Minute by minute: How loss taught me to manage my anxiety and start living again

I was invited to give a talk for CreativeMornings St. Pete on January 19. The CreativeMornings global monthly theme was anxiety, a topic I’m well familiar with, for better or worse. The speech went well and people seemed to find my tips helpful, so I decided to share an edited version. Here’s video of my talk.

Hello! I’m excited to be here today. This is actually my second CreativeMornings talk. I gave my first CreativeMornings speech in Atlanta back in 2012. I was 27 years old and felt way out of my league. I was super nervous!

To be fair, I’m still nervous this time, but I’m a little more comfortable on stage than I was six years ago. So, you guys get to hear from relatively cool, calm and collected Katie.

Before we dive in, I’ll tell you guys a little bit about me: My first job out of college was at CNN; I worked there for seven years. I worked in few different departments, but spent most of my time on the iReport team, the precursor to today’s social discovery team. I later went on to run iReport and manage a team of producers located in Atlanta and London. It was an exciting, creative and demanding job, and I learned a ton.

In 2015, I moved to St. Pete after being hired to join The Poynter Institute as their Digital Innovation Faculty. I taught journalists around the country and world about things like social media, audience engagement, and newsroom culture. I ran, and continue to run, the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, which is a highly competitive and transformational program for rising women leaders. I also wrote a popular newsletter about women and the workplace.

And now, after a decade of kicking ass at work, I’m taking a year off.

I’ll share more about what brought me to where I’m at today, but first, I want to take a step back to that CreativeMornings talk in 2012.

The monthly theme for that CreativeMornings was art and technology. I spent the whole time talking about work, and how my job fit into that intersection. This month’s theme, of course, is anxiety.

As I was thinking about today’s theme and reflecting on my talk in 2012, I realized that that point in my life began one of the most anxious periods I’ve ever experienced. I was working a high-pressure job, living in a big city, and battling daily stress. Over the next few years, this stress and all the anxiety that came with it manifested itself in a lot of different ways. I constantly struggled with back and shoulder pain, I would sometimes have panic attacks where my heart would start racing and I’d have trouble breathing, I developed serious jaw pain, and I was having trouble sleeping.

All of this anxiety ultimately came to a head in 2014. Things had gotten extra stressful — my amazing boss left earlier that year, I took on a ton of extra responsibility at work, the panic attacks kept coming, and, on top of it all, my dad passed away pretty unexpectedly at the end of 2013, and I was struggling with grief. So, things were bad. I was eventually prescribed Xanax to manage my anxiety and Zoloft for depression. Still, I felt like I was barely keeping afloat.

Throughout all of this, my husband, Jamie, was incredible. Jamie knew how to identify warning signs when I was headed for major anxiety, he talked me off the ledge when I was overwhelmed, he gave me a million reasons to laugh and smile, and he was always quick to suggest sweet things like me taking a bubble bath while he cooked dinner. He was my number one fan, even when I felt like I was acting crazy. He kept me calm and sane and was honestly better for my anxiety than anything else.

Jamie and I eventually decided to move to St. Pete for a job I’d accepted. We figured all the Florida sunshine and slower lifestyle might be good for us and all of that stress, and we were right. We moved in January 2015, and soon after I was able to stop taking antidepressants altogether. I liked my new job, we bought an awesome house, Jamie got connected to the improv community, we were meeting new people, and we loved introducing our Atlanta friends to the charms of St. Pete. We were both a lot happier.

Fast forward to 2017 — exactly one year ago. Jamie and I had been in St. Pete for two years at this point and life was good. We were planning to start a family, we both liked our jobs, and we’d made a great group of friends. The year seemed full of promise.

And then on February 4, Jamie died. He was running a half marathon, his second half marathon ever, and he had made it to mile 12 of the 13-mile course when he collapsed and died almost immediately. We later found out that it was due to a rare and undiagnosed heart condition, one that would have been almost impossible to detect beforehand.

Jamie was 32 years old and he was the love of my life.

In a lot of ways, it felt like the day that Jamie’s life ended was the day that my life ended too.

So, yeah. This sucks. Are you depressed yet?

Jamie was awesome, really. You guys would have loved him. This isn’t the point of this talk, but there are quite a few people here who knew Jamie, so if afterwards, you want to learn more about what made him so great or just hear a funny Jamie story, feel free to ask me or someone else. Nothing makes me happier, truly, than keeping Jamie’s memory alive.

But, here I am. My amazing husband is suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, dead at 32 years old. And I’m left to pick up the pieces and figure out life.

