What does it feel like?
For those who’ve never experienced an anxiety disorder, it can be hard to imagine.
When chatting with a group of friends, someone suddenly seems to drift, no longer present in the conversation. Inside, they’re gripped with inexplicable shortness of breath, or are manic replaying the conversation to make sure they didn’t say something wrong.
Anxiety, whether it’s a chronic disorder or situational, feels isolating. We have a hard time conveying to our loved ones what’s going on inside, and our attempts feel feeble and vulnerable. Ultimately, we turn our frustration on ourselves. Something must be wrong, or broken, we think. I’ll never feel happy.
The thing about mental illness, be it anxiety, depression, or stress, is it’s hard to think clearly when we’re wrapped in the experience. It’s as if a heavy blanket has been thrown over our minds, without leaving even the tiniest bit of light, making it impossible to “think” our way out of the experience, even if we logically know it’s a chemical experience in our brains.
This is why it can be helpful to have practices in place you can implement when you’re feeling anxious to help you inch towards self-love. Although it might feel forced to do these things when you’re anxious, vow to try them anyway. Even if we can’t “think” our way out of the experience, there are other things we can do to influence our bodies and minds, making space for love and compassion to come back into the equation.
Deep Breathing and Relaxation Techniques
If you think about it, breathing is pretty fascinating. It’s both something we do unconsciously, and something we can control.
When we’re anxious, our fight-flight response has been triggered, hijacking our brains and our breathing. We take shallow breaths, that familiar feeling of being hyped up. But we can always reinstate control over our breath, which in turn calms our nervous system, quieting the fight-flight response, thereby reducing our anxiety. (1)
Here are two breathing practices you can do when you feel anxious. This is a way you can take care of yourself physically when anxiety has taken over, even if you can’t find the space in your heart to care for yourself emotionally.
Option One: Alternate Nostril Breathing
Find a quiet place to sit where you won’t be disturbed. Sit in a chair or on the ground with your legs crossed, or propped against a wall with your legs stretched out in front of you. Sit tall so your belly has more room to move out and in.
Gently place your thumb and forefinger on each of your nostrils, pressingly lightly so your nostrils aren’t plugged, but your fingers are grazing the skin.
Take a few normal breaths, filling your belly with air as you inhale. When you reach the bottom of your exhale, squeeze your abdomen as if you’re ringing all the air out. Relax your belly as you bring in a fresh inhale.
Now, begin alternate nostril breathing. On your inhale, use your thumb to plug one nostril, drawing in air only from the opposite nostril until you’re full. As you breath out, release your thumb and press your forefinger to plug the other nostril, breathing out the side you did not breath in. Repeat the pattern, breathing in and out slow and evenly, plugging alternate nostrils on the inhale and exhale.
If this feels comfortable after a few rounds, you can plug both nostrils at the top of your inhale for a second or two, noticing how it feels to be filled with air. Exhale out one nostril.
Option Two: Square Breathing (3)
This exercise has four parts. With each step, imagine a square being drawn in your head, its sides even and straight.
Breathe in for four seconds, drawing the first side of the square in your mind (it doesn’t matter which side). Hold your breath for four seconds, drawing the next side of the square. Breathe out for four seconds (the third side of the square). Then hold your exhale for four seconds, completing the figure.
The imagery is a way to demonstrate the four components of the exercise. It’s also a calming mechanism, keeping your breath steady through each section.
Continue until you feel your body settling and growing heavy. Again, if you feel lightheaded or panicked at any point, stop the exercise and breathe normally. There’s no need to judge this response. It’s simply your body’s way of saying this is not the right exercise for you at this time.
Disconnect From Technology
Nothing spurs anxiety or self-judgment like social media. When you’re feeling anxious, one of the most loving things you can do for yourself is disconnect. (4)
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t reach out to someone if you’re in need of company. In fact, having someone be with you in the flesh might be just what you need. Technology, including social media, creates a sense of overwhelm, and can encourage judgment and comparison. (5) Let’s be honest: we don’t need any more of that right now.
Forbid yourself from technology, unless it’s to make arrangements with a friend. Instead, go outside and walk in a forest, relocate to a coffee shop, read a book, take a bath, journal, create art, or nap. Give yourself a clean slate away from the screens and see if the world shifts a little bit around you, giving you a slightly different perspective, and a more accepting and loving mind.
Work With Your Thoughts, Not Against Them
Your anxious, and your thoughts are driving you mad. They seem to have a life of their own, and their only purpose is ruminating on this one thing!
Instead of snapping back at our thoughts, or trying to shut them down with vitriol, we can choose a different option. It goes something like this:
Hey, brain. Look, I know you’re really anxious about deciding whether or not I should go to grad school. I see you in there, going over the pro/con list like it’s the latest Game of Thrones prediction. The problem is, I really need to pay attention to this meeting right now, and you’re giving me that no-one’s-home-upstairs look. I’m not trying to shut you down or push you away, because lordy knows that never works, but I am asking you one thing: how about we think about this later? This evening we’ll set aside some time to think about grad school, but right now, please let me be present at my meeting. Sound good?
