Anyone who suffers from anxiety can relate to these tumultuous moments, and knows that the momentary onset of internal panic can be the catalyst for spiraling into your own personal doomsday . One minute, you’re going about your day like a functional human being, the sun is shining, and all is well. And then, all of a sudden, someone says the wrong thing, you recall something that your hyperactive brain pegs as urgent, and before you know it, you are speeding down the highway of worst possible conclusions (many which end in death, in some form or another). On the outside, you try to ignore that sick feeling in your gut, or the urge to run to the bathroom because your body has decided it is an optimal time to empty your bowels. You make the best efforts to slow your heart, repeating over and over that this fear is irrational, and struggle to think of something, anything but what’s triggering your fight or flight response.
And that’s the worst part: it’s irrational. You know it’s irrational, and that it’s not brain cancer every time you have a headache, or that you won’t fail school by missing a few days due to illness, but try telling your brain that. Often times, acknowledging your anxieties are irrational is about as effective as having someone tell you to calm down when you’re agitated or upset (and we all know how effective that is). If you are anything like me, you’ve probably seen a counselor or two (or more… many, many more) about your anxiety. And I can bet that you were told any of the following strategies: meditate, positive self-talk, take a walk, exercise more, passively acknowledge your fears without feeling them… the list goes on. Of course, these strategies might be of use to some people, but mental illness presents and feels differently for everyone, and sometimes, textbook solutions just don’t cut it.
As someone who can’t meditate even if my life depended on it (and for no lack of trying), I’ve gone through countless trial and error to keep my generalized and social anxiety manageable. And if you’ve got as frenzied a mind as I do, perhaps you will find some of these strategies useful for your own mental tool kit.
Sarah’s Anxiety Arsenal
1: Grounding: There are endless variations to this technique. In a nut shell, grounding comprises whatever it takes to bring you back to the moment. When we are anxious, our minds are usually stuck in one of two binaries: the past, or the the future. The truth is, we are only ever living in the present, and while it may not help to simply remind yourself of that when you’re awake at night, recalling that one embarrassing time in high school that likely no one but you remembers, there are ways to redirect your focus to the here and now. One of the strategies that works best for me is in merely observing my environment, and mentally reciting what I am seeing, namely the descriptive qualities of my surroundings: “that car is red” “that child’s jacket is yellow” “that building is tall”, and so on. If you do this for long enough, then you will eventually notice your physical symptoms retreating, now that your focus is on the present. If you don’t prefer the visual method, grounding techniques that incorporate the other senses can be as simple as focusing on the sweetness of a candy on your tongue, or the softness of a blanket on your skin, the pattern of notes in a song, or all the smells that nature can provide. Anything that returns you to the here and now is grounding; there really is no wrong way to go about it. This technique is particularly useful for your coping repertoire since you can do it anywhere, anytime.
2. Watch something humourous: While binge-watching has been linked to depression, I’m not about to suggest staying in bed all day for a Netflix marathon. There is, however, something to be said about laughter being the best medicine. Throughout some of the most difficult times of my life, particularly those times when I’ve felt paralyzed with anxiety, I have turned to funny movies or videos to help me climb out of my rut. Humour, and laughter in particular, triggers the release of those feel-good neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, and it goes without saying that it is much more difficult for anxiety to thrive when your brain is flooded with your body’s natural happy-maker. So go put on your favourite comedy, tune into SNL, or pay a visit to good ol’ Youtube, where people and animals beg to be laughed at (my personal recommendation: goats that scream like people). Just be sure to limit yourself, and resist hours and hours of autoplay; too much of a good thing could eventually make it lose its beneficial efficacy!
