3 Simple Tips to Break Through Anxiety
I recently moved abroad. This is not the first time – my family relocated three times when I was a kid, and I moved to the UK for my Master’s degree. However, this is the first time that I have moved as a theoretically “complete” and self-sustaining (broadly speaking) adult. I didn’t move very far, or to a particularly alien place. I was offered a job in Spain and have been here for a few months now. It is, by all reasonable standards, a cushy place to be. The weather is glorious and the food is comparably cheap. The job is not what I saw myself doing when I finished my studies, but it pays and the people are nice. I am extremely fortunate.
Anxiety, however, does not care about location. There has been something slightly “off” about me since I was a toddler. It started as a mildly irritating (to my parents) form of OCD which compelled me to aggressively and repeatedly smooth my bedsheets around me before being able to relax sufficiently to fall asleep. At age 11, it manifested as anorexia. More recently, in my twenties, my main vexation has been a persistent case of anxiety.
Anxiety seems to be a term that is thrown around a lot nowadays, much to the chagrin of many born before 1980. As much as I sympathise with their exasperation, I do not subscribe to the view that it is purely a symptom of spoiledness or overindulged fragility among the younger generation raised on electronic devices. This may be in part because I would rather not think of myself as a petulant brat, but moreover I do know enough people who are generally perceived to be “strong” and gritty individuals yet suffer from recurring bouts of anxiety or panic attacks to draw such a conclusion without making it contingent on myself.
I do not wish to speculate on the causes of the apparent anxiety epidemic in the industrialised world. Instead, what I would like to do is take a more practical approach and share three of the tools that have helped me recently. As with all mental well-being practices, some of these will work for some of you. Some of you will find none of them helpful, and that does not in any way mean that you are beyond help. Furthermore, I have learned that, quite annoyingly, some things can work for a while and then suddenly stop being effective for no rhyme or reason. I’ve been there too, and it does not mean that it is only downhill from there.
1. Count your blessings
Now, before you close this page, hear me out. I have never been particularly religious or even spiritual, but this is a habit that has nothing to do with – nor does it require – a belief in a higher being. It has to do with perspective. Let me be clear that I realise you cannot control how you feel. You can have every conceivable human need covered and still feel sad or scared or worried. Such is the nature of mental disorders.
I do, however, believe that it is a healthy and worthwhile practice to set aside, say, five minutes every day, to focus your mind exclusively on the positive things in your life. If nothing else, it requires a few moments of concentration during which you are distracted from whatever else it is that’s going on in your head. I have found that this can serve as a “time-out” for my anxiety. It is a small ritual that helps me remind myself that, contrary to whatever my brain may be trying to convince me of, everything is OK.
It also requires a measure of discipline, which has a tangible benefit. Forcing your mind to list, for instance, five or ten things you are grateful for every day (and these can be repeated daily, as is for me the case with running water, clean clothes and a comfortable bed – there are no extra points for originality!) can help you regain control of your spiralling thoughts. I have found it a good means of calming myself down in moments I feel particularly overwhelmed and negative – this may even be a first step in re-patterning your brain’s reaction to stress by creating new neural pathways.
If you like, you can take it a step further and start a “blessings jar.” Simply jot down onto a piece of paper or a post-it note three things you are grateful for, or that you know are not to be taken for granted, and slip it into an empty jar or shoebox. Writing by hand has been shown to be extremely beneficial for psychological and physical health alike. If you need a bit of motivation, just look it up!
2. “Do You”
In the context of moving to a different country, or sometimes even just to a different workplace or city, it often seems like people have two options: to integrate, or to isolate themselves. Those of us who have faced the situation know that, as with most things, it is not so black and white. I have a friend here in Spain who, being Spanish herself but having lived abroad for seven years, insists that her anxiety is worse here because of the pressure she feels to conform to certain beauty ideals. It is true that women here always seem very put-together and clearly spend a substantial portion of their salary on clothing and other appearance-related services and products (i.e. waxing, pedicures, eyebrow-shaping, etc.).
My friend has integrated back into “her” culture (and let us note here that culture is not an eternally valid set of attributes, traditions, and tastes, but is instead constantly shifting) to the extent that she has let its alleged expectations and demands, or at least those specific to women, influence how she relates to her own body. She has isolated herself to the extent that she avoids people because of how she perceives them to perceive her, and the judgment she imagines they invariably dispense.
I feel that it is perfectly natural, and in most cases healthy, to adapt to a new environment. I take this to mean adopting certain sayings or other linguistic elements, social rituals, mannerisms, culinary preferences, etc. When, on the other hand, it comes to the prevailing notions of what people should aspire to look like, earn, do with their personal time, respond to certain situations and so forth, I have found it far more helpful to do my own thing. That is not to say that this is an easy task, that it is as straightforward as snapping your fingers and choosing to stop caring what people think of your hair, your wardrobe, your shape, your hobbies or your family life, to name a few examples.
As mentioned above, you cannot control how you feel. You can, on the other hand, control your actions. I might feel as inadequate as my friend walking through town surrounded by petite, lean, fully depilated, immaculately accessorised women. These days, however, I do not let those feelings of inadequacy translate into harmful practices such as depriving myself of food, exercising compulsively, spending my savings on new outfits or my time on attempts to drastically alter my appearance.
Accept that you might be the sort of person who needs a lot of time to themselves. There are some who draw energy from socialising, and I am not recommending you withdraw completely from all those around you – in fact, I would recommend that you make a conscious effort to spend a few hours per week in the company of other human beings outside of work to help you get out of your head, and also to nurture existing friendships. At the same time, many people I know create additional anxiety for themselves by being unable to say “no.” If you need an afternoon just to yourself, don’t commit to spending time with five other people.
Boundaries also mean putting your foot down with regards to yourself. If you find yourself spending an entire afternoon dwelling on how ugly, stupid, awkward, or generally unlovable you are, here’s looking at you. One trick I have found to work well for myself is the old “treat yourself like you would your daughter/son/friend.” This sort of links to the second point. Would you allow your daughter to go on and on about how she is somehow less worthy than others because of her height, build, hair type, cup size, occupation or salary? You know these things do not matter and that they are not the determinants of the affection and recognition a person deserves.
I generally find it helpful to focus on something other than myself. So, if like me, you are not quite the sort of person who can look in the mirror and give your reflection a pep-talk, imagine having a conversation with a friend – we all have that annoying friend who absolutely refuses to see themselves for who they are, who is constantly belittling themselves and has gotten it into their heads that they are too much of this or not enough of that.
Boundaries can also be applied to people we love and who mean well. One thing I have struggled with in Spain for instance is spontaneity. I feel that people are very unwilling to commit to, say, a time and place when it comes to meeting up. This makes it difficult to plan your day and get much done. It has often resulted in me spending my entire morning just sitting at home and checking my phone every five minutes waiting for a confirmation. So, I have decided to take the initiative and simply make plans for myself, let my friends know and invite them to join if they want. I have learned to say, “No, thank you” when invited to join someone for something at the last minute, simply because I have learned that it agitates me. Learn what works for you and devise rules you can apply to help yourself.
I hope one or the other of these points will be useful to some of you. I do not presume to be an authority on the matter and to know what has proven useful for the majority of people suffering from anxiety. Similarly, I as I said in the beginning, do not assume that because none of the above resonate with you, that there is something hopeless about your case. We are all different, we are all constantly changing. Some things that helped me a few years ago no longer serve, and vice versa. Above all, the key lies in wanting to get better and a willingness to do your bit by trying different methods and reviewing your own responses.
About the Author
This post is written by a guest contributor who wishes to remain anonymous.