Disclaimer: This post speaks to my personal experience with anxiety. I have not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but have merely experienced heightened anxiety both situationally and in certain periods of my life. If you are struggling with anxiety, please see a professional for help (doctor, counsellor/therapist etc.).
There was no aha moment wherein suddenly I felt cured of the chronic shoulder tension, the rushes of heat to my body (and particularly to my face) and the seemingly perpetual feeling of not knowing what to say but so badly wanting to participate in conversation. There was no moment of brief and distinguished lifting of weight, no sudden disencumbering. It was more like a collection of moments wherein upon the mention of anxiety, I caught myself thinking in past tense.
In recent conversations, I found my mind time travelling back to the days where my anxiety was at its worst. Clear and vivid periods and moments where I remember anxiety being the big grey cloud following me around came to mind when someone mentioned anxiety. In the thick of these struggles, if someone mentioned the ‘A-word’, there was an instant full body connection to what that word meant and how it felt in my body and mind. A wide-eyed, “I feel you” would exhale out of me.
Present day feels different. Today, if the topic of anxiety comes up in conversation, my reaction is actually pretty disconnected from how anxiety feels in my body. I feel for the people or person struggling. I remember what it felt like to have anxiety cast a haze over every experience, every thought, every decision. But I don’t feel it. I remember it, but I don’t feel it. Well, at least not nearly as often or as prominently.
To be clear, I still experience anxiety from time to time. The difference is I now experience it in a way that I would deem to be both healthy and normal. It comes at appropriate times, stays until it is no longer needed and leaves when its job is done. It is a polite houseguest rather than a persistent squatter. Additionally, when I do experience anxiety I am way more accepting of it. I’ve learned to stop obsessing over it when it shows up, a response I often defaulted to that only ever worsened my experience of anxiety. There is still one area of my life where I still experience quite a bit of anxiety; sleep – a topic for another time. So as you can see I’m not ‘healed’, not perfect, but infinitely better than before and significantly better equipped to handle my anxiety.
Upon the realization that my relationship with anxiety had undergone a huge refurbishment without me necessarily being aware of it every step of the way, I was prompted to look back at what may have been significant in creating these changes. It’s so interesting to me that things can change so drastically without us really being aware of it happening. It’s like taking a long walk; With each single step, you’re barely any further along. But after an hour or so, you’re in a completely different place. The following is a reflection of the individual steps between anxiousness as a daily struggle and a healthy relationship with anxiety.
In hindsight, I believe the main change maker was flow. It was present in a multitude of ways, but I believe the conscious decision to “flow” in the process of healing and rewiring anxious patterns and behaviours was the big catalyst for change and the overarching theme. It showed up as acceptance of the fact that maybe I’m not innately flawed or incapable, but simply struggling with something pretty normal. It showed up as letting go of my constant attempts to force myself to be better, to “stop being so anxious” or to just “be normal.” It showed up as a willingness to listen, to hear and to adjust.
Before giving into the process of flow, I was a dam whose gates remained closed in an effort to control the ever-accumulating pool of water that was my anxiety. What I learned was that having those walls up didn’t give me any more control. It merely confined my anxiety and allowed it to continue to compound; its perpetual expansion in volume putting more and more pressure on its container – me. Letting the gates open allowed anxiety to come and go and as the water steadily flowed through, the waterline lowered to a safe level. Anxiety needs to move and to flow. It may slow down as it moves through us, giving us the opportunity to properly address it, but ultimately it needs to keep moving.
Choosing flow meant giving in to the inevitable polarity of healing; experiencing even lower lows and getting hit by rogue wave self-realizations and surfacing unresolved traumas; getting worse before getting better. It meant facing the fear of feeling everything I had been trying not to feel and letting those feelings wash over me and throw me on the ground, reducing me to a defeated little puddle – in the most productive of ways. In short, it was acceptance of the process and of my current state.
The commitment to flow lead me to taking the other “steps” I was talking about earlier. These were things like therapy, journaling, talking to friends, reconfiguring my life to better suit me, quitting some things, starting some other things, meditating, going on medication, going off medication, moving, changing my diet and probably a bunch more little things of which I’m still not aware.
