Anxiety Survival Tips: Step by Step

Anxiety is word that gets thrown around a lot in our culture.  I’m not here to stand on a soapbox and tell you what “real” anxiety is because I can’t do that.  I know what my anxiety is but I don’t know your life, and I’m not going to stand here and tell you what it is vs. what it isn’t.  Instead, I’m here to tell you how I deal with it with the hope that my survival tips can help you too.

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or your feel stress from time to time, we can all agree that anxiety is annoying and something that go from inconvenient to crippling very quickly.  Recently, my anxiety has been through the roof.  Starting a new job, trying to finish up my yoga certification, planning a wedding, and just existing in New York City have my nerves all sorts of screwed up.  It’s so out of control that I get anxious just trying to decide what to each for lunch, which can lead to me hiding in the bathroom contemplating if I can scale down my building to run down the street screaming.  

Needless to say, it sucks and I’m not about it.

I have a plethora of coping skills thanks you years of therapy, but when my anxiety reaches new levels it can become impossible to implement them into my life.  My beloved yoga mat goes unused, my essential oils never seem to make into my work bag, and crying in the bathroom gets really old really fast.  So what have I been doing to maintain any semblance of sanity?

I write down or think about every single step I’m going to take.

That might sound excruciatingly tedious and annoying by I swear to Mama Rupaul that it works.  So here’s what I do:

When I’m sitting at my desk, walking through my office, or even sitting on my couch I think about all the steps I need to take.  Not all the things I need to do – the physical steps I’m going to take.  For example, here’s what I’ve been writing down today:

  • At 5pm I’m going to close my laptop and put it in my purse.  Then I’ll put my headphones on and turn my music on.  
  • I’ll walk out of the office and go to stairwell because I don’t want to be near other people in an elevator or god forbid get stuck one.  I’ll walk down six flights of stairs and admire the old architecture of the building.  
  • Once I get to the bottom I’ll go through the door, not the revolving door because they make me anxious, and turn right.
  • Once I get to 6th Ave I’ll turn right and then right again at 19th St.  SoulCycle is half way down the block.

Today I needed more of a distraction from my thoughts so I got pretty specific.  Other days, it looks more like this:

  • I’ll leave my office at 5pm and walk towards 6th Ave.  I’ll turn right at 19th St. and walk to SoulCycle.
  • Once I get to SoulCycle I’ll get changed and go to my bike. After class I’ll walk to 23rd St. and take the subway from there.
  • After I get home, I’ll shower and order sushi as a reward for making it through the day.

Different approaches, similar results.  Sometimes I do a combination of these tactics and get really specific and include things I’ll see on the way to know I’m getting closer to my destination.  I vary it based on the way I feel because there is no right or wrong way to do it.

 

When even this is too much and feel too stressful, I’ll repeat a mantra over and over.  A mantra is a word, sound, or phrases repeated to aid concentration in meditation, but you can use them all the time.  Most of the times I use mantras in sanskrit that I learned through my yoga practice.  Other times I repeat simple phrases like “you’re ok”, “you’re safe”, or “I can”.  There’s something soothing and meditative about the repetition, even if you’re walking down 5th Avenue during rush hour.

 

Give it a try and post your favorite mantras in the comments, I’d love to read them!

Yoga Is Not Just For Pretty People

A few weeks ago I went to a free info session about becoming a yoga teacher.  Unfulfilled and frustrated with my current career (this statement is reason #234234 I’m not friends with my boss on Facebook), I decided to explore some other options.

I decided to look into becoming a yoga teacher because I thought it would be a good career for someone who tries to lead a life in a ball of positive energy…and is completely intolerant to any sort of stress or anxiety.  I found a few programs that cost about as much as a semester at my college, but I decided I should check it out anyway.  If it could help lead to a new career then it might be worth the enormous check they would have to pry from my hands, so off I went to a studio in SoHo.

I changed at work since I wasn’t sure what the bathroom situation would be like, which proved to be a horrendous mistake because the yoga pants I brought were now two sizes too small.  The entire train ride I had to keep pulling at my crotch and readjusting to ward of the back rolls that had magically appeared.  Safe to say I got a few awkward looks on the train.  Although that’s not really new since I usually keep my sunglasses on which makes me look like a drug addict or douche.  Or both.

