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.

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.

36063887_10217255605127122_6071276103593361408_n.jpg

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.

36087222_10217255610487256_7736441942229123072_n.jpg

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.

Bath time with Frida Kahlo

42837660_330176240893413_5061699523332538368_n

I’ve been thumbing through, “The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait,” for the past week or so. It appeals to me that someone can use both writing and drawing at the same time, in the same place, to capture their inner world.

I knew very little about Frida. Just that she had a sweet unibrow. And I could recognize her famous self-portraits like a lot of people. A few months ago I bought a pair of bottle cap earrings with quarter-sized portraits of her painted onto them. I wore them around a music festival I attended with a friend. A lot of people were delighted at the sight of Frida dangling from my earlobes.

All but one of the drawings in this diary I’m reading never made it out. It was her space to make sense of things. I had to read the translated notes because I don’t understand Spanish, but I still found myself examining her multi-colored writing. She wrote in colored pencil and left scratch marks and scribbles, as one would do with a pen. It’s nice to know someone as regarded as she had visible second and third thoughts, could allow herself to stumble on paper.

It turns out she was quite the writer too. Here is one of my favorite letters, one of the many written to her beloved Diego:

Diego,
Truth is, so great, that I
wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep,
or listen, or love.
To feel myself trapped, with no fear
of blood, outside time and magic,
within your own fear,
and your great anguish, and
within the very beating of your heart.
All this madness, if I asked it of you,
I know, in your silence, there would be
only confusion.
I ask you for violence, in the nonsense,
and you, you give me grace, your light and
your warmth.
I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors,
because there are so many, in my
confusion, the tangible form
of my great love.

Frida suffered from a lot of physical ailments throughout her life. She beat polio in her childhood, and in her later years was in a near fatal accident that left her physically impaired for the rest of her life. She had close to 35 operations in her lifetime, and was unable to bear children. Much of her art depicts misplaced body parts, parts outside her body. And a spiritual and sexual longing to reproduce. It’s no wonder she painted so many self-portraits. Despite her immense pain, she found a way to steal her own joy and find love in her life.

Many consider her to be Mexican hero, who appealed to Mexican women and more broadly to the plights of women everywhere, but a lot of her critics thought her work was intensely self-directed and incapable of moving past self.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” the artist once said.

Essayist Sarah M Lowe wrote, “Her work was deemed so excessively personal and self-referential that it is thought incapable of expressing universal emotions or the human condition. In time, her self-portraits, though they never cease to shock, have overcome some of the prejudices against women painting their own lives.”

I started drawing women in bathtubs a few months ago. I’m not exactly sure of the reasoning behind the choice of vessel. I know that both baths and drawing calm me down when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the weight of things.

And baths are where some of my best ideas have come from.

In a college writing class I wrote a metafictional story about this woman who takes a bath and gets the idea to write the story of her life. There’s a talking shower head that is encouraging her to write and also shouting innuendos.

The woman rockets from the bath in a Eureka-like moment, water spilling all around her and plummeting to the carpet. She runs butt naked into her garage and wrenches out these old, dusty bins filled with her old journals.

She searches one of her journals frantically, dampening the pages with the water falling from her hair. She finds the passage that is supposed to help her define this moment of certainty. She realizes the passage is in fact not the missing piece she needs to solve her life story. She’s frustrated at her younger self for leaving such a poorly constructed record of her life. She scoffs and criticizes every line in that single passage then moves onto mocking some others. Finally, she flings the journal across the room.

Looking back at this piece, I realize it was about my idea process and the frustration I face in creation, particularly writing. When I have an idea, I feel that well-known mania, and I need to write. RIGHT NOW. URGENT HURRY. A lot of times I lose the feeling. Then I over complicate the idea. I rage about the hopelessness of memory. The idea vanishes as quickly as it comes.

Drawing these bathtubs was my way of coping with my issues with writing. I love these hours I spend shading, erasing, coloring. It’s obvious I don’t have formal training, but this doesn’t stop me from getting better and sharing my work. Putting my work out there has only made me feel braver.

For now, the bathtubs seem to be working. Drawing has helped me reunite with writing. I’d like the two to become friends. Like my girl Frida, I’d like a space where I can combine both worlds.

The seeds of screams

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893

“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”

http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Munch/resource/171

“This is where it picks up,” my brother says,
strumming his pant leg with long fingernails
lined in the dirt he’s been digging up for years.
He glances at me to see if I’m still watching
then peers at the lyrics he’s scribbled down—
four lines at a time about rising from ashes.

It’s anti-climactic when my brother screams.
To him, screaming is song and second language,
and as he teaches me I marvel at his proficiency.
The guttural sound erupts from a bubbling pit
in the diaphragm, rising from the gut quick as bile.
The acidity sits in the back of the throat, not burning,
but patiently waiting, stalking, until the mouth opens.

When he screams, his flesh remains the same pale
with a hint of peach. There is no crimson waterfall,
soft bleeding of pinks, or plum purple in his cheeks,
I see no pulsating veins bursting like fresh bruises.
His face does not contort into rage, disfigured hate.
He could be blowing candles out on a birthday cake.

Women of horror used to be called scream queens,
and I wonder what kind of primal cue it’d take for me
to emit a sharpness as blood-curdling and skin-liquefying.
Somewhere there’s a scientist with a lock box of screams
and an outdated psychologist who tells patients to relive
their pasts, rehash a few lashings in order to purge pain.

The same people who brought you into the world began
with a scream – a concoction of pleasure, pain, and relief.
And when a baby’s head protrudes from the womb, it’s harsh
and sweet. You break your mother, and she transcends sound,
feeling to reach infinite barriers, beyond pain of femininity.

Once when I was a kid, I was playing before I trapped myself
underneath a door that was yet to be attached to its doorway.
I squirmed in my winter coat, and the weight on top of me
stifled the cry of terror in my lungs; it was barely a whisper.
My mother had pulled the heavy mass off and showered me
in comfort, soothing coos to calm to my close-call tears.

Now the only time I attempt to scream is in dreaming.
I kick like a dog who can’t catch her unconscious assailant.
I wake up and my throat is hoarse, but there’s no memory.

“Before you scream, don’t just throw it out there, focus it,”
my brother tells me. “Then let it flow, give it room to breathe.”

So I gulp air, cradling my own wind close to me before I scream,
and when I do, I call out to all my silences and shake them
like branches of trees laundering seeds ready to be born.