Anxiety is horrific. It really is. It consumes your every thought, every action, and every emotion. The worry and fear it inspires feels oh-so-very true, even when you know you’re being ridiculous. It can rear its ugly head because of something that happened or because nothing happened or because it’s a random Tuesday. You can’t logic your way out of it and it will squirm out of any intelligent attempt to do so. And no one else can do anything to help you get a handle on it — the control and management of it lie completely in your desire and the ability to do so.
It’s taken me 45 years, numerous counselors, a degree in holistic health, countless conversations with my husband and best friends, and more hours of rumination than I can count to find effective ways to manage my anxiety. Maybe my hard-earned ascent out of chaos will help you. Maybe these changes and techniques will inspire you to seek out your own ways to manage anxiety. Maybe you’ve heard it all before and are sick of reading about managing anxiety. At any rate, I feel it’s my duty to share these little nuggets of wisdom, so here they are:
Choose a life you actually want.
Yes, there are some things you can’t change. We all know those things. So focus on the things you can change. And be prepared to make difficult decisions to make those changes. Make a list of what you want your life to look like, then break it down into sections such as wellness, free time, career, and relationships. Prioritize. If it’s important that you have more time with your family, then figure out where to create that time. If it’s important to have a savings account, then find the places you can cut out other things. But be realistic. Creating unrealistic, unattainable goals will only amplify your anxiety. Change comes slowly. Sacrifice and compromise are hard. You may be used to easing your anxiety with immediate gratification that is actually counterproductive to your life vision. But not feeling dragged down by lack of control of your life choices will be worth all the hard work and painful change.
Practice all those silly little things you read in that online article or learned from a counselor or heard from a friend.
For real. What do you have to lose? Deep breathing increases focus. Eating well and drinking plenty of water ensures a healthy energy level. Getting enough sleep keeps you clear-headed. Balancing work and play leads to a more meaningful life. Physical activity burns off excess frustration. Everything you’re going to try will benefit some part of your life, even if it doesn’t directly alleviate your anxiety. And if something doesn’t work for you, who cares?! Try the next thing. And the next thing. And the thing after that. Until you find your thing, the thing that actually makes your anxiety shut the hell up!
Decrease your interactions with stressful people.
A quote I recently saw, “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” Let me just tell you…I have spent most of my life on fire. So I know. I know it can be difficult to create boundaries and then maintain them. And it can potentially lead to some uncomfortable moments or confrontations which are definitely anxiety-inducing. This is a work in progress for me. It is a constant struggle to tell family I’m not going to make it to that reunion or to tell friends that I don’t feel like going out tonight. But the more I do it, the easier it’s getting. And it’s been incredibly powerful for me to put my own sanity first. And I can’t say this enough — you do not have to consent to conversations or interactions. If someone is being unpleasant, aggressive, etc., shut them down. Walk away. Hang up the phone. Delete the post or conversation on Facebook. Unfriend and unfollow all you want. You do not have to participate with someone who treats you unkindly.
Yup. Less stuff. You’ll have more money and less to clean and keep tidy. I adopted this practice: unless it is something I use on a regular basis or has sentimental value (and I even limit these to just a couple items from each person), it’s gotta go. Do you need 10 coffee mugs? Probably not. So clear out some cupboard space. Do you need 4 pairs of black flats? Doubtful. Donate some to the local domestic violence shelter. Do you need every knickknack given to you over the past few decades? Nope. Drop some off at the thrift store. Less care for belongings means more time for YOU! I’m not saying you need to move into a tiny house and only own 30 things. Only you know what is necessary and enriching to your life and what is a drain. I’m just saying that you will find some freedom in adopting a more simple, minimalistic approach to life. (Full disclosure: for two years, I have lived with my husband and our pets in a 20-foot travel trailer. Everything we own is in it or the back of our truck. So I know a little something about minimalism, haha.)
Spend more time doing nothing.
We are a world obsessed with doing. Even when we’re relaxing, we’re playing on social media, talking on the phone, throwing in a load of laundry, etc. So try this. Just sit. Maybe listen to some relaxing music. But don’t do anything else. Literally just be still and quiet. Let it sink into your bones. Let your brain be silent for one damn minute and see if the anxiety quiets down, too.
Stop messing around on social media.
You don’t need to participate in every platform there is. Choose one or two that you find helps you connect with others or entertains you. But don’t let them replace real connection. And stop using it to compare yourself to others. Comparison, even if you feel your life is the better one, is a recipe for disaster when it comes to anxiety. Limit your time on social media and choose the times you are going to engage in them, instead of just mindlessly perusing them. If you feel really brave, take a break from it all. Even braver? Start leaving your phone at home… (Also, stop reading so much news. No one needs to know everything all the time. Limit it to what you can handle and let the rest go.)
Find a way to get it all out.
A trusted friend. A journal. A voice recorder. A sketchbook. The napkin at the coffee shop. Your dog. It doesn’t matter what form you choose. Find a way to get all the “blah, blah, blah” out of your head. Then it’s somewhere else. It probably won’t take it all away, but wouldn’t it be sweet if some of it went away?
I can’t emphasize this one enough. I am lucky enough to spend a lot of time hanging out in nature, especially the mountains of Colorado. I wade in rivers. I sleep in hammocks. I lay out under the stars. I watch wildlife. I take pictures of flowers and clouds and trees. I wildgather food and herbs. This has healed me in an incredible way from years of toxic stress. I realize not everyone can take the time to do that and that not everyone lives near large expanses of nature. But there are so many small ways to connect with nature. Choose an easy to care for houseplant (if you don’t have a green thumb, this may not be the time to adopt an orchid). Find a local park to walk in. Volunteer with an animal sanctuary or rescue. Attend classes at your local plant nursery. Whatever it is, find a way to immerse yourself in nature on a regular basis, preferably daily.
Explore your creativity.
I’m not an artist. Or a crafter. Aside from writing, I don’t feel particularly talented in creating. But it makes my heart happy and my mind calm to try different activities. I have made graphic designs, I have altered photos, I have learned to knit, I have made various kinds of jewelry, I have explored herbalism, and I have taken voice and guitar lessons. I don’t do all of these on a regular basis. But those skills are there to go back to if I just need something to burn off energy or quiet my mind.
Try a little adventure.
For real. Just do something you’ve never done before. It can be as simple as going to get food by yourself (in pre-COVID days, I used to love going to the movies by myself). It can be as big as learning to ski or ride a motorcycle. You could take a dance class, go for a hike, explore a big city. Adventures don’t have to be big or expensive. But they do have to scare you just a little, push your boundaries just a little, make your heart beat just a little faster.
My anxiety is still a battle I fight every day. But I’m done letting it steal my joy. I’m done letting it determine how my day is going to go. I hope you are, too, and I would love to hear the ways you have learned to manage yours!