As I walked up the the stairs to the studio I thought, “God I hope this class isn’t full of anorexic ballerinas,” and opened the door to find what? AN ANOREXIC BALLERINA.  Who also happened to be one of the instructors.  And French.

Super.

I wanted to sit in the front to show the instructors that I was very serious about my practice and becoming a teacher, but a very gay man doing a full split and a girl wearing just a sports bra and no body fat had already beat me there.  I awkwardly wedged my mat to the side while I tried to avoid getting kicked in the head by the elastic man practicing his splits.  All I could think of was, “where do the balls go?”

The instructors introduced themselves and then asked if anyone had any injuries.   I suffer from back problems, or ‘grandma back’ as I like to say (which the instructor did not find funny), so I raised my hand.  The french toothpick came over and instead of me just saying, “bad back” and smiling, she asked me more questions than my physical therapist does.  None of my answers seemed to please her and she avoided me for the rest of the class.

During the class I could feel her death stare on me when I struggled to get into a pose, which was caused by me fidgeting with my pants while trying to balance.  The glares combined with my newly formed FUPA was making me anxious, as was the fact that I was WAY to close to the wall and kept punching it, so when I tried to take a deep breath and relax my body decided this was an excellent time to fuck with me and…I farted.

Worst of all, I laughed at myself.  I was the only person who laughed.  Because clearly I was the only one who was not an adult.

The other instructor came over, humiliated for both of us, and asked me to move my mat back since I was too close to the wall.  Back of the room for me.

The rest of the class was basically me trying to relax and get the most of the experience with the instructors glaring at me or trying to adjust me. Normally I’m fine with they adjust me.  But this instructor was a ninja and would come out of no where, which scared the shit out of me and make me yelp and fall over.

This happened at least 6 times.  It was awkward for everyone.

So, that happened.  At first I thought I had made a huge mistake going and wasted my time, but then I realized that this experience made we want to be an instructor even more.

Yogis have this image of being skinny, beautiful, and inhumanly flexible – but that’s not real.  The reality is that some yogis are like that but most are not.  I’ve been too intimidated to go to classes before because the students and the instructor seemed insanely perfect.  But I want to teach people that it’s ok not to be perfect.  Yoga is an incredible way to get in touch with your spirit and your body – no matter what they look or feel like.  Yoga is about your individual practice and deepening your connection with the earth and the energy that surrounds it.

I want to be a yoga teacher because I want to give people the time, place, and guidance they need to do all of that.  That’s what yoga is to me.  Not some blonde barbie doll wearing Lululemon leggings and judging me for a having greasy hair (it was an off day bitch, leave me alone).

Yoga is a wonderful gift to give to yourself and to others, and I strongly encourage you all to try it.  Especially when I become an instructor.

So that yoga studio was not the one for me.  But that’s ok – I found another one.  An affordable one.  In Queens.

Suck it Manhattan.

Double-Sided

I know a lot of people think astrology is bologna, but I don’t.  I think our signs reveal a lot about our personalities and our character.  Notice I said personalities instead of personality; that’s because I have more than one, for I…am a Gemini.

Wait, come back!  Still here?  Super.  A lot of people don’t want to talk to me and physically move away from me after I tell them I’m a Gemini.  Why?  Because Gemini is the sign of the twins, which gets misinterpreted as sign that someone is two-faced.  I’m certainly not two-faced, although I can’t speak for all Geminis, but I definitely think my personality is double-sided.  Especially considering the fact that I have bipolar disorder.

I am notorious for flip flopping how I feel about basically everything in my life.  It’s fairly harmless until I get manic and quit my job, but fortunately that only happened once and I was 22.  Ok, it happened twice but the other time I was 19.  Anyway, the only time my “other side” becomes a problem is when it manifests into anxiety and depression.  I say that I have my regular side – silly, free-spirited, and generally laid back.  But then there’s the other side, the bipolar side, whose sole job is to thwart my success, happiness, and mental wellbeing.  Other side is a dick.

