Living with anxiety, or any mental illness, is a daily battle. One of the most important things I’ve learned so far on my recovery is that if you want to get better, you have to help yourself. Every day. Because one good day does not guarantee another. If you want the good days to continue, you have to make them happen. I’m not going to say that once you start helping yourself, you’ll instantly be 100% better and there’ll be no more bad days, because that would be a lie. Healing is a long process, and it requires patience. But once I realised that in order to keep getting better I would have to play an active part in my recovery, things suddenly got so much easier. For the first time since my anxiety got really bad two years ago, I feel like I am in control. And that’s the truth: I am in control. And you can be, too.
When I was really sick, for the longest time I did nothing about it. I let anxiety and panic attacks take over my life. I kept hoping that one day I’d just wake up and my anxiety would be gone, but nice as that would be, it’s obviously not even remotely how this works. No one chooses to have a mental illness (and fuck anyone who thinks otherwise), but we all have a choice about how we handle it. About how we live our lives. And the way I figure it, everyone has two options. You can choose to let it win, which is what I did for so long. Or you can choose to take control.
If you’re ready to start helping yourself get better, there are many, many things you can try. I’ve decided to create a master list of the things that help me cope with my anxiety and improve my quality of life. None of these are new ideas, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good ideas. Whether you’re suffering with anxiety (or another mental illness) or not, I hope that you’ll find something here that will help you on your way to becoming a happier and healthier person. So, without further ado, here are some of the things you can do to help yourself get better.
- PUT YOUR RECOVERY BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE. I believe that this is one of the most important things you can do. For me, what this means is not doing anything that is going to impede my recovery – or, in other words, anything that is going to add more anxiety to my life than it’s worth. I see nothing wrong with choosing to keep your mental health and well-being at number one priority. One thing I will say, though, is that it’s important to make sure you’re acting in your best interests. For example, in my mind, anxiety and university go hand-in-hand. I’ve had severe anxiety for pretty much the entirety of my time as a university student. But I’m choosing to return to uni this year, because the benefits it will hold for my future far outweigh any anxiety it will cause me. Part of my recovery is learning how to face the things that make me anxious head-on, especially if they’re going to help me further down the line.
- Maintain a positive attitude. Believe me, I know how goddamn hard this can be when you’re battling with anxiety. Something anxiety is really good at doing is making you think the worst is going to happen in every situation, and it can be so difficult to think positively about anything when your mind seems to hate you. But believe me, once you start thinking positively, it makes everything so much easier. Instead of thinking about the worst thing that could happen in a situation, and then avoiding that situation because you’re convinced that it will happen, try saying to yourself, ‘Okay, it’s possible that x might happen, but it’s far more likely that everything will go smoothly and I’ll have a great time. And if not, I’ll still be fine.’ Try to remain optimistic, and I know this is so hard sometimes, but try really hard to believe in yourself. You’ve come this far. You can do it. Whatever it is, however big or small, you can do the thing and you should be proud of yourself for that.
- Exercise regularly! I can’t stress enough how good it will make you feel! After two months of going to the gym regularly, I can honestly say I am noticing so many benefits. Not only am I physically fitter, but I am sleeping better, am more energetic, and am just generally looking healthier. Plus I feel like 100x better about myself. Not only is exercise great for your body, it’s also great for your mind. All those endorphins an’ that. I’ve promised myself that, even after I go back to uni, I am going to find time to make it to the gym several times a week. Whatever you do, you can always make time to look after your body. Find something that works for you and commit to it. You might not notice results straight away, but stick with it and I promise you, before long you’ll be feeling so much better.
- Treat yourself. I don’t want to confuse “self-love” and self-care here, so let me make the distinction clear: the former is badly-concealed narcissism, and the latter is something we all should make time to do regularly. Caring for yourself is so important, because this is the only body and the only mind you’re ever going to have. I don’t mean this to be an excuse to buy 5000 chocolate bars and eat them all at once (although, y’know, chocolate is pretty great). I’m meaning more taking some time out to do something positive and healthy for yourself. One of the things that makes me really happy is relaxing in the bath while listening to chill-out music. Preferably with a bubble bar from Lush. Another thing I like to do to treat myself is to go for a long drive on my own, because I’ve always found driving relaxing and sometimes it’s nice to get away for a little while. Also, smoothies. Always smoothies.
- Make and keep good sleeping habits. Like most students, my sleeping pattern has been shot to shit over the past two years. Somewhere in the first few weeks of uni, I got into the really bad habit of going to bed at 12am or later and until recently, was never successful in breaking it. When my anxiety got really bad, to cope with all the stress of assignments and deadlines I would quite often stay up until two or three in the morning studying, and then be up around 8am for classes the next day. Only a few nights of that is enough to make anyone feel constantly tired. But since I’ve been home over summer, I’ve been making a concentrated effort (and mostly succeeding) in going to bed well before midnight and waking up at 7.30am. Part of this is because of my job, but part of it is also because I decided I wanted to have healthier sleeping habits. And I can honestly tell you that I feel so much better for it. And I have so much more day to do stuff in!
- Show kindness and understanding towards others. Whether they’re strangers, friends or family, please make an effort to be kind to others and try to understand things from their point of view, regardless of whether or not you’re feeling good. Everyone has their own story and their own shit going on in their life, and the last thing they need is you adding to it by being a dick about things. Try to make someone’s day. Try to add to the good things in the world. We’re all human and flawed, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always the best at this one. But I have been trying harder lately, and it feels so good. You get what you give.