Remember how bad my anxiety got a few years ago? And that Jamie was the person to help me manage it? Now I had more reasons than ever to be anxious and depressed, and the person who always helped me through it was gone forever.

So what did I do? Well, spoiler alert: I made it through the year. I’m here! I’m still standing! I’m giving a talk! I’m surviving.

In a couple of weeks, it will be exactly one year since Jamie died. It’s been an insanely difficult year and I know that this next year, when reality truly sinks in, will also be insanely difficult. But I am incredibly proud to share that, through it all, I have managed to find reasons to feel hopeful about the future. And, miraculously, my anxiety is more manageable than it’s ever been.

So I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about managing anxiety in the past horrible and humbling year of my life. I sincerely hope that none of you ever have to go through anything quite like I have, but I do hope that these tips help you out if you ever find yourself in a rough spot.

This is a lesson I obviously had to learn the hard way. Jamie helped manage my anxiety. And for the eight years that we were married, he was also my source of validation and a lot of my purpose and self-worth. When Jamie died, I had to learn how to be kind to myself and patient with myself, which isn’t easy. I had to figure out how to love myself like he loved me.

If you’re anything like me, you know that this is hard work. But it’s important. I had put so much of my own happiness on Jamie’s shoulders, which wasn’t fair to him and wasn’t fair to me. In this past year, I’ve had to get a lot more comfortable with alone time and enjoying my own company.

You can start doing this by spending a day or an evening alone and — this is important — off social media. Go to the movies alone or take yourself out to dinner. Really think about what makes you happy. It might feel lonely or awkward at first, but try to take note of the moments where you feel truly content. And once you get comfortable with that amount of time, grow from there. You might even want to do something eventually like solo traveling, which can be an amazing experience. This can be tough, I know — it’s something I’m still working on — but it really is such a gift to feel at peace in your own company.

One of the very few silver linings of grief is that there’s a lot of help at the start. Right after someone dies, there are so many people around to feed you, cry with you, listen to you, clean your house, really help in whatever way they can. After Jamie died, I was struck by how many people were desperate to do something and, most importantly, how happy they were when I gave them something to do.

I tried to keep this in mind as the year went on, and I eventually got really good at asking for help. For example, shopping at the grocery store now almost always makes me cry. It’s just one of those things that really hits me in the feels. So I’ve started asking friends to invite me along on their shopping trips or to pick up a few things for me at the store. Almost always, people are thrilled to help and glad that I asked. Also, it turns out that going grocery shopping with friends is way more fun!

Another example: Just yesterday, I was freaking out — I was feeling anxious about this talk on anxiety — and I sought help through a Facebook group called the Hot Young Widows Club. It’s an amazing group that no one wants to be a member of. I asked my fellow widows for some advice and reassurance, and got a ton in return. It helped me out a lot.

When we get stuck in our own minds, it’s easy to start to spiral and isolate. I’ve found that it’s important when you’re feeling that way to fight it and reach out to someone early on. Tell friends when you’re feeling anxious, depressed or overly stressed out, and suggest a few small things they can do to help lift the burden. Your friends are willing to help, I promise you. They just need a little direction.

I’m honestly not sure where I’d be without my therapist. She comes to my house for an hour once a week, which is a thing! — some therapists do house visits, and it’s amazing. During that hour, I dump out all the things that have been weighing me down and wind up feeling a hell of a lot better afterwards.

Figuring out where to start with therapy can be really intimidating. I found my therapist through my workplace’s Employee Assistance Program, or EAP. EAP’s generally offer free, short-term counseling — in my case, it was six free therapy sessions. Those six sessions got me into a routine with my therapist, who I continued to see after the free visits were up because it was so beneficial for me. If therapy is something you’ve been meaning to look into, I suggest seeing whether your workplace has an EAP program. If not, there are more and more affordable therapy options out there, for example, Talkspace, which offers online counseling at a reasonable price. Also, a lot of therapists offer sliding scales and are willing to work with how much you can afford.

Truly, I cannot recommend therapy enough. I also cannot recommend recommending therapy enough. There’s still a huge stigma around mental illness in our culture, and the more we talk about healthy treatments, the better we’ll all be.

So we’re here at CreativeMornings and, not coincidentally, I have found that creativity is one of the best ways to soothe an anxious brain.

For me, there are two creative outlets that have really helped. First, I found a lot of solace in writing — in fact, I did more writing last year that I’ve ever done in my entire life. Writing helps me to process all the thoughts swirling around in my brain. It has also helped me to articulate everything I’m going through, and share those thoughts with family and friends who are concerned about me.

