Anxiety sucks*. For me, it started back in 2009 right before I turned 30 and I was dating a mountain guide and had lost my job and I was just… wandering. Alas, I didn’t know I was suffering from anxiety. I thought I had such major digestive issues that I even went to a doctor who put a camera down my throat to look at my stomach.
But it was this doctor who sat me down and asked me “what’s going on in your life right now?”
When I explained, he said “that sounds like a lot. And I think you’ve trained your brain to take you out of the game by creating panic attacks [which result in you becoming physically sick].”
Searching for a solution
I did a lot of things… went to a therapist, tried gluten free, tried a blood type diet, and listened to guided meditations. I even did some work with a voice dialogue coach. (Voice Dialogue is an acting technique that allows the actor to access all personalities, so I was able to “speak” with my anxiety.)
I learned that my anxiety shows up because it wants me to be safe.
When I got engaged, my anxiety went away for a few years. Which made sense in the context of safe: things became stable. For me, stable = safe. It came back when my husband and I were going through rocky times, as was my music career. And then it went away again.
But when it comes back, it comes back with a vengeance. I get anxiety about when I’m going to get anxiety again. There are triggers that I am starting to recognize: My husband sometimes helps me overcome anxiety (see #4 below), though sometimes he (or the idea if we’re disagreeing that I am not “stable”) triggers it. “Stress” isn’t a thing that I experience often, but when I feel overwhelmed (or underfunded), that, too, becomes a trigger.
It’s not stress
My friend would say “oh you’re anxious again… what are you stressed about?”
I continue to tell him they are not one in the same. Stress would be welcomed. Anxiety is just… hopelessness.
During a particular bad attack (which included pulling my car over and dry heaving),I somehow made it home to my desk and forced myself to write a letter to my non-anxious self. It helped to get it on paper, and it helped to know I was writing to a future me (one that is often hard to imagine during an anxiety attack).
“Dear Cheryl-Without-Anxiety, this sucks. Hopelessness, directionless. Anger, resentment, fear. Confused. Not enough. Sick. Weak. Weepy. Inconsolable. Sad. So Sad. Impatient. Untrusting. Unstable.”
Writing this was enough to call out all the nasty feelings and cause them to slowly slink away.
And then I did my other 10 lines of defense that I have pretty much locked in. I recognize when the anxiety is starting to rumble behind my sternum and start at the top of the list, just going down one item at a time until it goes away. And that’s the key thing for me: to know that it will go away.
So, without further ado…
10 lines of defense against anxiety
1. Talk to it. Yes. I say “you’re safe, Cheryl. You’re fine.” Sometimes it helps more if someone else says this. A guided meditation or someone you love. I have handed my husband a script. “This is what to say when I’m anxious. Do not improvise, these are the things I need to hear.”
2. Deep breathing. Breathing is often the first thing people tell you to do during an anxiety attack. Once I’ve recognized it’s present and have talked to it, I breathe, deep. I think of trying to get oxygen to the places in my lungs where it doesn’t usually get to. Sa-Ta-Na-Ma are four syllables that I breathe in on, and I exhale on two big breaths. Sometimes this stops it in its tracks.
3. Get gratitude. So it turns out one of the few scientifically proven methods to achieve happiness is training your brain to be grateful. When you do, it starts looking for good things to be grateful for, and slowly stops looking for what’s wrong. I took this advice from an article I read last year about a 23 minute morning routine. So starting January 1 last year, I wrote three things a day, meditated for 2 minutes, did at least 5 minutes of walking or yoga and I kept it up through October. I said “yeah I got this now”. Guess when my anxiety started to come back? Yep. October last year. This year, I started again, this time with an organized journal to keep me going (though it’s not hard, now knowing the positive effects). I use this one, though it’s not perfect, it’s a start.
4. Massaging hands, then feet. Touch is a sense that allows us to go outside our heads. I was once told to touch 5 things and focus on how they feel. This started to bring me outside of the anxiety and back into the real, tangible world. Additionally, I was doing some research on empaths after a week where three different people told me I was one. (I felt like Harry Potter: “you’re a wizard, Harry!”) Turns out empaths can take on the energy of others, and, if it’s not released, it can manifest itself in ugly ways. A common way for empaths to “release” is through the hands and feet. (I told my husband this and he said “no WONDER you’re obsessed with rugs!”)
5. Talk it out. Sometimes just saying the problem outloud diminishes it. And bonus points if there’s a person on the receiving end who can listen, tell you that you are okay, and who can even make you laugh. At the very least, hearing another’s voice brings you into the real world, outside of the anxiety.
6. Chamomile tea. There has been a lot of scientific support that this herbal tea can reduce brain activity on a chemical level, relieving us of muscle spasms, insomnia, and yes, anxiety. When I feel the attack coming on, I head straight to the tea drawer.
7. Move. For me this is taking a walk outside, or a bit of yoga by myself. Gently getting the blood moving and unsticking those “stuck” feelings really helps. I’m a huge fan of Gaiam’s Yoga Studio app. Because of this app, I will never have to deal with someone’s loud breathing or smelly feet again. It is beautifully organized with infinite options of length, intensity, and kind of yoga. They’ve even introduced a series of beautiful guided meditations.
8. Hot bath with Lavender Epsom salts. Our body temperature drops for sleep, so raising it in a hot bath helps start the process, calming us down. Epsom salts just because they’re magical and why not. Why lavender? See #9. I’ll even throw in a bath bomb (these are my FAVORITEs) and roll it around in my hands and on my feet (See #4).
9. Moisturize with lavender cream. Over the years, I’ve trained my body that when it smells lavender, it’s bedtime. Now, most of my anxiety attacks happen at night, so while this is a good sleep-inducing technique, it’s also a good one for simply calming down. Lavender is known for its calming and soothing effects, as well as many other health benefits.
10. Listen to a guided meditation. This is my last line of defense. And it always always works. I tried doing it first, when I initially feel the anxiety and it doesn’t stop it, so I’m not sure why but here it is, number ten. My favorite apps for guided meditation are Simple Habit (this one has a beautiful anxiety-specific series) and Breathe.
I hope this helps shed even the slightest sliver of light when you’re feeling in the dark. Please don’t hesitate to reach out, share what has worked for you, or to vent in the comments below. You’re not alone, and I am listening.
*All information and resources found on Living On Gigging.com are based on the opinions of the author unless otherwise noted. All information is intended to inspire readers to make their own decisions after consulting with their healthcare provider. I am not a doctor, lawyer, psychiatrist, therapist, or your mother, and I don’t play one on the internet.
**I occasionally share products or services that I LOVE which means that I’ve tried them, successfully, and will provide you with a link, usually to Amazon. This link may be an affiliate link, meaning I get a few cents at no extra cost to you, which ultimately add up and allow me to pay for things like hosting this site, and food. I only share products I’ve tried myself and will never be creepy about affiliates.