Before I started medical school I had never really experienced anxiety. It wasn't until I had my very first panic attack just over a year ago (or what I assume was a panic attack) that I started to experience it all the time. At first I didn't realize what was wrong with me. I honestly thought I was losing my mind! I had depersonalization big time and actually thought I would spend the rest of my life feeling like that. My anxiety was constant and it ebb'd and flowed in intensity. Sometimes I couldn't even put words to what I was feeling, I just felt so off. There was no real pattern to it, it was just kind of always there. It prevented me from doing all sorts of things I loved doing, and I felt stuck in it. When school was let out for the summer and my anxiety continued, I knew there had to be some underlying imbalance somewhere. Turns out my adrenals were shot and my hormones were out of wack. I started on a hormone balancing protocol and slowly I started to feel better and like my old self again. For about 8 months total I had really bad anxiety that made me feel all kinds of awful. I am so so thankful that I am pretty much back to my old self.
Anxiety is a funny thing. It is SO prevalent in our society, but yet it is not often talked about. There is embarrassment and shame associated with it. I know I certainly tried to hide mine the best I could, and actually avoided many social situations (super out of character for me) because of it.
I am now in a place where I feel more open to talk about my experience, and although what you have read above is far from the whole story (maybe another time), I feel like my experience has taught me a lot.
Although my anxiety is so much better than it was a year ago, it still sneaks in every now and then. When it does, there are some tricks that I have found really help bring me back to myself. Today I am sharing my top 5 hacks to help calm anxiety. These are simply coping mechanisms that have worked for me from personal experience.
- Sweat it out
Hiking, running, yoga, parkor... what ever your favourite way to sweat is, do it. Exercise is so beneficial for both anxiety and depression. When you exercise "feel-good" chemicals such as certain neurotransmitters and endorphins are released (AKA runners high). It also is a great distraction and will take your mind away from any negative thought patterns.
- Ground yourself
When anxiety hits, it is easy to get stuck in your head and feel disconnected from your body or the present moment. A trick I learned from my counselling class is the simple method of grounding. When you are feeling anxious, close your eyes and take a couple deep belly breaths. With your eyes closed pick out 3 sounds that you can hear in that moment, and notice their characteristics. Then notice 3 things that are touching your body that you can feel. It could be the bottom of your feet touching your shoes, or the way your t-shirt is touching your skin, or the texture of the chair under your hand. By bringing focus away from the thoughts in our head, we can shift our consciousness to body sensations and the present moment. I personally find this to be very effective and love that it can be done at any moment and in any situation.
- Call a friend
Be it a friend, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a parent, calling a loved one just to chat can be a great distraction. Focusing on a conversation can take your mind away from anxious thoughts. Find out what is new in their life, make fun plans or reminisce on good times of past. Connecting to others can help remind us of the important things in life and make us feel more normal.
- Practice mindful breathing and gratitude
Anxiety brings us into a sympathetic (think fight or flight) response. Our heart starts racing and we find it a little difficult to breathe. Thinking straight is out of the question too. My favourite trick to bring my body back into a parasympathetic state (think rest and digest) is to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Get into a relaxed position and breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold this breath for 7 seconds and then slowly let out for 8 seconds. Repeat this 4x or more as needed.
After you have completed the breathing sequence, bring your focus to one thing in your life that you are extremely grateful for! Gratitude is the fastest way to interrupt anxiety.
- Avoid refined sugar, alcohol and caffeine
This was a big one for me. When I was struggling with bad anxiety just the tiniest bit of refined sugar, booze or coffee really enhanced it. Although, avoiding these things will not get rid of your anxiety, it will prevent it from being intensified. Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables with good clean sources of protein can help keep anxiety at bay. Adding fatty fish rich in omega-3s is especially beneficial for brain health!
I hope these little life hacks can be of aid in anxious/stressful times!
Although these methods have helped me cope with anxiety in the past, I understand that sometimes nothing can help in a given moment. Due to this, I still recommend seeking medical/professional help (especially from a naturopathic doctor) to help you figure out the underlying cause of your anxiety and get you on a treatment plan that works for you.
*Images sourced from tumblr*