It is mind-blowing for me to think how far I’ve come in learning to deal, manage, and overcome much of my anxiety. You can read about it here, where I talk about the nightly anxiety attacks that would wake me up every morning at 3 AM, different foods I added into my diet to help combat stress and anxiety, and certain yoga poses that made me feel a little more at ease.
For a frame of reference, about a year ago I would be woken up in the middle of the night with major panic attacks not truly understanding the cause. I would feel trapped inside my body with a racing heart and flashing thoughts. I would try to tell my body to get up, move, but I physically couldn’t - I was nervous, scared, exhausted, and truly felt as if I was going to ‘die’ in that moment. Then, 15-20 minutes later it was all over. I wouldn’t be able to even remember what I was thinking about but was left feeling extremely exhausted, still stressed, and my stomach would be in crippling pain.
About a YEAR ago, below, is just a short list as to what I did to try and improve on in my own life to help manage my anxiety, it wasn't much and I didn't see much improvement.
- Gave up caffeine (coffee)
- More yoga
- No phone in the bedroom
- Exercise first thing in the AM vs. late in the evenings (8-9 PM)
- Being more conscious of what I was eating, when, and making sure to never skip meals (more healthy fats, slowly increase fiber, more protein)
Seems simple, easy, and pretty doable but flash forward to today, I have an entirely different approach. Less restrictive, more positive. More about changing my mindset, one that is more positive and accepting.
Today, I feel that I have WAY more control over managing my anxiety, preventing it, and how to handle it in the moment all while still being able to live freely and feeling as if I am not giving up so many things that I enjoyed. Meaning, not missing out on social events for fear of not being able to control what I was eating, debating if I should have a drink or not, worry that I will miss out on sleep or exercise (all things that can often trigger my anxiety!), enjoying caffeine (coffee), be reluctant to travel, not having to be dependent on medication, becoming more organized with work and how many projects I take on, not overthinking what I need to be eating vs. what I shouldn’t, and so much more! All of this can be stressful in itself which only continuous to stress out your body and your gut!
What I am getting at is now I am more prepared to handle my anxiety in the moment when it happens or how to prevent it the majority of the time EVEN if things that I could control are out of my control (food, diet, exercise, routines, travel, sleep). I am much more positive and flexible in my thoughts and actions. I know what to do now to get back to neutral.
As I have said before I think that anxiety is often situational and can greatly be affected by lack of sleep, stress, lack of proper nutrition, changing hormones, or over/under exercise. Things that are easy to pin point and potentially a bit “easier” to manage or fix. Other times you aren’t sure why you are experiencing a racing heart, out of control thoughts, or shortness of breath - feeling completely lost as to what you need to do in order to feel a bit more in control of your life.
To be honest, I was kind of frustrated that I felt that I needed to give up coffee, alcohol every once and a while, be so routine (rigid) with working out, eat a certain way (too “clean”); that it actually stressed me out a bit more in the long run. My mind was becoming too preoccupied with following a certain schedule that I felt too rigid, too restricted. We all know certain things that can trigger our own anxiety and stress, but I am trying to be a bit more realistic as to how I go about that. The funny thing is once I let go some of that control, I started to feel better. Remember, it is a temporary feeling!
Ways to help manage anxiety, anxiety attacks, or stress:
1. Getting outside (Vitamin D)
This one is potentially pretty easy, obvious, and free! Take your lunch break outside, walk instead of drive while running errands (if possible!), take 10-15 minute interval breaks every few hours while at work to get outside, run/walk outside instead of working out a studio or gym. If you are traveling; walk to the coffee shops, breakfast spots or dinners if possible; even if they are 1-2 miles away, it's really only 20 minutes of walking. When the weather is nicer I tend to give up my time spent in a studio and will ocean swim (if I am home), walk, or do a short run outside. Just 20 minutes improves my mood drastically. Even a quick 10-15 minute walk in the morning before you start your day can change things around OR help you make 'better for you choices' later in the day.
2. De-clutter your environment, apartment, car, work space.
This one I am currently working on. I just moved in with my boyfriend and we have stuff everywhere. It can be challenging since I work from home and I feel anxious with everything out of place. A few things I can control: cleaning up the kitchen (where I work when home) before bed, putting away laundry, and organizing the living room space before bed as well. That way when I wake up in the morning the apartment is somewhat organized and I do not have to waste time in the morning cleaning up. Same goes with your car; don't let things pile up (trash, clothes) or become a hoarding space. You can see things more clearly and work more efficiently.
