I’m pretty sure I’ve had a mild form of anxiety for a decade, but it was only in the last two years that I figured out what it was. For me, anxiety felt like I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes it felt like my chest was compressed. Other times it felt like there was pure adrenaline running through my veins (especially after a cup of coffee or caffeinated tea which explains SO MUCH to me about high school.)
I imagine I had other symptoms, too — racing thoughts, disproportionate worry — but at the time, they just felt like me. My brain was always going 100 miles an hour. I was always planning for the worst-case scenario. But that is just me, man. That is just who I am.
Once I realized parts of this feeling were anxiety it took me a year, and my mother dying, before I saw a doctor.
“It sounds like you’re having mild panic attacks,” my doctor said when I described not being able to get a deep breath for days at a time. I was constantly yawning, like a bored insomniac, trying to take an inhale that would quiet the alarm in my body.
So began the attempts to get rid of my anxiety. I turned to the internet. I read about herbal options, exercise, brain tricks, breathing techniques, anything I could find. I wanted an instant fix so I could focus on the world in front of me, something akin to the Xanax my doctor had offered to prescribe.
“I don’t feel like I have a chemical problem,” I remember telling a friend. “I feel like my life is the problem. My life is giving me anxiety. And I need to figure out why.”
Here, ultimately, is what ended up helping my anxiety.
1. Quitting drinking
I still drink occasionally, but alcohol, at the time, was how I was coping with the anxiety (among other things.) I’d get home from work and feel desperate to turn off my brain and have a glass of wine. And another. And maybe another. But what alcohol was really doing was preventing me from seeing — let alone fixing — everything I was trying to avoid.
2. Quitting caffeine
On a perfectly relaxed, blissful day, I could probably have a cup of coffee. But in my every day life, there were too many stressors that, when combined with caffeine, meant I was much more likely to end up feeling breathless (and not in the chipper The Corrs way.)
When people said “yoga is good for anxiety,” I thought they meant it’s the physical exercise that is helpful. And it was for about the first five classes. After that, the super-zen state I found myself in afterward disappeared, which was very, very disappointing.
Instead, yoga became helpful because it I was able to put my body into stress under my own control. Yes, Warrior II sent my thoughts racing, my body desperate to stop, but my yoga teacher encouraged us each class to watch the thoughts, to feel the sensations instead of get wrapped up in them. (Me: “The thought says THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE CAN WE STOP NOW?”)
This was a whole new way of looking at feelings I didn’t like. Instead of stress being a thing I tried to control or end, it became a thing to observe.
4. Feeling feelings
If you’re the kind of person who cries at weddings and/or when you’re happy and/or when you’re sad and/or when you see puppy videos, you might not relate to this. But I had gotten really good at not having feelings. I mean, some part of me knew they were there — when my yoga teacher asked what I thought was causing my panic attacks, I told her “I think I’ve buried all of my feelings and the only one that is managing to get out is anxiety?” — but I had gotten very adept at talking myself out of them.
Angry? “Oh, I’m sure they meant well, I bet they were trying to do X, even though it came out like Y, and don’t they deserve a break, and…” or: “You have a RIGHT to be angry because of X, Y, Z, but you must stop FEELING angry so we can get to the real work and come up with a logical strategy to MAKE THEM PAY.”
Sad? “Yes, yes, being sad is a thing, and whatever, you can be sad. But you won’t be sad later, so why bother being sad now? You have stuff to get done.”
Joy? “Don’t get used to this. It’s going to go away soon and you’re going to be sorry.”
The second therapist I went to told me it was important to acknowledge my feelings. “Right, but how do I do that?” I asked her.
“You just… sit with them,” she told me. Which was about as helpful as you can imagine.
She was right, but the problem was I’d managed to place a huge wall between me and my body. I couldn’t feel the physical sensations of feelings. With some help from my yoga teacher, I was able to get back in my body and figure out what feelings felt like again, and once I was able to feel them, I was able to sit with them. Now when I have feelings, I do my best to feel them, to pay attention to them, and maybe even to send them a little love. Which is exactly as hippie-dippie as it sounds, but it also works. At my best, I don’t try to get rid of them. I don’t tell them to hurry up. I don’t ask them to create a lawyer’s case for why the deserve to exist. (“Sadness, please explain to the court why the occurrence on March 3rd has given you the right to take up ALL of our time this beautiful morning?”)
Instead I think: Oh, hey. I see you. (Sometimes I place my hand on my chest.) Life’s rough. I love you. Stick around as long as you need.
At my worst, I think, FUCKING FEELINGS! THE FUCK ARE THESE FOR? I HAVE SHIT TO DO!
5. Starting the day with myself, not work
In practice, this means sometimes I scroll through my phone, but then I always roll out of bed and go meditate. Lately I’ve been lighting candles, pulling a tarot card, sometimes beginning or ending my meditation with a Tibetan singing bowl. (It has gotten really woo-woo over in my world, but I do what works for me.)
