March 27th at around 1pm, my dad walked in the door of our photography studio and said this: “You know the strangest thing just happened to me…”
I don’t know why. Maybe it was the tone in his voice, but I just knew something was wrong. Long and super depressing story short, we went through an emotional rollercoaster at the hospital of “He’s going to make it!” to “I’m sorry, but he’s never going to wake up.” I watched my best friend deteriorate right before my eyes. Someone with so much life and love, and he was gone in an instant. Except it wasn’t really an instant. It was weeks of torture pretty much waiting for him to stop breathing.
When that happened, on April 14th, I lost a lot of things. And one of them was my innocence. The rose-colored glasses that bad things only happen to bad people and that we are all going to live until we are 96 and then die peacefully in our sleep no longer existed for me anymore.
Alas, my point here is not about “taking life by the balls and doing whatever the fuck you want because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.”
No. I tell you this sad, sad story because it is where so much of my doubt, my indecision, my fear, and my low self-esteem stem from. This post is about the God awful bitch we all call “anxiety.”
The palm-sweating, fear-generating, nausea-creating, poop emergency-inducing side effects of anxiety.
Losing my father and then my subsequent divorce a little over a year later created this crippling anxiety, making it hard for me to physically: get on airplanes (something that was never an issue before), go to crowded areas, be without a car or phone, and be in pretty much any type of situation that I would be trapped and couldn’t save myself. It also created the mental fear of: making the wrong decision, embarrassing myself, and screwing something up.
Stressful life situations jack with your system and create issues more than just the obvious. The double Ds of death and divorce made me lonely, but the anxiety made it hard to function, let alone succeed.
So what do you do? How do you get out of it? Is a Xanax prescription in your future?
Here are my tips on how I am living a less anxious life.
Keep in mind that this is a process. My process. It’s not perfect, and I still have anxiety. I make no promises or guarantees. I’m not a doctor, and you should still seek professional advice. I know I do every 2 weeks…
1. Meditate. Start with 5 minutes everyday. I did a 30-day challenge where I meditated for at least 10 minutes everyday. It was the hardest challenge…the never-ending journey to attempt to control your mind…but it has been the most rewarding even at this basic level.
2. Eliminate caffeine. <–This. THIS.
3. Always carry Altoids or Listerine strips. Look, it’s weird, but this is key when I’m nauseous or quickly going into “panic mode.” The taste of mint causes a much needed pattern-break where I focus on the flavor instead of…ya know….dying, or whatever I’m freaking out about.
4. Mental shift. In general, the more you focus on something happening, the more likely it is to happen. Now, I turn my focus to…my favorite sex fantasy. 😀 Oh, you think I’m joking? Well, I can guarantee you that thinking about an orgasm is a lot more appealing than focusing on suffocating in an elevator that’s stuck on the 5th floor. You’re welcome.
5. Talk yourself off a cliff. I lay out the likelihood of the worst possible scenarios and come up with plans to fix them. I didn’t start doing this until recently since I have gotten better at the mental shift step. For example: With my work as a photographer, I would worry about camera malfunctions and missing moments. I think of the actual likelihood of these things happening and then come up with a plan to mitigate the risk (ie. bring a backup camera, hire assistants, etc.).
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a note on the fear of dying. As I’ve gotten stronger, I am realizing that death is not always the number one fear for a few different reasons.
- It isn’t super likely.
- Usually, it’s not something I can control.
- I have gained a sort of “faith” in the Universe that what’s going to happen will happen (I think as a result of meditation). If I’m going to die today, at least I’m living to the best of my ability right now.
When the fear of death is off of the table, the other stuff is a little more solvable.
6. Be on your own terms. I have found that when people ask/insist/force me to do things, I have more anxiety than if I decide to do them myself. So, even if this is something as simple as reframing a situation, I trick my brain into thinking “I want this. I’m not scared of this. In fact, it was my idea because I love it so damn much.” Like for example: “My friend is wanting me to go with her to IKEA on Saturday. I know there’s going to be a huge sea of people, which is going to make me super uncomfortable and feel claustrophobic, but I’m going to feel like a real loser if I turn her down because I’m scared of having a panic attack in the kitchen section.” turns into: “It was my idea to hang out with her at IKEA this Saturday because I’ve really been craving some of their super cheap and awesome Swedish meatballs (heh), and I need to pick up another spatula.” Look, I can’t explain why going to IKEA make me anxious. Sometimes, I just get scared…for no fucking reason. Sometimes, I find it hard or scary to do the things that I’ve never had an issue doing before. But I never said anxiety made sense.
7. Baby steps. Do yourself a favor and put yourself in small anxiety-provoking situations. Practice breeds success. And success breeds more success. For me, this looks like going to a 6 o’clock workout class where it’s a little busier and extra hot from all the sweating. Or when I go to a coffee shop for a few hours without a phone. Or going on a little weekend trip…alone. Start small and work your way up. Then after I do the baby steps, I…
8. Celebrate. Making one decision, even a tiny or minuscule one, is something to be celebrated. I tell myself, “Wooohooo, you go girlfriend. You just rocked that like nobody’s business. You’re smart and brave, and you just kicked that workout class in the FACE! I’m so proud of you.” Don’t underestimate the power of positive reinforcement…from yourself. Which leads me to my last point. Possibly, the most important point.
9. Be nice to yourself. Give yourself some grace here. Don’t beat yourself up. Your mind and body are just trying to survive out there, and anxiety is a side effect of that. I was such a bitch to myself before, which often just made it worse. “Damnit, Madison, you’re such a wimp right now. Normal people do this ALL the time. What’s wrong with you??” Now, I say something along the lines of: “Look, I know this situation is a little uncomfortable, but you’re doing really well right now. We got this. We are in this together, and everything’s going to be alright. You’re doing the best you can do, just go a little bit farther. I’m proud of you.” Slowly talking myself through a situation like you would a small child seems ridiculous, but sometimes, you gotta be who you need in order to get yourself to the other side.
Life throws some pretty stupid shit at us. And I understand that anxiety is a result of that.
But I am tired of being anxiety’s bitch. Aren’t you?