As I’m writing this, my heart is racing. I glance down at my Fitbit and notice that my pulse is over 100. I’m sweaty and clammy, hot and cold all at once. I feel shaky and lightheaded. Coming down with something? Nope. Heart attack? Wrong, again. Just anxiety. I shouldn’t write “just anxiety” because for the millions of sufferers of anxiety, dealing with anxiety is anything but “just”. By creeping into your subconscious and taking over your thoughts, it can ruin you day, your week, and if you let it…your life. I am not a doctor, and my advice is not meant to take the place of a professional medical opinion. Consult a professional if you are regularly experiencing anxiety. However, many times we experience anxiety in a time and place when it isn’t feasible to contact a doctor…and that’s when we need strategies for managing anxiety.
Often ruminations begin to camp out in our heads, making it difficult to do anything else except focus solely on what’s bothering us. We can’t get anything else done because we’re worried about insignificant details or feeling overwhelmed about tasks that need to be completed. Maybe we are even worried something important, but it’s out of our control—we’ve done all we can. Or maybe we have a fear…rational or irrational…and we can’t stop thinking about it.
As someone who has dealt with anxiety in my personal life and professional life as a school nurse, I understand how these overwhelming feelings can sneak into your day and paralyze you. I’ve spoken to many fellow moms, teens, and preteens that often feel overwhelmed and out of control in their day to day lives. They’re functioning—so many of us are functioning—not necessarily necessitating medication, but definitely in need of some help coping.
I’ve complied a list of some strategies that I personally use and suggest to my students for managing anxiety.
- Hit the PAUSE button for a minute. Take a deep breath. Remove yourself from the situation that is causing your anxiety…if you can. If not, take a minute and breathe deeply. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Inhale and exhale for at least a count of four. Close your eyes and hit the reset button. You CAN get through this moment. (This is NOT the same as telling someone to “be calm”, which NEVER works. This is showing someone how to “be calm”.)
- Get out and do some exercise. Go for a walk. Or do some yoga. Maybe you want to punch a punching bag. Or run on the treadmill at a neck breaking pace. Anything that removes you from your stress and gets your heart pumping in a good way can be the break and refocusing you need to handle a situation. Or multiple situations.
- Listen to music. You can listen to traditional soothing classical music if you’d like. But if that’s not your thing, it can be rock or heavy metal or rap or pop. Whatever sweeps you up in the moment and gets you out of the moment of stress, works. Dancing is also a great combination of exercise and listening to music.
- Talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a professional. Sometimes a just a sympathetic ear can do the trick. They may not have the best advice to offer you…they may not even have ANY advice to offer you…but a lot of times just getting it off our chests, having someone say “I get it, I understand how you feel”, is enough to get us through that moment of stress. Maybe you don’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe you feel alone in your overwhelmed state and don’t think anyone else would get it. Write it down. Journals are great. If you’re afraid someone might read it, you can always burn the pages or shred them, which is also cathartic. Or you could end up turning those words into a novel or a blog post. You never know.
- Do something fun. See a movie. Watch TV. Take a drive to the beach and build a sandcastle. Go to a museum if that’s your thing. Take a cooking class. Get out of your own head and find your outlet that allows you to forget about your stress, even for a few hours. You may emerge from that movie theater blinking from the sun, but possibly refreshed. Us anxious folks tend to forget how to have fun. We’re driven to constantly be productive…and constantly add to our overwhelmed state.
What about when anxiety is more than just “a moment”? What if it’s this overwhelming sense of dread, day in and day out. Well, like I mentioned earlier, seeing a professional is my advice to you, but here’s what I’ve found to help with managing anxiety in the meantime:
- Make a “to do” list. I know, I know. Sometimes a list itself is daunting—the writing down what needs to be done and seeing it in black and white. Back when I vowed to be more “laid back” and not as controlling, I kicked my post-it notes and lists to the curb. I thought I would remember what was important and it would help me be a little less anal retentive. Instead, I found my anxiety was worse than ever—the loss of control I felt from not having a list was almost crippling at times and I found myself hiding from what needed to actually be done. By making a list, I can face what I’m fearing in a neat, concise way. By looking at a list, you might realize the task isn’t as monstrous as you think it is. Or at least you’ll be able to break down what you need to do in smaller, more manageable pieces. A list also helps me prioritize what is most important. Sticky notes, planners, and bullet journals can help you with this.
- Accept flaws…and be okay with NOT completing those lists. I know what you’re thinking…go home, Heather, you’re drunk. You just told us to make a list, then you told us to disregard the list. Not exactly. What I’m saying is realize that some days, your list is going to be bigger than what is humanly possible to accomplish. I used to do this to myself all the time—I’d write a ridiculous “to do” list and then drive myself crazy trying to cross off everything on the list. I’ve learned the hard way that you really CAN’T do it all. I know you want to, but remember, that’s what’s feeding your anxiety. Many of us are perfectionists—it’s all or nothing. If we can’t do it all, or can’t do it perfectly, we beat ourselves up, or avoid the task altogether. Give yourself permission to not get it all done. (I know it’s easier said than done, but I have a strategy for this that I will share in a later blog post.)
- Consider the positives. Yeah, I know at this moment your world is falling apart and you can’t possibly imagine anything positive coming from it. Dig deep. The other day when my teenage daughter was having a meltdown, in school, in my office, it was the height of stress in my day. The guidance counselors were unavailable to help and she was not only upsetting me, she was making it impossible to do my work. Afterward I realized that I did NOT lose my $hit on her like I often do when she’s in this mood. I was still stressed, my heart was still racing, but it made happier to recognize that the situation wasn’t as bad as it could have been had I lost my $hit. (By the way, I used some of these strategies that day.)
- Take a break from social media. I’m not saying you should go off the grid and build a cabin in the woods and grow your own crops (although at times, getting away from everyone and everything sounds like a fabulous idea). But a lot of times social media actually fuels our stress. Who wants to hear Suzy Sunshine chirping about her awesome kids and her amazing husband and her incredible job as a professional wine and chocolate taster when you feel like someone has pushed you into the Pit of Despair? Seriously. Mute Suzy and all the other perfect people on social media for awhile. Along with these other strategies for managing anxiety, you may find that you feel better about yourself and whatever situation is causing you stress.
- Focus on what you can change…and accept what you can’t. I believe this is part of the Serenity prayer, right? And what brings more serenity to your life then letting go of those things that you have zero control over? I hate losing control and I always want to try to figure out the answer for everything, make things better. But sometimes I can’t. I can’t change other people. I can’t stop other people from behaving a certain way or doing certain things, but I have control over my own reaction to them. Knowing I can’t control many situations but I can control how I react to those situations is a powerful tool in managing anxiety. Do I fuel my anxiety further by overreacting or getting heated, or do I use one of my anxiety coping strategies to prevent it from escalating? The choice is mine and mine alone, just like the choice is yours.
Don’t let your stress get the best of you. Try these strategies when you feel overwhelmed. And when all else fails, take a deep breath and Namaste.