3. Turn to familiarity: While change can be good, the time for change is NOT now, when you’re sitting wide-awake at 4AM dreading what kind of mood your boss will be in tomorrow, and preparing to take it personally before you even know if they’ll be irate. When I feel suffocated by fear of the unknown, and it is not the optimal time to face the future head-on, I counter it with what I already know, what I can already predict. I might re-read a web comic that I really enjoy, pop in a feel-good movie, listen to music with which I associate good feelings, look back on photos of past road trips, or start a novel in a book series with which I am already acquainted. The key is, in that moment of dread, you NEED to know that everything is okay–and the only way you can know that is by knowing (or reasonably predicting) the outcome. This technique can have its downsides; I have put aside reading some really awesome novels until much, much later, because familiar series’ and authors bring me the comfortable familiarity that I’d needed at the time being. I’m not saying that you should never tread beyond your comfort zone; that is, after all, how we grow as people. Just recognize when it is safe to do so. You wouldn’t run with a sprained ankle or sing with a sore throat, so save exciting new ventures and discoveries for a time when you feel ‘yourself’ enough to get the most of it. If the moment is not optimal, use your precious energy to nurture and soothe yourself, and save the adventures for another day.
4. Horror movies/horror stories: So, this technique obviously isn’t for everyone, and if you don’t enjoy the horror genre to begin with, then this probably will be of little use to you. For some, however, horror can be a cathartic experience. I have adored watching horror movies and reading horror stories since I was quite young, and I used to joke about how it ‘must be so bad for me’ because it got my adrenaline flowing. And yet, after a satisfying scare, I find myself feeling incredibly at peace. Evidently, this is no anomaly, as many people have reported to find comfort in horror movies. This is due to the hypothesis that anxious people actually find an outlet for their anxiety in watching horror films, when otherwise it would likely be running rampant, and they would be LOOKING for something to worry about. It might be irrational to fear that your mother MUST have been in a car accident each and every time she is late, but that haunted house with bleeding walls and eerie sounds and a serial killer on the loose? That shit is legit, and it is 100% OKAY to be anxious and afraid of that monster chasing after the protagonists. Essentially, you are giving your anxiety clearance to freak out as much as it wants without any guilt or shame on your part, and because you are not fighting or suppressing it, by the end of the movie you might find that a lot of that negative energy has worked itself out of your system for the time being. Heck, some of us anxious people may be the only ones who can claim to have a good, restful sleep right after indulging in a horror flick!
5. Menial tasks/tasks that require little thought: Have you ever found it deeply satisfying to alphabetize all of your movies, or organize the contents of your desktop folders? In a moment where nothing feels as though it is going right, and you don’t know what to do with yourself, simple tasks such as these can not only help to take your mind off of what is triggering your anxiety, but will also give you a sense of accomplishment. Something as little as taking out the trash or making the bed are not pressing matters, and the world won’t stop turning if they don’t get done, but you are still accomplishing something at a time when you might otherwise feel totally useless. For an even greater impact, create a simple To Do list with a number of small, menial tasks, and cross each one out as they get done. If you can, work some little self-care tasks into that list so that you’re not forgetting to look after yourself, such as taking a hot bath and brewing a cup of tea. Don’t overburden yourself with a list of 30 small things to do; that will only further overwhelm you, and you’ll just end up bemoaning that you’re suck a wreck you can’t even get it all done (I have done this, and trust me, it defeats its therapeutic potential). The point is to focus on a REASONABLE number of FEASIBLE tasks and ultimately feel a bit of accomplishment, not to challenge yourself to be your MOST productive when all you want to do is hide under your bed and cry because life is scary. And, if for whatever reason you find you just can’t get it all done, then focus on what you DID manage to accomplish, which is still greater than nothing. Remember, this technique is predominantly about the process, not the product!
If it still isn’t clear, it should be noted that these 5 anxiety hacks are for short-term relief IN THE MOMENT, not long-term remission from your anxiety. Living a life where you rearrange your furniture every day while watching marathons on Scream will not lead to fulfillment, and I can guarantee your anxiety will still be there, lurking in the shadows. However, when these breaking points do surface, and you are in desperate need to be anything but anxious (yet, like me, your idea of meditation is getting at least 8 hours of sleep), these techniques may help to interrupt that harmful train of thought, and return you to a state where you’re able to tackle the greater, overlying issue that is your anxiety. Like all illnesses, we need to deal with both the symptoms as well as the underlying problem to achieve the best possible quality of life.