Stress & Anxiety - Yep, I've got both
I don’t talk about my anxiety much here, not because I don’t feel comfortable sharing my experience, I just don’t want to give you the impression that I’m a nervous wreck of a person. I’m not at all.
In fact, most people are surprised to learn that I’m an introvert with a penchant for anxious thoughts. Maybe it’s because I’m tall, or that I have a commanding voice. Or maybe, it’s because I manage (aka - hide) it well. Either way, I wanted to share how I manage my anxiety and how I’ve learned to live with it, rather than try to resist or ignore it (<- that doesn’t work, I’ve tried).
How do you know if you have anxiety?
Anxiety is characterized as intense fear, worry or panic that something bad might or will happen. It can also show up in your body as sweating, lightheadedness, trouble breathing, chest pains, tightness in the throat or shaking. Fun, right?
Personally, my anxiety isn’t something I have every single day. But it’s something that can be triggered easily in my personal relationships or certain situations where I lack control. Travel is a big trigger for me. Oh, and an unreturned text from a good friend will throw me off my game for days.
What's the difference between stress and anxiety?
Stress and anxiety are bedfellows and we often use them interchangeably when we talk about our feelings - "I'm stressed" sounds a lot like "I'm anxious". The difference is that stress is our response to a threatening situation - from public speaking to running from tigers. Anxiety is our reaction to that stress. It's prolonged, obsessive and often unwarranted.
The best way to describe the difference is to compare yourself to a wild animal. An animal that's being chased by a predator will feel stress at the moment, but if they're lucky enough to get away, the stress will subside and life will resume as normal with the wisdom of that experience behind them. An anxious person being chased by a predator will also feel stress at the moment, but they will carry the emotional reaction to that stress for a lifetime. When we wallow, obsessively overthink or relive a stressful situation over and over, we're no longer in a state of stress - we're now living in a state of anxiety.
The Good News: Knowing You Have Anxiety is Half the Battle
Seriously, before I understood what anxiety is, I thought it was just a part of life to always be on edge or obsessively worried about something. That was my mother’s M.O., so I didn’t think there was any other way to be. It wasn’t until years later that I was aware this was something that not everyone felt. Meanwhile, I had two psychology degrees and yet, I never made the connection between my brain state and one of the most common mental health issues there is. So much for higher ed?
The only reason I started to realize I had anxiety was from listening to others talk about their experiences. The “ME TOO” reaction was so compelling that I started doing some research and realized that my obsessive thoughts and physical reactions to stress were something I could manage and improve. Hallelujah!
How I manage my anxiety
Once I learned that there was a name for my experience, as well as many options for managing it, I got to work figuring out what worked for me and what didn’t. I can say for sure there is no one-size-fits-all remedy and you have to invest the time in understanding what triggers you and also what soothes you. Once you know that, life can be a lot more enjoyable. Trust me on this.
What Works for me.
Yoga - I love this class in particular, but it’s not a beginner class. If you’re not an experienced yogi, search youtube for beginner yoga classes specifically for anxiety and/or depression. There are specific yoga poses that calm anxiety and increase serotonin, like forward and backbends. Of all the things I do to manage anxiety, this for me, is the most powerful.
Tapping - Okay, more to come on this topic in subsequent posts, but I learned about tapping (aka Emotional Freedom Technique or "EFT") just last year from a life coach that I hired. She was amazing, but once we finished our sessions I wanted to keep tapping. That’s when I found Nick Ortner and I was hooked. His books and the Tapping Solution App are so incredibly helpful for managing anxiety, I can’t even explain it. If this intrigues you - get this book. It helped me heal so much. Tapping is the second most effective way I manage my anxiety and I do it every single morning.
Meditation & Prayer - Honestly, I’m not a religious person, but I was raised Catholic, and I find that repeating the prayers my mother taught me, gives me comfort and helps me feel close to her again (I lost her to cancer 12 years ago). That, combined with a short, 10-minute meditation is a soothing part of my morning practice. I love using the Insight Timer, and my favorite meditation is Tara Brach’s RAIN of Self Compassion.
Journaling - I started this as a creative process many years ago after reading Julia Cameron's Artist Way, but I find it also soothes my anxious feelings in the morning. I spend a lot of time writing about what I’m grateful for, future self journaling or working through issues that are weighing me down. It always helps.