Thanks to a lot of self work (and medication), regular side is usually in control and that’s the me that people know and love.  Other side mainly comes out in my head, but that can then affect my behavior which makes people confused.  I’ll give you an example:

Right now I’m sitting at my desk, pretending to work, while an Oktoberfest party goes on in my office.  Now anyone who knows me knows that I love drinking Oktoberfest AND drinking at work.  People are also decorating pumpkins, which may be one of my favorite things ever.  But I’m not doing any of those things, instead I’m sitting here all alone pretending to be busy.  Why?  Because the other side won today.  This is how the thought process started…

I don’t really know anyone in my office seeing as everyone I work with is in a different part of the country.  But I should go to the party anyway.  It will be fine, this is how I made friends at my last job.  People like me.  I’m fun and I make people laugh.  Bitches love to laugh.

But then the other much louder side of piped up –

Nope, all those people will HATE YOU.  They’ll ignore you because they think you’re weird. Especially all the girls that give you judgey looks.  They definitely think you’re fat.  Which you are by the way.  I can’t believe you cancelled your spin class.  You are the worst.

And now I feel bad about trying to talk to people AND not going to spin class.  These type of internal conversations go on about EVERYTHING.  It’s exhausting.

My point is that I know I’m not the only one who experiences this.  I’m not the only Gemini and I’m certainly not the only one who feels double-sided.  I wish I could tell you that I got it together and went to the party and had a great time…but I didn’t.  I have my bag packed and the second I hit publish I’m going to go home.  The regular side doesn’t win every battle against the other side, but it wins most of them.  And that’s good enough for me.

So you win this round other side, but that doesn’t mean you’ll win tomorrow, or the next day, or even the day after that.  Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to head home for a little self care: meditation, cooking, and Drag Race.

Don’t Stop Believin’

Every so often I like to take a moment to stop and take everything in.  Mentally, that is – I live in New York City and if you stop in the middle of the street you will get trampled by tourists and commuters.  Also you are an asshole.  And there’s a strong chance that where you’re standing smells like garbage or pee.

Anyway, yesterday I caught my reflection in the one of the Macy’s windows and I couldn’t help but laugh.  No I didn’t look like a homeless person (that’s only on the weekends…or after aggressive happy hours).  I looked…like an adult.  A NEW YORKER adult!

I looked at my non-ancient iPhone I was texting my FIANCÉ (ah!) with about planning our engagement party. I looked at the incredibly beautiful and thoughtful engagement ring on my finger.  I looked at the designer sunglasses on my face, the designer bag on my shoulder, and the pricey headphones on my head.  I’m not trying to sound like an asshole – I was just in awe of myself.  Not that long ago I could barely get out of bed, let alone get out the apartment and go to work.  I could barely pay rent, let alone buy myself a purse (my mom had to insist I throw out my old purse because it had too many holes in it), and I was convinced I would die alone surrounded by cats.

Designer clothes and expensive “adult toys” aren’t what matter to me; it’s the fact that I now have the ability and capability to get them.  I bought that purse after I got my start date at my new job because I got a huge raise.  My dad bought me those sunglasses for Christmas because he’s no longer swamped by my medical bills.  My amazing fiancé bought me those headphone because they’re noise canceling and he knows how sensitive I am to sound.

I’m able to have all of this because I fought to get my life back.  Mental illness was taking my life away from me and after a long, grueling battle I finally did.  For a while I let it win because it was too hard to fight back.  I didn’t realize how many resources I needed to fight and a lot of the time it didn’t seem worth it.  I didn’t know that I could have a life like this.  I didn’t know that I could have a successful career, a loving partner, and a comfortable lifestyle that I earned.  My mental illness told me that I couldn’t.  It told me that I was confined to my bed, wearing the same dirty sweatshirt for weeks, isolated and alone because that’s all I deserved.

But something inside me told me that wasn’t true.  Even when 99% of your mind is polluted by darkness there is still that 1%, maybe even 0.01% that holds on.  If you don’t think that you have it, trust me you do – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be sitting here reading this.

You can have the life you dream, in fact you can one that’s even better than you could ever imagine.  But you have to fight for it.  Even if you don’t have a mental illness holding you back, there’s plenty of other things that plague our minds and lives and convince us that we don’t deserve the lives that we want.  Don’t listen to that voice.  Believe that you’re worthy and capable of love and happiness and eventually it will find it’s way to you.

For many years I didn’t think I deserved love or happiness but here I am, sitting in my office writing this post with a diamond ring on my finger.

Keep fighting the good fight.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Drugs

I think more people need to know that there is nothing wrong with taking drugs.  Psychiatric drugs, that is.  Not hard drugs, like crack.  That’s a bad plan.  Probably should have led with that.  Either way, I think a lot of people have a really negative reaction to psychiatric drugs (we’ll call them ‘meds’), because they either don’t understand why people need them or they’ve seen the negative effects they can have.

