Practical ways to kick anxiety’s ass

I’ve been wanting to come up with a list of helpful anxiety combatants for a while now. Mostly for me, so that I have something tangible to grab onto when my brain goes into lockdown. But in light of all the mental health struggles being tossed around lately, I realize sharing these personal bits could potentially be useful to someone else.

Last week I sat in on a culture meeting at my work. One of my company’s leaders introduced himself, and in his introduction he said he has struggled with anxiety and depression, and is a recovered alcoholic.

I’ve been at my current job for less than a few weeks, and I’ve already talked about my anxiety and listened to a few of my coworkers’ run-ins with it. And these conversations have been accepted, if not encouraged. In a workplace of productive people. In a workplace with a bottom line.

It’s 2018, and if your workplace doesn’t acknowledge employee mental health as an appropriate or relevant topic of discussion to be had at least at some point, your business risks being left behind. Fuck, it should be left behind.

When I’m having a full blast anxiety attack, I tend to roll around like dough in bed and wait out the sickness. Every thought that enters my head is incomplete and razor sharp. Full of fear and ill intent. Not a single thought of comfort or relief. These are thoughts I do not want to leak outside my mouth so I chew on them and swallow them. And they jab at me on the inside. They pulsate in my stomach. They run up and down my spine like angry toddlers. An endless stream of them.

I don’t know what to do with myself except wait until my body caves into exhaustion. And when I come outside the noise, I always feel like I’ve just wasted another part of my life. Anxiety is such a waste of time.

I used to be terrified of being alone because this is usually where the 50-eyed monster finds me. So I looked for complete stimulation. All the time.

Being alone was too much of a risk. But over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of alone time. Which means I’ve had a lot of attacks. But this has also given me the chance to get intimate with my disorder. Study it. Recognize when it’s on its way. I’ve learned how to set up traps for it. Sometimes, how to give it a job, make it work for me. But mostly how to accept it as a frequent visitor.

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder a little more than three years ago. I’m not on medication, but have considered it a few times. I don’t think people who take medication are weaker or stronger than me. Everyone’s anxiety is different. I prefer to maximize all my outlets, outlets that have been working for me for a while.

Obviously, these activities are useless if you’re in too deep, but if you have studied your anxiety enough, and can get a good whiff of it when it’s approaching, maybe one of these could be of use to you.

Move your ass

Yes, I mean exercise. Give it a good eye roll if you want. I know I did at one point. I enjoy exercise, but I’m definitely not one of those people who is on a constant live or die exercise schedule. After long work days, I often have to outsmart my brain into letting my body exercise. The hardest part of exercise is getting yourself there.

Think about yourself hitting that free-fall point during a good workout. Do you feel animalistic? Strong? Like you’re knocking the piss out of invisible demons? After a good workout, how do you look at yourself? Do you slink around in your clothes? Or better, outside them?

My favorite exercises entail a certain element of risk and freedom. Running outside 30 minutes before the sun drops. Challenges and obstacle courses that demand problem solving. Dance is one of my favorite ways to sweat. Zumba, hip-hop, anything where you can showcase your inner freak or completely embarrass yourself and no one around you will care. Or, if you prefer to dance in the comfort of your living room, then truly no one is around to care.

I have large hips, and I know how to use them, damn it.

Exercise that doesn’t feel like work is generally the exercise I’m most interested in. Machines put me to sleep, so I like to be creative about it. I think a lot of people are in this boat. They don’t like exercise because they find it to be a chore.

I’ve discovered I need exercise. I’m a completely different person when I allow myself to work out three to five times a week. I’m less likely to fall victim to my own head games.

Exercise is one of the best, most scientifically proven stress-relievers and weapons against anxiety.

Do something artsy fartsy

There’s a reason those adult coloring books are so popular. I myself like to draw and write. If it’s not obvious, this website is a form of therapy. Though, sometimes writing in particular can summon the beast, especially if I’m writing about something that’s particularly painful to me. Some people blaze up a guitar. Others knit. I have a friend who has fingers made for jewelry. Another who knows her way around a piece of felt.