It probably won’t come as a shock to you to hear that I would attribute therapy to be the greatest healer of my relationship with anxiety. It took a bit of fumbling to get to the place of sitting on the couch of the woman who would become my therapist, but I’m forever grateful that I ended up there. It took trying anxiety medication and realizing that that was merely a band-aid for me and didn’t do anything to tackle the cause of my anxiety (this is not the case for everyone, medication can be life changing for some, it just wan’t for me.) I almost felt guilty choosing to be on a medication rather than choosing to go to therapy, but at the time I was both time poor and money poor and just needed something to relieve the exhaustion of trying to feel normal.
And then one day I found my now therapist’s Instagram and it just felt too serendipitous to ignore (a true millennial therapy story). Her message made me feel calm and understood and she just seemed like she was exactly what I didn’t know I was looking for. It wasn’t long before I was making the hour and a half-long train ride out to her office every week.
Therapy was every bit of support, push, encouragement and guidance that I needed. It asked me both the questions I tried to ignore and the questions I didn’t even know needed to be asked alike. One of the biggest things I gained from therapy was acceptance, which has become something I apply in so many aspects of my life now but especially in anything pertaining to managing anxiety.
Somewhere along my anxiety and therapy journey, I realized I was pretty unfulfilled by my life. Sure, I was living in the heart of an exciting city, I was pursuing what I thought was my passion and I was surrounded by really great people. On a surface level, things looked pretty good and I allowed myself to be fooled by that for the better part of a year.
It was only after I was well into that particular year that I realized I wasn’t happy; I was not feeling fulfilled, I was sad and I was bored. This was my first year after completing four years of post-secondary dance training programs. All I had committed to was my serving job and later in the year, one day a week of teaching. I wanted to have the freedom and flexibility to take class, attend auditions, take dance jobs if they came up and to travel. But what that did was leave me in this state of waiting. I felt like I had left my life so open to possibilities that were not guaranteed and those possibilities weren’t actualized nearly as much as I had banked on. So I was left in this state of nothingness, just working and waiting for the next opportunity to come.
I have since addressed that approach to “downtime” in my life as an artist and although I’m still working on it, I’ve learned that you just have to keep creating, keep moving and doing the things that fulfill you in your art rather than waiting for the universe to present you with an opportunity in the form of a job, an audition, or any other form of external validation. You also gain momentum by doing this so that when an opportunity does come up, you’re ready for it because you’ve been creating, refining and loving on your craft. As an artist and as a human, this approach has relieved a lot of anxiety. The most important thing to cultivate in order to make this approach work is trust. Trust that the opportunities that are right for you will present themselves when you’re ready. Give in to that trust and let yourself create freely and without expectation until the time comes. It will come.
My life received quite a few other big tweaks after that realization of lacking fulfillment. I moved out of a downtown condo and into a basement suite unit on a beautiful, quiet residential street. I started teaching more than serving and I started school for nutrition. Essentially, I was trying to pursue the things that made my life feel purposeful, and in moving into a place that was more like a house, more like how I had grown up, I felt a lot more grounded.
I tried my best to be consistent with journaling, which is an activity I have always found enlightening and illuminating. In my worst moments, my most anxious, my most confused, my most depressed, I found it the hardest to get quiet and just be with myself. But when I was able to give into that quietness and be in my own company, I always felt a sense of relief. Sometimes you don’t realize how much you’re holding in until you let yourself just write it all out. And sometimes you don’t realize how hard you’re being on yourself until you see it written out. This process always brings a sense of release. Sometimes it feels like a delayed exhale, sometimes it comes out as a good long cry. Most often, it brings clarity and leaves me feeling at least a little lighter than before.
Connection became an imperative element in relieving anxiety and one that I wish I had realized the strength of earlier on. As someone who is very driven and focused on growth, sometimes catching up with friends or family seemed frivolous, as if there are more important things that need to be done and you are undisciplined if you choose to enjoy the company of the people in your life over working on yourself or your career. Reading this old mentality typed out in front of me I see how ridiculous and untrue that is and I feel sad for how long I let that belief slide.
