Easing anxiety is a journey, potentially a never-ending one. And I can’t necessarily claim that I have defeated the beast. But I have realised it holds you back (needlessly). And it is intimately related to your lifestyle. So I have drawn up my own plan of action – let’s call it the four pillars of wellness (according to Jedd). They seem simple, but with the volume of thoughts swimming around my mind, it’s useful to have a reminder handy. I hope they can help you too.
Easing anxiety is the dream. Because it’s the worst. That tight elastic band across your chest, the surge in heart rate, feeling like there is a lion constantly in the room. I used to think the feeling was just nerves – after all, it has been named after an emotion. Plus, it’s all in your mind, right? Did I turn the oven off? Did I lock the front door? Did I say the right thing? Is she upset with me? What if they don’t make it home safely? What if I forget how to speak during the presentation? These are the thoughts that echo in one’s head, triggering that hormone release that starts off the physical response. Doesn’t your heart rate just surge at the mere thought of them?
The irony is, or should I say, life’s great contradiction
In the moments when a healthy lifestyle is needed most, the body tends to crave anything but, and a huge amount of energy is required to overcome that intense lack of motivation.
- Sure, a salad would make me feel light and energetic, but how instantly gratifying would that slab of chocolate be?
- Sure, science says that the endorphine release following a jog, bodyweight exercise or boxing class will lift my mood, but how much better does a dark room and Netflix binge (with pizza, of course) sound?
- Sure, the benefits of sleep are countless, but how much better does it sound to overthink most of my interactions during the day, and slowly ease into a restless sleep?
And then we obsess, even though we know we shouldn’t, even though we know it affects nothing. The feeling brain is in control of the consciousness car, and the thinking brain sits shotgun, tightly strapped in, hoping the airbags deploy on impact. Hopefully you can relate to these, and it’s not just me (?). For more on the thinking brain vs the feeling brain, read this by Mark Manson.
Stick it on the fridge
So in clear view, neatly magneted to my fridge is a handwritten (untidily so) list, with four points, seven words and 31 letters with a message so blatantly obvious, that naturally us overthinkers tend to forget it. The image that you can download below is not the one on my fridge – it’s a little neater and free to download in case you want to paste it up on your fridge too.
I only realise how weird it must be to have this message on my fridge when people visit. Not so so good at hiding their bewilderment, but strong enough to resist the urge to ask. I think it’s pillar four that really raises their eyebrows. Right, I reckon that’s enough of the context setting, let’s get into the four pillars and how to go about easing anxiety.
Pillar 1: eat right
Deep down, we all know what this means, even though dieticians seem to struggle to agree on the right answer. Ditch the refined carbs.
Think that burger will go down well? Ditch the buns. Would you like a salad or fries with that? Tricky question (not really though). You should totally go with the salad. Would you like your chicken grilled or fried? We all love that glorious coating of golden crisp deliciousness, but we know, deep down, that it’s probably the wrong decision. I don’t have much more to add here. Nothing scientific, just gut instincts (pun totally intended).
Ultimately, be aware of cause and effect. Feeling nice and light – what did you eat? Feeling overwhelmed, anxious and lacking motivation – what did you eat? Keep reworking your diet until you find a good balance of nutrients that aid the good vibes all round. For legal reasons, I should probably mention that I’m not a qualified dietician, health practitioner or foodie.
Pillar 2: move
Our favourite Bold Brunette says it best in her article, “Exercise is way more beneficial than you think“.
This is one of my body’s favourite things to avoid when the elastic band starts to contract, despite the good vibes sure to be delivered after exercise. Pulling yourself out of bed / off of the couch to throw on a pair of running shoes, head on down to the gym or get the overenthusiastic dogs ready for a walk around the neighbourhood is a little bit too much to process in that heightened state of anxiety.
The best way to overcome this is to practice self-awareness. Specifically, identify exactly what stops you getting off of the couch, so you can do your best to make it as easy as possible for yourself. Hate getting up early to exercise? Then don’t – do it in the afternoon instead. Hate running? Then don’t – there’s lots of other stuff to get you moving. Hate the silence? Podcast or music it up, or reach out to a friend to gym buddy it up.
Another thing to really think about is what motivates you? Is it success – finishing a tough workout? Is it being held accountable – by yourself or by a gym partner? Is it the process – seeing the results as the lean stomach starts to show or your heart rate lowers even as sets intensify? Is it the outcome – rush of endorphines post workout?
Tailor your movement regime to best align with what motivates you, to make it a little easier to get back out there.