Making art, whether you’re any good at it or not, has so many mental health benefits. Not only are you creating new brain cells, but you’re boosting your dopamine levels. And dopamine is delicious.

A few months ago I drew something that took me 13 straight hours. I hardly noticed the time I was so immersed in the different shapes and shading. The second I dropped the pencil, I floated down from whatever dimension I was in. Though a lot of people may argue differently, that’s 13 hours of non-wasted time. There’s a product at the end of the creating. You feel good about doing a thing.

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Also, when you’re creating, you’re less likely to hurt yourself or anyone else.

Lie around in a pool of your own filth

Some days, I don’t want anything to do with art or exercise. I want to sit in a pool of steaming water and think about nothing. These are the days my anxiety is nipping the back of my heels. I need a quick fix.

I’ve really been into those bath bombs that have little treats at the center of them. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. There’s a stick of cinnamon or a clove waiting for you at the bottom of the bomb. A little treasure.

I like these guys because they force you to focus on what’s inside. I’ll submerge my hand in the water and watch and feel the fizzle of salt. Until there’s nothing but a small object that I study and twirl between my fingers.

Baths are my way of making my life come to a screeching halt. They’re also where I get some of my best writing ideas. Because thinking about nothing sometimes leads to something.

Build your music playlists

Spotify is one of my favorite things. For two reasons really. One is the Monday feature. New music based on your preferences. New artists who will speak to your soul and talk you through your morning. At the start of every week. A lot of people dread Mondays, and I imagine people with severe anxiety especially do.

A few weeks ago I was curling my hair and listening to the new Neko Case album on Spotify. It was my first week of work. My anxiety has been pretty high because I’m learning tons of new things and meeting tons of new people. The song “Halls of Sarah” started playing, and I leaned into the words and starting bawling. It was a good release to have before the start of my day.

I also enjoy the build your own playlist feature. I’ve been adding to my RUN and Write playlists for years. My Write playlist is for when I’m editing and writing. My RUN list is filled with workout jams. Pretty self-explanatory. But then I also have a playlist titled “Yold,” which is reserved for songs that make me feel both young and old at the same time. Then there’s “Bitch Mix,” which is for when I want to connect to my feminine side. Pretty scary to say, but there was once a time in my life when I listened to very few female artists. Their voices embarrassed me. I turned them down at stoplights. This is how Bitch Mix was formed. All these ladies help me when I’m really struggling with the dark side. They are my mothers and sisters.

Music legitimately saves lives. We all know this. Sometimes I feel intravenous with my music. I need it more than most things, and I’m grateful for it.

Pet a dog

My dog is my hero. She has magical super powers that ooze out of her eyeballs whenever she looks at me. I always wanted a dog. Especially a high energy one that needs a lot of attention. Dogs force you to get up and stop moping. They need to pee. They need to eat. They need you to clean up the tinfoil like object they just barfed onto the carpet. They want to play.

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Some of my favorite days are the ones I’m listening to the rain and lying next to my dog, Maya. She sighs heavily while I write in bed. Her warmth is a reminder that I exist. That I’m loved profusely by a living creature.

Dogs (and cats, etc) are amazing mental health enhancers.

Oh, but there’s so many more

I have a lot of other go-to anxiety fighters: nature walks, orgasms, video games, anything that gets me to laugh my ass off, having a meaningful conversation with another human, and turning off my fucking phone. These aren’t secrets by any means. They’re just reminders for you and me for when we begin to slip under.

What’s your list? If you don’t have one, then that’s a clear sign that you need to clear out some time for your rad self.

Carrying my own weight in TRX

Every Saturday morning around 8:15 I roll out of bed like a greasy, hot sausage. My body don’t give no damn if it’s hung over. It don’t give no damn if it’s ragged from a long work week either.