- Get rid of the shitty stuff in your life. If there are things or people in your life that are standing in the way of your recovery, please don’t be afraid to take whatever action you can in order to keep on your journey. One shitty thing that I regularly did to myself when I was anxious was get drunk. Alcohol was one of my early attempts at coping with my anxiety – I found it relaxed me and made me feel like I could handle things for a little bit, so I would regularly get drunk and then study or work on assignments. Obviously this is a really, really shitty way to manage the stresses in your life, and it took me longer than it should have to realise this, but in the end I got there, and I haven’t been drunk in months and months now. I still enjoy the occasional drink, of course, but I don’t get drunk anymore. And I’m so much better for it.
- Be open and honest with those around you. This is definitely one I’m still working on. It can be very hard, but it’s also very important to communicate with the people in your life as best you can about what’s happening in your head and how you’re feeling. If you can’t do something because you’re too anxious, just tell them the truth. I used to make up excuses a lot about why I couldn’t go out or stay out with friends, but these days I’m trying hard to be completely honest when I’m not feeling too good. They will understand, and it’s better for both you and them that they know the truth. And if they don’t understand, see the previous point.
- See people! It may sound really obvious that hanging out with people you like will help you feel better, but I know too well how anxiety can make this a positively mountainous task. I strongly encourage you to reach out to your friends and family and make plans. Start off small, like meeting for a coffee, and build up to the bigger things. Life’s a whole goddamn lot better if you’re sharing it with other people.
- Get out of the house! Another thing that seems really obvious but is really fucking hard to do when you’re anxious all the time is getting out. Whether I’m going out with others or just on my own, I find getting out every day really makes a difference to my general mood. I’m the kind of person that starts to go a bit crazy if I’m stuck inside for too long, so some fresh air and a change of scenery is never unwelcome. Even on bad days, I try to go out for a little while, even if it’s just to the shops and back.
- Use a planner or make lists to keep on top of your stress. I’ve kept lists since forever, because I find it a useful way to remember all the shit I need to get did. But this year I invested in a planner, which is the first time I’ve owned anything remotely diary-like since high school, and I’ve found it immensely helpful for managing my life and, as a consequence, my anxiety. The planner I use is a week to a spread, so I can plan each week as it comes and can always see what I have to do and when. Knowing I’ve sorted my shit out gives me peace of mind and I spend far less time lying awake at night, trying to plan the coming days and stressing about when I’ll do what.
While on the subject of planners, if you’ve got a spare few minutes and a spare few dollars, please head on over to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ramontelfer/the-calming-planner-success-comes-from-finding-bal and check out the Calming Planner. It’s an amazing-looking project designed to help people who suffer from anxiety and other mental illnesses to keep track of their lives and their wellbeing. Please support them in getting their project off the ground!
- Don’t dwell on the past. If, like me, you’ve been through some really scary, awful times with your mental illness, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s so easy to fixate on the bad times, and become terrified that they’ll repeat themselves. But here’s the thing: they won’t. You’ll never have to live through those experiences again, because they’ve already happened and we’re not time travellers (yet). So learn what you can from the shitty times, and then take the energy you spend worrying about them and focus it on creating a better future for yourself. Because you can control the future. You can make it what you want it to be.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As important as it is to learn to cope with anxiety by yourself, sometimes you just can’t hack it on your own. There’s absolutely no shame in turning to someone else and saying, ‘Actually, I’m not okay. I need help.’ Admitting out loud that something is wrong is the first step towards getting better.
- Push yourself to do the things you wouldn’t normally do. Say yes to every opportunity life presents you with. Venture outside of your comfort zone. As I’m getting better and better, I’m trying to do this more and more. There was a lot that I missed out on over the past two years because of my anxiety, and I’m done with being the person that sits at home, too afraid to go out, while all my friends are off making memories. I don’t want to look back on this time in my life and only remember so many nights spent at home on my own because I was too scared to do anything else. And yes, sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s fucking terrifying. But once I’ve gone out and done it and had a good time, I feel amazing and I know I can do it again.
- Last, but by no means least: breathe! We kinda all need to breathe in order to live, which might lead you to wonder why I’ve included it here. But anyone who suffers from anxiety and panic attacks will know what I mean when I say that sometimes when we’re anxious, it feels like we’re not breathing and this can make us more anxious, which makes the feeling of breathlessness worse, and so on ad infinitum. When I feel a bit anxious and my breathing starts to get a bit shallow and fast, I’ve found one of the best things I can do for myself is to sit or lie down somewhere quiet and away from people, and just focus on taking really deep, slow breaths. I like to put my hands on my tummy with my middle fingertips touching, and watch them part as I breathe in.
So that brings my master list to a close (for now; I’d like to revisit this at the end of the year and see what I have to add by then). But I thought I’d also add on a few things that I’ve tried which didn’t work for me, but might work for you because y’know, different strokes for different folks:
- Counselling. I saw a couple of different counsellors a few times around the end of 2013, and to be honest, they didn’t help me much. But that style of treatment might be perfect for you!
- Rescue remedy. It’s this herbal spray thing you take when you’re feeling anxious or stressed and it’s supposed to calm you. I didn’t notice any change when I was taking it, but plenty of peeps report that it helps them loads, so it might be worth a look in. You can find out more about it here: http://www.bachflower.com/rescue-remedy-information/
- Yoga. I went a few times, but I’m much more into vigorous exercise rather than relaxing or stretching. However, that’s entirely a personal preference, and loads of people say it makes them feel a gazillion times better. So why not give it a go?
And finally, a few things I haven’t tried yet but am keen to explore this year include therapy, hypnotherapy, meditation, and light pathways. I’ll keep you posted on how they all go.
Hope you’re all well, and I’ll talk to you next Sunday!