So this post is going to be a sort of hints and tips guide to coping with anxiety for those of you who either don’t want to go on medication or simply can’t bring yourself to speak to a GP about it. Struggling through anxiety can be difficult but there are ways of making life easier for yourself. I’ll share some of the methods that have worked for me in the past and provide some useful links for where you can locate certain materials. If you have your own techniques that I haven’t mentioned then feel free to comment them below or write your own article as a guest writer!
Where to Begin…
Anxiety can be tough and depending on how badly it impacts you, it can actually be debilitating. It took me years of trying different techniques to find some that were genuinely effective so hopefully you’ll save yourself some time with this list. I’m going to start with some of the more “clichéd” examples.
Train your Body to Train your Mind
You’ll hear this from most people who have anxiety: that exercise is a great tool for combatting it. Yes and no. For me, it was never as simple as exercising. It’s not like I went to for a half-assed gym session or a quick run and suddenly felt cured, there is a little more to it than that. Anxiety symptoms can creep in at any moment and the fact you jogged to the shop doesn’t fix that.
Some Exercise is better than No Exercise
Don’t let me downplay the importance of exercise. Anxiety disorders can keep you locked away in your own little tower, guarded by a dragon. As someone who suffers for social anxiety primarily, I often found it difficult to take those first few steps towards exercising. How could I go to the gym if I’d have to interact with people? How could I do that once, never mind 4 or 5 times a week? The truth is, going to a gym or joining a running club or some other fitness group is a great way to step outside your comfort zone. I’ll cover that in more detail shortly.
Set Yourself Goals
For me, what really pushed my fitness and ultimately worked as an anxiety treatment (or at least a way to reduce the symptoms of more extreme anxiety and anxiety attacks) was seeing myself goals. This depends entirely on your type of exercise. If you’re a runner then set yourself a goal to reduce your time to run a mile by 30 seconds. If you’re a weight lifter, set yourself a goal to get a full set on a certain weight. Keeping track of your progress (which may be a little slow to start with) will work to keep you motivated but will also allow you to look back and see how much you’ve improved.
Allow Yourself to Obsess
This may sound like a strange piece of advice but allow yourself to go crazy over your new hobby. Perhaps you need new running shoes or protein for the gym. Get them! If it’s giving you something extra to focus on and work towards then don’t let yourself worry over small costs here and there. Look at it as an investment into your own health (both mental and physical). We are all motivated by different things. For me, I found that buying protein powder worked as a sort of reward system in the sense that going to the gym meant I got a tasty milkshake.
This is something that you’ll find is mentioned for most of the anxiety treatment methods I’ll be mentioning in this post. If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but go to the gym once and expect to instantly look better or feel stronger. You have to focus on looking into the future. It may take a month, maybe two, maybe six but if you stick to a routine then you will definitely notice results! Don’t allow yourself to fall out of your routine. Once you start missing days or retreating back to your tower, you slip into weeks and months of doing anything which is a horrible feeling!
Again, we’ll be exploring one of the anxiety reducing techniques that you’ll find mentioned everywhere: meditation. Perhaps meditation doesn’t seem like your thing. You look at it as being up there with horoscopes and crystals. I don’t blame you. I used to view meditation in this manner and it wasn’t until I read a book by Sam Harris called Waking Up: A Guide to Spiritualty without Religion that I began to look at mediation for what it truly is: awareness. While you do get varying types of meditation (some of which do involve running away with the fairies) the more basic types are simply focusing your mind. That’s it!
If you’re new to meditation or perhaps don’t have any resources then allow me to share mine with you. Sam Harris has a guided meditation on YouTube that is incredibly straightforward and useful. There’s nothing wishy washy or airy-fairy about it. It lasts around 30 minutes and it’s pretty relaxing and enjoyable. You can read about one of my experiences from this meditation here. There are also apps available that offer many guided meditation tracks. The one that I’ve found most useful is called ‘Calm’. Most of the tracks are free and it has various lessons such as 9 days of Mindfulness. It’s great for beginners and helps you to improve your technique.
With meditation, it’s important to keep your feet on the ground in terms of what you expect to receive from it. You won’t meditate and suddenly feel cured. However, if you meditate regularly (most tracks only last 10 minutes) then you will begin to notice a difference. I found that while it didn’t do much for my social anxiety, it did help with my anxiety attacks. Everyone will be different and meditation isn’t for all of us. If you give it a try for a month or so and don’t notice any difference then at least you can say you tried. I find that I feel incredibly relaxed after any meditation session I have.
Avoid, Avoid, Avoid
What you put into your body plays a major role in your mental health. You don’t have to diet or eat only organic food stuffs but avoiding certain substances can certainly help with coping with anxiety. In this section, I’ll take you through some of the products I now actively avoid. My general rule for life is that most things are fine in moderation. You can drink a cup of coffee, have a glass of wine, smoke a joint or eat a pizza but if you do any of these things too often, it will have a negative impact.
When you have anxiety, I’m sorry to say that coffee is your enemy. This may or may not come as a shock to you but coffee is my number 1 trigger of anxiety attacks. I mean I can drink the occasional cup here and there but it’s not something I regularly indulge in. Caffeine can trigger anxiety attack symptoms such as sweating, nausea, increased heart rate and even erratic breathing. Once these symptoms occur, your brain basically assume you’re having an anxiety attack and just rolls with it.
Similarly, alcohol and tobacco can damage your mental health and are not crutches to lean on when struggling with anxiety. I don’t smoke tobacco and I drink alcohol as rarely as possible. Usually if I’m going on a night out I’ll drink but I tend not to casually drink with meals or while watching the television. You can read a bit more about these sorts of substances (including weed and MDMA) on my other post.