I was on meds for 8 years, then off for about 6 years, and now as of last week I am back on the wagon.  Or off the wagon?  I’ll say on the wagon because I’m getting back to being stable, happy, and healthy which is what being “on the wagon” is all about.

You may be wondering why someone even needs meds.  I often hear people say that someone suffering with depression needs to “stop being so sad”, someone with OCD needs to “stop being so obsessive”, and someone with schizophrenia needs to “stop being be so paranoid”.  Well here’s the deal – none of those people are being sad, obsessive, or paranoid by choice.  Mental illness is not what happens when you’re having a rough patch; mental illness is often due to chemical imbalances in the brain.

Certain events can trigger someone with a mental illness to feel worse.  A death of a loved one, losing a job, or developing a physical health condition can all worsen the symptoms.  But sometimes the symptoms get worse without an external trigger.  That’s what happened to me a few months ago.

Without warning or cause, my symptoms came back.  When I decided to go off medication my psychiatrist warned me that mental illness can go “into remission”, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever.  After six years of med-free life I thought I had finally beaten my mental illness…and then the mood swings came back.  And the racing thoughts.  And the depression.  And the anxiety.  I was stubborn at first because there is still a horrible stigma that surround mental health, especially when it comes to medication.  But then I realized that suffering in silence was a thousand times worse than a weird look someone might give me for taking Lithium.  If people don’t understand, then they’re stupid and you should hang out with cooler people (like me!).

People think taking medication means you’re “crazy” or “unstable” but it actually means the opposite; it means you’re taking care of yourself and there’s nothing crazy about that.  People with diabetes take medication, would you judge them for using insulin?  Or cancer patients for getting chemo treatments?  Illnesses need to medicated regardless of whether you can see them or not.

If you think you might benefit from taking medication, then go see a doctor.  Just be sure to see a good one because 90% of them are horrible.  Trust me, I’ve done the leg work.  If you’re not sure, then try some lifestyle changes first.  Exercise, diet, sleep, and meditation did wonders for me for many years, but my brain hates me so I need a little extra help.

 
And there is nothing wrong or shameful about that.

Anxiety – The Dinner Guest No One Invited

I, like millions of people, deal with anxiety on a fairly regular basis.  Whether you’ve been officially diagnosed with it by a doctor, or you’ve ever felt like your heart was going to explode out of your chest, I think we can all agree that anxiety is a very unwelcome visitor.

Whether anxiety is a frequent or seldom visitor, it has the power to leave you exhausted, scared, and paralyzed (figuratively speaking).

I’ve written before about how panic attacks feel like being stuck in a box that’s slowly filling with water, but it dawned on me that that’s not really a relatable analogy.  People aren’t often trapped in boxes and then drowned.  Or are they?  God I hope not.  Either way, I wanted to write something that people who have or don’t have “official” anxiety can relate to.  That way we can all commiserate because at best, anxiety is EXTREMELY inconvenient.  So let’s all get on the same page, shall we?

I think we’ve all been at a dinner party, as either a host or a guest, where someone who wasn’t invited shows up.  Suddenly, your mind starts to fill up with questions – who is this person?  Did I invite them?  They look weird.  That’s not fair, I shouldn’t be so judgmental.  But I thought we weren’t going to bring randoms anymore?  Whatever. Stop thinking so much.

You shake it off because when you really think about, does it really matter if there’s just one extra person?  Probably not.  But what if that person sucks…

Did he really just say he supports Trump? No one was even talking about the election? WHY WOULD YOU LEAD WITH THAT?

You feel your pulse increase, your temperature slowly, rise, and you breath get shorter.  You don’t say anything because you don’t want to be rude or you don’t even know how to respond.

What was that?  We need to get rid of WHOM?  You racist prick.  I’m going to lose it on this asshole.

You look around, but everyone else doesn’t seem phased.  They go about the dinner like everything is normal and there isn’t some giant asshole making people uncomfortable.

How is no one else freaking out?  People like this guy are dangerous.  Does anyone else see that??  WAKE UP PEOPLE!  Wait…if no one else is freaking out…does this mean I’m imagining it?  Am I overreacting?  Am I being too judgmental?  Am I being crazy?