3. Balance out your workouts:
How often do you workout? Constantly tired or forcing yourself to go? Missing social events or things with friends because you have to go? I used to workout every single day and sometimes 2x a day. Serious burn out and stress to my body, especially my gut health. This actually caused more harm to me than good. I had trouble sleeping because I was completely worn out from over exercising, over tired, and had trouble focusing on my work and on top of that I would stress out if I missed a workout because I was too obsessed. I let it dictate my everyday. Now, I try and aim for 4 days a week. My workouts consist of a mix between HIIT (I like Barrys Bootcamp), swimming, hot yoga, or walking. Normally, at the start of the week I try and schedule in my workouts for that week. I will sign up early to stay committed and usually try to go with a friend or my boyfriend. Once I started to balance out the days I worked out and the types of workouts I felt much more at ease; my body didn't feel constantly inflamed/bloated and I worried less if I missed a class because I know that rest is OK/beneficial and that I would be able to go X day. This also opened up more time in my day to focus on other things; fun work projects, writing, socializing with friends, and travel; all things that bring me happiness. You have to find your happy medium with exercise, think of it as something that will benefit you mentally, make you happy, instead of something that NEEDS to be checked off.
Maybe the hardest one to control. There are things that I do now that help me sleep more soundly than before;
a) eating a balanced diet (adding in more healthy fats, increasing fiber, eating more of a variety of proteins/vegetables, adding back in lower sugar fruits). Not skipping meals or snacks if I am hungry. What are we actually saving calories for?
b) having 1 cup of coffee a day, usually mid morning. Not always possible, but if I have coffee later in the afternoons or in the evenings it can keep me up at night which triggers my anxiety for the next day since I did not sleep well or long enough. BUT, since I know this, I can be more prepared when I am trying to go to bed. Which might be a hot shower or bath, a balanced dinner, an evening walk, warm water with lemon/ginger after dinner to help with digestion, reading.
c) exercising in the morning or before dinner instead of later in the evenings + balance out workouts. I used to workout around 8-9 PM THEN eat a bunch of random things and call it a "dinner", which caused me to wake up hungry or have trouble sleeping since I was still hungry. I don't exercise every morning, but aim for 1-2 early morning workouts and then 2 workouts before dinner/later in the afternoons.
d) Limit alcohol. Obviously there are times that I have more drinks that will not make me feel my best in the morning, but I try to set limits because I know that it will disrupt my sleep. I find that I am able to enjoy it more often than not because I am not over-doing it every single time. Knowing that alcohol can upset my stomach or give me a headache; I am now better prepared to handle it in the morning- whether it be a quick walk, a yoga class, extra sleep, healthy energizing breakfast, water/lemon/ACV first thing before coffee, etc.
e) limit phone, computer, tv before bed. After a certain time I do not look at my phone nor sleep with it in my room. I shut my computer off before dinner and normally stop watching TV 30 minutes before bed.
f) having a snack before bed IF I need one. Going to bed hungry makes it harder to fall asleep. Lack of sleep = irritable in the morning, poor food choices, stress, stomach problems, and eventually anxiety in the evenings. It's a cycle! My snacks usually consist of energy bites, a protein bar, cooked veggies/dip, crackers (love simple mills)/dip, yogurt + fruit.
g) Creating a "to-do" list before bed and organizing either my week or next day. This allows me to rid my mind of my thoughts or what I would like to complete the next day so I am not overthinking or trying hard to remember everything as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Sleep is one of the biggest things for me. If I do not sleep well, wake up in the middle of the night, or go to bed too late; I really suffer the next day. I am tired, usually skip my morning workout, crave certain foods that will trigger my anxiety (sugar), throws off my stomach, probably not the nicest person to be around, causes migraines and so on! What I have in place are things where if this does happen, I know what I need to do the next day in order to overcome the inevitable anxiety or stress! This can be as simple as taking a walk outside, making time for breakfast, talking about it, staying committed to the workout OR knowing that I will benefit better with an extra hour or so of sleep; guilt free, having lots of water, or doing something first thing in the morning that is calming (reading, baking, listening to a podcast, watching one TV show/news) really anything to bring you back to neutral. I also try to wake up a bit earlier too, (even if its 15 minutes) that gives me plenty of time to make/eat breakfast, have coffee, get organized before the day sans rushing.
I contribute much of my ability to manage my anxiety through the food choices I make daily. What we eat affects the brain! I know what makes my body feel good, fueled, energized vs. foods that cause migraines, constant bloating, a bad mood, and irritability. To be honest, it took a while to figure this out and it was truly a constant battle of trial and error to figure out what works for my body instead of listening to someone else. It became less about skipping meals, being lazy about food prep/planning and more about knowing that X food makes me feel good and when I feel good I sleep better, feel better, less stressed, focused, less likely to skip events, and easier to be around.
