The Dreaded "A" word: Anxiety
Alright, let's do it. Let's talk about anxiety. (*crowd goes wild*). For some reason, mental illness has become so stigmatized, that people, for the most part, seem to avoid talking about it. We seem to have no problem admitting to having the flu, being Diabetic, or having any other physical ailment, but for some reason, admitting to having depression or anxiety is off limits. Well, my anxious ass is here to break the rules. So, let's talk about it.
Anxiety is something I've lived with my entire life, though I never had a name for it until just a few years ago. It's a difficult feeling to describe, especially because those of us that live with anxiety, all experience it differently. If you've never suffered from anxiety, this is how I would describe it: You know that feeling you get in your stomach when you hear really bad news? Like when you get dumped, find out you failed your exam, or lose your job? It's that feeling, minus the bad news. You can be minding your own business, and suddenly that feeling of dread comes over you. Another way to describe it would be: When you drink way too much coffee and you start to feel jittery and feel like you need to pace around because you have so much pent up energy that you don't know what to do with it. It's like that, but minus the caffeine surge.
Now, though those of us with anxiety disorders may experience anxiety to some degree for all of our lives, there are absolutely strategies and remedies that can help us to cope with, and live with, anxiety. So, let's talk about them:
MEDITATION AND BREATHING EXERCISES
When I first heard about meditation for anxiety, I thought “How in the hell am I supposed to sit quietly, without thinking about anything, when my mind is racing a mile a minute?” This is one of the greatest misconceptions about meditation, the notion that your mind needs to be still. It doesn't. The fact that we experience thoughts, 50,000 to 70,000 a day to be exact, is a good thing - it means that our brains are functioning. It would be nearly impossible to completely stop all train of thought, so the good news, is that you don't have to. During meditation (I recommend guided meditations) our mind will wander. This is okay. All you need to do is notice when your mind wanders and direct your attention back to your breath. Over time it becomes easier, and it will start to feel more natural. Taking time out of our day to mediate, even for as little as 3 minutes, gives our bodies and minds a chance to reboot. I took an 8 week Mindfulness Meditation workshop last year, and I was pleasantly surprised by all of the physical and mental benefits of meditation. (Google them, you won't be disappointed.)
Insight Timer: A free app with literally thousands of meditations. There are guided meditations, specific meditations for things like stress or anxiety, and even courses you can take.
tarabrach.com – A website filled with guided meditations (and various kinds of meditation) all led by Tara Brach, who is a meditation goddess. That's not her job title, but that's how I refer to her. She helps you to focus on your breath, which helps to keep your mind from wandering as often as it typically would, and she has meditations as short as 3 minutes.
LET OTHERS KNOW
You're probably thinking “no thanks.” Why would I want to tell people about my anxiety? Won't they think I'm crazy? This is a common thought, but I can assure you that my friends and loved ones thought I was crazy LONG before I ever disclosed my anxiety disorder. So, why would I suggest that you tell people? For many reasons. Anxiety can be like an elephant in the room. Back when I was too embarrassed to let people know about my anxiety, I would have to make excuses for my behaviour. If I couldn't make it to a dinner with friends or to a birthday party because I was having bad anxiety, I would tell them I had the flu (which is an excuse that starts to look suspicious when you're “getting the flu” weekly.) Or, if I was already with friends, I would have to make excuses for why I was acting a bit “off.” I would say that I was just tired or stressed or not feeling well, when really, I was anxious.
When you're open and honest about your anxiety, everybody wins. You feel relieved having finally been honest, you no longer need to make up excuses for your absence or for your behaviour, and you ultimately take the power away from the word. It took me a lot to be able to finally say the word anxiety out loud, but now I throw that word around like someone bet me that I couldn't. Why didn't I text you back? “My apologies, I was anxious.” When I'm with my friends and I'm acting strange, “Sorry y'all my ass is real anxious today.” I own it. And because I own it, I reclaim my power. Also, my friends appreciate my honesty and never judge me for my anxious moments. And, they still invite me places, imagine that!
I can't speak for everyone, but for me, exercise has been the Holy Grail when it comes to coping with my anxiety. Somedays the difference between me feeling anxious and feeling calm, is a single 40 minute workout. It doesn't matter what type of exercise you do – running, walking, yoga, weightlifting, boxing – or anything else you can think of. If you exercise regularly, especially on the days you are feeling anxious, I would almost guarantee that your anxiety will, at least somewhat, improve.
Who's seen Legally Blonde? (*30 white girls raise their hands all at once*) Remember “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands.” There is truth to that statement. Physical activity does produce endorphins, and those endorphins can be instrumental in coping with anxiety and depression. In fact, if you've ever spoken to a doctor about your anxiety (or depression) one of the first things they will recommend is exercise. It doesn't have to be vigorous “look at me I can squat my own body weight” type of exercise, a simple 30 minute walk a few times a week can help greatly with anxiety and depression. So, if sitting on the couch isn't helping (some days it does help, other days not so much), try incorporating exercise into your lifestyle.
There is a massive stigma surrounding medication for anxiety (and depression for that matter). And I think it's downright silly. If someone were to take Insulin to help with their Diabetes would we judge them? No. So why would we judge someone for taking an anti-anxiety medication or anti-depressant? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. If you don't want to take medication for your anxiety, that's okay. If you do want to take medication for your anxiety because it's helpful to you, that's okay. There's is no right or wrong path, whatever works best for you, is what you should do.
So, if medication is something you believe could be helpful to you, consult with your family physician (who may or may not refer you to a psychiatrist – not because you're “crazy” but because psychiatrists in some cases are better suited to prescribe those types of medications). If you don't want to take medication but are currently suffering from anxiety, it never hurts to speak to your doctor about other remedies. That's why doctors go to school for so damn long, so that they are prepared to answer any questions we may have. And no, there are no stupid questions. (Well actually one time I went to see my doctor after not seeing her for months and when I walked in she had a massive baby bump and I asked her if she was pregnant even though she CLEARLY was. That was a stupid question. But other than that, there are no stupid questions.)
And there you have it folks, there's my take on anxiety. Please know that if you're currently suffering from anxiety, or any form of mental illness, you are not alone. I walk hand in hand with you. Breathe in, breathe out – we've got this.