I have literally always been anxious.
I'm pretty sure that I was born when I was because I couldn't decide between the two due dates the doctors gave my mom and I split the difference so I wouldn't be too early or too late. I'm regularly twenty minutes early for things so that I'm never late. I hate borrowing books because What If I Lose It? Waiting on things is the worst. Sleep is not a friend. I have a malfunctioning stomach valve that literally and physically keeps tabs on how much anxiety I have each day, and aches if it goes past a certain level...that fluctuates.
You get the point.
But it's only been getting worse as everything around me gets worse--I told a friend earlier today "I think I'm a lightning rod for free-floating anxiety". I feel all of it, even when it doesn't belong to me.
And BOY is there a lot of free-floating anxiety around these days.
There has been for ages, and canaries in the mines like me have been chirping and struggling, but now it's to a level where everyone sees it. We're a bunch of stressed-out mofos all over the world right now.
But thankfully, those of us who exist in a permanent state of fight-or-flight can maybe offer some tips about what to do about it so we don't all implode.
Here's some points I can offer right now:
1. Learn what stresses you out and track it
For me, I know now that my anxiety-triggers are, among other stuff: not sticking to my diet and getting too much caffeine or artificial sweeteners, spending too much time out in the world and not enough in quiet spaces to recover, retail jobs, having too many scheduling obligations (especially if they're for other people's schedules), not getting enough sleep, the weather, watching / reading too much news, not writing or making things to dispel the noise in my head and get things cleared out of my brain.
It was hard figuring out what makes you anxious and what of those things are things you can do something about. But if you can name a thing, you can buffer against it. So I know that I can make better food choices--things with brain-friendly nutrients and a wide range of vitamins and minerals since zinc and magnesium are good for keeping your nerves in line.* I know that I can keep track of how much time I spend alone vs out in the world and try to keep it even, and schedule time off and away when I can after big noisy events. I know that I can turn off the news and watch something else, and I can get my information another way so I don't feel uninformed or misinformed (which also causes anxiety).
You've got to have a level of self-awareness that people who are never anxious all the time don't have to cultivate, and that's also hard, but isn't it better to know that this thing that's coming up or already happening is going to hit you harder than other people around you, so you can make preparations to survive it better?
2. Learn what relaxes you and keep contingencies around
I think that there's a real issue with relaxation in this country. I used to live in Europe, where, generally, people stop work earlier and take more time off, and I can tell you, in comparison, Americans have no idea what relaxation means, and the culture at large sort of shames you for taking time off for anything sort of a broken leg unless you're super rich and don't work anyway.
But that's a lie--or, at least, it's a form that doesn't fit everyone, and a symptom of this weird extroverted culture that forgets that introverts exist.
So try some things. Does meditation and yoga work for you? Long baths with big glasses of wine? Going for walks with your dog or your friends? TV? Sports? Reading? Journaling? Talking to friends? Art? Long, fancy vacations?
Once you find things that let you relax and unwind and stop worrying for a while, keep those things in your life. Make space for them. If there's a physical thing that keeps you balanced, keep it where you can reach over and grab it--that instrument, that book, that bath bomb, that fidgeting toy, that cat.
Things that work for me:
- Having a plan for the day, so there's less to worry about all day long and somewhere to catch new stuff that tries to get me
- Tracking moods and body-feels and weather and everything else, so I have a little square of confidence and control filled in in my journal
- Reading, especially things that aren't at all like the normal world we all live in
- Yoga and meditation, but in small batches and generally the guided sort
- Petting the cat and laying in bed instead of being upright and fully conscious
- Watching old finished shows on Netflix so I don't have to wait on the next one
- Going to the movies
- Wandering the woods
- Listening to my favorite songs
- Making things--it doesn't seem to matter what, as long as it's something I want and something I'm good at, like writing stories, doing collages, writing poetry, cooking, figuring out how to fix things
What works for you?
3. Be willing to rearrange your life
If it comes down to your mental health or your habits, ditch the habits. You don't have to go out for six hours every day after working eight or nine. You don't have to have furniture you don't like. You don't have to live where you live if it stresses you out. You don't have to take the most direct route to work if you hate the traffic. Things will take planning, sometimes a lot of planning, but there's literally no reason why you can't work toward a better life.
Make time. Make space. Live how you want to live, and start trimming the stuff that makes your life hard to function in. It's YOUR life and you deserve to be happy and functional in your own life.
I've had to make space for more reading, for more writing, for time off and away from all the people I share a house with. I'm working toward having the money to move to a more suitable city and go back to school because school is a good place for me. I want to take classes in the things I need help with because I'm not super great at unguided self-teaching**.
It's not bad to admit your weaknesses. Covering them up makes anxiety worse! And once you have ways of dealing with them, they're not weaknesses anymore.
4. Teach yourself to channel it into activity, not self-pity
This was maybe one of the hardest things for me--it's crazy-easy to sit in bed and wallow. I'm really good at wallowing. But being in the grips of a panic attack for hours is way worse than using all that fear to clean the room that needs cleaning anyway. Or to rearrange all the books or do all the laundry or wash all the dishes by hand. Do something useful in a concrete way, and you'll feel a lot better; then you can take a bath or meditate or something and unwind after.
And once you're good at that, and you know that you can calm yourself down effectively and come back to balance, you can go further out. Spread what you've learned, and spread awareness so other anxious people know they're not alone. Write blog posts*** or poetry or essays. Support friends when you can. Get active in your community, so long as you remember what level of public and private time works for you. Find things outside yourself to belong to and make sense of things, and make the world better and softer and easier.
5. Learn to move beyond the lies your brain is telling you
The thing about anxiety is that it tells you that fairly ordinary life-things are the same as sabretoothed tigers coming at you--your fight-or-flight instinct is wound too tight, and it lies about how scary things are. But you don't have to listen. Or, like Carrie Fisher said on more than one occasion, you can be scared and do things anyway--and then you can go home and use your coping mechanisms to calm down again.
There's things you can do:
- Counting down through your senses--five things I see, four things I hear, three things I feel, two things I smell, one thing I taste.
- Deep breathing--like seriously, just sitting still and breathing in deeply and counting the breaths does wonders AND it gets you more oxygen.
- Going for a lap--leave the computer or the project or whatever for five minutes and loop around the office or around the block or go to the bathroom or get some tea. Come back calmer and refreshed.
- Take a shower--there's something about the falling water and the white noise that does wonders.
- Do a specific yoga flow--I like Sun Salutations. They're the same every time, which is comforting, and it's a set series, it won't go long on you. Really, though, any short burst of exercise is good.
- Have a mantra--just something short and easy to remember that tells you you're okay. Mine is "Anxiety Lies, Depression Lies, You don't have to listen." and it isn't a magic bullet, but it can get me moving, and once I'm moving everything is a little easier.
- Get therapy or medicine if you need it--there shouldn't be a stigma against getting help, and the only real way we as a culture can get out of that mess is to just go and do it. Find a way, even if you have to get online****.
Remember, health is a moving target, and mental health is maybe even moreso, but with the world the way it is, we really need to make sure we all stay sane and functional so we can avoid the worst-case-scenarios all over the place!
**Which is why I've been trying to learn Swedish for like a decade and even have a Swedish best friend and still can't speak it.
***Like I am!
****The internet is an amazing thing and I love it like a home country.
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