Anxiety & Self Care

Anxiety & Self Care
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Morning you beautiful people! Today I present to you a guest post by the talented Josephine from Crazy Whole Life.

Five years ago I would have laughed at the idea that I would be diagnosed with anxiety. A huge part of my identity was that I was someone who didn’t stress. I was the peacemaker in our family, the responsible oldest child, and the calm eye of every hurricane.

So when I started having anxiety symptoms I assumed I was having a heart attack (one that went on for days, weeks, and then months). I went so far as to see a cardiologist, who declared my heart the healthiest in her office. She then began listing every symptom I had experienced in the previous six months. Yes, I said, yes, that too! When she was done she told me that those weren’t the symptoms of someone with heart trouble, but anxiety.

A new way of thinking

That was the beginning of a shift for me. Self care has always been a big part of my life. But now I had to adjust how I thought of myself and how I cared for myself. I had spent the previous forty years of my life caring for other people, and I found it harder to learn to care for myself. Self care is a lifelong journey, it changes in every season as our needs and lives change. I should have known that, but living it out was something else entirely. I offer my story in hopes that it might help you.

My forties, and my anxiety, has taught me something essential about self care, but to get there I need to share a bit of my story. I am now what we call “middle aged,” I don’t heal as quickly as I once did, and I am far more aware of my own mortality and vulnerability.

So I suppose it should be no surprise (though it was) that I found my anxiety creeping into every part of my life.

Especially the places where I had always found joy and peace.

I have loved horses as long as I can remember, and have been riding them for nearly twenty years. A few years ago I bought myself my first horse, a fiery spirited grey thoroughbred mare. Horses are empathic in a way human beings cannot be. As herd animals their survival depends on their ability to know what all of the rest of the herd is feeling. The moment any horse in a herd gets nervous the whole herd knows and reacts.

My mare and I were so in tune with one another that all I had to do was think about what I wanted us to do and the minute changes in my muscles that happened (unconsciously) were enough for her to “hear” me and respond.

This is the magic of the horse/human bond.

But it also makes getting onto a horse when you have anxiety a difficult and dangerous thing. From the moment I enter the barn my horse can feel my racing heart, she can feel the surges of useless adrenaline, and my jangling nerves.

Anxiety & Self Care

The more fear she heard from me the more wild she became in her attempts to protect us. Which increased my fear. It was a spiral that led me to stand one day in her stall, sobbing. I was terrified of my best friend, she triggered my anxiety to new and dizzying heights, and her prey animal instincts put us both into even more danger. I nearly gave up.

My ahah! moment

The place where my anxiety most hurt was also the place where I found the tools to deal with it.

That’s not to say that I “fixed” it overnight, or that there was a single magic trick that changed everything. I went to the doctor. Seems small, but how many of us don’t? I endured all the questions, the assumptions, I got the medication I needed, I went back when it kept me up all night, and kept trying until we got it right. It felt almost impossible in the midst of my worst anxiety, but slowly but surely the medication helped.

I talked to my support people (my husband, friends, riding coach) and told them when I was overwhelmed, or when I needed help.

Most of all: I began to discover the things that helped me.

When it was cold for example, and my mare was particularly excitable I would turn her loose in a safe pen to watch her run and buck and play. And then she would heave a big sigh and come to me, and our rides were so much calmer.

I learned to hack my body, when the adrenaline surge came (as it always did) before I mounted I took off running (yes next to my saintly horse). And after a bit of hard exercise my body assumed all that adrenaline was from running and the anxiety attack loop short circuited.

I learned that talking out loud kept me breathing, and breathing helped me feel less anxious. So I chattered constantly.

With each new piece of the puzzle I felt more in control, more like my mind wasn’t my enemy anymore. But I discovered that I was horrible at following through with the things that helped the most. Just because I knew that something helped didn’t mean I always did it. Maybe because I didn’t want others to have to wait on me, or because I’d never had to do that before, or because it might mark me out as different.

Self Care Rule #1: Use Your Tools

I would find myself feeling a little guilty or embarrassed, and I’d skip steps and wind up back in an anxiety spiral. Then one day, as I once again started to skip all the things that helped me feel better I stopped short. “It’s a tool.” The thought popped into my head. All the things that I used to help manage my anxiety were tools. I had been thinking of them as crutches.

We don’t shame each other for using a hammer to pound a nail into the wall! No one would ever say that we should just push that nail in our with our bare fingers! Having a tool, and not using it, is silly. “Use your tools” has become the most helpful self care rule for my life.

You may not have anxiety, you probably don’t own a sassy thoroughbred mare, your story is your own. But all of us have places in our lives where we struggle.

