3 Things I’m Learning About Anxiety and 5 Things that Help – part 2

This is part 2 of a two-part series on anxiety. Read part 1 here.

Let’s jump right in. Here are a few things I’m finding helpful in dealing with anxiety:

Routines
The pandemic taught me that I rely on imposed routines. When all normal routines vanished, it took me a while to find my way back to some kind of order. It hasn’t been easy, but intentionally developing consistent blocks of time for consistent activities helps. I also switch up my seating: writing in my recliner in the morning or at the patio bistro table in the afternoon, for example. I can’t control a lot, but I can control how I structure my days.

Well, mostly. Let’s be honest: sometimes life happens and even my own plans go down the drain…causing anxiety. Take a deep breath, acknowledge the mess, and move on, asking What’s my next right step?

Also, adding a touch of ritual to the routine, like a favorite mug within reach during my morning writing or lighting a scented candle during my evening reading, lends whimsy or beauty to the occasion.

Outlets
We need healthy ways to get out the Big Feels. When I wasn’t sleeping, exercise felt hard but also eventually helped me sleep better. Getting outdoors is especially important when exercise has been the only regular reason to leave home. Long brisk walks, running occasional stretches, and yoga locate me firmly in my body and help me feel healthy and strong. I can’t stand “stretching,” but call it “yoga” and I’m in; whatever works! I’m using the Down Dog app and love that it’s fully customizable to what I need.

When I over-exercised and injured myself, I doubled-down on writing. Every day I type fast and furious for 20 minutes, dumping on a document no one but me will ever read. Putting words to what life looks like and how I feel about it gets it out.

I’ve always loved to read and I’m reading more than ever to keep my mind occupied with something beyond me. I’d also like to create more art or put together some photo albums, but I’m wary of pandemic productivity pressure, of comparing what I know of myself to what I see in someone else (especially since what I can see are their curated social media posts); I will get to those things when the time feels right for me.

Interestingly, a synonym for outlet is safety valve, and these regular practices combine to help me feel safer.

Be
I tend to live in my head, either in the past or the future, so it’s always a challenge to be here now. But when anxiety grips me I need to do something – noticing the feelings in my body, walking away and taking intentional deep breaths, stretching – anything that healthfully disengages the immediate cause for panic helps. I also capture a few things each day for which I’m grateful; I have a journal specifically for that purpose.

One recommended way to ground yourself is the 54321 method; this hasn’t been as helpful for me, but naming my feelings and putting them in the clouds that gently drift away has – I may have a cloudy hour or even a few cloudy days, but eventually the sun will shine again.

If you’re a reader, I recommend Tara Brach’s book Radical Compassion. Let it RAIN: Recognize your feelings, Allow them to just be (rather than stuffing or numbing them), Investigate how they feel in your body, and Nurture your inner self. She writes that RAIN “awakens mindfulness and compassion, applies them to the places where we are stuck, and untangles emotional suffering.” As a Christian, it’s a course on prayer I didn’t get at church. (Please note: as an Amazon Associate, I may earn from qualifying purchases).

Boundaries
I fell hard down the social media rabbit hole and my scrapes hurt. At first it made sense since a) it was a way to connect when we were all stuck at home and b) everyone had a different news source to share.

But alongside “news” I saw pictures of friends not taking things seriously and posts encouraging “you do you” individualism rather than “let’s all give a little for the common good.” I saw conspiracy theories and rants of many colors. I had to set radical limits.

And since the world is a wee bit scary right now, and everyone seems to be angry about something (I feel others’ emotions so hot they burn), when we can’t easily gather and seeing even a few people feels emotionally risky, I’m resigned to staying home as much as possible for as long as necessary.

To stay connected, I’ve started reaching out by mail; a note in the mailbox brightens someone’s day and often they respond with a text or email that brightens mine. Yes, I could call, but I like the phone less. Don’t even ask me to Facetime; I’ll Zoom only if it’s essential to you.

