Wellness Wednesday: How I Manage My Anxiety

No, I’m not going to tell you to use a bath bomb or do yoga.

Welcome to Wednesday, readers! Earlier this week, I shared how ASMR helped me reduce my anxiety over the past year, but I wanted to give you 10 other ways I stay mentally resilient.

I wanted to start this post off by saying that these are the tools and techniques that help me; they might not work for everyone. As a person with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, I take mental health very seriously and suggest that you see a therapist or counselor to plan the best treatment strategy for you.

1. The CBT Triangle

CBT Triangle

This is a part of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that I learned about during undergrad. It’s easy to find info about what it is online, but not how to use it, so I’ll walk you through an exercise.

Draw the triangle above on a piece of paper. Think about a time you experienced a mildly stressful event. Think really hard about that event. The moments leading up to it, what happened, who was involved. Try to put yourself back in that mildly stressful mindset. Now, think about your very first response to the event. Did you get very emotionally worked up, feeling tense, angry, or hurt? Did you start thinking the worst, or running through all of the possible outcomes in your mind? Or did you physically remove or insert yourself into the situation, pace, overeat, drink, or smoke? Identify if your first response was a feeling, thought, or behavior. Put a star next to it on the triangle. Then, list how you could have responded to the situation with the other two possibilities.

Let’s use the example of getting cut off in traffic. I’m a person who normally gets very frustrated after being cut off, so I use thoughts and behaviors instead of feelings to keep myself from getting anxious. I do this by thinking about things that make me happy (usually, my destination!), breathing deeply, turning on the radio, or making a mental list of the things in my car. If you respond to being cut off by cursing, speeding, or yelling at the other driver, try focusing on thoughts and check in with your feelings (are you really mad about being cut off or are you angry about something else?) If you respond by thinking things like “all New York drivers are the worst,”  “great, now I’ll be late for work,” or other thought-based responses, try responding with feelings and behaviors–deep breathing, checking in, listening to music, etc.

Repeat the process for a moderately and a severely stressful event. Did you notice a pattern in how you responded to those situations? Where are your stars? For me, I almost always respond emotionally to stressful situations, so I try to respond with positive thinking and healthy behaviors. I like that the CBT triangle doesn’t say that one response is better than another. In fact, all of the responses interact with and inform each other! Just trying to change my immediate, knee-jerk responses under pressure has helped me keep my anxiety in check.

2. 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique

This is a really popular one that I’ve bet you’ve heard of, but I have a tip that might make it more successful. When you’re starting to feel anxious, ground yourself by finding 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Sometimes, this technique can make me feel overwhelmed in an environment with a lot of stimulation, because there are too many things to see, touch, hear, or smell, so I make it work for me by carrying headphones, hand cream, and gum/mints with me so that I have control over the things I’m hearing, smelling, and tasting. It might be helpful to count things you can touch in your bag or 5 things you can see that are blue, for example. I had a panic attack in Times Square once after going on a coffee run for my boss and getting turned around, and limiting the stimuli to 5 things that are circles, 4 things in my pockets, 3 instruments I could hear in a song, etc., actually helped me.

3. Triangle Breathing

triangle breathing

I know a lot of “just breathe” advise sucks when you’re anxious, but try inhaling and exhaling in time with this .gif; having a visual representation of your breath can help you focus.

4. Find a therapist that works for you

This is a biggie. I went to three different therapists before I found one that I vibed with. Some people I know got it right in one shot, and others saw six or seven therapists until they found one that clicked. This is okay and completely normal! Do some research about the kind of therapy you want to do: CBT, psychodynamic, expressive, DBT, mindfulness-based… there are a ton of options to choose from and while that might seem overwhelming, it’s nice to know that if one method doesn’t work for you, there’s other methods to try! Then, try to find a therapist in your area that practices that method (some therapists will also do appointments over Skype or the phone, so don’t get discouraged if you live somewhere without a lot of options). For me, I felt a combination of CBT and mindfulness-based techniques helped me a lot more than psychodynamic therapy. Try to find what works for you and don’t be afraid to look for other solutions!

5. Set boundaries and stick to them

You know that feeling in your stomach when you agree to do something that you just don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do because you didn’t want to disappoint someone in your life? Yeah? I don’t want you to ever feel that way again. By setting and communicating clear boundaries, you are taking care of yourself. This is something I struggle with the most, and leads to my worst anxiety. Some of the ways I try to set healthy boundaries in my own life are:

  • Saying “No, I can’t do that, but thank you for asking.”
  • Leaving situations where I am not enjoying myself
  • Communicating clear expectations about how I want to be treated
  • Prioritizing self-care over work or social activities (or, if you’re an extrovert, using social activities as self-care)
  • Recognizing which problems are mine to solve and which problems I have to let others solve

Practice boundary setting with the low-pressure people in your life and it will gradually become easier to do so in the tough situations. Remind yourself regularly that you are worthy of value and respect and that healthy boundaries are part of valuing and respecting yourself. (Also, a quick reminder to respect other peoples’ boundaries! If someone says no, it means no!)

