I think it’s safe to say many of us are feeling the effects of fear, grief, confusion, and overwhelm. For those of us with diagnosed anxiety conditions, we’re pretty on edge right now, while many who are new to the symptoms of anxiety may be experiencing it for the first time. Anxiety is normal. Especially right now when the threat of this virus is real. I think it’s totally natural for our bodies and minds to be reacting to this, but there are so many ways to help to begin to alleviate this.
About five years ago, I had my first panic attack, but it wasn’t until a whole year after that that I realized that the uncomfortable, queasy gnawing feeling inside of my core had a name. I was sitting in a therapist’s office finding myself feeling overwhelmingly nauseous, shaking, a tingling face, terrified that I didn’t know what my body was going to do next, when the word anxiety was identified for me. I used to call that moment and the months that followed my nervous breakdown, but I’ve since renamed it my “anxiety-awakening” to bring some levity to the situation. Such a diagnosis felt like the end of my world. I was pretty sure there was no way for me to return to normal. This launched me into about two years of being determined to make it go away, something I’ve more recently learned will never fully disappear.
While I’m no medical expert, I’m pretty sure I’ve tried 98% of all anxiety-management techniques out there. So instead of telling you what you should do in these times of elevated stress and uncertainty, here are my favorites…..
Controlling the breath is the fastest way to curb anxiety. Lately I’ve been finding myself not taking full breaths (especially while watching the news). Slowing down and lengthening the breath anytime throughout the day can be so helpful in slowing down the mind’s racing thoughts. There are also a million breath techniques from a variety of cultures’ healing modalities to try. If you’re feeling extra anxious, it's best to try the slower breath techniques out there like box breathing: 4 seconds inhale, 4 seconds holding, 4 exhale, 4 holding, etc... Or a pattern where the exhale is longer than the inhale.
This seems really basic, but having three nourishing meals a day really helps. I’ve learned over many years which foods to avoid and which to embrace. Making sure that my blood sugar doesn’t spike or drop significantly through the day can really help stabilize mood and anxiety. Feed your brain and your body! I’ve learned to be a responsible vegetarian and eat some kind of protein at every meal. I start my mornings with hemp protein in oatmeal, and it really does help me stabilize my blood sugar and my mood through the day. Sugar or simple carbohydrates on an empty stomach are no bueno for the mind and body.
Again, really basic sounding, but staying hydrated throughout the day really helps. Drinking tea for me used to only be about caffeinating myself to “get myself through the day” but I was getting way too much caffeine for my anxiously-wired body. When I took control of my anxiety, I went cold turkey with the caffeine. No more stimulants! Now my tea rituals involve nourishing, adrenal-supporting herbs like tulsi and nettle. At night chamomile and passionflower help with relaxation. Plants are magic, and there are so many great anxiety-reducing herbs out there to explore.
I’m stubborn and have chosen to not take western medication for anxiety even though there were definitely times in my life where I could have greatly benefited from medication. I definitely suggest working with medical professionals and asking a lot of questions about side-effects if you’d like to go down this path. For me, supplements have done a world of good. Being introduced to Phosphatidylserine by a naturopath changed my life. It was the first time I felt some relief from constant anxiety. Taking it at night helps lower cortisol during the time of day when cortisol should be low by feeding the brain healthy fats that it needs (that’s an oversimplification of how it works). Along with Vitamin D and fish oil, L-Theanine has also been my saving grace. Magnesium at night has also been great in helping me relax into sleep without making me drowsy the next day. Find what works best for you, and work with a holistic/functional nutritionist if you can!
During an anxiety or panic attack is not a time to sit still and meditate. You’ve got to move through it. There’s so much energy moving throughout your body during one of these, and you need to guide it through and out the door. I’ve recently fallen in love with the Chinese practice of QiGong and have found that it is perfect for during times of anxiousness to connect the mind and body through movement. I think it doesn’t matter what kind of movement you ultimately do as long as you do it! But listen to your body -- maybe going on a long run isn’t the best for you today, but a walk around the neighborhood will be just what your body needs.
