It’s not often that I give much air time to the fickle beast that is anxiety, but I’ve recently been surprised how many people respond when I do. An alarming number of us are affected by it and many people admit to finding comfort when others share their experiences openly so I figured it was about time I followed suit (particularly as I have been reassured myself, many a time, by hearing that others share some of the same frustrating symptoms and life disruptions it can cause – there’s something about knowing that, even if you’re bat shit crazy, at least you’re not the only one). Of course, I don’t mean to say that all people with anxiety are bat shit crazy even though a few of my dear friends and I will agree we cleanly fall into both buckets. Just that I know it can be reassuring to hear that other people understand your experiences so, despite not wanting to appear to be wearing a “health struggle” as a badge of honour, I thought I’d share part of mine.
What does anxiety actually feel like?
Once upon a time, I used to think anxiety was the same as just “feeling anxious” and could be treated by simply “getting over it” or “calming down”. In a similar way, I used to think that chronic or adrenal fatigue were the same as just “being tired” and that you could get through it just by knocking back a coffee and putting your big girl pants on. But, like many invisible bodily phenomena, it’s very hard to grasp the concept until you’ve actually experienced it yourself either personally or by close exposure through a loved one. My younger less-than-self-aware self had no idea that both would do a number on me and very quickly redress my earlier misconceptions.
As I mentioned above, I don’t mean to tell yet another health epiphany story where I had a health breakdown, discovered the world of wellness, overcame the issues and then ta-da I’m now living my best life in a wellness business. Although some health struggles do happen to be part of our Matcha Maiden and subsequent business story, 1) you don’t have to have a health crisis to have a good story and start a business in wellness and 2) I never want to appear to be telling a simple “post-recovery” story because, in fact, in my case at least it’s something I still struggle with. Rather than a badge of honour, it’s actually something I’m tempted to hide because I’m frustrated that I know all the right things to do but still have backwards steps every now and then (which is totally not “on brand”). But, for the sake of openness and keeping things real (as we know I like to force myself to do), I think it’s important to share the bits that speckle the highlight reel.
So, if it’s not just “feeling anxious”, what actually is it? It manifests in different ways for everyone, but my first experience was a fully blown panic attack. I had no idea what it was at the time, but it was so physiological and beyond pure emotions that I genuinely thought I might be having a heart attack. My heart was racing and jumping out of my skin, my arms went numb, my throat felt tight, and I felt an intense sense of disaster like just before you throw up or pass out except that no “disaster” actually came. I was at my corporate job at the time and ran to the bathroom unsure of whether I’d explode or fall over and then felt so panicked I couldn’t actually leave, not even to get my things and go home, for several hours. It’s not painful, but just the most intense discomfort you could imagine and also quite confusing in that it’s often not related to any particular stimulus, it just hits you at super inconvenient times and you can’t do anything but see it through. And the hardest part for an A-type like me is not being able to just “think your way out of it” with rational thoughts.
On a less drastic basis, there are more dull, ongoing effects that I tend to get as backlash after a few weeks of intense stimulation or when I haven’t had enough sleep. Other times, it’s unrelated to anything lifestyle related but still hits me anyway. On those days, I can only describe the feeling as an intense “resistance” to doing anything at all. You’re not necessarily sad or in pain, just the true definition of “blah”. You don’t feel motivated but you don’t necessarily feel like sleeping, so sometimes I literally get the stares. It’s often accompanied by a tightly clenched feeling in the upper stomach, the solar plexus, which is also one of your energetic chakras and very in tune with stress. Try to imagine getting some bad news on the phone but not knowing any details yet and that uptight, agitated and anticipating feeling you’d have while waiting to hear more but knowing that something bad had happened. That looming clenched feeling is how anxiety manifests for me and there’s nothing you can do but squirm – so inconvenient, right??? So on those days, I often end up in the foetal position rugged up in bed feeling VERY anti-social and unlike myself. And those are the days when I might skip a #QOTD as I’m just not vibing it. I also get the jaw clenches and wear the sexiest mouthguard around town while I sleep! Poor Nic!
What can you do about it?
It obviously varies so much from person to person, but there are a few things that have helped me enormously. My best advice is to keep a journal of your symptoms (even just dot points) so you can notice what’s going on in your lifestyle and how that affects you. Sleep is very intimately related to anxiety, as is stress and nutrition so it always helps to keep as healthy as you can in all areas of your life. But more specifically, these are some things I’ve found that help:
- Digital detox – This is my number one. Despite all our businesses being heavily dependent on the digital world AND despite how much I truly enjoy social media, it really is a big trigger of anxiety for so many of us. My theory is that we’ve entered an information age where technology makes a level of connection possible that our bodies haven’t had time to evolve in order to cope with and none of us are disciplined enough to pace ourselves with it, so the side effects are the increasingly widespread anxiety and depression among us. I am so grateful to social media for everything it has made possible in my life and for the wonderful people I’ve met, but I also know it makes it very difficult for me to take “down time” because it makes what everyone else is doing so visible and also leads to a lot of comparison. So I have my phone on airplane mode most of the weekend and after dinner and try to do a short weekend trip every month or so with no phone at all.
