First Things First: Managing Anxiety Right Now
Here we are on World Mental Health Day, with much more awareness around this increasing issue and still yet so far to go. Even those close to me still grapple with the stigma around mental health and certain labels or ideas of how you’re ‘supposed’ to respond and manage your mental health.
A big part of me wishes that we didn’t even need to have a day to recognise mental health issues because it wasn’t a ‘thing’. Having been affected by mental health issues for much of my life, both myself and within my family, it’s something that I still don’t share enough. Out of respect for my family, I’ll only share my own story and not theirs.
So before I dive in, a little background.
When I was 18, my parents separated and went on to divorce. Will all of us living in the same house for about a year, it was hell. The tension was impalpable and when I look back now, I was still a kid and struggling through my own stuff too. I remember laying in bed one night just wishing that I could be in a white room, a white bed with nothing and no-one around me. That was the first time I ever considered suicide. Looking back, I was struggling with depression for a number of years but figured that everyone else had ‘bigger’ problems than me and so never asked for help.
Fast forward a few years to 22 when I met my hubby. The thing about relationships is that they’re our greatest teachers. It’s like shining a big fat mirror back on you. The first few times my hubby raised my mood swings and pointed out my periods of deep, dark lows and extreme elation and highs, I was defensive. “You don’t understand!” was said more than once.
And then my Dad died in 2016 when I was 27. And it hit me like a tonne of bricks. Over and over again. My mood swings, my lows and my highs were put under a magnifying glass and had a flashlight focused on them. They became more frequent, darker, higher. Much of this was grief, but as the year progressed and I spent A LOT of time alone, I realised that I had always dealt with this. Just over the course of months, rather than weeks.
It was then I realised - woah. I’m not the ‘sane’ one in my family. Now I realise how awful that is to say, but I too, was part of the problem! There was a certain stigma attached to mental illness for me even when I was dealing with it myself. My Dad’s passing also made me realise just how important it is to ask ‘are you ok? no, really, are you ok?’ to EVERYONE. Even the ones who seem like they’ve got their shit together. You never know what’s under the surface.
Now in 2018, I’m managing my anxiety and depression. I still deal with it and face mood swings and dark periods and I am not on medication, though I have seriously considered it at times. I aim to manage my mental health through self-care, meditation, mindfulness and my daily anchors - things of certainty throughout my day that I know I have control of and can return to. And for the most part, I’m incredible happy and healthy! I still have bad days, bad weeks, like we all do, but I return to my ‘toolkit’ and make my health a priority. There’s no right or wrong answer for how you manage your own mental health, medication might be part of your toolkit and that’s perfect! Whatever works for you. I just made my own choice, as you have the ability to make your own.
But what can you do when you feel the hold of anxiety, when the nervous energy kicks in, your breath becomes shorter and sharper, you’re feeling overwhelmed, perhaps without any known reason, you’re mind is racing and you can’t ground yourself. These are all the immediate things that work for me.
Where do you start RIGHT NOW? First things first.
1. Connect smell to your breath
I really struggle to just ‘breathe’ when I feel anxiety kicking in, when the nervous energy is really taking hold - mostly in the morning for me. So using a smell or scent has been a life-saver in making me focus on something whilst forcing me to breathe. I keep a few roll-on essential oils in my handbag for moments of need on the go or at home (here are a few of my favourites) and in dire situations have made a tea and smelt the tea as it brewed.
2. Look in the mirror and tell yourself you are okay
Acknowledging myself in the mirror, saying to myself “Hey, I know this is happening right now, but I want you to know, you are okay. I can support you. You are okay.” whilst taking big breaths in. Reminding myself that I am my own best support. That I can guide myself through this.
3. Make a tea
Tea is my go-to when anxiety appears, only herbal, nothing caffeinated. Making the tea and either stepping outside or looking out a window, breathing in the smell of the tea as it brews and just focusing on something other than inside my own head. Ideally, I’d get outside into nature, but sometimes that just can’t happen - if you’re working in an office for example.
4. Ask yourself
When you initially calm down and find your breath, asking yourself - Have I slept enough? Have I nourished myself? Do I need to have a shower? What can be one thing that I can do right now that I can do with certainty? Do I need to maybe do a little more yoga? Do I need to write a to-do list - focusing on the things only that MUST be done, the rest isn’t important. I find that in moments of anxiety, first things first, I need to calm myself down. I need to switch out from my flight or fight mode and lower my rising cortisol levels immediately before I can even attempt to act on a single thing.
From here, working out what anchors I can create in my day that I know will centre and ground me first thing in the morning, every single day, has been one of the best ways to manage my anxiety and return to when I’m dealing with a depressive period. For me, that’s things like 15 minutes white space in the morning to have my matcha and sit by the window. It’s going for a walk with a podcast in nature (for me, that means the local cemetery which is the closest thing I have to a park, but hey! It has trees and squirrels!) to clear my head and get some fresh(ish - I like in London after all) air. It’s the tea breaks, the breathing breaks, the ‘Hey! You’re okay!’ bathroom breaks. So find your anchors. Find what grounds you and you can come back to. It doesn’t need to be complicated, it just needs to work!
Lastly, always remember. I am here for you. Whatever you’re dealing with, suffering from, managing, I’m here. And there’s a network of people around you that fucking care. Trust me on that. I love you, here’s the a brighter mental health future for us all.