For as long as I can remember I have had (suffered from? experienced?) panic attacks and periods of severe generalized anxiety. I also have been diagnosed as having dysthemia with major depressive episodes (commonly referred to as “double depression.”)
Whoa. Even typing that was scary.
You see (until now) very few people knew I have these illnesses. I’ve casually mentioned the chronic pain I used to suffer from (more on that later), the migraines I get quite frequently, and the insomnia that I’ve had since childhood. Those are socially acceptable problems, issues sufferers can bond over with no repercussions. Those are the allowable diseases. No matter what anyone on any social media channel says: the stigma of mental illness – especially depression and anxiety – is real, pervasive, and for a business owner can be devastating.
But you’re not here because you wanted to know my story. You’re here because you sometimes have the same things happen, or maybe you love someone who has these episodes and you want to know how to help.
I’ve been living inside anxiety for long enough to know that, for me at least, there’s no quick fix. There’s no cure. There are only coping strategies and techniques that I have learned over years and years AND YEARS of trial and error. More things didn’t work than did. And these may only work for me because of my specific environmental and physical makeup.
But these things do help. Sometimes they help a lot, sometimes only a little. And I wanted to share them in case they could help you too.
8 (Possibly) Strange Coping Techniques for Anxiety
1. CrossFit: I thought I would get this one out of the way right off the bat. Feel free to skip on to the next one if you’ve already heard me drone on and on and on and on about my beautiful little cult.
I know you’ve heard of the benefits of exercise on anxiety, but before I was dragged kicking and screaming into a CrossFit gym, I couldn’t have disagreed more with all the experts in the world. To me 2 years ago, exercise was just one more thing that I sucked at, that I would fail to do well, that would hurt, and that wouldn’t give me any lasting effects but a sore body and a sad mind.
People who do CrossFit say it’s different than any other workout…and that’s because it is. If you’re dead set against it, I’m not going to change your mind. But if you suffer from panic and anxiety, I would love to hear that you tried it (and if you’re in my area, I’ll go with you so it’s not so scary.)
Workouts now give me a sense of control, of accomplishment, of release that I couldn’t find anywhere but at the bottom of a pill bottle. And it makes me feel good on my good days too. I also no longer fit the criteria for chronic pain disorder – and living my days pain-free (ok, except the pain in my butt from today’s squats) has made a world of difference for my ability to live with my anxiety.
2. Make your bed: This might seem strange, but it works for me. I need a sense of order in my hermit-hole of a room when I am really anxious, and making my bed gives me the sense of an island in the storm.
I am in no way a neat freak (you should see my kitchen after I bake…) but something about the routine of making my bed, the look of it when it’s completed, and knowing that it’s ready to slide into comfortably at night without all the wrinkles and balled up fitted sheets; I don’t know. It gives me again, a sense of control. And it’s way more peaceful and less strenuous than a workout.
3. Open your blinds, curtains, and windows: Often when I’m overwhelmed, it’s helpful to remember how small I am in the cosmic scheme of things. I can choose to hide all day in my little bubble and let everything get bigger and bigger inside my head until I feel like I’m so compressed I’m going to explode…or I can let a bit of light and air in, take in the sounds of the world around me, try to find some perspective, and remember that I’m not alone in the world, even if I can’t be around people right now.
4. Read some physics and/or other physical sciences: The above strategy keeps me from feeling alone. This one lets me see that there is still beauty and synergy in the world around me. Reading about physics, chemistry, biology, etc keep me focused on all the things that are right in the world. The human eyeball, for example, is the most incredible feat of engineering and function I can imagine. And the forces constantly at work on us – unbelievable! There are invisible things keeping me on the ground, letting me breathe, creating symbiosis with the environment around me, creating wind, ice, torque…the entire natural world is incredible, and I forget that a lot.
I’m not a huge nature lover in the traditional sense, but I am a huge fan of the universe.
5. Golf: Golf for me is kind of the counterpart to CrossFit. It’s less intense (mainly because I’m really terrible), less demanding physically and mentally, and sometimes it’s a heck of a lot more enjoyable. Any time I’ve ever golfed, my father was there which helped my anxiety too since he was the most gentle and laid back person I’ve ever known. But I think that someday when I’m ready to try it again without him, the magic will still be there.
There’s something powerful in being so far away from everything, with nothing to do but strategically whack at a little defenceless ball. Nothing can reach you on a golf course. No one can find you, no one will yell at you, and if you fail you can always take a mulligan. (With Dad, I took a lot of those.)
6. Manual labour: Painting walls, roofing, demolition, laying flooring, all of these have calmed me when I needed it the most. Manual labour seems to provide the relief of golf with the release of CrossFit, and you usually end up with something beautiful (or end up destroying something ugly.) Creation is incredibly satisfying to my anxious mind, and thoughtful productivity tends to be difficult. Manual labour gives me mindless productivity with the benefit of tiring me out.
7. Watch and listen to children at play: Remember when you could disappear into worlds of innocence and play? Thankfully, most children have never experienced the compound levels of stress that adults experience daily. Most children are still in their bubble, where the problems of the world (and often those of their loved ones) can’t touch them. Even those children who have been touched by life’s darker moments seem to maintain their innocence, as if the lightness of being a child is enough to dispel the shadow of stress. When I’m anxious or depressed, immersing myself in their world is akin to borrowing back a little bit of that innocence. Whoa. That was deep.
Children are also hilarious, random, and if they’re anything like my little angels, they might teach you a few new pretend swear words.
8. Learn about depression and anxiety: Caveat – it’s probably not a good idea to read too much about these topics while in the midst of an attack, this is more of a long-term strategy. Finding out that you aren’t alone, that good people, strong people, normal people have the same thought patterns, struggles, and fears as you do, and learning how they cope can be both freeing and healthy. The more I learned about my own biochemistry and how it affects my life and my thoughts, the easier it was (and still is) to identify irrational thoughts and fears that often trigger episodes.
Think of it like an allergy, a skin condition, any other kind of disease or illness in the world – information on what is happening is inherently good. The problem I’ve found in learning about mental illness is that since it directly affects my cognition, I have a hard time using the information properly in the moment. I’ve used it as an excuse, as a crutch, and (unintentionally) as an anxiety inducer.
Tried and true methods exist, too. Talk, write, share, walk, hide, do whatever it takes to get through it. Remember, anxiety and depression are things you have (kind of like the world’s worst birthday present), they aren’t things that have you.