The first time it struck me, I didn’t even realise what was happening to my body. Or my brain for that matter. Because the thing about anxiety is, it creeps on you and catches you unawares. Like a messy ex – lover who knows when to call you when you’re at your weakest, it surrounds you until you accept it. You can either make it your own, or watch it claim you.
Anxiety is often tangible when it transforms into a panic attack – sort of like a culmination of that niggling worry, the sense of lurking disaster, the fear of failure, the constant self doubt. All of these combine together until you break down, physically and emotionally. The reactions you may have will vary, of course. Sometimes, anxiety feels like a tonne of bricks weighing you down, refusing to budge no matter how hard you push against them. Sometimes, it feels like being rooted to the ground at high tide, struggling to breathe underwater as each wave of panic drowns you. Sometimes, it’s like listening to a hundred songs at the same time, being unable to sort through the chaos in your head. Sometimes, it’s unstoppable, irrational tears and a feeling of separation from reality.
Whatever form anxiety may take for you, this is a reminder that you’re not alone. Living with anxiety is not easy. Sometimes, all you can do is make it through one day at a time. But that’s enough. You are enough.
Here’s fifteen small exercises and lifestyle changes you can incorporate into your routine to help cope with anxiety better. But remember, there is no tried and tested formula for mental health. All you can do is feel your way through it, as best as you can. And that is okay.
- Stop trying to regain control over your body and emotions. Let it run its course.
When I have my most intense anxiety attacks, I find myself short of breath, physically stiff and often on the verge of tears. But what pushes me off the edge is realising I cannot shake it off instantly. The more you try to run, the more you’ll feel trapped. Instead, ride it out until it ebbs away on its own. Let relief find you.
- Dedicate at least half an hour a day to yourself.
This is exclusively your time. Bear in mind not to let yourself be swayed by the conventional notions of ‘me’ time. If you want to read a book, or go soul-searching on a walk, great! But it’s so easy to forget happiness isn’t always tied to solitude. If you want to use the time to visit your mother, or cuddle with your partner, do it – without hesitating or apologizing for it.
- Make lists.I cannot emphasise just how effective this can be. Sit yourself down and write whatever is on your mind. Decluttering your headspace will help you organise your thoughts. Most of the times, it gets difficult to pinpoint what is causing the anxiety. It alleviates some of the stress to go through these lists, when you need to see that you’re not helplessly out of control.
- Take care of yourself.Although this one is fairly obvious, it’s easy to forget to eat on time, to keep hydrated, to listen to your body. Set reminders on your cellphone for the things you’re likely to forget, including medication. Slipping into a routine lends a certain degree of normalcy, especially if you feel like you’re falling apart.
- Maintain a diary.Think of it as a representation of positivity in your day, but don’t force yourself to fill it out every day. Draw, doodle, and write when you feel like. It’s okay if you fluctuate between three whole pages on some days and barely a paragraph on others. But it will definitely soothe you when you’re looking for reasons to hold on, in your darkest times.
- Invest in an adult colouring book, or print out designs to fill up with colour pencils.From Carl Jung to modern day studies, everybody swears by the therapeutic powers of colouring. For me, it’s a brilliant way to de-stress, and helps me relax before I begin an activity that could be potentially taxing. I probably shouldn’t pick favourites, but I highly recommend Mesdemoiselles Cats if you’re a beginner.
- Exercise.Or dance, or run, or try any high intensity activity in sporadic fifteen minute bursts throughout the day. Not only will these leave you energised, but the blood thumping through your veins and the sound of your heart beating fast for all the right reasons is a wonderful feeling. And you’ll sleep better at high.
- Create a soothing playlist with all your favourite music.Again, don’t let the world dictate what should and shouldn’t calm you down. I find solace in fast paced dance music as much as I do in soft, slow, instrumental music. The point is that, it should put you in a happy place, and sustain that feeling for a while. As long as it serves the purpose, you’re good to go.
- Affirmations!Keep these simple. You don’t need to tell yourself you’re wonder woman and that you are immune to pain. Instead, acknowledge that you’re hurting, but tell yourself you’ll get through this eventually. Acknowledge that you need help, but tell yourself there’s no shame in it. Acknowledge that you’re not perfect, but tell yourself that’s okay, as long as you’re trying your best.
- Confide in a friend, or a family member.Make a habit out of talking to them about your progress and troubles for five minutes at the end of each day. You don’t necessarily need to find an instant solution to whatever is happening. Even just having them listen to you will serve as a reminder that you’re not alone, you’re not abnormal. The dark places in your head won’t feel quite as lonely when you have someone walking with you through them.
- Learn grounding techniques that work for you. Grounding is paying conscious, deliberate attention to your surroundings or your own body, so as to help contain the chaos of thoughts and feelings that go spiralling out of control when you have an anxiety attack. This will keep you in the present moment, and regain your footing. Most people use a combination of breathing exercises and rhythmic movements.
What works best with me was something I saw on a Tumblr post years ago, and it has truly saved my life. It involves sitting down wherever you are, looking for 5 things to see, 4 things to touch, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste. Alternatively, if you’re in the kitchen you can start with taste, or smell – tailor the order of the sensory cues according to where you are.
- Carry strips of paper sprayed with essential oils that help you relax.Or even just a familiar smell that you associate with something positive, like a perfume you’ve been using since forever. Lavender and basil works beautifully, and the way your brain reacts to olfactory cues is amazing. It can transport you back to a “safe place” in your head, and help you regain control better.
- Look into techniques like guided visualisation or imagery, where you view your anxiety as an entity that exists separately from you.Put yourself in a happy place – the beach, your old bedroom, a field of flowers, your family vacation cabin. Think of it as impermeable to whatever emotion you want to be rid of in that moment. Make this a part of your daily routine, even when you’re not on the brink of an anxiety attack.
- Give yourself permission to worry.But do it in a disciplined manner. If you feel yourself starting to freak out, take a deep breath, time yourself, and let go of your control. Think of everything that could possibly go wrong, think of all the worst case scenarios, and think of how they’ll affect you. Then, compare it to how you’re doing in real life. The contrast of the two, and the realisation that you’re not really doing as terribly as you think will give you the strength to pull through, if only for the day.
- Indulge yourself. On days when nothing seems to be working out, just let yourself be. Eat whatever you feel like. Sleep for six hours straight if you want. Don’t force yourself into action. If by the end of the day you’re still not quite distressed, take a long shower, and remind yourself that this wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last time you felt like you had no control over your life. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or that you’re at a dead end. You made it through another day. You tried your best. And that’s enough.