More: omega 3's (wild fish, walnuts, ground flaxseeds), protein (lean turkey, organic chicken, wild fish, hemp seeds, almond butters), increase fiber (chia seeds, dark leafy greens), including in "superfoods" into my everyday diet (spices (turmeric, ginger, cinnamon etc) spirulina, raw cacao, more fruits (blueberries, bananas, oranges), avocados, oatmeal, dairy free yogurts. (In a future blog post- I will list out all my go to brands/snacks)
Less: refined sugars, cooking oils (NOT olive oil or coconut oil, but canola oil) foods high in fat (for me at least), greasy foods, packaged foods/snacks, too much salt, monitoring coffee and alcohol (wine is a trigger for me, so I will opt for other choices), skipping meals, or simply not eating enough or not adding variety to my diet.
ALSO, another key thing is to be positive about what you are eating. I have coffee everyday, I drink alcohol, and sometimes I do overeat or pick foods that I know aren't the best. Instead of fixating on it, move on. Know that you can eat something that might make you feel off, but know that it isn't an everyday occurrence. Chances are when you are more positive it will hurt your stomach less or not cause anxiety for you. Do something that will help you feel more like yourself; fresh air, quick exercise, being around your friends, taking a epsom salt bath, etc.
'IN THE MOMENT TIPS'
When an anxiety attack happens, it can feel like the end of the world. Short of breath, heart racing, trouble focusing, difficulty finding someone who relates to you, sweating, mind racing, exhaustion, self destructing; a fleeting moment. One thing to remember is that the feeling is temporary. I think that controlling your anxiety, figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t work is a process that you shouldn’t give up on. Becoming more aware of your triggers and what you need to do to help in the moment or the long run will allow you to be in more control and stay positive about the situation. Once you have a few plans in action you will be better able to navigate through an attack, especially if they are in public. Talking about it helps as well, even if it is just with one person so they too can be prepared when you are feeling out of sorts. Once the attack is done, think about what it was. From start to finish and then the next time it occurs you can potentially stop it, use the same coping mechanisms or have them last for less time.
For example, if I do not sleep the night before, I am well aware that the next day I am irritable and my stomach is completely off (bloated, inflamed, feel sick when I eat). So, now this time around, I know there are a few things to help me get back to feeling a bit more normal so I am not dwelling, obsessing, or allowing my anxiety to be in control. This might be where I turn to things I can control; whether it is through food, exercise, or something I can distract my mind with. I do know that if I just continue to take care of myself that day, instead of self destruct, the next day I will feel good as new. Just that thought process, helps me in the moment.
1. Accept your anxiety; know it is only temporary and stay positive. Once you start to notice your anxiety increase, understand that it WILL pass. What are things you can set in place to help you gain back control of your thoughts, breath, body. Who can you confide in? Try the best you can to stick to a previously planned activity or focus on something that is goal oriented. If you have anxiety about making a speech, teaching your fitness classes, or giving a work presentation understand/accept that you are nervous, but prepared!!
2. Focus on the right now, the present moment. So much of our anxiety can be a result of what we haven't done yet, what we didn't do, and what is happening next week, month or year. Make lists and stick to them!
3. Write it out. If I am stressed, anxious, or have a big day ahead of me, I make a big to do list or write down any notes and reminders that I need be more aware of. This allows me to prioritize and see the bigger picture.
4. Walk it off. Take a step back, a quick break. Sometimes all you need is to simply take a walk outside or if you are lucky enough- head to the gym, take a class, do yoga! Really 20 minutes is all you need.
5. Detach yourself from social media & your phone. This seems simple, but I know how challenging it can be especially when or if your job is to constantly have or be on your phone. After dinner I do not look at my phone, check emails, or scroll through any forms of social media. I do not sleep with the phone in my room and it isn't the first thing that I check!
6. Low blood sugar or hunger. These two things can often throw me off and if I let it build up or go too long without a snack or meal my body becomes stressed. Have snacks on hand, prepare them before the week starts, or meal prep as best as you can even if it is just for a few days in advanced.
7. BREATH. Breathing technique: 4-7-8. First, you hold your breathe for 4 seconds. Then, breathe out before holding it again for 7 seconds. Finally, exhale completely for a count of 8 seconds. Repeat these steps as needed or up to about 4 times. I usually do this when I am stressed or experiencing an anxiety attack because my breath is usually short and shallow. It slows my heart rate and makes me calm.
These lists might seem obvious or things that you are aware of, but it is always a good reminder. I think that the biggest takeaway is staying present and positive. Once I started to change my mindset and know that the feeling is always temporary and in due time it will pass, I started to have a better handle on my anxiety. Which, in turn, made me feel much better physically as well. Allowing myself to become more flexible with work, food, exercise, and anything else made it easier to go with the flow and not become so stuck in the mindset that everything has to be completely routine and rigid in order to feel my best. It is actually quite the opposite for me now! I can happily say that I haven't had an anxiety attack like I used to in almost a year by taking preventative measures and being more open about the way that I am feeling. Now, I am experience anxious feelings or stress but deal with it head on instead of obsessing over things I can control. The only way out is through.