I know it seems silly, but putting your thoughts on a schedule like this is highly effective. By allowing your thoughts to step to the side, knowing they’ll be addressed and they don’t need to keep banging on your door, you can return to the present moment with greater clarity, acceptance, and self-care.
Find Your Tribe
Although we often think we’re the only person in the world suffering from anxiety, or down days, the truth is, there are 7 billion people on the planet. We’re not as unique as we think!
Finding a community that understands what we’re going through is a powerful way to help us love ourselves when we’re feeling anxious. Sometimes we need other people to love us before we can love ourselves. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s strength.
One of the most loving things we can do for ourselves is to realize we weren’t meant to go through life alone. We’re social creatures, and relationships are at the core of living a happy life, internally and externally. (6)
Identify your friends or community members who aren’t afraid to be with you when you’re feeling anxious. They’re the ones who will sit beside you, listen to what you have to say, and simply be present with you, not feeling like they need to “fix” you.
We’d all prefer if our friends could read our minds, but it doesn’t work that way. What we can do is expressly tell our loved ones what we want from them when we’re feeling a certain way.
“When I say I’m feeling anxious, I’d really love it if you’d sit with me for a bit and ask how things are going. You don’t need to do anything besides listen. It really helps me feel less alone, even if I can’t tell you that at the time.”
It’s uncomfortable for us to be with our loved ones when they’re hurting. Letting your community know how they can best support you will give them a feeling of engagement instead of helplessness.
If there’s no one in your personal life who can empathize with your experience, there are online communities you can join to fulfill that need. As you continue meeting new community members, explore what it’s like to be vulnerable and open up about your anxiety. Many of us bottle our experiences, and once we begin sharing, we might be surprised by how many people can relate.
Your tribe is the people who will be there for you, full of understanding and love. Through their empathy and compassion, you can learn to love yourself, too. Our Facebook Group is full of these type of loving, caring and truly wonderful people!
Daily Habits and Routines
There are a number of tried-and-tested tools we can implement daily to help our physical and mental health. Here are a few things you can add to a “What To Do When I Feel Anxious” list. When your anxiety starts creeping up, turn to your list and implement your to-do’s without thinking about it. It’s a sneaky way to take care of yourself when self-love might be furthest from your mind. Our Compass can really help you get into a solid daily routine of self-loving practice as well.
No Caffeine Or Alcohol
If you’re trying to encourage a state of peace and calm when your body and mind are already jittery, it’s smart to avoid adding more of that feeling in the form of caffeine. In fact, coffee affects anxiety to such an extreme there’s a new diagnosis: caffeine-related anxiety.
Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant. It might alleviate some of the immediate symptoms anxiety creates, but it can actually worsen anxiety after it wears off by changing the brain’s natural levels of happy neurochemicals. (7) What’s worse, if we always turn to alcohol when we feel anxious, it can lead to dependency.
The best advice is: drink alcohol responsibly, and drink when you already feel happy and calm.
Eat Good Food and Exercise
These seem like no-brainers, but it’s hard to find better-supported research than the impact of exercise on the brain and body. Studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective, if not more effective, than medications used to treat anxiety and depression. (8) It doesn’t have to be a hard workout, either! Some studies suggest that even a brisk 10-minute walk can relieve anxiety as effectively as a 45-minute workout. (9) Walking will also give you a break from technology, hitting two birds with one stone. Add in a bit of sunshine to boost your Vitamin D levels and you’ve got a trifecta of benefits! (10)
Making good dietary choices is another way to help alleviate anxiety. Our gut is referred to as our “second brain.” You know those butterflies we get in our stomachs when we’re feeling anxious? Our guts are intricately linked to our nervous systems, and to our brains. (11)
If we eating poorly when we’re feeling anxious – and let’s be honest, food is a comfort we commonly seek – it’s not likely to help the situation. Try and have some snacks on hand, ones you’ve pre-approved when you’re not anxious. If you’re into sweets when you’re anxious, try fresh fruit instead of cookies. If it’s fatty, crunchy things you seek, have some homemade sweet potato chips on hand.
A good rule of thumb when you’re feeling anxious is to continue eating a well-balanced diet, and try to avoid sugar or processed carbohydrates as much as possible. Both will only worsen your symptoms of anxiety, and we want to use all the tools we have to help us return to a state of calm and peace. (12)
Acceptance and Compassion
Create a practice of acceptance and compassion around your anxiety. This is how you feel right now. It might be uncomfortable, and it might demand a break from the pace you usually like to maintain. As you slow down to accommodate your needs, recognize that it isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong, you don’t “deserve” this because you’re inherently bad. It’s simply how things are right now, and you’re working to make improvements.
Accepting things as they are helps us embrace life nonjudgmentally. In the space of acceptance, a little loosening of our habitual tightness, we can give ourselves compassion.
It’s not always easy being human, having emotions, living in our modern society. We need to cut ourselves some slack, to realize that we aren’t perfect, we’re never going to be perfect, and that’s okay.
Find a quiet place to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and repeat these words to yourself.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be whole.
May I be peaceful.
These are the things we simply wish for ourselves, and for everyone around us. We know how challenging life can be, and we never know what someone is going through. We all deserve a little more love, a little more compassion, and we can start giving it to ourselves today, in this very moment. It’s time to choose differently. It's time to choose love.