My vision is still foggy while I snap on a sports bra, a pair of spandex, and a long time broken in t-shirt with pit stains or a neon orange razor back that’s eternal brightness covers up the would-be pit stains. I tend to rotate the same workout clothes, because let’s face it, they’re expensive. I lace up the sneakers that were made for me, the ones I researched for a week to find – light and designed for quick shifts and lateral movement. I brush my teeth and wipe off yesterday’s makeup so I don’t walk out of the house looking like The Grudge. Maybe I shove a handful of nuts in a bag so I can wolf down some protein on my ride to the fitness center not even 10 miles away from my home. Oh yeah, water. Can’t forget water. I do this all on tip-toe; I’m careful not to disturb my boyfriend who sleeps with his mouth wide open. When his snore cracks in his throat, this is an indication that he has been disturbed.

Saturday morning is a sacred time reserved for TRX, a weekly ritual I’ve been performing for close to two years. TRX, or Suspension Training, is a fitness tool that uses gravity and a person’s body weight to exercise. Think of a swing set with two long, dangling straps that can be adjusted according to specific exercises.

Before you continue reading, let me clarify: this is not a marketing piece on behalf of TRX. I don’t care if you purchase a TRX pass from your gym or not. In the end, it’s not the specific exercise that counts. It is whatever you like that does.

I’m writing about my exercise routine because it makes ME happy. It satisfies the parts of me that want to be pushed to their limits and explored. It’s the part of my day where I ask, hey there body, what can you do today?

This is also not a before and after picture depicting a triumphant, life-altering tale of weight loss. Actually, the last I checked I’m still carting around the holiday ham.

Let me clarify that I struggle with cultural body norms just as much as the next person. For one, I don’t have a perfect body. I’m pretty average sized, and my body does normal body things without clothes. My boobs frown when they’re out of a bra. I have ripples on the back of my thighs – the same thighs that rub each other raw in the summer after walking for 30 minutes. Stretch marks that look like bear claw tracks up and down my hips. Pretty standard things. I wish I was above noticing them.

Yes, I pay attention to numbers, and I wish I was above that, too. I’m 5’3, and I totter anywhere between 125 and 132 all year round. Some days I like what I look like, many days I scoff at my kangaroo pouch stomach in the mirror. I like food, and large portions of it. Let’s be honest, I come from an Italian, bread-eating family. And yes, like many women think, I think I could always be a little smaller. But I try to remind myself on a daily basis that I do actually enjoy exercise (because I do), and taking up the smallest amount of physical space possible as a living, breathing human being is kind of a weird goal to have in my opinion.

I’m no titanium woman by even the most modest means, but the second I hold my body up by a mere two straps, I feel so deliciously strong and in control. The beauty of TRX is that it’s entirely customizable; you choose the pressure you put on your body. Apparently, it was designed for Navy Seals, which is pretty cool to be able to say.

I know I said this isn’t a before and after photo of a fitness story, but let me provide you with some relevant background. I’ve been going to the same gym in the town I graduated high school for seven years. I got a work out pass on my 18th birthday. On that very day I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. 180 pounds at 5’3, which was 10 pounds more than my 6’1 boyfriend. It irked me, even though I was in love with someone who saw past my fleshy layers and loved me back.

Here was the problem: up until this point, I was the girl who walked. ONLY WALKED. And since P.E. wasn’t weighted into my precious grade point average, I pretty much cackled at my gym teachers whenever they told me to hustle. Finally, since I have never been on any sports teams in my entire life, the concepts of teamwork, dedication, commitment, etc were sometimes beyond my stubby reach and concern.

So, when I scored my new work out pass, I made a deal with myself. The elliptical. Just go on the elliptical four days a week, 1 hour at time. Listen to the tunes. Hell, bring a book. Yeah, a book. Now that was an idea. Since I had never read the Harry Potter series (I know what the fuck was wrong with me?), I decided to read them. And I did. Book by book, I pumped my stretch marked arms along to the tune of the boy who lived. Yes, folks, I lost 40 pounds reading Harry Potter.

