One of the challenges of mental illness is feeling as though you have no control over what is going on. Why is my body reacting this way? Why can’t I get a grip? I know I don’t need to be afraid but my stomach is churning, why?
There’s not an easy answer.
I was asked to do a post about my top tips for managing anxiety and you may have noticed that there are quite a few. I could easily write an entire post on each one and maybe I will at some point, but for now I can imagine a post like this could be useful with its plethora of short and to the point ideas. When you are in the thick of anxiety and panic, it is hard to ever see a way out and that generates even more intense anxiety. To have some sort of plan and techniques for managing it can help you make that necessary switch to thinking positively about the situation and know that you can actually DO something about it.
It is important for me to clarify that I’m not a professional, I am simply speaking from my own experience. All of these tips are things I have been and are doing. They may not work for you. Many of them have been suggested to me by others who I want to thank for their instrumental advice. You know who you are.
Exercise with a purpose
What do I mean by that? Well, when you are mentally unwell it can be a challenge to implement new habits. A new gym regime… going running… attending a new exercise class. They could all terrify you or need the kind of mental effort that you just don’t have. It could be you love exercise or you turn to it naturally, but if not, I suggest you make it purposeful.
I have a fit bit and a target of 10,000 steps and thus I tend to build in more walking to my daily routine and as part of my regular need to get from A to B. Therefore, it has purpose. Once you’re in the habit of walking to certain places (work, shops, a friend’s house) it then becomes hard to see the point in driving.
I also notice the difference in my mood before and after a dog walk. If you know someone with a dog, perhaps offer to walk it.
2. Aim to soothe, not achieve
When you go to the gym as your “down-time”, do you often set some sort of target? Has your hobby turned into a way of making money, or achieving a certain goal?
Something I’ve learned is that when an activity I’m doing in order to refresh myself has some sort of achievement-based goal then it is no longer refreshing. Whaaat?! No wonder I’m struggling with life all the time!!
When feeling anxious perhaps notice if you have a tendency to try to achieve something in order to make yourself feel better. Anxiety can be useful for prompting us to achieve, but when you’re suffering with high levels of anxiety you need to feel safe and you do that by doing soothing things. For example: have a bath, go for a walk, do some knitting, have a facial, journal, meditate, read.
3. Learn and practise breathing exercises
Google 7-11 breathing and/or square breathing. My dear mother advised me about this and I said, “but I’m not hyperventilating.” I have since realised that the physical symptoms of anxiety that occur due to the adrenalin pumping through your veins, are settled down by deep and slow breathing. So it’s not about calming your breathing down, it’s about breathing in a certain way that is helping to slow your heart rate etc and undo the physiological effects of the fight or flight response.
4. Tell yourself truth
Now I haven’t got the word count to go into Descartes and questions of what is truth. You’ll have to figure out your truth for yourself. Here’s what I did:
On my worst day of anxiety I remember pacing the floor of my lounge. I just did not know what to do with myself. My perspective of the world, myself, and life generally is shaped by the bible so I went there for my truth. I asked some friends to send me some passages and I wrote each one on an A4 page with a sharpie. I then told myself I would read them every day. I felt better at having taken some control and given myself a task and I knew the truth would retrain my mind out of the fearful and negative patterns of thought.
If your truth isn’t the bible. May I suggest writing these down (I did too):
“These are just feelings and they will pass.”
“Tomorrow will be better.”
But what if it’s not? Well, you’ll deal with it then but for today, you need to believe things will be better. Just believing it gave me hope and that in itself lifted the weight off of my inner turmoil.
5. Be grateful
6. Be vulnerable
Oh this can be a challenge. Shame can keep us trapped in our struggle and the loneliness that results exacerbates it. Sharing our journey, our feelings and even our darkest thoughts takes a huge amount of courage. I think it is essential to healing. To share openly and feel accepted and empathised with can help bind up our wounds. You must choose wisely whom you are vulnerable with and keep yourself safe. Read Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, for more insight and wisdom on this area.
7. Accept it
Not all anxiety is bad. We need it to survive. If you have suffered with anxiety it can be easy to see it all as bad and feel anxious about any sign of it. You can even end up interpreting excitement as anxiety because they feel rather similar. I find when I can tell myself it’s ok to be anxious I can tolerate it much better. I’m less inclined to ruminate on it and make it worse and I’m less likely to feel like I can’t cope with it.
I am very interested to read Sarah Wilson’s new book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful. Here is some of the publisher’s blurb on it:
“Sarah pulls at the thread of accepted definitions of anxiety, and unravels the notion that it is a difficult, dangerous disease that must be medicated into submission. Ultimately, she re-frames anxiety as a spiritual quest rather than a burdensome affliction, a state of yearning that will lead us closer to what really matters.
Practical and poetic, wise and funny, this is a small book with a big heart. It will encourage the myriad sufferers of the world’s most common mental illness to feel not just better about their condition, but delighted by the possibilities it offers for a richer, fuller life.” panmacmillan.com.au
This very much resonates with me when I can hand on heart say that this time in my life has included both some of the hardest times and some of the most fulfilling as I have cut back all the superfluous nonsense, simplified my life, and been grateful for and engaged with the world around me in a deeper way. My anxiety has forced me to face up to myself, my experiences, and my pain. I understand myself better and exercise more self-compassion as a result.
Another useful resource is this TED talk on stress. Kelly McGonigal suggests that what tends to trigger anxiety (stress) could actually be quite good for us… if we changed our perspective on it.
Stay tuned for part 2… And maybe part 3 if I leave it too late tomorrow too…
How do you manage anxiety? How do you manage depression? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.