1. “That was then, this is now.”
A counselor once told me, when I became wrapped up in anxiety, stifled by it, to tell myself this. I repeat it to myself over and over again, sometimes, when I become almost paralyzed with anxiety; late at night, at the end of the day, panicking over something I should or shouldn’t have said. “That was then, this is now.” It sounds like a silly aphorism, but I find a lot of calming and comforting weight in it – the idea that the past is finished, that nothing can be changed. I remember listening to David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech “This is Water” where he talks about aphorisms and how there’s often a lot of truth in them – how they’re based on a truth discovered and collected into a phrase. I think this is one of those aphorisms.
2. “There are times when I haven’t felt anxious, too.”
Things will get better. Sometimes it feels like anxiety is a never-ending nightmare, and I find myself making grandiose statements – feeling that I’m perennially anxious, that I’m never not anxious. But that isn’t true. There are good days, there are happy days, and even if there aren’t many for you yet or any at all, there will be. I’ve made a little happiness box to help me through those really anxious moments.
I’ve also started scrapbooking, and this really helps me ground myself when I am feeling overwhelmingly anxious. I look back at happier times, at less-anxious times—at a holiday, at the beach, when I’m having a picnic in the countryside with my boyfriend. It helps to look back at those times, times when my anxiety wasn’t crushing me; maybe my anxiety was still there, and maybe I was feeling a bit anxious, but times when it was better.
3. “It will be okay.”
Repeat this to yourself, over and over again, until it is okay. Because it will be. You will get through this, you are strong, but it won’t happen overnight. Remember that recovery isn’t linear; there will be times where you’ll be really anxious, despite all the changes that you’ve made to try and make yourself feel less anxious. This will be frustrating and upsetting. You can feel anxious and frustrated. But don’t give up.
4. “There are people to talk to.”
Reach out to someone close to you, and talk to them about how you feel. Maybe you don’t want to talk about it, and that’s okay too. You can ask them to talk, if you like, ask them to tell you about their day – what they have been reading, how they’ve been feeling, who they are in love with, what they’ve been angry about, what they’ve been sad about.
When you’re not feeling as anxious, try telling people close to you what will help you when you are feeling very anxious – so that when you reach out, they know what will be beneficial without having to ask you in the heat of the moment. My boyfriend knows that, when I’m really anxious, it’s not helpful for me to talk a lot about why I’m anxious, as it tends to make me spiral into a pit of overwhelming anxiety. Instead, he just holds me and comforts me.
5. “I just need to make it to the end of the day.”
Don’t try to do too much; don’t push yourself. Don’t tell yourself “tomorrow I’ll start again, tomorrow is a completely new day, I’ll never be anxious again.” I am guilty of this kind of black-or-white thinking, and it always leads to more frustration, to anger borne out of a perfectionist tendency to be completely relaxed, to never be anxious again. I’ve realized that this just isn’t possible for me and that I am someone who is naturally very anxious. But the anxiety doesn’t always need to be crushing, and it doesn’t need to dominate my life – just like it doesn’t need to affect you like that, either.
6. “Just sit with this, and feel it.”
When my anxiety is crushing me, I mostly try now to just feel the emotion – just sit with it, and feel it. I tell myself that it will pass. Then, I turn to something positive – the scrapbooking, for example – and I attempt to “ride the wave” of the emotion. One of the techniques I learned during DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) is how to put some space between my thoughts and feelings, and my actions. Before I could do this, I would turn instantly to negative coping mechanisms. It almost felt like I had to do this – that I couldn’t not self-harm or binge and purge. It felt like an instinct I had to follow through with, something that I just had to do. Now I’ve managed to put some space between my feelings and my actions, it doesn’t feel so instinctual anymore. I learned to do this through just sitting with the emotion; just feeling the anxiety, as uncomfortable as it makes me. I remove myself from a place where there are triggers (the kitchen) and simply sit with the emotion, and wait for it to pass.
7. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
This is a quote from the film Her. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson from Samantha, who is an OS, a future Siri, who falls in love with a human being. She feels frustrated at her partner, who tells her that she will never know what it feels like to lose something dear to her because she is an OS, not a human. She interprets his comment as a negative one and feels upset and angry at him. Then she realizes that she is remembering his comment as something that was wrong with her, and that was a story she was telling herself, that she was inferior to him because of something he had said.
I try and remember this when I feel overwhelmed by my anxiety over some silly thing I should or shouldn’t have said; something stupid, where I humiliated myself, doesn’t hold any more weight than a multitude of other moments from my day – moments that I never think about – moments where I’m brushing my teeth or my hair, or I’m getting ready for work. It’s only my anxious brain that ascribes negative meaning to the moments where I say something silly and highlights this as a key moment from my day.
8. “You can get through this, you are strong.”
You’ve made it this far, and you will make it even further.