Re-wiring that mentality has taken time, and its still a work in progress, but now at least I know how valuable time with your people can be. A one on one catch up with a friend, a girls night, a day with family, getting to attend a loved one’s Birthday, scheduling a FaceTime, meeting for a quick lunch or coffee, lining up your gym sessions – there are so many ways to work time with the people into your life and I would argue that this is one of the most important things you can do for yourself.
Every time I get to have a catch up with one of my friends I feel less anxious. Whether it’s that we realize we are going through similar things, or they know me well enough to bring me back into reality and calm me down or I simply listen to what’s going on in their lives, I always leave feeling lighter. Getting together for a girls night and just laughing and being stupid is seriously good for the soul. I swear there must be a chemical reaction there because it almost always relieves anxiety and reminds me what’s important. Spending time with family has helped me feel grounded and connected as well. All of these things have significantly impacted my anxiety levels.
It’s worth mentioning how my diet has changed, something I believe has also played a huge role in my anxiety. I began to notice how my coffee consumption was tied to my feelings of anxiety, how alcohol made me anxious often while drinking and always horribly anxious the entire next day. I discovered how clear minded I felt when I transitioned from a very processed vegetarian diet to a whole foods plant based diet. Armed with all of this knowledge and understanding of my habits and their impact on my mental state, I could make better and more compassionate decisions for myself.
I stopped asking “why” so much. Almost every time I was experiencing heightened anxiety I would rack my brain in agony, asking ‘why the hell am I feeling this right now‘ and ‘how can I immediately stop feeling this way?’ Although it is important to address the root cause or causes of our troubles, this never helped in the moment. What helped was acceptance. Rather than asking why I was feeling anxious and subsequently making myself more anxious, I found that accepting my anxiety in that moment and focusing on bringing myself back down to earth and calming my mind was infinitely more effective. The question of ‘why’, I believe, is much more productive to ask when not in an acute state of anxiety. I recommend doing so in a safe and quiet space, either alone in your room with a journal or with a counsellor.
Quieting the roar of the voices in my head that are ruled by anxiety took tons and tons of (yup you guessed it,) practice. Conquering the anxiety around being seen took practice getting up in front of people and allowing them to see me. Conquering the anxiety around public speaking took actually speaking in public. Practicing the things that we fear and avoid due to the anxiety that we associate with them is mostly uncomfortable and sometimes sucks all together. But I’ve learned that it’s almost never as bad as I thought, and thus far I have made it out alive every single time.
What I hope is apparent in this post is that it all takes time, but there are little victories every day. It’s a journey of ups and downs and it’s likely going to be long but you only get stronger as you go, whether you know it or not. The first thing you try to attempt to remedy your anxiety is likely not going to be the magic element that heals anxiety in every aspect of your life. That’s okay. There’s likely not one cause and therefore not one remedy. That’s okay too. It takes time to deconstruct old belief systems and to build and reinforce new ones. It takes time to look at all of the different aspects of your life and how anxiety creeps in differently for each of them.
Anxiety still comes up in certain areas of my life, I am reminded as I step back into the world of dating in particular. I feel frustrated that anxiety rushes back in so strongly when it seems to be very mild in most other areas of my life. That’s also part of it. Some parts of life are going to make you more anxious than others and it’s okay to need more time to figure out how to manage your anxiety in those areas.
Don’t be discouraged by the time it takes. Remind yourself that the more time you invest, the greater the impact. You will likely have multiple phases of acute struggle where you have to confront difficult things about yourself, feel things you don’t want to feel and make necessary changes. But the struggle always levels out, and any time it comes back you are stronger than before. Those peaks and valleys are merely a part of life and they are nothing to fear. They have your best interest at heart.
I hope what I have shared is either helpful in a tangible way and gives you ideas for how to proceed in healing your own relationship with anxiety, or it shows you that you can take all the time you need to figure it out. For me it took years of baby steps and big leaps, progress and stagnancy, realization and sometimes even regression. But as I kept moving forward, I grew into myself and figured out how to hold hands with my anxiety, how to sit with it, how to listen to it and how to let it know when it wasn’t needed. Present day, I feel more capable, I feel more informed and I feel lighter. I now know that I am in control of my anxiety and that should it ever weigh me down, I am strong enough to lift the weight, wise enough to know where I can move it and compassionate enough towards myself to know when it’s too heavy to lift alone.