- Meditating – I meditate for 20 mins twice daily, which seemed like a huge commitment when I first started, but now is just a daily habit that everything else fits around. And it’s not just woo woo, there is science around the benefits for the brain of meditating regularly. On a more simple level, I see anxiety as a side effect of our overstimulated lives and meditation (even if we’re still thinking thoughts and not particularly enjoying it) is a pause in the information flow so our brain doesn’t get anything new and can take a moment to catch up. So many people think you have to have no thoughts, but that’s not the point at all (and is in fact impossible). Even if you don’t enjoy meditation OR believe in it, it still works so even if you hate every minute of it your brain will still benefit from the pause. I trained with the amazing Laura Poole and have previously used 1 Giant Mind and Smiling Mind apps.
- Walking – There are immeasurable health benefits to simply walking 30 minutes per day but particularly for mental health. It’s not intense enough to stimulate cortisol, the stress hormone, too much but still gets your blood flowing and fresh air into the body. When you feel like you don’t want to move or leave the house, even just a quick walk around the block can break things up if you just encourage yourself to do it. There’s something about the repetitive motion too that helps you breathe through it. If you have a dog, take them with you and put your phone on airplane mode – dogs are serious therapy animals and can sense your emotions when you’re down.
- Manual tasks – Sometimes, nothing can make it better in the immediate but some activities can help the time pass until you come through it. When your brain just can’t cope with work or too much thinking, I find distracting it for a little while with something gentle and repetitive can also help you feel “busy” but not overwhelmed. I’ve re-discovered jigsaw puzzles as well as gardening (so random) because you feel productive but can’t do anything else at the same time and can’t expect too much of yourself either while you’re doing it. Cooking, sewing, painting, dancing – all of those activities can really help (and of course, there’s always Netflix/Stan/Amazon etc). I think these days we all focus too much on work and rest but have lost sight of “play” or doing things for leisure.
- Breathing – Deep slow breaths tap into your parasympathetic nervous system and can slow your whole body down. We spend more time than necessary in our “fight or flight” mode these days which is a state that certainly doesn’t help an anxious Anthea like myself. This stuff gets really science-y so I won’t go too deep but feel free to Google some breathing techniques, the PNS, fight or flight response and the related – deep breathing for a few minutes before you do anything else always makes you feel better.
- Talking – It is always important to have supportive people around you and, if your case is particularly severe, it can be incredibly useful to get some professional support from a therapist or psychologist. But at the very least, it helps to be able to reach out to someone in the harder moments to chat through it, share stories or even just for a hug. Sometimes we only really achieve a revelation by talking it out with a trusted source.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten so many parts of the experience and tips I’ve gathered along the way – that’s the other thing that’s challenging, that it’s hard to remember how it feels when it’s not present. Which in itself is pretty reassuring – you can completely forget about it between moments. When I don’t feel anxious, which is more often than not, I absolutely AM living my best life and experience the highest levels of joy, gratitude and fulfilment. While it can be crippling on some days, it doesn’t mean you can’t live a fully meaningful and exciting life and fit in everything you want to once you learn how to manage yourself.
That’s the key in all of this, is accepting it and working around it instead of trying to achieve a completely “anxiety-free” life then being disappointed when it returns. I’ve definitely gone through times where I’ve resisted it and felt grumpy and been through the whole “why me?” thing, but that achieves very little. In fact, in many of us, anxiety is just a symptom of being highly strung and overactive in the brain department which is the same thing that makes us great. I’ve learnt that on the days when it hits me unexpectedly and inconveniently, I can’t do anything about it except surrender to it and just clear that day for going a bit more slowly. I just re-arrange what I can to create some space and move on when I feel better. Accept what you can’t change and change what you can’t accept!
Hope this has been in some way helpful and if you have any questions, let me know! If you need to talk to someone, Beyond Blue is a great starting point.
Thanks to the beautiful Neiyo for this snap taken for my Beauticate feature. What image do you even use for an anxiety post!? Interesting reflection for me when trying to find one that anxious moments aren’t exactly when you feel like taking photos or sharing all the feels, which is why it often stays hidden from the highlight reel. So don’t forget that you never know what’s going on behind the scenes x