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.

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.

I feel like a Linkin Park song

Sometimes the noise in my head is so loud I just have to say fuck it and surrender to the tears that are pushing and shoving their way through my tear ducts. They all want a turn to star in the show. Me, me, pick me, Sarah. Cry me! I’m next in line.

Today I cried in my car parked in front of a Subway. I’ll take the 6’’ inch turkey with chips, and a cup full of snot, please. There was this guy in a dark Mustang parked next to me who looked startled, then squeamish—like he just saw a squirrel get run over, and he was trying not to stare directly into the pool of glistening guts. So warm and gooey.

Subway is long gone. I’m home alone. I reactivated, then deactivated my Facebook at least five times. I tried to change my profile picture to something less morbid, less “feel-sorry-for me.” But then again, I don’t know what face I could possibly make to convey all of what I’m trying to say. It’s known in my circle of friends, co-workers, and family that I’ve shied away from social media and why. After fumbling around on Facebook again and again and failing to speak up for myself, I went to the gym.

The gym is one of the few routines—that and my beautiful drop of delicious sunshine a.k.a writing group—I have to my name. Zumba always makes me feel GOOD. Like I’m one sexy, strong mama with a slammin’ pair of hips. Like the flaming-bird-spirit-child I’m supposed to be. If I could stare at my ovaries in the mirror during Zumba, I would. I would ask them out on a date and get to know them.

And then the adrenaline dripped like a hose that’s just been turned off. And here I am. Alone with myself. It doesn’t help that my pits smell.

It’s 10 p.m. right now, and I’m forcing myself to write. Even though I detest writing when I start to dip this low.

The truth is I don’t want to sound like a Linkin Park song.

I’m sorry if you like Linkin Park. I like Linkin Park, too, actually. Back in the day, Meteora was my jam. But for some reason I thought I was light years away from Meteora in terms of my life. I thought I only had room for Bob Dylan, for Iron and Wine right now.

It’s not only the lyrics (Somewhere I Belong, Breaking the Habit, and Easier to Run, if you want to get all technical about it). I also feel like I’m made of Chester Bennington’s voice. I’m the hairball covered in shards of glass scraping on your tongue. I’m like swallowing a blister that explodes in the back of your throat. I guess I just want kind of want to break things. Or run.

I told everyone that I need some alone time because I truly do. I told them because I’m not one of those people who just disappears. My brother tells me, “Dude, Sarah, you sound sooooo emo right now.” One of my cousins thinks I’m pulling some bomb ass Edgar Allan Poe shit. My friends and boyfriend support me, but linger in the shadows just in case I need anything. My parents have no idea what planet we’re on, and that I live in it.

I’m not blaming my parents for this. Even though they have a lot to do with things. In fact, I have this ancient biblical-like scroll I could pull out and read to them. But I have never blamed anyone for my problems, and I’m not about to start.

My wanting quiet time is supposed to be a good thing. I set out to work on my writing, settle the racing thoughts, figure out where I want to go next. YOU ARE HERE on the map. But I’m having a rough time with it because in the silence, I’m finding yesterday’s news. It turns out I’ve been hoarding newspapers for years.

I’m reverting back to the gurgling, black pit of insecurity and helplessness that we so cherish in our adolescence. And the worst part is I’m not okay with that. The steaming bitch inside me is not onboard with letting me feel this all out. Even though “feeling this all out” is a part of the plan.

Because the same hustler, the same back patter who has been working with me, inside me, for years is also the one handing me my ass, my severed head.

Here’s what you don’t learn sitting at a desk or find staring at you in the middle of the notes you wrote in your college rule notebook: sometimes you sweat blood to get out of the dark cloud of your home life, you push yourself, you come ploughing through the other side—and you realize that it kind of feels the same. Except there’s nothing there. There is no broken home, no screaming match, no violence on the other side. The nothingness itself is what eats away at you.

You move into an apartment. You feel the wind in your hair of being on your own. You find a full-time gig, a window to your career, something to do with your time. You have someone to share it with, who understands what it’s like to be a 20 something on your own in 2014, someone who will hug you through it all. You think, I’m ready to begin my life, but wait…

And suddenly, IT is there. IT never left you. IT rings like a bell reminding you what you left behind. (Speaking of Poe) BELLS BELLS BELLS; to the rhyming and the chiming of the bells. There’s nothing touching you. You can’t feel it on your skin, taste it on your tongue. You try like it’s your religion to phrase and re-phrase it the best way you can. You try to outrun your past, and you find it here waiting for you—sleeping in your bed, sharing a cup of coffee in the morning with you. It says, “hey man, remember me?” with a nod of its head. It tells you fuck off in between red lights.

My parents are cropping up in casual conversations. It’s almost how I introduce myself, how I recap my weekend. How was your weekend, Sarah? Oh you know, my mom wants to live in my living room. The usual. How do I tell people that that she calls me weekly, pleading in pain, while I’m at work? I don’t. Because that shit doesn’t fly, dat shit don’t pay rent. Sarah, please help me. Please help me, Sarah. And I feel ready to cave, to just give it all up. To move back into the cigarette-stained apartment, to suffocate again with her. All in the name of HELP.