It took at least two years for me to put down the books and gather the courage to pop my head into a group classroom.

Zumba was one of the first classes I tried on for size. It’s basically cardio that combines various Latino dances, hip-hop, etc. It involves a lot of hips and shoulders, which can feel uncomfortable at first. But bodies remember dance. They’re made for it. This is where I first truly learned how to harness the secrets of my body. I was like a heavy-footed Eve biting into the goddamn juicy apple of knowledge on that dance floor. I’ve been going to the same Zumba class twice a week for five years.

This is also where I met Cheryl and Kevin, the power couple who even coordinate matching clothing. Cheryl and Kevin are married big kids who have worked together alongside sweaty people for a great chunk of their lives. Needless to say, Cheryl and Kevin have become an emblem of positivity in my life. It doesn’t matter what kind of day I’m having, all I have to do is watch Cheryl’s magic feet light up in the mirrors. Cheryl has charisma, and she laughs at her own jokes a lot. I like this about her. Kevin wears t-shirts that say things along the lines of “my wife is hot and strong.” I like this about him. He also doesn’t have any cartilage in his knees, which I hear makes exercise painful sometimes, but giving up coaching people, his passion, is not an option for him. I really like this about him.

Last summer, I did the Tough Mudder with Kevin and Cheryl. It was one of the most invigorating experiences of my life. I’m thankful for them. I don’t forget what these two continue do to help me discover about my body and its abilities that I never knew I had.

Since joining Zumba I’ve attended some of Cheryl’s and Kevin’s others classes. Weight training. R.I.P.P.E.D. Kevin usually barks orders at me. “Sarah, what are you doing? I know you can handle another ten pounds.” “Sarah, make that squat deeper.”

Kevin is the one who convinced me to join TRX. His classes usually include four rounds of various movements – combination exercises and cardio bursts. He usually includes dumbbells, risers, BOSU balls, ropes – all and any devices of torture he can squeeze into an hour long class. Each exercise is generally 30 seconds to 45 seconds long. We rotate station by station, and you have to keep up. Sometimes I space out, and have to ask what’s next. Each exercise entails a combination of movement. Lunge, dumb bell press. Throw ball down, then complete burpee. Jumping jacks while lifting heavy battle ropes overhead. The bursts of cardio include the rowing machine, the skiing machine, shuffling across the floor while throwing a weighted ball against a wall, etc. Basically it’s like an obstacle course, which I’m realizing is my kind of workout.

Usually, there are four rounds in total. If you’re busting your ass, you tend to be out of breath and dripping by round two.

Something came over me one class. Maybe it was the adrenaline, I’m not sure. All I know is belched out that I was deciding to blog about TRX and asked if I could take pictures. There was no turning back. Most of the photos I took turned out blurry. This is my fault for trying complete the exercises while taking photos. Silly Sarah. Here are two better ones.

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I guess I woke up that morning and realized that this Saturday morning class is one of the highlights of my week because I’m a part of a cohesive team. I know people on a first name basis, and I don’t feel weird leaving sweaty handprints on the floor right next to their faces. This is good news.

It’s a good mix of people. Brandon and Semra, the TRX king and queen, compete with each other, and it’s quite entertaining. They trash talk each other, and everyone seems to enjoy it. Brandon really admires his own biceps, a tendency I used to scoff at, but realize, that many bros are self-aware of their own self-worship and know how to poke fun at themselves. Ashlee and Brigitte are mother and daughter duo, both runners, who look small, but move at rabbit speed. Speaking of rabbits, I learned that like myself, 3 other women who attend the same TRX class own rabbits. Maybe it was meant to be. Nancy, is also a writer like myself… another interesting similarity. Bryan, who is the oldest of our group, is definitely the youngest in spirit. He knows how to throw around a good workout pun.

There are others of course. Overall, everyone who comes back for another ass kicking, tends take on the mentality, that in TRX, we carry our own weight, and we acknowledge each other for that accomplishment.