Pillar 3: sleep
I only truly appreciated the importance of this pillar when I neglected it. I would often get home from work between 3am and 6am, after an 18-20 hour workday. I knew this was problematic on a few occasions:
- That time I partially blacked out, falling forward into my cupboard while choosing the socks that matched my outfit least (as one does)
- That time I almost fell asleep driving home from a client – luckily my manager was driving shotgun and noticed my head drooping down
- That time I went for my check-up and, for the first time, showed signs of borderline high blood pressure
The mind fog was also real, as well as the out-of-body experiences, which I can only liken to the body defaulting into autopilot – similar to the remote control in the movie Click, automatically fast forwarding through the activites Adam Sandler has previously fast forwarded through (the dangers of machine learning, I suppose).
It’s tough when your mind slows down or you can’t truly immerse yourself in moments shared with friends, family and colleagues (being present, in other words). Utimately, this leads to lowered levels of performance, which leads to the tricky conversations with management and then, ironically, to heightened anxiety and an inability to sleep.
A few tips (all anecdotal)
There are a couple of things I have noticed that aid to an easier journey to sound sleep (I should probably use them a little more regularly).
- Meditate – focusing on the breath, on the counteracting forces of gravity pulling you down, and your bed pushing you up, on areas of tension in your body. Forcing yourself to simply acknowledge your thoughts, but not react to them. Before you know it, your stilled mind will have you enjoying some well-deserved REMs. There are some great mindfulness apps that can walk you through this process. Before you spend any money though, there is so much great content on YouTube freely available.
- Eat earlier and cut the carbs – I’ve started moving my main meal towards lunchtime (in which I have upped the protein, lowered the carbs and become less stressed about fats). Eat something light for dinner, a little earlier than usual to avoid your body activating its digestive process. I’m still working on this, but avoid refined carbs at all cost (especially before bed) – these spike your energy levels and get the mind racing.
- Ditch the tech – another thing I’m not very good at, mostly because of this whole Disrupt Tutoring thing (?). Try and avoid the blue light before bedtime.
- Count your blessings (be grateful) – through prayer or by integrating a gratitude theme into your mindfulness practice, you will be amazed at how powerful gratitude is in releasing some of the feel good hormones, easing the mind and helping you sleep.
Pillar 4: don’t be obsessed
Cue eyebrow raise. Don’t get me wrong. I’m totally empathetic to the looks of judgment on my visitors’ faces, especially when one considers the defintion of obsession:
When someone is obsessed, they’ve lost control of their feelings about the object of their obsession. The adjective obsessed is often used to simply mean “very interested,” but when someone is truly obsessed, their interest has become compulsive, and they’ve begun to lose control over it.
I like to think of this pillar as a continuum. At one end (let’s call it the good side), you have passion. At the other end (let’s call it the bad side), you have obsession. Put simply, the goal is to edge to the side of passion, and stay away from the side of obsession. Seems pretty simple, but most things are when typed out in words – it’s the practical application that’s the tricky part.
This pillar is intimately related to the first three and can oftentimes determine your success or failure in upholding them. Obsession contributes to meals missed, or easy on-the-go snacks, with lowered nutritional value. Obsession contributes to that forgone run or workout, as whatever is consuming your mind, has left little space for anything else. Obsession leads to nights spent behind the laptop, or replaying an event (past or present) without an ending, or with a reimagined one each time. This means sleep is set aside.
In short, to have any success of living up to the first three pillars, learn to identify when your passion turns into obsession. More importantly learn how to transform your obsession back into passion. Easing anxiety starts here – ensure your energy is directed towards the good side of the contiuum.
You’re up – easing anxiety is totally possible
I’m not a fan of quotes, but this one by Mark Twain (well, I hope it was him) really resonated with me (just to be clear, I’m talking about my thinking brain – highly doubtful my feeling brain will do anything about it):
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Mark Twain (or so I have been told)
The four pillars of wellness are not going to take your anxiety away. They can help ease the regularity and intensity of it. Consider them a guide to direct your mind and actions to a certain way of behaving. Download the picture above or write them up, stick them on your fridge and let them become the mantra to your day.
Be compassionate. Be empathetic. To yourself. In short, practice self care. Know you’re not alone.
Finally a disclaimer from me. If you see me around or we interact, you’ll probably notice that I don’t eat right, don’t move enough, don’t sleep enough and I can get a little obsessed at times. These pillars are tricky ones to stick to, despite the benefits. It all goes back to your consciousness car – the thinking brain knows the way, but the feeling brain tends to lead the way.