In my last post I rambled about recent health results and how I used to use alcohol to deal with stress and anxiety. I also wrote about the importance of running and exercise – because it’s “proven to be as clinically effective as anti-depressants or counselling for mood-related issues”.
One of the reasons I’ve been able to quit alcohol is that I started getting on top of my anxiety in the past few years. That meant that alcohol no longer served as much of a purpose – it had actually just become a self-perpetuating routine, going through the motions without a reason.
In addition to exercise there have also been a bunch of internal changes which I’ve slowly made to manage anxiety. They’re nebulous and harder to pin down – more like an attitude than a thing I did. I think they include:
Just accepting that I’m a highly strung sorta guy. During an awful panic attack period in my early 30s I struggled to change myself to be more ‘normal’, calm and confident. All that effort inevitably made things worse – I just fixated on my anxiety and twitchiness. At one point I just said to myself “I’m just a bit highly strung and that’s OK”. It’s part of what makes me ME – if I lost all my anxiety I’d probably be less thoughtful, aware of others, analytical, smart or creative.
Not speaking to myself like a sociopath. I like the rule of thumb that “If it’s not helpful to say it to a friend, then it’s not helpful to say it to myself”. Like seriously, if a friend was nervous before a major presentation I would never say things like “OMG – you’re soo nervous! What if you stuff it up? Everyone’s going to notice. You’re going to look stupid! Maybe your voice will do that annoying voice crack thing?”. When I notice myself doing shit like that, I remind myself that it’s just not useful.
What would I say to a friend in real life? I’d probably tell them that “you’ll be fine, you’ve done it lots of times before, getting a bit nervous is completely normal, it’ll be over and done with soon, it doesn’t have to be perfect”.
A bit of physical relaxation. As corny as deep breathing sounds, when I go through stress patches I try and relax my body. When I’m stressed I usually have a tense forehead, clenched jaw, shallow breathing and tight shoulders. I purposefully relax all those muscle parts and try to breath more slowly and deeply. It doesn’t get rid of anxiety – but it makes me more clear headed and takes the edge off.
4 by 6 breathing. If I find myself really unable to switch off my brainchatter I do a little counting/breathing routine. I breath in slowly while counting to 4 (in my head), then I pause for a second, and then breath out counting slowly to 6. I usually do it with my eyes shut if I’m not in public ( you know… because that would be kinda weird). The counting slows down my breathing AND it’s hard to count and think at the same time. It temporarily interrupts all the chatter in my head. After a few minutes I open my eyes and I feel a bit slower & more able to focus on what I have to do. That’s about as close as I get to meditation. Don’t get me wrong, lots of people love it – but it’s just not my thing.
I’ve learnt to trust myself. By my late 30s I’ve been through big stuff like job restructures, health crises, family health crises, accidents – as well as mundane everyday stresses like presentations which didn’t go well, missing trains, driving around lost etc. I’ve learnt to trust my ability to cope and to make the best decision at the time. I still plan and put thought into the future but I don’t have to think of every possible thing which could go wrong and make contingency plans and counter-contingency plans. I’ll cross that when I get to it.
Perfectionism. What I just wrote about has a name – perfectionism. I used to tie myself into knots trying to get things perfect or second guessing what someone was thinking so I could have the perfect answer. I don’t have to get things perfect – near enough is good enough (OK I’m lying – I still like things pretty well done but I’m not as bad as I used to be).
But apart from that list: I exercise my body; reduce my (high) caffeine levels during shitty patches; don’t overcommit to social obligations; don’t say yes to everything; and don’t waste energy on unhealthy relationships. This may sound ruthless but I’ve cut some people out of my life who cause more stress than they give back. I don’t do it lightly & I don’t do it if someone is just going through a rough time. BUT if you’ve lurched from crisis to crisis for most of the time I’ve known you & you repeatedly call me up crying, asking for my opinion and then doing the complete opposite… Have fun with that – by yourself.
Oh yeah – and recently I quit drinking which got rid of even more stress and made me even less anxious. It is sort of perverse that the thing which used to self-medicate my anxiety ended up becoming a major cause of it.