6. Check in with yourself

I have a reminder set on my phone to go off three times a day. It’s a reminder to check in with myself — have I eaten enough? Do I need to drink more water? Am I wearing sunscreen if I’m outside? Do I need to take a walk if I’ve been inside all day? I had a stressful morning, is there anything I can do to relax this afternoon? Basically, how am I feeling and are my physical needs met? This is not the time to wonder about your dinner plans or respond to emails! Just take a few moments every day to see what’s going on internally. If anything comes up that you do need to fix, do it immediately. Don’t wait and say “Oh, I’ll grab something to eat after I finish this project” or “A few more minutes without sunscreen won’t hurt.” You will forget. You will get hungry and sunburned. Do it now!

7. Express gratitude

For all of the anxiety that I experience, I’m pretty dang lucky to have the support system I do. On bad anxiety days, I try to focus on the things I’m grateful for and then express that gratitude! Here’s a list that I made the last time I was anxious and how I expressed it:

  • I’m thankful for the support of my mom, partner, and friends//I texted them and told them how happy I was to have their support!
  • I’m thankful for the food in my apartment//I made a donation to a local food pantry
  • I’m thankful for health insurance that even partially covers my mental healthcare//I contacted my representatives to talk about access to health insurance
  • I’m thankful for my improved respiratory and allergy symptoms//I told my body that I was proud of it
  • I’m thankful for good weather//I went outside for a swim
  • I’m thankful for some vacation days coming up//I made plans to spend those days with people I care about

It’s important to remind ourselves of all of the things going right in our lives, especially when it feels like things are going wrong. It’s also important to feel like you can make choices that directly control outcomes in your life, so don’t just feel grateful, act on it!

8. Redefine success and productivity

I’ll let author Jonny Sun lead this one:

if ur unable to uncouple your self worth from your productivity, perhaps it helps to greatly expand what your definitions of productivity are. it’s productive for your well-being and your mental health to take care of yourself, to recharge, to spend time with people you love, to spend time doing things you enjoy. and that’s not “productive” because it helps put us in a better position to make some sort of “output” later on… it’s productive because we are improving our well-being. output is only the default metric with which we measure “productiveness” because it’s the easiest to quantify. well-being is harder to quantify so we don’t talk about it as something we can work on. in 2018 we are gonna stop defining our value using default definitions!! we are going to question the ways that words are assigned meanings!! we are better than what is the default!! your next project is you!!

Success, for me, was always tied to my output in school or at work. Now I try to count successes in relationships and personal growth as equally important to that output. Part of this ties into my personal mission statement: “I want to provide access to supportive and encouraging creative environments for young people to express themselves honestly, while acting as a gracious role model myself.” I was focusing on the first part of the statement, while ignoring my own needs for growth in the second part! Now, anything I do that helps me become a gracious role model is a part of my success.

9. Create and display symbols of support & affirmation

We’re almost done, y’all! This one has helped me tremendously. I have a cork board in my office. On it are Post-Its, pins, stickers, and notes from friends that have quotes or symbols that I associate with peace and strength. They help me re-center and remind me that I have support from myself and my friends. Sometimes that’s all you need. Print out photos from Pinterest, ask friends to doodle you a nice note, collect pins from causes you care about and put them where you will see them every day. Cultivate the space carefully and thoughtfully with things that actually mean something to you. Revisit them when you’re feeling anxious. Say the affirmations out loud!

10. Set up routines

Be disciplined when it comes to your own care. Remember how we set up clear boundaries earlier? Some of those boundaries should also be “go to bed at a regular hour” and “wake up earlier so I can shower and eat breakfast”. I know it’s hard. When I’m struggling, the last thing on my mind is usually brushing my teeth or cooking dinner. The best way to combat this is by making those things such a deeply ingrained habit that even on the bad days, you do them on auto-pilot. You don’t have to be the kind of person that wakes up every morning at 6 am to like, go for a jog, shower, read a chapter of a book, brew your own coffee, make lunch, do some yoga, cure cancer, and call your mom all before work at 9 am. (Cheers to you if you’re the kind of person that can do that.) Set small, do-able goals and stick to them, even on the hard days.

Here’s my morning routine:

  • 7:30 am – Wake up, immediately hop in the shower (put the phone down!)
  • 8:00 am – Brush hair, get dressed, put on jewelry
  • 8:20 am – Pack bag for the day
  • 8:30 am – Make the bed, put laundry in the hamper, or catch up if I’m moving slow
  • 8:40 am – Brush teeth
  • 8:45 am – Leave for work, grab food on the way if I didn’t have any at home
  • 9:00 am – NOW I can check my emails

That’s it. Before I set an intentional morning routine for myself, I would wake up at 8:00, scroll through Twitter and Insta until 8:30, forgo showering for some dry shampoo, eat nothing for breakfast, and then show up to work late and already stressed.

Try mapping out your top priorities for the morning and planning accordingly. Can you realistically shower in 15 minutes? Do you need to eat breakfast at home because there’s nothing on the way? Adjust! And start small. You don’t have to wake up one morning and turn everything around. Try waking up 30 minutes earlier for a week. Then, try making the bed the next week. Build on your foundations. Congratulate yourself on the days you do well, but don’t beat yourself up over the days you make a misstep. Those are okay too.

 

Whew, okay y’all that was a lot and I hope it helped! What are some of the ways you manage your anxiety? Have you tried any of these tools? Let me know in the comments below!

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