The overwhelming thoughts keep pouring in, your pulse keeps increasing, your heart rate feels like you just ran up a flight of stairs.  Before you know it, you’re hyperventilating and people are staring at you asking if you’re alright.  You feel like your head it going to explode and your heart is going to burst out of your chest, so you abruptly get up from a table, embarrassed and scared, and seek shelter in the bathroom.

That’s what anxiety feels like.  At least for me – we all experience it differently.  Regardless, I think we can all agree that feeling anxious is uncomfortable, scary, and embarrassing.  Even if you’re alone, it can feel shameful and you think to yourself, “Other people don’t freak out about this kind of thing.   What’s wrong with me?”

Nothing.  You are not wrong for feeling anxious or having a panic attack.  You are not crazy for having racing thoughts or feeling like your heart is going to explode.  It happens to a lot of people, even people who don’t have anxiety disorder.

Instead of beating yourself up, try to think about what triggered your anxiety.  See if you can pinpoint the moment you started to feel off, and think about what you could do to sooth yourself next time.  Personally, I’m a fan of deep breathing.  So much that I got the word “Breathe” tattooed on my left wrist.  People often tease me about it and say, “Is that in case you forget?”  Ha ha.  Jokes on them, that’s exactly why I got it; it’s my personal reminder.

Breathing doesn’t always do the trick, though.  There are times when my anxiety is so bad that when I tell myself, “Calm down, remember to breath,” the part of me that’s panicking says, “FUCK YOU, YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE!”  Instead, I count.  I usually count backwards from 100 (or 50 or even 10) because I need to focus more since I’m terrible with numbers.

Once I’m able to calm down (or I fail to do so and wait for the panic attack to end – it’s a process), I try to thinking about what made me feel that way and I what I can do next time to try and prevent anxiety from taking control.  A former therapist and I made a list of things to do, which I carried around in my wallet.  They vary based on my environment, i.e., if I was home, at work, on the subway, lost in the middle of nowhere, etc.  Some things that work for me are:

  • Playing with Sasha (my furry companion)
  • Listening to music (usually show tunes) I know all the words to and singing along (either out loud or in my head)
  • Walking around the block/neighborhood/apartment
  • Going into a CVS/Duane Reade/Walgreens and reading the ingredients or instructions on different item.

That last one probably sounds weird, but all of these things have the same purpose – they redirect your mind away from whatever is causing your anxiety.  Once you’re calm you can figure out the cause because trying to do it mid-freak out usually just adds stress and unpleasantness.
When anxiety shows up unannounced, know that you’re not the only one who deals with it and there are things you can do to shoo it out the door.  After all, it’s just an unwelcome asshole – fight back and tell it to get the hell out of your dinner party.

My Daily Internal Debate

It’s time to get up.

5 more minutes.

If you don’t get up now, you’re not going to have time to get your lunch and your clothes for work ready.

There are clothes in my gym bag, I can just wear those.

Ew that’s gross. No, get a clean sports bra.  And don’t forget to pack a regular bra! You can’t keep buying new ones at Victoria’s Secret.

That was one time!  And it was the semi-annual sale!  Jeeze.

You’re running out of time.  You know how frantic you get when you give yourself five minutes to get out of bed, dressed, packed, and out the door.

I have plenty of time. It’s only 7:05am.

No, it’s 7:15am.

Fuck.

You have to be out the door at 7:30 if you want to make it to the gym on time.

Ugh, I don’t feel like going.

You say that now, but when you stand up you’ll want to go.

Let me check the website and see what the workout is. Ugh, we just did front squats.  I’m going to cancel.

No, go to the gym.  You ate half a bag of jelly beans last night.  We said we weren’t going to do that anymore.

But I’m tiiiiiiiiiired.  And it’s cold outside.  And I don’t have the mental energy to deal with Atlantic Terminal right now.

Get up.  Don’t you want to eat some jelly beans when you get home?

…yeah.

If you don’t go to the gym you’re going to feel sluggish and grumpy.  And let’s be honest, you’re still going to eat the jellybeans.  You’ll feel better if you workout.

Bah. What time is it?

7:25.

I still have five minutes to decide.

But then you won’t have time to get ready.  Goddamnit you know how times works!

 
Alright!  I’m getting up.  You win again.