Anxiety doesn’t have to make sense, and my triggers will be different from yours. I’m paying attention to how I feel and giving myself permission to set the boundaries I need. Sometimes I feel guilty – everyone else can [fill in the blank], so why can’t I? – and I’m working hard to let that go. I’m not everyone else; I get to make my own rules.

Love
Jesus loves me, this I know… The fact that I’m dealing with anxiety absolutely does not invalidate my faith. God still reigns in heaven, and here on earth I’m having a rough go. Yes, I pray, and yes, I can pray while engaged in self-care practices.

My family has managed to balance time together with sufficient alone time even in our small home. I’m grateful for the support and joy they add to my life. But I can’t expect them to shoulder my burdens continually. I have to do this work myself.

I’ve been reading about anxiety and self-care. I have saved so many images to my camera roll that remind me to breathe, to be gentle, to tell myself a better story. I’ve asked myself what someone who loves themselves would do, and I’ve spoken to myself the loving words I’d speak to a hurting friend.

None of this is rocket science, and honestly, none of these approaches work on their own or all the time. So far I haven’t been able to banish anxiety from my life; this has become my new normal and I expect I’ll continue learning how to be me – and how to be kind to this version of myself – for the rest of my life.

What works for you? I’d like to know. And if you’ve found this post helpful, please share. We’re in this together.

3 Things I’m Learning About Anxiety and 5 Things that Help – part 1

Maybe I’ve had anxiety for years and called it “stress.” Maybe this is new. Either way, anxiety put me in a choke-hold when shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March. Among the long list of things I hadn’t expected was an entirely personal masterclass in mental health.

Five months later and I’ve mostly settled into my version of our “new normal.” While all of us have to deal with pandemic realities and increased political/racial tensions, most of us have an “and also…” to boot, other factors complicating our current reality. My “and also’s…” have been one-two-three gut-punches, the hits that keep on coming. Oof!

Let me be clear: my experience of anxiety has been exhausting but not debilitating. Even on days when I’ve decided to simply stay in bed, well, here we are in a pandemic and no one expects me anywhere. And while therapy would likely be helpful for everyone always, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety (mostly) with a lot of reading, research, and self-care. Anxiety has loosened its initial grip and now when I feel its cold fingers, I’m more aware and better prepared.

If your anxiety feels crippling and perhaps life-threatening, by all means get the help you need immediately. NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Health, has a 24 hour helpline: 800-950-6264. If you don’t have the courage to call yourself, ask someone you love to call for you. Don’t suffer alone.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’m learning, offering it up in case it’s helpful for you. We’re all different, so I’m sure you’ve got your own acquired wisdom to share. Please leave a comment so we can support each other.

Mental health is physical, too.
For months I couldn’t fall asleep until the middle of the night, or I fell asleep and then woke in the wee hours to ruminate on random worries. It took about three months for my sleep to return to semi-normal patterns and even now I can expect occasional wonky nights.

Insomnia wasn’t totally new, but the vibrating sensation in my chest and stomach was. Similar to having chugged too much caffeine, I call it my “bees” since it feels like the humming of an angry hive. Other physical signs include destroying my cuticles or my shoulders hitched to my ears, tension head- and jaw-aches and unusually tight muscles.

Noticing the physical cues reminds me to breathe, stretch, investigate my feelings, and administer self-care.

It’s about control.
Things I can’t control: a global pandemic; the mess that is America right now; my son’s public educational experience; my mom’s health; friends who don’t take social distancing seriously; other’s thoughts or actions; anything outside myself.

We never could control anything anyway, we just acted like we could. Suddenly, we don’t know what to expect from day to day. All our routines have been stripped away and we find ourselves isolated from people who once played main characters in our communal sitcoms. Pre-pandemic we’d be thrilled to have an occasional blank day on our calendars, and now it’s all white space. We want that version of our lives back in part because we want to be able to pretend that we’re still in control.