I know that we all enjoy a take-out or to binge on chocolate (especially around Christmas) but allowing yourself to fill your body with junk food will make you feel worse, I guarantee it. Sure, you get the initial feeling of satisfaction but later that day or maybe the day after, you’ll feel like shit. I will sound like I’m repeating myself but moderation is key. Treat yourself every once in a while but don’t order food every night or have a fry up every morning.
Preparation is Key
If you’re heading into a situation that you know will make you anxious, then prepare yourself for it. I don’t mean stay up all night worrying about it or trying to avoid the situation all together. I mean actually prepare for it. Let me give you some examples:
Whether you’re in school, college, university or working, there comes a time when you’ll be tested in one way or another. If (like me) sitting exams leads to anxiety attacks, then one of the best ways you can reduce this is to prepare. Make sure you’ve studied to the best of your abilities. If you’re giving a talk of some sort, practice, practice, practice! If you have reading to do for a class that sometimes involves people being randomly selected to share what they learnt, then make sure you prepare. I had one class in my first or second year of university with literally the most intense and intimidating woman I have ever met. She would just walk around the class and point at some and tell them to summarise what they now know after completing the reading. If it seemed like they hadn’t done it, they got asked to leave.
If you have a meeting or need to catch a flight, the last thing you want to do is rush. All it takes is one small delay and you’re then panicking the entire time before you even get to the stressful situation. It doesn’t exactly help the anxiety you get from flying if you’re already rattled when you reach the plane. It’s always better to arrive early rather than late! If you’re travelling with someone, make sure they know that you want to be at the airport or bus station earlier than is necessary. It’s even worse when someone else is causing you to be late.
Maybe exams or timings aren’t an issue for you. What about flying or other forms of public transport? For me, I learnt during a 3 hour flight that flying was now a trigger for my anxiety attacks. So I spent the best part of 2 hours trying to decide whether I was going to be sick or not. I’m not remotely scared anxious about the flight itself. I actually find it very peaceful being up above the world, flying through and over the clouds…what I struggle with is being crammed next to strangers in a metal tube where I don’t even have enough leg room to unbend my knees that are pressed against the seat in front. So what’s my trick? I have this song on my iPod and phone and during take-off, I listen to it. This song has been shown to reduce anxiety by 60% as it lowers your heart rate and helps control your breathing. You don’t have to do anything: simply put it on and relax. Nowadays I usually don’t need to but I always have it just in case. I used to have to take propranolol for flights but I’ve moved past that stage.
Outside Comfort Zone
Fighting anxiety is all about small steps…in most cases. Something I regularly tell people who ask for my advice is that every once in a while, you have to throw yourself in the deep end, regardless of whether you think you can swim or not (this is metaphorical, please don’t jump into a literal deep end if you don’t know how to swim). It’s tough and I’m not going to sugar coat it, sometimes it feels like the worst thing in the world…but when you come out the other side, you do feel like a different person.
Start small…or not
It could be getting a job is the first step (as it was for me) but sooner or later, do something that terrifies and excites you. I went to Cambodia for a month. The important thing is that you don’t accept your comfort, which I understand it a difficult thing to do. I’m doing it right now in life and that’s fine, every once in a while you need to enjoy the new found comfort that you’ve created. Just don’t stay there for too long or you’ll never leave.
My story goes something like this: I’d been unemployed for over a year after graduating from university. I’d move back into my parent’s house in a town that is essentially a black hole for all dreams and aspirations. I couldn’t get a job because my social anxiety was so bad that the thought of talking to strangers terrified me. How could I serve tables or work at a bar if I’d spend the entire day fighting anxiety? So I started small. I got a job stacking shelves which soon led to me being trained on the checkouts (something I’d dreaded ever having to do in my life). With practice, comes comfort and soon I was more than happy to do it!
The Big Step
Sometimes the small steps just don’t help your progress quick enough or drastically enough. It’s all well and good to feel comfortable in a shop but what about outside it? The world is a vast place and unless you go out and experience it now, chances are you never will. I feared that outcome. I started to accept the fact that I may live in the same country for the rest of my life. I even came to terms with it…luckily I managed to nudge myself out of that rut and went to Cambodia. I hit some low points but they were vastly outweighed by the high points. As such, I faced a lot of my fears and came out stronger because of it. So take that trip you’ve always talked about doing. Book your flights so that you can’t back out and just go! You’ll regret not doing it, I promise you that!
One final piece of advice relates to anxiety attacks or feeling them coming in. One trick I always use is called box breathing. There are tons of breathing techniques out there, some are better than other but I found box breathing to be the most effective for me. It’s a very simple technique. You breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4, hold for 4, and repeat. In a sense, it becomes like a form of meditation. I use this whenever I start to feel the first twinges in my body of an impending anxiety attack. Either it stops it from happening or helps me ride through it without being hit too hard.
I recommend all of you check this video out. If you’re ever stuck when making a decision, worried that you’ll make the wrong choice then this video will hopefully inspire you to worry a little less!
To Be Continued…
That’s all I have so far! I’ll update this whenever I stumble across new techniques that some of you fellow anxiety-sufferers may find useful. I’ve only included the ones that I myself have used and had work for me. There are many, many more out there but a lot of them come from people who haven’t actually experienced anxiety or an anxiety attack before. As always, don’t forget to follow me here and on Twitter! I’m happy to discuss anything with anyone so if you’re in a tough situation and feel alone, don’t hesitate to contact me!
Thanks for reading and I hope you have a great day! Peace!