When I was a freshman in college, I began experiencing panic attacks. These episodes, which felt like a concurrent onset of a heart attack and the stomach flu, eventually landed me in the hospital. When the doctor inquired about whether my anxiety surfaced with the stresses of college, I thought back and realized that while high-stress situations definitely make things worse, a heightened sense of worry and nervousness has been a part of my life as long as I can remember.
Let’s just say I was the type of child who should have never, ever, watched the news. This further discussion into my medical history resulted in a General Anxiety Disorder diagnosis and a prescription for anti-anxiety medication. Meds, however, have never been a great option for me. To start, I never hesitate to closely read up on all the potential side effects, then go on to feel them all happening to me (the irony of being too anxious to take anxiety meds is not lost on me!!).
Before I continue, while I’m able manage without them, I know that meds are not optional and/or can be life changing for many people. I’m in no way advocating to not use medication – just explaining that I couldn’t.
And, while I’m certainly not cured of this monkey on my back, I have learned some more natural coping strategies over the years that I’d love to share:
- Find the Funny. Laughter is proven to relax us both mentally, by reducing our stress hormones, and physically by increasing our body’s oxygen intake.I am a bit of a dark soul who loves a good murder mystery podcast or TV series. The problem is, these shows stay with me, often haunting my thoughts long after I watch them. So, I’ve recently switched to forms of entertainment that make me laugh instead, particularly if I’m having an anxious spell. My new go-to podcast, for instance, is Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. I kept it streaming though my ear buds on a recent travel day, where my anxiety typically goes into overdrive, and found myself smiling and laughing amidst security screenings and even flight delays. If I’m feeling stressed in the evenings, when anxiety tends to peak, I’ve started watching Funny Videos on YouTube. My kids also find these hilarious, so it’s a good way for us to snuggle up and get a good chuckle in at the end of the day. Last, but not least, if I’m in an anxiety spiral that just won’t quit, I schedule a get together with my girlfriends. I am lucky enough to live close to an amazing group of old and dear friends, and no one can make me feel better or laugh harder. So, if I, or any of my girls are feeling down, we schedule a little get together to shake things off.
- Get Moving. I don’t know about you, but for me, anxiety feels like a ball of energy inside my body that has nowhere to go. That is why regular physical activity is essential to my mental well-being. I find a mixture of cardio and yoga work best for my need for both energy release and meditative/calming practices. As far as cardio is concerned, I love running. When I started, I could barely do a mile, and now at nearly 38, I typically get in 10-miles a week. Running is hard, painful, and wonderful. It gives tension a place to go so I can actually think clear thoughts and work through all that stuff in my head. There are times when I’m really wound up when it’s the only thing that gives me relief. I’ve heard from a few ladies who had to quit running for physical reasons that crew or rowing can be a great high-adrenaline alternative to pounding the pavement. To counteract the intensity of these workouts, not to mention the intensity of this brain of mine, I turn to yoga. And while it’s the running that I crave due to its instant relief (yah for endorphins!), yoga is actually way more challenging for me. Let’s just say getting to a place of Zen where I’m focusing on my body and my breathing is not my natural state. But yoga is by far the closest I’ve been able to get to the therapeutic effects of practicing meditation. Because exercise is so important to my overall happiness and health, I make workouts part of my daily routine—no excuses, like brushing my teeth, rarely allowing other “seemingly” more important things to bump this daily act of self-care off my schedule.
- Hit Refresh. Back in the day when I had two tiny kids at home, I used to head straight up to the local pool when my husband got home from work. Diving into the cool water seemed to clear the cobwebs of tears, tantrums, and even the doldrums of my days. After contemplating how restorative these pool sessions were for me, I started to catch wind of the benefits of water for anxiety sufferers. So, I did a little research and found out that when moving, water creates negative ions, which are essentially oxygen atoms charged with an extra electron attached. Like exercise, they increase the oxygen levels in your brain, but also boost serotonin and alertness. Notice how you feel happier and more alert after a shower, bath, swim, or even thunderstorm? The restorative effects of water are no joke, and something I often turn to when I need to hit refresh.
- Eliminate Unhealthy Triggers. As I mentioned in this article, every January I take inventory of the past year, reflecting on what things created positivity and happiness for me and my family, and make a plan to recreate those feelings more often in the year ahead. Just as importantly, I consider what situations made me feel bad, stressed, or anxious and make a plan for how to better manage, limit, or even eliminate these occurrences. It’s important to acknowledge here that all stress is not bad, and learn to differentiate between anxiety that comes from change or trying new things, which can ultimately result in personal growth and a more enriching life, and anxiety-invoking situations that make you feel down and bad. I’ve found that taking time to pinpoint the things that make you unhappy or overly anxious can certainly help you manage or avoid such situations in the future.
- CBD Baby. Let’s just say my high school and college experiences were a bit like a drawn-out screening of Dazed and Confused. Pot seemed to be everywhere, and as much as I longed to float into the occasional hazy oblivion, it was never for me. You see, my particular anxious brain will fight anything that takes it out of its natural state of hyper acuity. I’ll never notice the serial killer hiding in the bushes if I’m too stoned, right? But CBD, also derived from the cannabis plant, is a whole different child. It has none of the psychoactive components of THC (the compound in marijuana that makes you feel high). I have gotten in the habit of adding a drop of CBD tincture to my evening tea, which helps me relax and sleep in the evening. Yes, I too was skeptical at first, but have jumped aboard the growing band wagon of CBD enthusiasts.
Let’s face it. We are no longer cave women living in an era where a heightened fight or flight response is a positive thing. In this modern day, we are just overly stressed and anxious. And while there is no way to avoid these feeling completely, I hope you can add my personal coping mechanisms to your stress relief too kit.
Feature photo by Marla Smith Photography