We don’t talk much about anxiety, or depression, or mental health in general. And yet, in my privileged little pocket of suburbia, it seems to be endemic, whether it’s an edgy feeling lurking just below the surface (can’t survive without the 5pm glass of wine), or something more debilitating.
I’ve been dealing with anxiety for the better part of a year now. In retrospect, it had long been there, but had skirted the periphery lightly enough that I was able to smooth it over and ignore it. Until out of the blue I developed a fear of flying and confined spaces and just like that anxiety became something I had to learn to cope with.
Talking about it can be a bit of a downer, and is part of the reason I’ve held off on sharing my story. It’s way more fun to write about something light and frivolous than to fess up to the fact that sometimes I find life overwhelming. I’d far rather pretend to be one of the copers who effortlessly coast through, but truth is, I do find life overwhelming. Sometimes it feels loud and fast-paced and demanding and I want to run for cover.
I suspect another reason we don’t talk much about it is because we live in a country where so many live in abject poverty. If your life ticks all the boxes that society deems necessary for a happy and comfortable existence, your anxiety can start to feel like a champagne problem (which some might argue, it is). But adding guilt into the mix will do little to soothe your anxious soul.
Hopefully without sounding too preachy, here’s some of what has helped me:
Staying in the room
Perhaps the biggest lesson is that I can’t outrun my anxiety, I can only slow down enough to hear what it’s trying to tell me. Because like anything that’s uncomfortable and untimely and a giant big pain in the ass, it’s a chance to grow.
When we’re anxious or (*insert any uncomfortable emotion*), our instinct is to try push the feeling away or smooth it over, usually by reaching for the nearest distraction. But I’ve been experimenting with something that feels totally counter-intuitive—which is to surrender to any unpleasant feelings that crop up. To take them by the hand and welcome them as I would an old friend.
Enter mindfulness and meditation (it’s often said that too much future thinking causes anxiety, and too much thinking about the past causes depression, and by implication the only place we can find any real peace is in the present moment).
It’s easy to dismiss mindfulness as pop culture woo woo, as it’s quite a watery concept that can be tricky to get a handle on. But it really is a wonderful balm for an overworked, exhausted mind. If you think of your anxiety as a little messenger trying to get your attention, try giving it that—your full attention. Experiment a little by stopping what you’re doing and engaging with whatever discomfort arises.
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes beautifully about how to do this. She talks about nailing yourself to the spot by leaning in to rather than backing away from any emotion that surfaces. It takes work (and courage) because you have to override that whole flight or fright feeling. Staying with it is hard and confronting. Like most mindfulness practitioners, Pema encourages us to do it as gently as possible, and to try not get caught up in any story about the emotions we’re experiencing.
Here’s an effective little trick she suggests: every time you catch yourself stuck inside your own head (you know that endless chatter in your mind?) just say to yourself ‘Thinking’. It’s a very simple way of bringing you back from wherever you’ve drifted off to. Don’t beat yourself up when it happens, and do it over and over again, a million times a day if you need to. It’s through watching your mind like this (and becoming the observer) that you start to cultivate mindfulness.
Other excellent thought leaders in mindfulness are Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wonderfully titled book ‘Wherever You Go, There you are’. Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now’ is another important book, and any of his talks will give you great insights into the transformative power of the present moment.
The point of meditation—I think— is to get to know ourselves, and then to learn to love and accept what we find (our nice shiny bits, and our shitty bits too). Because ultimately all love begins with self-love (you know how they say we can only love another person as much as we love ourselves).
Self-love sounds so deceptively simple, but we can be unkind to ourselves in remarkably subtle ways. To use just one example—the plight of the modern woman. Women these days can be visible and make our voices heard, we have choices like never before and we can be fabulous and fierce. If we step into our power, does it come at a cost? And what if we don’t want it all? What if we want to live a simple life far from the maddening crowd. Is that enough? Will we forever disappear into obscurity?
It sounds like existential angst of the privileged, but we really are bombarded by so many messages of what we could be doing and should be doing, it’s easy to wind up feeling that we’re not enough. Which is a one-way ticket to anxiety.
Two pioneers in the field of self-compassion are Tara Brach and Kristin Neff. It’s worth checking them out if you feel you can be a little kinder to yourself. Tara Brach has wonderful guided meditations on self-love, and as a psychologist, has amazing insights into the human condition and how our minds work.
Yoga and Breathing
Anxiety is something that starts in our heads and travels down into our bodies — yoga is a wonderful way to interrupt that. Think of it as pent up energy that needs space, to open up and clear. The twists and the openings in yoga postures help dispel any emotional overload in the body, in much the same way that surfing or skiing or any physical endeavour that’s completely immersive does.
Breath work is an important part of yoga, and there are many breathing techniques you can experiment with. Here are three of my favourite:
- Ujjayi breath—breathe in through your nose for a count of 3, exhale slowly and deeply through your nose for a count of 4 using the ujjayi or oceanic breath—that deep, throaty sound you make in the back of your throat as you exhale.
- Box breathing—4 breaths in / hold for 4 / 4 breaths out / hold for 4
- The 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Inhale though your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. This is great when you can’t fall asleep, or you wake in the middle of the night and your mind starts jabbering away.
The only way out is through
When I’m caught in the grip of an anxious spell (closed spaces and aeroplanes do this to me), I remind myself that I can’t hyperventilate and breathe deeply at the same time—it’s a physical impossibility. I remind myself that I might be uncomfortable for a few minutes, it might even be agonising. For a few seconds I may even want to crawl out my own skin, but whatever arises, it will most definitely pass.
Emotions seldom stick around for more than a few minutes, if we just let them be. Somehow shining a light on them seems to dilute the intensity of the feeling and make it less compelling.
And if all else fails and I can’t remember my breathing or my mantras, these two words always come to mind: ‘Don’t resist’. The minute I say those words I can feel my body start to soften.
‘The wound is the place where the light enters you’ —Rumi
‘Stay brave, awkward, and kind’
I love this little phrase of Brene Brown, a researcher and storyteller known for her work on shame and resilience, vulnerability and courage. Brene is like a great gulp of fresh air in our endlessly striving world. If you’re struggling with issues of enough-ness (being enough, doing enough), get your hands on anything written or said by her, particularly her books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. It might just inspire you to ditch ‘perfect’ and show the world your imperfect, messy, awkward self.
I really loved her article ‘The Midlife Unravelling’. I had this idea that by the time I got to my forties I’d be pretty sussed— living life on my own terms, in whatever damn way I please. It’s not entirely panned out that way and that’s okay, because we can’t all be fabulous and fierce, but we can all be ourselves. It’s the only thing we can really be.
It can be quite a process to excavate who that person is. As Brene Brown puts it, we spend the first half of our lives building up our armour to protect ourselves, and the second half tearing it down to reveal our true selves. Removing our armour requires us to be vulnerable, which requires us to be brave, but it’s a journey so many of us feel compelled to take; we want to dig and unearth who we are underneath all that social conditioning.
Sometimes we get distracted, and we think we’ll get back round to it later, but then the universe steps in and sends us little reminders, which can come in the form of anxiety, or depression or any host of illness and dis-ease. It’s seldom pleasant, but if we’re committed to living as authentically as we can, and opening our hearts as much as we can, it’s often the reminder we need that life is precious, and the time is now.
‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken’ —Oscar Wilde
Do you have any tips or tricks that help you find a semblance of calm in this crazy beautiful world we live in?