The other thing that saved me was crafting. My friend Josie and I met many times last year and made a lot of colorful coasters and greeting cards. Seriously, so many. If any of you need coasters or greeting cards, get with me after this talk! But the end result of what we made wasn’t nearly as important as the process of making. There’s something so incredible about getting engrossed in a creative task and achieving flow, where you just turn off your brain and all of its chatter for a few magical hours.

Whether it’s crafting or coloring or music or cooking or whatever makes you happy, I highly recommend setting aside one night a week to get in touch with your creative side, if for no other reason than to just let your brain recharge and relax.

Whoops! How did this slide get here?! I mean, it’s true — at least for me — but, let’s move along.

Jamie knew what would make me feel better when I was anxious, but I wasn’t great at identifying those things on my own. Now, after a year, I thankfully know what helps calm my brain.

Some of the things that work for me are long walks, bubble baths, crafting, going to the beach, talking on the phone, writing, and drinking water. Seriously, drinking water and staying hydrated is such a small thing, but it helps so much!

It might seem silly, but it can be helpful to keep a list of those small things that make you feel better. Then, when things get bad — when the anxiety ramps up and you start to spiral — you can refer to that list and choose something simple to help calm your brain.

Something I’ve been doing lately is asking myself “What would make me feel better right now?” In moments when I start to freak out and get really depressed, instead of focusing on why I’m so sad or wondering when in the world things will get better, I just stop and ask myself: What will help right in this moment? It’s usually something as small as throwing my phone across the room and getting off Facebook, or drinking that magical glass of water, but that question has really helped me to avoid some major freak outs and adopt some healthier habits.

Speaking of healthy habits, research shows that it takes 21 days to form a habit. 21 days. That’s a long time! So if you’re listening to all of this, and thinking “I’m going to set aside time to be creative, and find comfort in solitude, and start learning what self-care things work for me,” that’s awesome, but please be sure to give yourself plenty of time and space. It will take a while until it feels natural.

Whenever things became overwhelming for me in the past year — which was, let’s be honest, the majority of the time — I reminded myself to take things minute by minute. I tried to stay in the moment and not worry too much about the future or get stuck in the past. It was really my best approach to staying sane. This applies to all of us. The only thing we can control is what we do in this very moment, so we might as well stay in the present.

You’re not going to fix your anxiety overnight, just like I’m not going to magically zoom through my grief. And if you try to rush it — guess what? — you’ll probably wind up feeling more anxious. Be patient with yourself.

It’s worth mentioning that, sometimes, anxiety can be a good thing. It would be weird if I hadn’t felt anxious ahead of this talk, or if I don’t get nervous when I think about taking this year off work. In both those situations, the anxiety pushes me to be better — it pushed me to practice my speech over and over so I could do a good job today, and it pushed me to set goals for the year ahead so I don’t waste this precious time off.

So, I’m going to make a confession: One of the things I was most anxious about with this talk was that I wouldn’t have my number one fan in the crowd. The last time I gave a CreativeMornings speech, Jamie was in the front row cheering me on. Afterwards we went out to lunch and had some beers and talked about how well things went. It was such a fun day. Today I have some friends in the crowd, but they’re normal human beings and most of them are going to work after this. I drove here alone, and I’m eventually going to return home alone. That’s still really hard for me to face.

But the discomfort of doing this alone wasn’t a big enough reason for me to avoid giving this talk.

It’s such a cliche, but amazing things do happen outside our comfort zones. It’s important not to let fear and anxiety get in the way of those opportunities.

If you ever told me that I could not only survive Jamie’s death, but also figure out how to be kinder to myself and better about addressing anxiety in the process, I would never believe you — not in a million years. But I’m doing it.

Suffering from anxiety can be awful. But it’s something a lot of us face. There are probably more people in this room fighting their own battles with anxiety and depression than you even realize. That’s why I’m so grateful to share this advice and hopeful that it helps some of you. Of course, these tips are things that have worked for me. There’s unfortunately no one-size-fits-all approach to being a less anxious person. But you can absolutely start to identify what works for you.

I by no means have this all figured out. I still struggle with anxiety all the time. I still have those days where the crushing reality of Jamie’s death means I can’t get out of bed. But, those days are thankfully fewer and farther between. Most importantly, I’m not suffering from that jaw pain and the constant panic attacks from years ago — all of that has gotten so much better.

I’m proud of myself, and I know that Jamie would be proud of me too. I’ve made it through this past year by being mindful of my anxiety and purposeful in how I treat myself. I know that, no matter what you’re going through, you can do this too.

So please be kind to yourself, friends. In the end, you’re the only person who will always be there.

Thank you.