It’s been a while since I last posted but I decided to take a break over the holidays while I was visiting my family and friends in Australia so I could be as present as possible and make the most of my time there. While I was at home using my action plan that I made with my psychologist, it got me thinking about all the different strategies and tools I use to help manage my anxiety. I know many people who suffer with chronic conditions also deal with mental health issues too so I thought it may be helpful to share my tips with you. Please remember that these are strategies that work for me, and may not work for you. We are all unique (which is a good thing!).
Seek professional help
First and foremost, if you are really struggling with your mental health please do not be afraid to seek professional help. A great first step is to see your GP. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking with these people that is okay. Instead talk to a close friend, family member, co-worker or anyone that you feel comfortable with. Just talk, don’t continue to suffer on your own. Seeing a psychologist has helped me gain back control (mostly) of my mental health and providing me with many coping strategies. I still continue to check-in with them whenever I need to. Now I see them as a healthcare professional like any other, it is just as important to take care of our minds as it is our bodies.
Find a breathing pattern that centres you
While I am getting better at preventing them, I still occasionally suffer from panic attacks. The first thing that I do when I feel I’m starting to first feel overwhelmed is to focus on my breathing. I focus on slowing it down and taking big deep breathes. A couple of months ago I also came across the practice of ‘box breathing’. It’s where you count to the same number at each stage of the breath therefore creating a square or box pattern. For example, breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and hold for four seconds. I find a pattern where I have to count the most helpful as it gives my mind something simple to focus on. You have no idea how many small-scale attacks this has prevented!
Remove yourself from the situation
I suffer a lot from social anxiety and do not deal well with many social situations. I always tend to end up doing one of two things to deal with this. Getting extremely drunk (which I definitely do not recommend), or I ghost my way on outta there. If you are getting overwhelmed, or are feeling extremely uncomfortable, there is absolutely nothing wrong with leaving in order to protect yourself. I have found that if I explain the situation to my friends they are completely understanding. I have also started doing this whenever I start to panic at work. Whenever I feel the need I give my boss the heads up and I’ll leave the office to go for a walk, or even head home if I need to. Because I have discussed my mental health issues with him previously, there is luckily never a problem with me doing this.
Find a strong smell
This one is a bit different, but was actually suggested by my psychologist. In the second half of a last year I went through a phase where I would often feel disconnected from my surroundings. I could be in the middle of a conversation with a close friend and I would suddenly feel detached. It was like I didn’t belong where I was, and wasn’t connected to the other person in any way. If you’ve ever experienced feelings of dislocation it can be extremely disorienting. The idea of the strong smell is to help ground you and release you from those feelings. I chose ginger essential oil, but it could be anything. I carried this with me everywhere. Whenever I started to feel disconnected I would take a few bigs whiffs to help snap me out of it. Eventually this trained my mind to stop those feelings from taking hold on its own.
Become friends with flight mode (or the off button)
It seems such a small thing, but this is probably the tactic I employ the most frequently to help me manage my anxiety. Like for many, waiting by the phone for a response or scrolling through social media can be anxiety-inducing AF. So sometimes I just need to flip the switch completely and tune out for a while. It might be a few hours, a day, or a whole weekend. Putting my phone on flight mode forces me to focus less on others and more on myself. It takes some practice but now I am never tempted to switch back on until I have fully reset. You can switch your phone off completely too, I don’t as often listen to podcasts during this time. One thing I always do is just let anyone who might be expecting to hear from me what I’m doing just so they don’t get worried!
Keep a gratitude journal
I started keeping a gratitude journal not long after I had my breakdown in 2016. In the early days I was still so low that I really struggled to find even one small positive in each day. I would have to force myself to write the smallest thing, even if it was simply ‘I managed not to cry as much today’. Very slowly I worked up to writing down three things I was grateful for every day. I also started to focus on how each one made me feel. For example, ‘someone let me on the tube first which made me appreciate that doing one small act for someone else can make their day’. What I found this did was help to retrain my brain to look for the positives instead of the negatives, and be grateful for them. I kept this journal for nearly a year before I felt confident enough that I could practice gratefulness every day without an aid. One of the best things about it was whenever I was having a really shitty day, I could return to it and be reminded that no matter how low the day is there is always something to be grateful for.
Write it down
One of the tasks I did as part of my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was to write down every sad, bad, and anxious thought or feeling I was having. If I was worrying about a particular situation I would also write down the worst case scenario. This helped in a few different ways. Firstly, it helped me to identify my triggers. What was causing me to have all these feels? This helped me identify what I needed to work through, or avoid in the future. I could also create tangible action plans for any situations which may more realistically arise. It also helped to get the thoughts out of my head and gain some perspective. By writing everything down I could read it and say okay, I am currently experiencing this feelings now but they are not permanent. These thoughts do not make up who I am and I am not my anxiety.
Self-care is spoken about a lot these days, which is good because it is so important. I want to add to that conversation and say that self-care is going to be different for everyone. It doesn’t have to look like a face mask and a cup of tea in the evening. It might be that you need to take a mental health day from work, book in with your psychologist, or even go to an exercise class. Whatever it may be, you need to find what is right for you and you alone. And you don’t have to know what it is straight away. Experiment and try a few different things, you might find that you need a different strategy for different situations. There are quite a few different things in my arsenal for this reason. When my mind is going haywire but my body is feeling okay I turn to Pilates. If my body isn’t feeling so great I’ll switch on a podcast and go for a long walk, or do a stretching routine at home. Sometimes I’ll completely switch off from technology get into bed early and fall asleep with a book. Whatever it is, never feel bad for making time for yourself. It is one of the most important things we can do for our health.
I hope these tips help, please do comment below if you have any of your own. I think the more we share about our own struggles and how we get through them, the better it is for everyone. People need to become more comfortable with looking after their mental health in the same way as they do their physical health.