Feeling anxious? So are we -- and plenty of other people. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.” With the world as it is today, these numbers shouldn’t be surprising.
In my last post here, I talked in general terms about some of the ways I manage my anxiety in these very trying times. Here, I want to go more in-depth on the hows and whys of my most reliable personal stress and anxiety management strategies.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.
First steps: Catching anxiety before it spirals out of control
It’s important to be able to recognize when anxiety hits in the first place. We often get so used to stress that it feels like a normal part of existence. We often must learn to identify our particular anxiety signs early on before we can begin to address them effectively.
Everyone’s anxiety tells are different, but some of mine are:
- Total loss of appetite. A couple of years ago, I went through a two-month period of extraordinary stress. During that time, I thought I was functioning fine, until my clothes started fitting looser and looser and I realized I’d been eating next to nothing the entire time.
- Cringe flashbacks. You know that thing we do where we recall embarrassing memories from long ago and experience intense retroactive shame? I start dredging up those memories much more when I’m feeling anxious about something currently happening in my life.
- Picking my cuticles. I don’t bite my nails (anymore), but somewhere along the way, I developed a habit of picking at hangnails and messing with my cuticles when preoccupied with stress. My hands are a mess. I don’t always catch myself right away, but I’ve gotten better at it.
Once I recognize that I’m getting anxious again, I can take action to neutralize the feelings.
The first step for me typically is CBD. As I mentioned in my last post, a single dose of fckCBD quickly eases physical anxiety sensations, two doses slow down racing thoughts, and “a triple dose is like a fire extinguisher dousing the inferno of my overwrought nerves.” Not to mix too many metaphors, but CBD is often the tourniquet that helps keep me intact long enough to perform mental triage and move forward.
Sometimes anxiety can be handled by removing the source of the stress. That’s often easier said than done, though. Plenty of anxiety arises from situations we can’t really avoid: the need for gainful employment, life or family circumstances, or other more or less inescapable realities. When that’s the case, the following strategies help me cope and get through to the other side.
General anxiety: Yoga
I used to roll my eyes at suggestions to try yoga for my anxiety. Then I started practicing yoga for my back and shoulder pain and almost instantly felt the mental benefits too. Whoops. Guess that could have come in handy through all those years of nail biting and cuticle picking.
While we think of anxiety as a mental state, the truth is that it has a physical component, too. Anxious thoughts often lead to increased muscle tension, elevated heart rate, and more rapid and shallow breathing. Those sensations in turn heighten our perception of our stress in a feedback loop of pure suckiness.
Concentrating on any exercise will help break the loop by drawing our attention away from our thoughts and towards what we’re trying to do with our bodies, but yoga seems uniquely suited to the task. The focus on mindful breathing helps counteract any anxious hyperventilation, while certain styles of yoga practice promote substantial muscle relaxation.
I think of my particular approach as Type A yoga. Many sources praise yoga for encouraging us to accept our bodies and abilities exactly as they already are. That’s awesome. That’s not really where it’s at for me, though. My focus is on getting better at it so I can do increasingly outlandish things with my body. I find the growth rewarding, another source of positivity to help drown out anxious thoughts.
Catastrophizing and constant fear of failure: Journaling
I’ve been going to therapy off and on for almost two decades at this point, and I have no problem talking out some of my problems with loved ones, but I do have a problem with fully sharing my anxious thoughts. They’re so absurdly repetitive that I would feel ridiculous voicing them over and over. In fact, my usual fears are so absurdly repetitive that even I recognize how irrational they are. That doesn’t stop them from recurring, however, so I still need to deal with them somehow.
To get some relief from the internal pressure, I’ve been journaling for a few years. Not a free-form “dear diary” journal, but one intentionally created to give me a body of evidence that my fears and worries very rarely come true.
Social anxiety makes me feel that everyone secretly hates me and I’m just a huge pain in the ass that no one wants to deal with. So I record evidence to the contrary: I write down happy and positive and meaningful interactions that I have with people who matter to me.
Fear of failure causes me to believe that nothing I do will ever pan out successfully, so I keep a running log of goals I’ve reached and milestones I’ve hit. A tendency to catastrophize makes me feel like any misstep or setback is the end of the world, so I occasionally also reflect in writing about times when missteps and setbacks were not, indeed, the end of my world. It’s also nice to reflect on times when I misunderstood situations that turned out to not be missteps or setbacks at all.
It’s not as time-consuming as it sounds. Generally I only spend ten or so minutes writing these entries out. Writing them out is only the beginning, anyway. Where my journal really comes in handy is when these particular fears and worries hit me again. I have my entries categorized in my journaling app so that I can quickly find and read through whichever ones I need to help talk me down from my fears at any given moment.
Essentially, I’ve created a powerful tool to brainwash myself out of my anxiety. And it’s working. I find myself having to refer to it less and less often these days. Those fears do still surface in my mind, but I can bat them away more easily now. When I can’t, on the other hand, the journal is right there to remind me of all the times my fears haven’t come true in the past.
If you’re unsure where to start with using journaling to help rewire your negative self-talk and anxious thought patterns, but don’t want to or can’t see a therapist, I highly recommend the Youper app. This “emotional health assistant” gives users a completely private way to talk through issues. The AI uses evidence-backed methods, often drawn from cognitive behavioral therapy research, to help you reframe problematic thoughts and figure out which fears are realistic and which ones aren’t. It also functions as a mood tracker. My journaling is essentially an offshoot of what I learned while using Youper.
Moving forward from anxiety
I’ve said it before and no doubt will say it again: for many of us, anxiety isn’t a temporary problem that can be solved once and for all, but rather a chronic condition that we can learn to manage. It’s taken me over twenty years to learn how to manage mine, but my life is so much better (even in lockdown!) than it was before I got a handle on my stress. Yours can be too. Take some time to fill your toolbox up with strategies that work for you, and take time out to focus on you. In the long run, it’s worth it.
Jude Chao is a skincare and Korean beauty expert known for tying skincare to self-care and mental health. She has been featured in W, Fashionista, and NYMag's The Cut and The Strategist. She blogs about beauty, productivity, and mental health at her blog Fifty Shades of Snail and on Instagram at @fiddysnails.