I started showing signs of anxiety when I was around 6 or 7. My parents had lovingly bought me a Tamagotchi, which was all the rage in the 90s. I absolutely adored my little amorphous blob on a keychain, cleaning up its poop diligently and feeding it whenever it gave me an attitude. Little did my parents know, I’d have a complete anxiety attack whenever I had to go to school; I couldn’t handle the fact that the Tamagotchi might die in my absence. In response to my panic, my mom promised me that she’d take care of it during the day. That’s where I first developed trust issues: she would sometimes forget about the poor little electronic baby while she was doing her thing throughout the day. I should probably talk about that lingering resentment in therapy.
Cue increased anxiety and nervousness. My mom’s promises still didn’t quell my spirals, so eventually my parents gave the Tamagotchi to my cousin to rest my mind. I now know that trigger avoidance breeds more anxiety, so it would have been more effective if I had faced my demons and tried to sit with that terror of my toy dying until it passed. My mom, however, wouldn’t have wanted to see me suffer like that. If only mental health education was more prominent and therapy wasn’t so stigmatized in the 90s. Also, if only toy companies didn’t invent toys that died!
As I grew older, my Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) morphed over time, aggressively latching onto different areas: school, work, money, relationships, friendships. Most things were an emergency because, at the core of it, I was desperately trying to avoid being severely depressed. If I didn’t do well in school, I’d feel like a failure and mope around for the rest of my life. If I wasn’t going above and beyond at work, I would be fired and have to move back in with my parents, destroying the life I built — and going to a dark place as a result. If I accidentally said something that offended a friend or a boyfriend, every relationship I had would go downhill, and I’d be completely alone for the rest of my life. When everything is the end of the world in your mind, your entire worldview is warped and seen through the lens of pending doom. Needless to say, I wasn’t the most fun person at parties.
This catastrophic thinking impeded on every aspect of my existence, causing extreme pain in my chest and intense brain fog. My quality of life was so low, it got to the point where I was pushing people away and making more errors at work. Talk about counterproductive. On the flip side, I’d also become depressed as a result of this anxiety cycle because I felt like I’d never feel okay again. The problem was that my therapists could only do so much. It wasn’t helpful for me to just talk it out because that would lead to rumination about all the things that were going wrong. I would even ruminate about something my therapist would casually say during a session, making things even more painful. They didn’t teach me to be self-sufficient in handling anxiety in the moment, which is a limitation of traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I needed quick ways to unstick my brain, and I wasn’t getting it with talk therapy.
It wasn’t until I found an OCD and GAD specialist in my 20s that I was provided with some of the methods that actually worked to quell anxiety, even between sessions. Despite her gold-standard tools, I still struggled with severely anxious feelings almost constantly. It got to the point where I had to go to an outpatient Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) to gain more tactics, such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills. That was much less about talking things through and more on specific tools to use in the moment when you feel distressed with anxiety, anger, fear, sadness, and other uncomfortable feelings. The combination of DBT and my specialist’s recommendations armed me with enough weapons against anxiety that I could tame it — mostly. I still struggle when things are particularly uncertain in my life and when major triggers present themselves throughout the day, but I feel confident that I can be resilient with what I’ve learned.
I want to share a few of the most effective methods that work for me to sit with my discomfort and reduce my baseline anxiety. These aren’t the generic tips you read in classic “How to Reduce Stress” articles. People can only do so much formal meditation, exercise, and deep breathing. Don’t get me wrong; those can be incredibly helpful, but sometimes you have to shake it up to find what personally works for you. These ideas will be most effective if you repeat them over time. The key to each of these is to rank your anxiety on a scale from 1–7 (no half measurements) and do the task until your anxiety reduces by at least half (thanks to Rogers Behavioral Health for that trick).
Try these and see what works for you:
- Eat a Warhead. Do you remember those deathly sour candies that make you tear up? Yeah, I’m talking about that classic 90s staple. When you’re caught up in your head, popping one of these in your mouth will likely get your brain to pay attention to the pain in your mouth rather than the anxious feelings.
- Listen to binaural beats mindfully. I just found out the calming power of binaural beats with this Spotify playlist. These songs put your brain into an alpha state, which has an incredibly calming effect. Make sure you use headphones for the full experience, and you might just find yourself blissed out for a while.
- Take a whiff of smelling salts. Athletes use this trick to amp them up for a game or play. I use it to shock my system and dissipate my anxious chest pain. I guess in my own way, I’m getting prepped for the game of life. And that’s the only athletic thing I can do, for the record.
- Put on a favorite song and intuitively dance to it. Moving all the stuck anxious energy around can boost your mood in more ways than one. I go all out when using this method. Ideally, you’d put on something upbeat and wild so you can shake that thing.
- Hold an ice pack. Another way to shock the system is to hold something very cold. You can put both hands on it for even higher intensity. Be careful not to keep your hands on it too long. I may or may not have made that mistake in the past.
- Focus on an easy or medium-level crossword puzzle. When I was at my lowest — with both GAD, OCD, and Depression — this saved me. When I was doing crossword puzzles, I’d get in a flow because my mind was fully occupied on the task and not my anxious rumination. I don’t recommend the Sunday New York Times crossword, though. Try something easy or medium to really get into a flow with it.
- Sing to a song with a wide range. You already know that deep breathing has benefits to calming anxiety in the moment, but singing can make that process a little more intuitive. Pick a Mariah Carey song, find a karaoke video on YouTube, and sing your little heart out. It may feel really silly, but I swear by it for at least a little relief.
- Cry for a set amount of time. If I need to just let it out, I’ll let myself shed some tears for a limited amount of time. Too much can make things worse for me, so I aim for 5 minutes. Adjust the time based on what works for you, though. Studies have shown that crying is a self-soothing technique, so you have the potential to release stress just by letting yourself be a waterworks for a bit.
- Use a mindfulness tracker. Every time I get an anxious thought, I use everyday mindfulness techniques to pull myself back into the present moment. It’s like a brain bicep, redirecting from your brain to your body. I use an app called Tally to count how often I successfully shift my focus. It reduces rumination and eventually reduces anxiety if you do it enough. Once I hit 50 points, I’m buying myself more Warheads. I’m a glutton for punishment.
If you’re suffering from anxiety right now, something that might comfort you is the fact that all humans have a negativity bias. We think things are way worse than they are — especially when in an anxious state. So if you’re experiencing really rough triggers, it might help to know you could be catastrophizing the situation. That’s way easier said than done, but just remember: your metaphorical Tamagotchi dying might not be the end of the world.
Originally published at https://www.raemshane.com on September 29, 2020.