Eating more fats & ditching carbs & sugars - I have so much to say on this topic, so for now, I’ll leave it at this…. Eating more healthy fats has been a game-changer for the quality of my moods. I used to be a carb-o-holic and being on that constant sugar-train fueled my anxiety so much. In fact, there’s so much research that now shows that inflammatory diets high in sugar, processed foods, and many animal products are at the core of anxiety issues and NOT the “chemical imbalances” that we’ve heard about for years. I urge you to dive into the research here. There’s so much we’re just learning about gut health, inflammation and how it relates to mental health.
Walking - Just putting one foot in front of the other can help you digest ruminating thoughts. Running helps sometimes, but the aggressive nature of pounding pavement can also exasperate anxious feelings. I always let my body tell me what I need.
Calming teas - I’m not sure if this is placebo or not, but who cares - it's just tea. When I’m feeling tense, a good chamomile or calming tea makes me feel comforted.
Environment - This is a huge topic, so it’s hard to cover in a paragraph, but I’ve learned that I’m most comfortable working alone in my home. Office buildings, loud noise, people on phone calls, bright lights, air conditioning, and too many visual distractions are all big triggers for me. Now that I work from home in my yoga pants, I’ve eliminated a HUGE piece of my stress and anxiety.
Being honest about my anxiety. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t even realize I had it until I started hearing other folks share their experience. Now when I feel anxious, I just speak honestly about it. Not in a panicked way, but in a matter-of-fact, “hey, here’s how I’m feeling right now” kinda way. It helps take the pressure off.
The Number One Behavior that Reduces Anxiety for me
Sleep. Oh man - if I don’t get at least 7 hours a night, I can be a total mess. I’m stressed, hungry, irritable, unfocused and hungry. Did I mention I’m hungry? Sleep has a huge impact on our mood and hormones, but it also causes inflammation which as I mentioned, is a huge cause of anxiety. Without my sleep, I’m at risk of having a really shitty day.
Things I haven’t tried, but plan too.
Glutathione - this powerful antioxidant is apparently really effective at reducing gut and brain inflammation as well as a host of other benefits, so I just ordered some. I’ll report back on what I learn!
Flavenoids are also apparently effective for reducing inflammation, so I’m game to try.
CBD Oil - I feel like I’m the last person on earth who hasn’t tried this yet for sleep and anxiety management. I am still a little wary of taking anything that’s not a typical supplement, so I’m in the process of researching the best product I can find. If you’ve tried a brand and liked them, would you let me know in the comments below?
Things that haven’t worked for me
In the past, I’ve tried the following with little or no effect. I’m not suggesting they are not worth trying, but they just didn’t cut it for me.
St. John’s Wart - I heard this was supposed to boost your mood, decrease anxiety and increase serotonin. I had none of those results and also learned that they could reduce the effectiveness of the pill, so I stopped.
5-Htp - similar experience to above.
Massage - I might feel relaxed during a massage, but the minute I leave the comfort of the massage table, the relaxing vibes instantly evaporate.
Vigorous exercise - I love a good HIIT workout or run…. I do! But when I’m dealing with a particularly anxious emotion, it tends to aggravate it more, so I opt for yoga or walking as my go-to workout.
The other thing that I find helpful, but isn't necessarily the healthiest of options - wine. LOL, just keeping it real.
A Personal Note About Anxiety
I think it's worth mentioning again, that if you were to meet me in person, you would never know I suffer from anxiety. It's a silent emotion and something that's deeply personal to me. But by sharing my experience, it not only makes it easier for me to live with anxious feelings, but I hope it may also help you if you feel like you're dealing with it as well.
Also, I want to say that there's zero shame to suffering from anxiety or stress. I simply deal with this emotion from time-to-time, but I also prioritize my wellness practices so it's never debilitating for me. I've never missed a day of work or a social event because of feeling too anxious, although I'm sure others have, and that's fine too.
We live in an over-stimulated, stressful world where social media and consumerism constantly push us to newer and newer emotional limits. It's no wonder that we are responding with stress and anxiety. Who wouldn't? If you're struggling with anxiety - I encourage you to get help or try some of the methods I mentioned above. It's nothing to be ashamed of, it's not a life sentence and there are zero stigmas attached to it. It's just an emotion - it's not "who you are".
One final word - as you well know, I'm not a medical professional, so this is not professional advice. It's just what I do and what works for me. Use this info as you like, but obviously, be smart about it and defer to your Dr. when it comes to new behaviors and supplements!
Caren is a certified yoga teacher, fitness instructor and ADHD Coach. As the founder of The Fit Habit, she shares ADHD-friendly self-care, food & fitness inspiration, along with practical ways to foster mind + body wellness.