Struggle is a universal human experience.

No matter what face we present to the world, none of us sail through life unchallenged. And for most of us certain struggles, and the tools that help us overcome them, are harder to name and accept than others.

We use potholders to get that hot casserole dish out of the oven, hammers to drive nails into the wall, and a camera to take a picture. And all these things we do without any sort of guilt. They are simply tools, no emotions attached to them. But we have been fed lies about ourselves for so long that the tools that help our brains, hearts, and bodies function well carry all sorts of baggage.

Why Self Care is So Hard: Anxiety Lies

Those of us with anxiety struggle with self care in part because anxiety is a very good liar. Anxiety tells us that we are always in danger and that we are never good enough. Anxiety convinces us that our efforts won’t bear fruit, so why try? But anxiety is a lie.

Our poor brain is awash with the wrong chemicals in the wrong proportions. Behavioral science tells us that fear responses shut down our higher thinking, when we go into fight or flight mode we fall back on our “lizard” brain, which isn’t very smart. It makes decisions based on immediate survival, not long term thriving. And while that works well when a lion is chasing you it isn’t helpful when the danger is all in our endocrine system.

For me, this is what makes tools so important, but not the end. Just identifying the things that help you in the midst of chronic anxiety (or a full blown anxiety attack) isn’t enough. We also have to practice them over and over again until they are our instinctive reaction to anxiety. We have to trick our poor old lizard brain into using our tools instead of its default choices (of running away, hiding, or lashing out).

The Self Care Habit

Anxiety gives me two choices: hide away and do nothing, or use my tools to do the things I love.

I strive to always choose the second option, there are times when my anxiety simply wins. And that’s OK. The moment I feel guilty or ashamed I lose. I feed into the shame cycle that anxiety feeds on, I begin to believe the little voice that says everyone thinks I’m stupid, silly, or incompetent, and that makes getting back out there much harder. One of my tools is the ability to say: “if this is all I can do today, that’s OK.”

Anxiety self care isn’t always glamorous.

Bath bombs and massage don’t really do much for my anxiety (I wish they did). Self care for my anxiety is almost entirely free. It doesn’t require a trip to a store, or an appointment to get my nails done. Most of the time it doesn’t even require much change in my schedule.

But it does require that I use the tools I have on hand, regularly, consistently, habitually. The more I use the tools in my anxiety self care kit, the better they work! Because they have worked in the past, they tend to work better each time we use them. We expect them to work and so they do. This is the unglamorous (but real) self care for people with anxiety.

How do you remember your tools and use them?

I suspect this will vary greatly, and you may find some things work better for you than others, but here are my top tips for remembering to use your tools and making them habits:

  • Schedule your self care tools in your planner! (Does exercise help? Then schedule it, just like you would a work meeting or doctor’s appointment.)
  • Ask for help and backup. My trainer knows the things that trigger my anxiety and a number of the strategies I use to fight it. She is great at reminding me to use them when she sees me struggling. (It’s often easier to do something if someone else prompts.)
  • Create rituals. A predictable morning routine, or bedtime routine can help your body get on the right track, and helps you not forget things like taking medicine. My pre-bed ritual helps me slow my anxious thoughts, take all of my medicine every night, and help my body feel good (skincare!)
  • Let technology help! When my anxiety is at its worst my memory is very bad, and forgetting things makes it all worse. So I use my phone, setting reminders to prompt me throughout the day to do my self care.
  • Check in. Keeping a mood log or anxiety tracker can help you see trends, and being able to track what things have helped, or not is a great way to identify tools, and reinforce that your tools help!

You Got This

When I was tiny my mother called our country doctor, panicked because all I would eat was bananas and peanut butter. He told her to take a deep breath and not to worry, I would not die of malnutrition. Eventually eat other foods and it would all balance out in the end. He was right, and it’s a good reminder for us all. The food pyramid (and other rules about balance) is a suggestion, there will be meals that don’t meet it perfectly, and that’s OK.

Our lives will never be perfectly balanced, all the rules followed, all the tools used every time. What a dull life that would be, anyway. Some days you will eat only bananas and peanut butter, and that’s OK. The great spiritual traditions of the world have taught me that the journey, not the moment is what matters. Just pick your tools up, and get back to it. It will all balance out in the end.

Josephine is a photographer, poet, baker, ordained priest, and lover of anything that sparkles. She founded Crazy Whole Life (a resource for spirituality and more for modern humans) in 2017. Her first book “It’s All Sacred” is available from Amazon. She is married to the best Tex-Mex cook in Seattle.

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