Like many others, I tend to stress about stress before there’s even stress to stress about. It’s difficult to merely stay afloat in today’s fast-paced world, let alone to keep a big smile on your face; follow a gluten-free, low-carb, dairy-free, plant-based, raw, vegan diet; find your passion and turn it into a blossoming career; exercise at least three times a week; call your mum everyday and make plans with that friend who you always tell “oh, we must make plans soon!”; read the news and figure out what is happening in the world; wake up at 5:30 for your yoga class because Oprah said you should; catch up on Game of Thrones; actually brush your hair; somewhat keep up with the latest fashion trends; drink 7 glasses of water a day; and not forget to cook everything in coconut oil. This may all sound quite frivolous and fleeting. However, stress and anxiety is relative. Just because you haven’t gone through a tragic life event does not mean that your mental health is any less important. You’re in for a long one here folks, so grab a cup of tea and your favorite snack.
I have been struggling with anxiety for the past 5-6 years. I had my first panic attack during my second year of high school and I honestly thought that I was dying. Obviously, I didn’t quite understand what anxiety was at that point or how to deal with it and neither did my parents, who rushed me off to the hospital at 2 a.m. because I was convinced that I was having a heart attack. Very few people were educated on anxiety back then, including doctors and nurses who would simply pop a small tranquilizer under my tongue and tell me to “stop worrying”. For years I continued on this vicious cycle through to my last year at university when my anxiety reached a pinnacle. Then I decided that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I tried everything, but nothing seemed to help. I couldn’t quite understand why I felt this way and why others didn’t. I couldn’t understand that no matter how hard I tried coping mechanisms that ended up in amazing success stories for others, just did not work for me. I tried an entire year of therapy with hardly any results. I thought that I was going to feel this way forever.
As I’m sure many of you know, anxiety can be extremely debilitating. For quite some time I found myself unable to do even the simplest of activities like go to the gym or drive to the shops alone. There were many times when I called my mum in a flat panic on the side of the highway because I just couldn’t breathe. I would feel nervous sitting in the middle of a lecture theater, knowing that I could not run out easily. Any confined space or bright room made me feel trapped and afraid. It’s been a huge journey for me since then and I wish I could say that there was one simple solution, but there isn’t.
For the past year or two, mental health topics have increasingly been scattered over the internet. I’m so happy to see people using social platforms for generating awareness and offering their two-cents. However, all this information can be quite overwhelming and actually add to the never-ending to-do list that bogs you down every day. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest apps, articles and even eating plans to try and tackle your mountain of stress and anxiety. This may be helpful to some, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. Anxiety comes in many shapes and forms, often taking over our lives without us even realizing it. The most important part of my mental health journey was recognizing this. So, instead of listing ‘5 ways you can combat your anxiety’, I’m simply going to tell you a few things that I have done to cope.
I talk about it A LOT
There’s a reason why bottling up your feelings is bad for you. Doing this enables them to manifest in so many other ways; including your energy levels, physical health, and mental state. If I didn’t talk about how I was feeling, it would eventually build up so much that I would feel physically ill. I’ve learned to talk to my family or close friends before this happens so that I can deal with my emotions as they come, rather than one big explosion at the end that puts my body completely out of whack.
Talking about your anxiety also helps to normalize it. I would stress even more when I was feeling anxious, thinking that there was something wrong with me for feeling this way. However, the more I talked about it, the more accepting I became of it. Doing this is two-fold. Not only does it make you feel better, but it may also help someone who is experiencing similar feelings. More people than you realise experience anxiety and knowing that someone else is going through something similar can really help.
I’m learning how to quiet my mind
For me, figuring out the root cause was often a challenge. Sometimes I would feel symptoms of anxiety without even realizing that I was anxious. When your heart is pounding and your mind is spiraling, it’s really hard to quiet your thoughts and address the actual problem. When you are able to slow down your body and your thoughts, you can delve deeper and ask yourself why you are really feeling that way. I usually like to go for a run or walk in nature to do this. I find it hard to quiet my mind when I’m sitting still, so meditation does not always help me. I find that yoga is better because I can focus on the stretches and how my body feels in the moment. I love Yoga with Adrienne’s videos for some quick yoga routines before bed or in the morning.