Often my brain races the whole time, or only briefly settles down, but it still feels better than jumping out of bed and immediately getting ready for work. When I meditate in the morning, I move a little slower the rest of the day. That might sound like a bad thing, but if you have ever seen me power-walk through a grocery store, you’ll be happy to know I have been shoulder-checking fewer elderly people.
If I’m really feeling anxiety coming on and all the self-care in the world isn’t working, or I’m unable to take care of myself in the way I’d like to, hiking is a great (temporary) fix. It’s cardio and it’s nature, which are about as fundamental to self-care as anything. BUT, if I run from my feelings too many times, they will catch up with me even in the heart of the Superstitions, even if I went off-trail, turned off my GPS and hid inside a saguaro. The hiking only works if I’m doing the other things. It only makes physical sensation of anxiety calm temporarily. (Although if I could run away and spend all day hiking in the wilderness, I’m pretty sure my anxiety would find a way to chill out.)
The meditating is a daily invitation to have a billion thoughts per a second, but a chance to realize I don’t have to believe them, or follow them on the hellish spiral they’re going on. They can just exist, and I can sit back and let them exist, like when someone else’s kid is pulling all of the books off the bookshelf and I know it’s not my place to discipline them or clean up after them. I just get to watch the absolute chaos they’re creating. (I still spiral sometimes. But now I do it knowing I am spiraling, and later I learn a big, important lesson about how I got myself into a spiral. And promptly forget the lesson again. Isn’t this fun!?)
I have also been using meditation as a time to wake my feelings up in the morning. Sometimes they get really cozy and they don’t want to come out for the day. But the thing is, I NEED them. They’re how I figure out what’s good for me and bad for me while my brain is too busy weighing pros and cons. When I meditate, I sit and pay attention to my chest and upper abdomen. And I imagine snapping my fingers and a pilot light lighting. And somehow that makes my emotions go: Oh, right. Jesus, fine, we’re getting up now.
Journaling is so I can put down the feelings (UGH) that I’m having, which sometimes I don’t understand until I start trying to put words around them.
8. Being honest/telling other people how I’m feeling/setting up boundaries
This is the worst part of the whole thing (and probably the reason I was so averse to having feelings in the first place) and the thing I struggle with the most. Learn all about myself? Fine! Embrace feelings? If I must! Change my behaviors into a person 16-year-old-me would have scoffed at? Whatever! She was kind of an asshole anyway!
But tell a person** that I don’t actually want to do the thing they want to do even though it would be super nice of me if I did?
Or tell someone** that I’m upset about something and I’m not sure how they can fix it, or if it’s even their job? (Uhhhh… Can’t I just wait until the feeling expires? Like a very sweet, well-meaning puppy that you don’t feed and then it dies?)
Or telling them that I can tell that they’re not really present*** in the moment and I would rather wait until they’re energetically*** available while trying to not sound patronizing?
Because here’s the thing… I have spent my whole life thinking that the way you get people to like you is to 1) change yourself into what they like and 2) become irreplaceably useful. If I am “too loud” for a person, that’s not a cue that we’re not destined to be best friends — it just means I need to be quieter! If a friend (or wannabe friend) is having an issue? Give me 30 minutes and I will have solved it for you as well as picked up your favorite drink at Starbucks!
I want people to like me. Being honest/telling people how I’m actually feeling/setting up boundaries sounds like a terrible recipe to do that. But you know what causes a massive amount of anxiety? Not being who I actually am. It’s exhausting. Constantly doing what I think other people want from me, rather than what I actually want to do, is soul-sucking. I know this, because it’s what I was doing when I couldn’t breathe for five days in a row.
(Cheryl Strayed who is, in my mind, a demi-god, said in her podcast: “Being yourself allows the right people to love you more.” This made me LITERALLY cry (feelings!) so I am working on believing her.)
If this sounds like a shit ton of work, well, it is. I’m spending 1.5-2.5 hours every day on what one might call ‘self care’ — meditating, yoga, journaling. And it’s susceptible to failure. When I got the flu a month ago, I could feel the anxiety crawling it’s way toward me because many of my techniques weren’t available to me with a delirious fever. The second I could move, I went on a hike. Hiking with the flu is the worst. But it calmed the anxiety until I could get back to my regularly scheduled programming.
It also means there is less time for other things — TV, cooking, social media, reading, telling everyone how to live their life…
I would really like to say I’d found a pill, or a two minute practice, or a mantra that made my anxiety go away. That is a story I would much rather be telling you, because it would be easier, and I wouldn’t have outed myself as a meditating, yoga-ing, bowl-playing hippie. Instead, what is working for me is: I am making an entirely different life.
But I like this life much better****.
(*anxiety is a feeling you can’t cure it also I write clicky headlines for a living please don’t sue me)
(***WHO AM I)
(****ask me again tomorrow)