Grief is messy and necessary.
We didn’t sign up for this and we don’t want it, but here we are. And while there may be some positives to this mess, we have to be honest about all that we’ve lost: to work at that job; to engage in public pastimes; to celebrate milestones of every sort with the fanfare we’d usually give them; to travel; to hug friends; and obviously, so many people have lost loved ones.

Admitting that grief is an integral part of what we’re all experiencing right now, that we’ve lost the lives we were living and the experience of life we expected, reminds us to be gentle with ourselves – and others. None of us have ever done life like this and it’s hard, sometimes it feels impossibly hard. Grief isn’t linear, either, and while it might feel easier with time, or easier some days, other days it will flip you to the floor and pin you down.

If you know me, you know that I’m a Jesus follower. Yes, the Bible says not to be anxious, to pray instead, so let’s talk about that. In telling us not to be anxious, the Bible actually acknowledges that we will feel anxiety. Anxiety is a normal part of human life. But we don’t have to stay anxious.

God created each one of us differently because He loves us individually in all the uniqueness He gave us. He created some of us to be more sensitive, more intuitive, more inclined to drama and all the Big Feels. We haven’t been punished, rather, we’ve been gifted with a different way of being and seeing our place in the world. We have things to offer precisely because our nerves lie a little closer to the surface. Exposed, we feel more and our unique perspective can help others appreciate life’s nuances.

Anxiety is not the problem, it’s staying anxious that’s a problem. We all have an anxiety warning light on the dashboard of our lives reminding us to attend to our issues; some of us will notice that light more often. That’s how we’re built and that, as God said in the beginning, is good…even though it may not feel good.

Stay tuned tomorrow as I share a few things I’ve found helpful in dealing with anxiety. Meanwhile, if you’ve found this post helpful, please share it with someone who will benefit from knowing that they’re not alone in their experience.

Bees (or, What Anxiety Feels Like in My Body)

On Easter Sunday we went for a hike in the hills beyond the end of our neighborhood. The boys went off looking for snakes, per usual, and texted us to stop at a turnout. After a quick photo shoot of our dogs amidst the wildflowers, we waited.

As I surveyed the surrounding green hills (big picture) and the lizard doing push ups on a log near my feet (close up), I noticed right in front of me a bee unlike any I’d seen before. Fuzzy, soft latte brown, it buzzed at me, zig-zagging near my abdomen. Then I saw another, and another, until suddenly I noticed they covered a nearby bush; I wondered how I hadn’t heard the buzzing.

Bees sense fear, so I consciously took deep, even breaths and watched it. I asked it nicely to please fly away and not sting me. Slowly, I took a step backwards. It flew off.

All during shelter-in-place, I’ve felt the persistent buzz of anxiety. Like too much coffee, which I haven’t had since C21 has discovered that he also likes coffee and so the pot is almost always empty by the time I reach for a second cup.

I don’t typically have anxiety. This is new for me.

I didn’t notice the actual bees in front of me because for weeks I’ve been annoyed by, denying, avoiding, or trying to manage the buzzing inside me. Sometimes the anxiety feels like background noise, the hum of one bee, or a few. Other days, I feel shaky, unable to take deep breaths and step back. The bees swarm in and around me.

I know these are just feelings. Like clouds moving across the sky, my feelings are not the sky. The anxiety will blow over and I will still be here. The bees can’t hurt me, but they sure can rattle me.

I have tried all the things: writing and exercise. Talking with loved ones and with God. I drink lots of water, make healthy meals, try to reign in the detritus of everyone home all the time. I’ve drastically limited social/media media exposure. I crawl in bed at a reasonable time with a book. I try to sleep.

Generally, I feel better in the mornings, a fresh start. And over time, now eight weeks into shelter-in-place, living with bees has become increasingly ‘normal.’ Always on the lookout for gratitude maybe–somehow, eventually–I’ll even learn to make honey.

 

Cover image by shell_ghostcage from Pixabay