I’m practicing new thought processes
This is definitely easier said than done, but it’s by far the most effective. More and more research is being released on something called Neuroplasticity. This theory challenges the philosophy that the adult brain is formed and static, or hard wired. Essentially, Neuroplasticity means that your brain is like a piece of play-dough – malleable and flexible. Just thinking that we can physically alter our brain’s structure and change how it functions is an amazing feeling to me and makes the future for sufferers of anxiety and other mental health conditions a much brighter one. Brain plasticity allows neurons to adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes to the environment. So, your brain is made up of what you eat, think and do repeatedly. You have the power to change it. Think about your brain as a map of little pathways. Each thought has its own pathway. However, some pathways are wider than others because they are the paths that are more traveled. Our brain will often automatically choose to go down these pathways because they are ‘the easier route’ and what we are used to. Anxiety is often a result of those well-traveled pathways that lead to a stream of negative thoughts and emotions. Think about it – how much easier is it to think negatively about yourself and situations compared to thinking about them in a positive light. In order to overcome your anxiety, you have to find new pathways and work really hard at choosing them over the others that seem ‘easier’ at the time. You need to do this until the new pathways become the ones most traveled and therefore the ones you choose automatically. So instead of spiraling into a conclusion that you will never be successful or good enough when you don’t ace that test or get a bad review, stop for a minute, look at the pathways you can take and choose wisely.
I’m more careful about what I put into my body
Ever heard the saying “you are what you eat”? Well, it’s being proven to be true now more than ever before. For centuries we have been told that we need milk to grow strong bones and meat to grow strong, healthy muscles. However, new research is showing that these ideas may be false. I had absolutely no idea how much your gut health can affect your mental health. Research has usually focused on the brain in explaining the mechanisms of anxiety and other mental disorders. However, there is a huge shift to say that so much of it is influenced by the bacteria living in your gut – known as your Microbiome. According to a team of researchers from the APC Microbiome Institute of the University College Cork in Ireland, this bacteria influences your miRNAs. This is important because these miRNAs may affect physiological processes that are fundamental to the functioning of the central nervous system and in brain regions, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression. So essentially, in order for you to be happy, you have to keep the little living bacteria in your tummy happy. After all, we carry more bacteria cells in our body than anything else. How do you do this you may ask? One of the most important factors in doing this is to eat a diet that supports good bacteria and doesn’t feed bad bacteria. Eating more natural, plant-based foods really helps to support healthy bacteria in your Microbiome. There are so many health benefits to eating a plant-based diet that I could go on about it forever. However, it’s still really important to ensure you are maintaining a balanced diet with a variety of different plants to get the nutrients that you need. A plant-based diet is not about living off fries and ketchup (although sometimes I wish it was). I’m still working on it, but I have already experienced some notable differences. Everyone is so different though, so you have to experiment and figure out what works for you.
I’m accepting it
A major turning point for me was learning that accepting my anxiety was better than trying to constantly fight it. Often when I was in the middle of an anxiety attack I would get frustrated with myself for feeling this way. I would tell myself that I was being silly and had no reason to be feeling so down in the dumps when there are people starving outside who would wish for a life like mine. My anxiety made me feel ungrateful and childish. Inevitably, this would result in even greater feelings of frustration and anxiety. Panic attacks are not very pleasant physical experiences either. Often the physical sensation that my anxiety would create would freak me out even more – making me believe that I had to try to stop feeling this way. My go-to coping mechanism would be to try and distract myself as much as possible, so I could simply forget about the way I was feeling, but of course, that would never allow me to understand the root cause. One day I just decided to stop trying to fix everything. I had a huge wave of anxious thoughts, making me feel like I was disjointed from reality – as if I was in a dream-like state. Instead of going through my usual routine of freaking out and telling myself to stop, I simply noticed how I was feeling. I told myself that I was having a small panic attack, that it’s okay and it will pass. That’s the thing you have to remember about anxiety, it’s never permanent. It’s just a temporary state that is actually quite normal.
I’m taking medication
Last but certainly not least is probably one of the most controversial points. There are obviously many different views on this and everyone will respond differently. However, for me, anxiety medication has changed my life. I have been taking an SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) for about four months now and I have never looked back. I contemplated going onto anxiety medication for quite a long time. I was worried that it was just a “quick fix” and something that I cannot rely on forever. I was afraid that it was the “weak way out”. However, that couldn’t be more untrue. Would you deprive a diabetic of their medication? Would you tell an asthmatic that they were weak for taking an inhaler? That was what I had to wrap my head around. Now I see my medication as a little boost or a helping hand. Taking the medication does not solve all your problems and magically makes you feel like you are Charlie on Candy Mountain. You still have to put in the work. I think the important thing is to try and normalize medication. Many people are ashamed or afraid to talk about it when actually it’s not that big of a deal.
I must admit, writing this post has turned out to be a lot harder than what I expected it to be. It’s very hard to put these thoughts to paper, so please excuse me if it comes across as a bit of a jumbled mess. I’m still learning! I’d also just like to say that I am no health-care professional, so these are merely opinions or theories and not facts. Everyone is so different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Even if these points do not make a difference in anyone else’s life, I truly believe that talking about mental health and building awareness is so important. There are so many people out there who are struggling and feel alone, but this is me telling you that you are not. No matter what you are going through, your mental health neither controls nor defines you.