During times of heightened anxiety, we need to come out of our heads and bring the energy down into the lower regions of the body. When my anxiety was super high as I was moving out of NYC three years ago, I started doing 20 mins of grounding yoga everyday. I’m not good at consistently doing anything (working on it), but this I was somehow determined to try. Starting the day doing something for yourself is major. Filling your cup before filling others is essential no matter what that looks like. Also there’s something unexplainable and so well planned about a yoga sequence: it brings energy and awareness to all parts of your body and helps focus on the breath and thus on the present moment. Even if your mind is wandering all over the place, you’re still receiving the benefits. Other methods of grounding include grounding visualizations, laying on the floor/ground with a heavy blanket or meditation cushion on top of you, or standing barefoot in the dirt. I’ve even heard of people holding ice cubes in their hands to help ground them during a moment of panic -- it’s worth a try!
My problems always seem a whole lot less significant when I’m walking through the woods. Nature was here before us, and it will remain long after us. I’ve felt the healing qualities and wisdom of nature, but yet somehow when I’m feeling stuck in the city I forget about it. (How does that always happen?) So get out, touch a tree, feel your feet on the ground, watch the birds, take it all in…. adrienne marie brown suggests asking the trees what they think about COVID-19….
This is not suggested for times of elevated anxiety-- sitting with your intense feelings and thoughts during those times can make things worse. But ultimately when it feels safe to do so, sitting alone in silence is incredibly beneficial. Meditation is the venue for self-investigation, to peel back the layers to see what’s hiding in there. What are my underlying fears, limitations, and beliefs that are not true and are not serving me well right now? At the height of my anxiety, I was listening to Tara Brach's meditations on facing fear with a technique called RAIN, and I find myself listening to these again lately.
I kid you not, the year preceding my “anxiety-awakening,” my New Years resolution was to get less sleep. Yes. I figured if I got up at 5am to get two hours of work in before leaving for my career job, then I’d be super productive, and I’d finally become a super successful person that people were impressed by so I would finally fill the void inside of me.... or something like that… Really bad idea. 7-8 hours for me is a must. I’m much more at risk of feeling anxiety on less sleep. A day here or there with less sleep is fine, but day after day of lack of sleep really adds up, and it’s a strain on the brain. Sleep is essential! Rest also means doing less. This one is extra hard for me in general, and I’m really struggling with this right now. Sometimes we have to not answer that email, or not return that text in order to give ourselves some space to rest.
Using my hands to make something always helps bring me out of my head and into the present moment. There’s something about the mind-hand connection which I think needs to be explored more in relation to mental health. Maybe because as humans we’ve always made things with our hands. For me, embroidery is like a meditation— repetitive motions that lead me to create patterns and images in color on fabric — I can’t help but be in the now. No matter our abilities or skillsets, we can all find something to focus in on to use our creativity and find some flow.
While no one can “fix” you, a therapist can really help you. Finally realizing I had a problem and caving in to see a therapist was the biggest failure of my life at the time. What was I going to tell my parents?! Growing up, therapy = failed at life. Growing up, my mom’s greatest advice was to never wake up in the morning and ask yourself, “How do I feel today?” (No joke) While this method helped her through the corporate world of the 80s and 90s, this is not good life advice (still love you, Mom). Thankfully the stigma around going to therapy is lessening and there are more affordable options out there.
It’s amazing to me how during my anxiety experience, friends who weren’t going to understand fell away, and new ones that were there to help me, or unknowingly provide wisdom that I needed, came into my life. If the people around you are not supportive, then everything is a lot harder. I’m so blessed to have a partner and friends who get it, and I wish the same for you.
I’m still working on this one, but with each passing year I’m learning to trust myself and trust my instincts more and more. Sometimes uncomfortable feelings in the body or mind can be signals that are clues to something. You just have to listen and trust it.
This is an incomplete list, but these are the techniques that have helped me and that I find myself gravitating towards right now. I hope there are some methods here that can help you through this turbulent time. Anxiety management, not elimination, is a great goal right now. We have to work through this, and it’s going to last a while. Take it hour by hour, day by day, and ask What do I need today? What do I need right now in this moment? Be kind to yourself and take it slow. This is a wild ride and there’s no one right way to ride it.
*None of the above has been approved by the FDA to treat or diagnose anyone of anything. Just my opinion!