelings of anxiety and depression. It can also help people who suffer from headaches!
I also use aromatherapy a lot – I find the scent of lavender very calming and will add it to my bath using an essential oil. Aromatherapy has seen a bit of a boom in recent years so there are hundreds of scent combinations using essential oils. You can get roll-ons, oils to add to diffusers, etc. I always use a diffuser at night to help calm me down before bed.
Whenever people brag about how well they can function on 4-5 hours of sleep, I want to tear my hair out. The truth is, any functionality they think they have is something they’re borrowing on credit from their future health. Sleep is absolutely crucial for managing chronic stress and anxiety. Don’t skimp on sleep! Of course, anxiety can often mean you suffer from insomnia or interrupted sleep patterns. I suggest doing your utmost to try and tackle this issue, because it can make a huge difference in your anxiety. I aim to sleep 8-9 hours a night (and I know I’m lucky to be able to sleep that much). Do your best to prioritize sleeping. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking cutting back on sleep is what will allow you to get more done. It usually has the opposite effect.
I find that magnesium oil before bed helps me sleep better – as does occasional use of melatonin under the tongue. Talk to your doctor about what might work for you. Ideally, as you work with your body, mind and emotions, over time you’ll carry less stress in your body and will find it easier to sleep deeply.
I really hesitate to speak about food, simply because food and our bodies can be a huge source of anxiety. I don’t believe there’s much utility in following a strict diet that triggers your anxiety – stress about restricted eating can negate any benefits you’d potentially gain from eating ‘healthy’. Eat what you feel like eating, but obviously, trying to incorporate vegetables, fruit and protein as much as possible will help give your body the nutrients it needs to feel good. Some people do find avoiding sugar and caffeine can help with their anxiety levels, and other people have no issue with those at all. Some people might need animal proteins, some might not. It’s all about what specifically works for you. Think of it less as ‘cutting things out’ and adding as many good things in. Binge or stress eating is a very real phenomenon (I do it myself!) and I’d say the most important thing is to have compassion for yourself. If you can work on eliminating extreme anxiety in other ways, you may feel less of a compulsion to binge eat or stress eat.
Okay, this one might seem a little weird. In the book In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness by Dr. Peter Levine, he explores how our bodies actually process acute stress. Much of this is informed by observing animals in life or death situations. We’ve all probably heard of fight, flight or freeze, which are involuntary survival mechanisms. Part of his work posits that trauma results from when our bodies are not allowed to fully complete the innate ‘cycle’ of acute stress and discharge the excess energy that results from a scare or a threat. If you look at the ‘freeze’ option, animals might freeze as a way to fool their attacker but also that mechanism dulls your pain receptions so – if escape or fighting is not possible – freeze can make your death or injury less painful in the moment. If an animal survives a near death experience, once it recovers, it often shakes, shivers or shudders before going on its way.
Conventional wisdom tries to tell us to hold our bodies still even after the danger is passed. Dr. Levine encourages allowing yourself to shudder, shake, or tremble to discharge that built up energy and bring the mind back online. Let your body complete the cycle. Now, I’m not usually in the wild running from lions, but I allow myself to shake or tremble after being alarmed or upset (moments which can trigger those same survival instincts). And you know what? It actually really helps. I don’t feel as on edge after those moments as I used to.
Spending time outside
Try to make a concerted effort to spend more time outdoors. The benefits of time in nature have been pretty firmly researched – a great book about this is Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. A walk in a park or the woods can do wonders for your stress levels and mood. Spending time by a body of water can also be very soothing and relaxing.
Next, we’re going to explore some things you can do with your mind to handle anxiety. As I said before, anxiety is not a problem of lack of rational thinking, though many people believe it is. The issue is that ‘rational’ thinking plays second fiddle to our ‘animal’ brains, so this part of our brains goes offline when we’re anxious or frightened. How can we work with our mind, instead of fight against ourselves?
Yes, you’ve probably heard about this. Mindfulness is a specific form of meditation that can have a positive impact on anxiety, depression, chronic illness, and more. At first, I was pretty skeptical. Actually, my doctor told me about mindfulness meditations for anxiety almost a decade ago and I didn’t do anything concrete with that information until about 3 years ago. But now I firmly believe this is one the most effective tools at my disposal for handling anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness meditations can vary – you can choose to do guided ones, visualization exercises, body awareness meditations. Fortunately, apps make it really easy to access loads of different routines. I love the app “Stop, Breathe and Think,” because I find the main guides voice incredibly soothing. There are so many apps out there, so try a few and see what works.
