(Originally posted in 2018)
Note: I’m reposting this article now as a show of support for all of us grappling with any type of anxiety or depression at the moment, especially in light of the COVID pandemic. Also, even though some of the community activities I reference here aren’t possible in person at the moment, technology has given us a beautiful way to connect virtually with loved ones the world over, perhaps even growing us closer to those we otherwise may not have reached out to were it not for this situation.
First, before you’re even fully awake, it’s the racing heart. Then the sweating begins, and before long, you start to experience the feeling you dread most–white hot electricity spawning from deep in your gut and moving up and out until even your fingers and toes are caught up in the awful circuitry. But that’s not the worst part. Still to come is the brain, kicking in and responding with active thought to what your body is already swaying and sweating to work through. And as your eyes break open, you once again identify it.
Unreasonable, unwarranted, unbidden, and unbridled, it restarts on its own clock every morning, cortisol rising like a flood wave so that you’re a mess before you even get out of bed. For some it’s work anxiety, or relationship anxiety, or worry about kids or the future. For others, it’s nameless and excruciatingly shapeless, an impossible-to-grasp vapor whirling around your head. Regardless of specificity, it all offers the same bizarre gift–a frenzied, pulsing paranoia. Wait, a gift, you say? This thing that makes one feel so off the wall and crappy is a gift? This thing that keeps me compartmentalized within my own head and light years away from the present moment is a flipping gift?
From the moment it started way back in January 2018, I wanted to know the root cause of my suddenly acute anxiety, and I wanted it with a brand of urgency usually reserved for too-big-for-my-britches garden ideas and far-flung vacation schemes. The fire had to start somewhere, I reasoned, so it had to have a fuse. And I was hell-bent on finding it. At that time, there was quite honestly little else I could focus on–both the anxiety and the resulting depression put me into a state in which I couldn’t focus on anything at work, and I was just not at all present at home.
After about five months of intense work, I began to come out of the cave. Although anxiety is still a companion of mine, I feel tons better, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I’m still a work in progress, but the level of schooling that this gift has given me is not one I’ll soon forget–and I think it was fully intended that way. Now, as with any gift, the best way to enjoy it is to share, so here you go:
1. Estrogen Dominance is Not Bullshit
I was 44 when the acute anxiety first hit, so the first concept that popped into my head was that of hormones. Menopause and emotional roller-coastering are as famous a duo as Sonny and Cher, so it was kind of impossible not to go there and explore. Long, long, long story short, while all of my sex hormone levels read as within “normal range” and were therefore not noted by my doctor, when looked at in conjunction with each other as a ratio, they put me solidly in the estrogen dominant camp, a classic anxiety-feeder. Now that I know this, I can respond to it. If you’re interested in this topic, check out the work of Dr. Sara Gottfried, a Harvard-educated physician who relies on hard science, top-notch clinical studies and personal experience to create a wellspring of info on the hormone-wellness connection.
2. Therapy is Not Bullshit
We all have stuff. A good therapist, one who is matched to you and to your personality, can help you to pull out all of that stuff, analyze it, and put it into a slot in your mind that is healthy and logical. I think everyone should have a therapist. Seriously. Mine has helped me to understand emotional connections that I had no idea existed, and we’ve had a few hum-dinger aha moments. And at the end of the day, anxiety and depression are not, unfortunately, isolated conditions that happen only to you or to me. They are spread wide and far, and importantly, are experiences that we share and can empathize with as humans. From traditional therapists to support groups to wonderful coping concepts like Nanea Hoffman’s frankly adorable Anxiety Blob, we are reaching out to each other with ideas to help each other navigate the mazes in our minds, and by the same token, we must be able to seek out and accept that support when we need it.
3. Self Care is Absolutely Not Bullshit
In the past, when I’d read about the importance of self care in a women’s magazine or on some other such outlet, I’d quietly guffaw to myself at the first-world narcissism inherent in the fact that this is even a topic. “What? I have a clean bathroom, hot coffee and weekends away from work. I’m not walking five miles a day to retrieve water from a dirty well. Self care? Whatever.”
But oh crap how wrong I was. Here’s the thing. When you don’t take a few moments to honor yourself, you begin to lose that sinew of self-regard that is so terribly important for even our privileged first-world lives. You show simple acts of kindness to others every day–don’t you deserve the same level of love and care? It could be as simple as a hot bath or an hour spent with a good book. Nothing fancy. Just a little gesture to show yourself that you care.
4. Yoga is not Bullshit
Ok, ok, I admit to a certain level of bias on this one, but there’s a reason I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 25 years and am now a teacher. The myriad ways in which yoga can, if applied honestly and intentionally, have significant impact in addressing anxiety and depression is getting ever-more mainstream attention and scientific backing. I don’t mean striking a few poses while watching TV—that can be useful, sure, but the real goodies lie in the mind-body-spirit collaboration of yoga’s eight limbs. It is very much a spiritual practice; after all, the word yoga itself translates to “union with the divine.” It’s mindfulness linked to breath linked to movement. It’s bloodflow linked to energy release linked to life force movement. It’s beautiful, deep, and transformative. As part of my teacher training, I went into depth studying the effects of yoga on the nervous system, and it’s a fascinating topic. Check out the work of Dr. Stephen Porges on polyvagal theory for a deeper dive into just one mind-expanding little corner of this subject. From muscle tone to mantra, yoga remains an indispensable part of my wellness approach.
