3 Ways To Live Well With Anxiety
Did you know that, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States? Chances are either you or someone you are close to is suffering from the effects of anxiety, sometimes to a crippling degree.
I know the feeling and the struggle. Trust me. From nights spent trying not to get sick from stress caused by nothing to panic attacks that would last for hours, I know the feeling. Sometimes it feels like the world is too big and dangerous to confront and other times it feels like if you don't get out in the world, it will all fall apart without you. You snap at people you love. You overreact to small stressors. You feel disconnected and unable to connect...and sometimes you don't even want to.
But the reality is this: while there is much that we cannot control when it comes to anxiety, there are some things that we can. Not everyone with anxiety deals with things the same way, and what works for me may not work for you, but when that tightness in your chest won't ease, and you are chugging chamomile tea before bed every night, hoping for just one uninterrupted sleep, anything is worth a try. Sometimes, it's not about overcoming something. It's about learning to live well with it.
[Quick disclaimer: it is important to keep in mind that none of the following are substitutes for seeing a doctor and, if necessary, receiving medication. Sometimes you need a medical kickstart to take control over your own life again, and there is no shame in that.]
Here are three ways I've learned to live well with, and overcome the effects of, anxiety.
1. Live in alignment
The times in my life when I have felt most anxious and most stressed are those when I am living like a zig-zag line, with the things that are most important to me going unreflected in my daily life. I'm an idealist and an activist at heart whose worst nightmare is to stand unmoved and unable to act in the face of injustice. So when I work a job or have a position that tapes my mouth closed, my head and my heart start to feel like a popcorn bag in a microwave.
If you are an artist, live like an artist. If you are a family person, live like a family person. If you are a nature lover, live like a nature lover. Live a life such that an outside observer could describe your insides by watching your outsides. Carve out time to do what you love, and if you don't even know what that is anymore, try doing the things that gave you life as a child. You are probably not as different from the 8-year-old you once were as you might think. What makes you feel alive? Sandy shores. Mountain tops. Bookstores. City streets. Laughing eyes. Fluffy blankets. Wide, blue skies. Find those places and reset yourself.
Even if you are externally a success, to live a life that is failing the truth of who you are can break you. "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul" indeed.
2. Get moving
And I don't mean "get skinny" or "look your best," I mean get off your butt, put down your screens and move! Whatever your skill level or interests, whether it's just going for a walk or taking a sweat-drenched cycling class, getting your heart pumping and your blood flowing is healthy and a great way to improve your mood. Let's be clear, this pointer isn't about boosting your self-esteem or looking great in jeans, while those things can happen, it's about doing something positive for your body with the goal of relieving stress.
But those endorphins aren't the only positive effects of a good sweat. Dedicating time every day to some form of work out sends many positive ripples through your life. Drinking the water necessary for a workout can improve your mood and give you more energy. Anyone who has ever worked out after eating fast food knows that exercise also inspires healthier eating habits, fueling your body, waking you up and giving you that clean, green feeling. A good work out also improves your ability to sleep, an essential factor, as insomnia is a common anxiety symptom. Choosing a workout class over a solo gym visit has the added benefit of a built-in community and a chance to form new friendships.
3. Stop thinking about yourself
We live in the most narcissistic culture ever to exist on this planet. We spend our days taking selfies, binging TV shows alone and shouting on the internet about our opinions (which are, of course, always right)...and then wonder why we are so unhappy. We take personality tests and read self-help books, staring at ourselves under the microscope of comparison and self-loathing, trying to figure out what it is that is so wrong with us and how we can fix it.
It's like having a zit. If you're out working hard, living life and laughing with others, you couldn't care less about whether or not there's a zit on your chin. But when you're home at night, alone and looking into the mirror to wash your face, that zit starts to grow and grow and grow until it is the only thing you see, staring back at you. You can't stop looking at it, and it won't go away, making you feel less beautiful with every moment that passes.
If we just put away the mirrors and looked outward, we might all be doing a little better. There are people in the world who truly need your help, guidance and love. If you are passionate about homelessness, volunteer at a soup kitchen. If you are passionate about women's rights, give your time to a local girl's afterschool program. If you are passionate about the environment, research local parks or community gardens that could use a hand. When we step outside ourselves, our problems and limitations grow smaller, while our sense of purpose and place in the world grows larger.
Love on your friends. Be more understanding with your family. Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. And then let go. When we allow others to join us at the center of our own personal universes, allowing them into our heads and joining them in theirs, we start to feel less alone.
For many of us, anxiety is just a part of who we are. For whatever reason, it's the way we are made, and, for many, it will never completely dissipate. But it doesn't have to control our lives. By taking an active role in improving our mental health, we are taking ownership of the lives we have been blessed with, we can begin to make progress. None of these are miracle cures, and none of them work instantly, but I can only say that after years of following these three myself, I feel like myself again.
Have you tried coping with anxiety in any of these three ways? What are some other ways you have learned to improve your mental health?