I'm actually having a panic attack outside a Cheesecake Factory in this picture. Selfies as self-care. Go for it.
Remind yourself of your physical presence and stay in the moment. You are going to be OK and you are doing the right thing.
There is a lot of mental health advice on the Internet. I mean, a lot. So much. Which is so weird, because most of it is exactly the same. Exercise! Sleep! Practice your breathing! Take this magical fish oil! Think positive thoughts!
You get what I mean. All of this stuff can be helpful. Except the fish oil — that’s just absolute bullshit. But part of why this advice is considered so widely helpful is because it is so generic. And that is a problem, especially for people with anxiety, who can become easily overwhelmed by trying to navigate such broad advice. As someone with anxiety, I have read just about every advice article out there. And while they have often led me in the right direction during tough times, I still had to figure out a lot of this stuff on my own.
I’ve been around for 19 whole years now, and while I by no means have all the answers on how to cope with anxiety, I like to think that I have a few pretty useful ones. But I also like to think that Seal and Heidi Klum will get back together one day, so proceed with caution.
The Exercise Thing
Exercising really is good for your mental health, but you can’t just do any old exercise. If you have panic disorder (hi, welcome to the club), running is a no-go, unless you absolutely know without a doubt that it works for you. For most people, running augments the symptoms of a panic attack. It increases your heart rate, shortens your breathing, and fills you with tons and tons of EXCITEMENT endorphins. Of which you need none.
I’d also advise you to be careful about instructional videos. Many people with anxiety, especially those with OCD (hi, also welcome to the club) are perfectionists to a fault. Yoga is really relaxing, but for me personally, following along to a yoga class leads me to think about all the things I am doing wrong or poses I could be doing better or Lululemon leggings I definitely can’t afford. Do things you already know you can do without even thinking about them. Stretch. Go for a walk. Reduce your muscle tension by alternating between flexing and relaxing parts of your body. All of these things are great for you, and none of them are “less healthy” or “not as productive” as more intense ways of working out.
You can also not exercise. If you are having a panic attack, or are about to have one, lay down. Listen to your body. Remind yourself of your physical presence and stay in the moment. You are going to be OK and you are doing the right thing.
Books. Read Them.
I can actually gauge my mental health by how much I’m reading, which I know is definitely not the case for everyone, but I still think reading is an incredible tool.
With anxiety, you should choose what you read carefully. Steer clear of nonfiction, because that shit is depressing. Your best bet is fantasy, especially the kind aimed at younger people. Harry Potter is amazing. The Hobbit is great. Everything by Tolkien is super relaxing, actually — there is a surprising amount of tranquil walking through scenic mountainsides while trying to save the world. You are going to want something that is an escape from your headspace, and fantasy is great at that. Graphic novels and comics are also good choices. They don’t overwhelm you with text, and the art does the work of visualization for you.
Audiobooks are also great. Anxiety makes sensory processing really overwhelming at times, and looking at a page full of words can be difficult. The best audiobooks to go for in this case are lighthearted memoirs. Amy Poehler, David Sedaris, and Tim Gunn all have great books out on audio, and they read them out loud themselves. There is nothing more soothing to me than Tim Gunn telling me about the history and significance of neckties in men's wear.
All of the Smells
I’ve mentioned the link between anxiety and sensory processing. Aromatherapy is kind of the best thing ever, and you don’t even have to use fancy oils to help yourself chill out (although you totally can. If I may suggest a few quality blends from doTerra, “Serenity” and “Balance”). Pamper yourself with good smelling lotions, soaps, and perfumes. Great scents to go for are lavender, vanilla, patchouli, and rose. Lush has two bath products called Twilight and The Comforter that are lifesavers when you’re in a panic. Find what works for you and exercise as much control over your senses as you can — scent is one of the easiest fixes.
TV and Music
First off, it is totally OK to fall asleep to the TV. There is a lot of fear-mongering about screen time after dark out there, but it really can be calming for some people to have something going on in the background when they try to sleep. I can get major insomnia from my anxiety, and I have a few shows that I always fall back on. The Office is great, and so are Planet Earth and Cosmos. All three of these are currently available on Netflix.
Music is always suggested, but like books and exercise, nobody seems to offer any actual recommendations. WHAT MUSIC, FANCY PSYCH PERSON? This is what music: Enya. There is a YouTube video of "Caribbean Blue" played on repeat for an hour. You’re welcome. James Blake. Coeur de Pirate. Tori Amos covering Joni Mitchell (I don’t know why. Just go with it). Also Joni Mitchell herself. Bach’s cello suites. Peter Gabriel. Frank Sinatra. The entire Book of Mormon soundtrack (I also don’t know. "Turn It Off" is condescending but also relaxing).
Podcasts are great, too! "Stuff You Missed In History Class" and "Stuff You Should Know" are both informative and interesting without requiring too much of your attention or any need to listen to them in order.
And lastly: Talk to people who are going through the same thing. It is great to lean on family and friends of all kinds, but sometimes anxiety puts mean thoughts in your head that tell you those people are sick of you and your problems. And sometimes, even if those people mean well, they do lose their patience/say the wrong thing/don't know what to do because they have their own lives going on, and that is totally understandable. Talk to someone who is having a hard time, too. Help each other out and keep each other accountable for being proactive about your health. Know you’re not alone — not at all. And for real, go watch an episode of The Office. Even if it's only for five minutes. You’ll thank me later.