Loving Space for the Anxious Mind and Body
Looking back, I can see now that I’ve been anxious for as long as I can remember. There are many intricate threads that have woven me into the being that I am today, and to keep it simple, I’ll say that I think an even balance of nature and nurture came together to make anxiety such a prominent part of my life.
A quick example: I remember as early as elementary school being so fearful of the opinions of my peers. In the shower at night I would rehearse good things to say to people and pray I didn’t do anything embarrassing. My anxiety played out in my thoughts like this for my entire childhood. The first time I remember feeling physical anxiety was when I started working in the restaurant industry in college. The racing thoughts of a high-stress environment grew into physical chest pain and shortness of breath. I remember feeling confused about the pain I was feeling, but unfortunately I’ve grown very familiar with the chest pain, diaphragm tightness, irregular breathing, and headaches that have become dependable companions over the years. On top of the mental and physical pain, I added a layer of judgement. Why couldn’t I just go with the flow, breath normally during social interactions, watch shows like Breaking Bad, and adjust to the inevitable stress of life like everyone else seemed to be able to?
After the past two years in therapy (I use the Talkspace app) I have finally begun to learn not to judge myself for these automatic responses I have to life. These behaviors are a part of me. I need to cater to myself instead of trying to mirror the perceived success I see around me. I am highly sensitive, intensely empathic, extremely prone to anxiety and picking up the emotions I feel in others around me. I have to learn how to work with these things and see them as gifts, instead of trying to shame myself into changing. Maybe I have to monitor my anxiety and limit my social interactions. And I just do not get to watch shows like Breaking Bad (I actually finished the show and had a panic attack after the last episode… sometimes we learn the hard way I guess).
If you can relate to any of this, I write to encourage you to explore your anxiety from a more gentle place. Know you are not alone. Seek help, reach out to someone you trust, and you are always welcome to reach out to me. The tips I have here are hard-learned methods for creating space for my anxious self. I know they work for me, and this stuff will be so different for everyone. My hope is in being open with my journey, you might realize you too have more options that you think. You can choose exploration over shame and suppression and find ways to see anxiety in a different light. You can create space to honor the parts of you that you wrestle with the most. Your path doesn’t have to look like mine. It doesn’t have to look like anything you’ve ever seen, but once you lean in and ask what you need, I guarantee the tiniest shift will begin to take place.
I’ll try to keep these quick and simple. For me, self-judgement is the fuel for my anxiety. So I’m trying to train my brain to catch judgmental thoughts and shift them to curious ones. I do this best through journaling. Say I judge myself for needing so much alone time (hello fellow introverts!). I’ll pause at that thought and get curious. What is the root of that shame? Maybe it’s the fear that I don’t have enough friends or other people are living better lives by being more social. When I get curious about the actual reason I’m judging myself, I can quickly come up with reasons that these story lines just are not true. Find the way you do your best thinking, maybe journaling, or running, or sitting in your favorite chair and choose to get curious about any cyclical, negative thought that you might have previously chosen to push away. I find that the curiosity makes the thought feel smaller over time, and with practice I gain a little more control over the rabbit holes my brain can sometimes go down.
Tap Into Your Senses
This is a fun one. Our senses are a way we can positively connect with our body. Think about your favorite smells, tastes, feelings, sounds and sights. Specifically ones that bring you a sense of calm. Cultivate more of these things in your life, and more time for just enjoying them without distraction. This can take us out of our mind and just that act alone can help us relax. I’ll list a few of my favorites to give a few ideas.
Smells: Citrus fruits, lavender, fresh laundry, essential oils, candles, rain
Tastes: Tea, fruit, any food I enjoy, dark chocolate, naturally flavored water
Feelings: My bare feet on grass or sand, hot showers, play dough or clay, soft blankets, stretching my body
Sounds: Meditation music, rain falling, the ocean, hip hop or jazz with no lyrics
Sights: Wide open spaces, pastel colors, simple/ pleasing art (Instagram is actually good for this… lots of accounts out there with soothing or satisfying images)
For me this one was tricky for a while. It’s important to find movement that brings you JOY, and doesn’t trigger anxiety of wanting your body to look a certain way, wanting to force yourself to be better, or feeling guilty for not being “good enough” at whatever it is. Body image and self image are huge and I could dedicate a whole separate post to them, but for now I will just say that our anxious souls can truly benefit so much from movement, as long as the underlying reasoning behind the movement involves being good to yourself. I also think it’s important to do whatever it is every single day if possible (one of the biggest takeaways I got from the book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson which I highly recommend). So this way we aren’t debating when to do it or trying to do an amount of time that just isn’t realistic for our individual lives. I used to lift weights up to 6 days a week. Now, anywhere from 10-50 minutes of yoga a day is more doable for me. Adjusting the movement and the frequency is a healthy part of the process too. I also regularly dance in my living room just for the hell of it, which I highly recommend.
Part of creating this space for ourselves is creating balance. Where there is intentional movement, there should be intentional stillness. Stillness is another thing that will look different on everyone. My stillness is 10 minutes of silent meditation a day. Now, I know if you have anxiety, chances are someone has suggested yoga and meditation to you. It’s exhausting to be met with these canned solutions, especially if you KNOW they don’t work for you. This can trigger more anxiety. So I’m not saying your stillness has to be silent meditation. It doesn’t even have to be physically still if that doesn’t feel good. If you can create mental stillness on a walk with your dogs or by zoning out while making some art, then there you are. That is your stillness. Focusing on your breath or a mantra during these activities can add a bit of intention to remove us from any worried thoughts that might come up.
All of this is to point out that we shouldn’t be grabbing for dear life at the quick fixes and self help books and detailed steps that other people have created for themselves. The mental work of life and the internal work many of us do to grow and change are hard enough by themselves. Our relaxation rituals should not feel like impossible work or more things to check off the to-do list. For these, If it feels too difficult, you’re not going to stick with it and that defeats the purpose. On my hard days, all of this might look like having a shower, drinking water, or just laying in bed. Find space for methods that feel gentle and achievable to you. Get curious about what they should be and realize that they’ll probably shift and grow as you do.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this club meeting for anxious souls. Let me know in the comments how you feel anxiety, how you process it, and how you cultivate loving space for your anxious mind and body to redirect yourself back to calm.