Mindfulness is not necessarily about stopping thoughts or feelings, but rather, strengthening our ability to tolerate all thoughts, emotions and physical sensations regardless of if they are positive or negative. It takes patience to see the effects of mindfulness. I’ve read suggestions to only start out with it a few minutes at a time, and build up the time you spend gradually.
The most exciting thing about mindfulness is that it can provide relief from acute anxiety in the moment and also lessen feelings of anxiety over time. It also promotes self compassion. Instead of getting angry with myself for being anxious, I’m better able to accept that I feel anxious and allow myself to feel anxious. Giving myself the room to feel what I feel and to try and not judge those feelings has diminished the intensity and duration of my feelings.
And I’m not even that diligent about practicing it! As much as I’d love to say I do it each day, I do not. But even my occasional (1-2 times a week) practice of mindfulness has made a big difference.
Medication for anxiety is a hotly debated topic. I don’t want to come out strong on either side, because I think for some people medication masks root causes and for others it’s one of the few things that enables coping day-to-day. I also think that usefulness of medication for anxiety can change over time. I took anti-anxiety medication for three years, and to be honest, I needed that desperately in that time of my life. It helped me break the cycle of debilitating anxiety and overwhelming emotions that were interfering with my day to day living. I don’t know where I’d be today without having used it as a tool. There is absolutely no shame in taking medication for anxiety or depression every day for the rest of your life, if that’s what works for you! The only thing I’ll say about it if you’re considering taking medication: yes, there can be side effects. Keep the lines of communication open with your healthcare provider at all times about how the meds are affecting you. Sometimes it takes some trial and error to find what works for you. Be patient.
There are lots of different therapy modalities out there, and I’m certainly not expert enough to dig into all of them. For myself, I’ve seen great success in working with a psychotherapist for the past two years (I am still in therapy). Therapy is not financially feasible for everyone, but for those who can afford it or get coverage through insurance, I really recommend seeking a therapist in your area. Again, finding a therapist who you feel comfortable with is a bit like dating (as one of my best friends, a psychotherapist herself, has explained). Different personalities might mesh or clash. Most therapists are happy to do an initial consultation (by phone or in person) to see if you’d work well together. It might be a bit of trial and error to find someone who you feel safe and comfortable with, but it is well worth the effort!
In the very least, having someone removed from your life who is invested in your well-being and health and is there to listen to you is such a relief.
A network of loved ones
Humans are hard-wired to be social creatures (even if you have social anxiety!). Having friends and family you trust and can rely on can make a difference in your anxiety and stress. Sometimes all I need to eliminate my anxiety about something is to talk to a friend about it (or even just spend time with friends). By the same token, enacting boundaries with friends or family who can actually be a source of anxiety is also important. It’s not always possible to enforce boundaries at all times, and that’s okay. But do your best to take care of yourself, and if that means limiting interactions with those who engage in toxic or hurtful behaviour, then do that. Do prepare yourself – for as you work on healing and managing anxiety – a possibility is that you may change in ways that illuminate relationships in your life that are toxic. It may become evident that there are people who don’t have your best interests even on their radar. In some cases, you might need to let these people go if you feel their presence in your life has too much of a negative impact.
The Things You Love
The last thing I want to suggest is trying to carve out more time to do the things you love and enjoy, whatever those things may be. Give yourself permission to paint, do tarot readings, play video games, play sports, watch tv, read books – literally whatever activities bring you joy (that obviously do not harm others). Figure out what those are, and try to make more of an effort to do those things in your day-to-day.
It’s my sincerest hope that some, or all, of these suggestions are things that can help you heal from trauma and/or manage chronic anxiety. There was a definite time in my life where I really didn’t think things would ever get easier or better. I felt doomed.
Looking back, I am glad I was able to find the thread within myself to keep pushing. I can go entire days now without feeling anxious (unthinkable even a few years ago). Life’s normal stressors are no longer debilitating. Events and tasks that seemed impossible for me to do before are things I can do regularly (even if they make me anxious). I am so much happier and more secure in my life and my self than I have ever been. I wish you the utmost luck and goodwill on your journey.