How to Really Beat Anxiety
When I tell people I have anxiety, I always feel like I have to qualify it: it’s not a stomach-in-knots, sweaty-palmed flavor of worry that comes and goes in stressful circumstances. To me, that’s run-of-the-mill stress: a normal (albeit uncomfortable) response to the difficulties we encounter.
My brand of anxiety often has nothing to do with my current, real circumstances, and that’s actually the most frustrating part. Sure, I have triggers like everybody else--too much coffee, a stressful work week, not enough sleep, that time of the month--but most of my anxiety is a disproportionate emotional response to a sensation my body perceives as dangerous, even when it’s not. Much of my mind’s real estate is occupied by pain I experienced as a kid or adolescent, and if I don’t keep it in check, I could spend most of my life in fight-or-flight mode.
For many years, that’s been the culture of my brain: always devil’s advocate, never voice of reason. Before the rational part of my mind has an opportunity to address reality, the emotional side calls first dibs on a perceived threat and pulses hormonal warning flares through my body. Better gear up to fight; you’re in danger.
Only recently did I decide I was tired of living like a powerless victim to my brain and its outdated, exhausting way of bossing me around. Chemical imbalances, traumatic childhoods, and huge, terrifying life changes notwithstanding, I’ve come to find we often have more power over our anxiety than we may think.
In my journey of overcoming darkness, (keyword: journey), I’ve discovered some helpful tools for finding light again. Here are a few things that have been useful to me:
Consider your body.
If your anxiety is interfering with your everyday life like mine was, your hyper-vigilant body is probably very tired and hungry for nourishment. (research adrenal fatigue if you want a picture of how stress affects us physically). Many holistic practitioners believe anxiety and depression can actually be rooted in physical issues like hormonal imbalances, inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, thyroid problems, or even mutations on the cellular level (if you’re interested in learning about that stuff, it may help to find an integrative nutritionist to chat with). Do your research. Be open to new things. Find out what your body might be thirsty for--food, sunshine, supplements, exercise, whatever--and change up your routine accordingly.
Surround yourself with people who have space for your mess.
One of the most significant things I’ve learned as an anxiety sufferer is this: many people will not understand, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to. In my seasons of debilitating, stuck-at-home panic attacks, my loved ones had no idea how to help me. So I just told them: Listen. Pray for me. Show me grace when I can’t make up my mind or when I cancel plans at the last minute. Understand that this isn’t something I can beat overnight. Answer your phone, and come over when I need you. When you circle yourself with people who give you grace, you’ll have so much more grace for yourself in your battle against unwelcome thoughts--a major key in unlocking a mind that’s bound you up.
Strength train in the off-season.
Even when you’re not facing an anxiety flare-up, act like you are. It’s like athletes who train in the off season--they aren’t competing at the time, but they know they need to prepare their minds and bodies to do so when the time comes. Think about what that means for you. For me, it’s absorbing as much capital-T Truth as I can even when things are “going my way” so I feel strong and equipped to deal with things when they aren’t. Do your future self a favor and don’t let your emotional muscles atrophy. Carve out time as often as possible to honor your soul, and know that it will honor you right back when you round a corner onto a difficult path.
Steward the internet.
Every anxiety sufferer knows Google is an endless rabbit hole of hopelessness that often begins and ends at WebMD. Here’s the thing: when we’re at our worst, we grasp for hope--and the temporary kind is much easier to find. We just want someone to tell us we’ll be okay, or at least to quickly find out that we’re not okay so we can handle it. Ask yourself this: when has a search engine--a soulless robot with no nuance or empathy-- ever served you in your emotional distress? Instead of drawing out your pain, stick with corners of the internet you know to be encouraging and hopeful, and for the love of yourself and all things holy, please cut off ties with Google before it gets ugly.
Choose your own adventure.
Outside of the spiritual truths we bind ourselves to, there is no black and white solution for anxiety. Everyone’s body chemistry and situation is different, so what works for me may be a terrible idea for you, and vice versa. It will likely take some time to find an anti-anxiety cocktail that suits your fancy--and it may very well be a blend of holistic and medical approaches--but I encourage you to be okay with that. Medication, natural remedies, therapy, supportive relationships, exercise, and nutrition are all helpful tools that can strengthen and help us in different ways during different seasons, so play around and find what works best for you. And if it comes time to update your regimen, do it!
Read the truth out loud over and over until you believe it.
Even when you don’t feel like you believe it, you know what your truth is--and it’s your responsibility to preach it to yourself until you start feeling it again. I have experienced it so many times: lead with your body, and your mind will eventually follow.
There is a time for rest, and there’s another time (and it will be clear to you when this time is) to pony up and start fighting for yourself. In a particularly dark season (I’m talking not leaving my house for literally weeks because I was afraid not to be close to a hospital in case of emergency), I knew that if I wanted things to change, I had to get aggressive. So I wrote down 50+ truths and read them out loud to myself over and over again. I am not dying. I have hope. Nothing bad will happen to me today, and if it does, I will have grace for it. I don’t have to live like this. I can be free. It was a lot like working out. I didn’t feel my mind or heart changing as I recited my truths in tears, but one day at a time, my mind got stronger and my heart got freer.
I had to take baby steps back to joy: leaving my bedroom and hanging out in the living room, taking walks around the block, going to Target with my husband and son on slow weekday mornings, meeting friends for coffee at a cafe near my house. As I physically did things my mind didn’t think I was any longer capable of doing, my entire system of beliefs started to transform. And little by little, my life changed.
I’m not sure if anxiety will be a forever thing for you or me, but as we find our way through it, I think the best favor we can do ourselves is to keep our eyes fixed outward, away from what is and on what could be. When we believe things can and should and will get better, we will arm ourselves for the fight and find the tools we need to overcome it. Isn’t that what hope is for?
I’m a cheerleader, but I’m definitely not a licensed professional or doctor. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, please chat with a professional about it. There are more tools and resources out there than you know.