If you read my pulse, you’d find my family there. If you listened close enough, you’d hear something bleating like a half-wounded sheep. I used to have this on lockdown. For a long time FAMILY was the one genre of honest writing that was off limits for me.

I desperately want to ebb and flow in front of my siblings. They after all lived through the same thing. But I’m too stubborn to show them, too scared to get black ink all over their clothes. My brother is a young dad now. He’s found a way to outsource his rage, through scream-o music, and my jaw drops in awe whenever I hear him scream. It’s thrilling to me—like the feeling I get on the Giant Drop. My sister has a new boyfriend she’s really pumped about. And apparently she’s what the kids call “a boss” at her job. The other one is going to school after silently digging holes into herself and straggling from house to house for years. I worry about them as often as I click on a link, as I type a sentence, as I turn a tight corner. I also well an ocean of pride for them because I know what it takes. It takes everything just to move an inch in the muddy waters of poverty, of pain you wouldn’t believe even if you lived it. Because trust me, I don’t believe my eyes.

Being the first to graduate in your family sounds like a big fucking accomplishment. It is, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something so pathetic about coming out the other side alone. There’s no one at the finish line to share this with me. I left people behind. When I come back to visit, there’s this artificiality, this distance, this need for them to understand me. I miss my people. I need my people. But I’m afraid to get close.

Let’s get back to Linkin Park, and why the bitch inside my head is not okay with me feeling the music. When I was 13, this was expected. I just let myself feel whatever I had to feel, and then moved on. Mostly, I felt angry. I felt suffocated. But as soon as I opened the sliding door, when I left the dingy, cigarette stained apartment, shit was funny again. I turned to my friends and teachers; I didn’t push them away or push the button on self-sabotage when my open life was staring me in the face.

Sometimes I wish I could just inject funny into me. I used to see directly past pain, and a lot of that had to do with my ability to open my mouth, hear the sound come crashing behind my tonsils, and laugh with my entire body. My defenses are down. I’m so good at making myself laugh, at laughing at myself. But right now my humor sounds like a radio playing muffled music, short-circuiting under water.

I try to move on, but really what I’m doing is distracting myself, over stimulating myself—with the Internet mostly. With the opinions and thoughts of everyone else, so I don’t have to be alone, truly alone. At home and at my desk, I’m living in this hyper sensory bubble. When something happens—not just to my family, to people I hardly know or don’t know at all—the bubble I’m living in zaps me. My hair stands up straight from the electricity. When a journalist is beheaded. When a comedian kills himself. When an entire population is led to an edge at gunpoint. I suddenly can feel that, too.

I feel like a dandelion that’s being plucked over and over. When did I become such a delicate, little flower?

And then there’s the whole what am I going to do with my life thing that plagues us all. I figured out a long time ago that I’m not okay with doing something that isn’t meaningful to me. What I really want to do depends on if other people think I have anything legit to say. It has to smell new, feel new. It can’t be covered in chocolatey clichés. For the love of god, I want to be a writer. A WRITER. I usually follow this with a punchline, chortle, a snort. Why of all things, does it have to be that? Why couldn’t I have picked something else to fall in love with?

I don’t even know what kind of writer I want to be. My boyfriend tells me I need a niche. Hey babe, you’re good at movie and book reviews. Hey babe, you love poetry. I know I need to narrow things down, too. The trouble is I have this professorial snob in the back of my mind who is wagging HIS (because let’s face it, most known writers are men) finger at me, telling me I’m not smart enough to be a writer. He speaks in a British accent of course. He asks me what I know. I tell him I’m not sure. And he laughs a merry laugh that only a well-esteemed, well-accomplished old, white man can.

I know a million people around me who are feeling the flimsiness of being a 20 something in 2014. As my best friend said to me last night in between my large gulps of air, our parents, people before us, don’t know what it’s like now—to graduate from college, to write a resume, to encourage yourself, to find a job, to learn the ropes of a new one, or to be stuck in one. It’s a miracle that I still have my best friend, that I have friends to share these raw sentiments with.

In a sense, this is why I’m sharing all of this. I know I say I want alone time, but this does not mean I’m truly alone. I know you are on the other side feeling some of these things, too.

Here’s the advice that I’m telling my wide-eyed, sleep-deprived self this morning. (It’s no longer 10 p.m. I woke up. It’s 7:30. I have to be at work at 9.)

The advice I tell myself is nothing fancy. It doesn’t wear designer clothes. It’s what I tell everyone else. Here it goes: just roll with it. If you feel pain, fucking let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Girl, don’t push it down. Where do you think that shit goes? You can’t simply have a bowel movement, and out it goes. Wrapping up insecurity and pain and stamping a frilly bow on top of it all is not the way to go about things. It has never helped anyone. Hiding breeds bad adults. Plain and simple. Say something. For fuck’s sake, wake up, speak up. Turn around and look. We’re all bleeding around you.