5. Functional Medicine is Not Bullshit
One of my favorite gifts out of anxiety-palooza was my discovery of functional and integrative medicine as a whole. This is a model that believes in the integration of mind, body and spirit in the full expression of health. It’s a collaboration among Eastern and Western medicine, and includes most of the modalities in this list. It seeks out the root cause of a condition, which very well could be a combination of physical, nutritional, environmental or other factors. Finally, it is personalized, operating on the concept that each person, each patient, each client, is unique, and therefore so should be their wellness program. Functional and integrative medicine have been a big deal for me, so much so that I actually took the step to become a functional medicine certified health coach. This approach addressed all of me at once—mind, body and spirit—and all of me has responded.
6. Acupuncture is Certainly Not Bullshit
I totally can’t leave out of this list one of my favorite wellness modalities—acupuncture. I had experienced it only once before, years ago, during our fertility process, but my go around the second time was much, much different. My visits to my local acupuncture clinic resulted in a very noticeable change to my mental tone, and a means to optimize my qi and health that has been proven out over 3,000 years. And its application goes far, far beyond mental health. If you’ve never given the art and science of acupuncture a try, I say go for it. Just make sure you find a licensed and board-certified provider you feel you can trust. And if you don’t have local access or the financial means to work with an acupuncturist, check out the concept of acupressure, which is safe, self-administered, natural, and certainly valuable.
7. Journaling is Not Bullshit
I can’t deny that journaling is extremely beneficial. It’s not one of my favorites, to be totally honest, but that’s just me. I’m adding it here because it is an important tool, but also to reflect that all wellness modalities aren’t for everyone. I’ve tried, but this particular practice doesn’t fit me, and that’s totally OK. Positive Psychology can talk to this subject much better than I can. Have a read to get a flavor of the widespread benefits of a journaling practice.
8. Food Really is Medicine
As part of the holistic care program I mentioned above, my nutritionist (whom I still love anyway) launched me on a nutritional reboot that tested my ability to remain sane without even a speck of mashed potatoes. In a nutshell (which was empty, because nuts were verboten for the first two weeks), “if it’s not on the list, it doesn’t exist.” At the end of the day, this medieval torture (kidding) approach lowered my A1C by half a point and caused me to drop 15 pounds (on a 5’3″ frame). I’m calmer, leaner, not bloated, without belly pain, and bearing a much deeper appreciation for the complex taste of a good strawberry.
9. Meditation is Not Bullshit…
…but it’s simplicity is deceiving. You may have a session of alone time with your mind that presents you with a perspective to blow your mind, but on the contrary, you could come out of that same session with a giant headache and a fascination with the circus sideshow that goes on in your head. It takes time to develop, like any skill requiring mastery, but the key is to just make that time. Perhaps it’s 20 minutes a day during your train commute, or in the morning before the kids and spouse get up.
Once you get in the groove, the rewards are extremely rich. Above and beyond its value in addressing depression and anxiety, the practice of meditation is now showing benefit to areas as far and wide as inflammation, cognitive function, pain management, and immunity, among others. If you need a jump start, apps like Headspace, Insight Timer or Ten Percent Happier can be excellent starting points for developing your own personalized practice. Pick something that works for you and give yourself the attention of that daily mental housecleaning. Back to point #3 above, self-care is key, and being a caretaker of your mind is a huge piece in the well-being puzzle of your whole self.
10. Time with Loved Ones is the Very Breath of Life
If there is only one gift I could keep out of this experience, it is the realization that making time to interact meaningfully with those who own pieces of your heart will keep that heart beating. Although I work very hard to ensure I have ample time with my husband and son, I realized through this process that, beyond the two of them, I was not engaging much with the world in a significant way.
The word “significant,” like the term “self care,” doesn’t have to translate to a limo-laden Ladies Night full of clubbing, makeup and hangovers (although it totally could). Quite the opposite, actually. It’s a discussion with Tammy on mothering and self as we sit across from each other in a booth at Chuck E. Cheese watching our kids blast video zombies. It’s playing hours of LEGO Marvel (which I actually don’t suck at!) with my 11-year-old on a weekend afternoon. It’s Zoom calls with my college friends, some of whom I haven’t talked to live in 25 years. It’s a catch up on family, politics, religion, and work with longtime friend Marcus as we eat beignets and stroll through the French Quarter during a conference break. Its laughing until I can’t breathe at a side joke during a meditation workshop. It’s holding my husband’s hand while we walk the dog through the park.
I’m taking the initiative to make the very important life change to restoke those connections. I’ve had more conversations with family members in the last year than I can remember having had in the last decade. I’ve begun to make more time for lunches or dinners with friends. I’ve called and texted those who love me even though I royally suck at keeping in regular contact (I also really dislike talking on the phone, but I’ve learned that’s right in line with my personality type). I’ve realized that yes, it really is that important to fly to Philly to see my brother’s kids more than just once a year. For this is the magical balm to the soul–sharing air, energy and ideas with those whom you love, and who love you in return. And if a little anxiety is all that was needed in order for me to get that fact and act on it, then I am certainly and amply blessed.
P.S. I have a LOT more to say on this topic. Hit the Follow button to stay in the loop. I won’t blast you with emails, I promise. And thanks for reading. 🙂