I lived with chronic anxiety for over two decades.It started when I was very young, not even 10 years old, and did not leave me until my early thirties.
For me anxiety presented itself in many ways (nightmares, insomnia, etc.), but what I struggled most consistently with was shortness of breath.
No matter how hard I tried at times, I just couldn’t fully catch my breath. It felt like I was always just a tad bit short on oxygen. And the more I focused on that shortage, the harder it was to breathe. When things got really bad, I had full blown panic attacks. It wasn’t fun.
Living with chronic anxiety is debilitating. It’s like a silent sidekick that you just can’t shake. And so it follows you everywhere. In your home, in your classroom, at your job, in your relationships.
It leaves you in a constant state of discomfort. Before you know it, you’re planning your whole life around it…
Letting Anxiety Control You
Anxiety makes you over think things, question every move you make. It makes you imagine worst case scenarios in vivid detail. It makes it very difficult to focus and make decisions. And it creates a negative mindset – you assume others think the worst of you or will hurt you somehow. You believe you are broken and unworthy.
I used to let my anxiety control me. I didn’t understand it well enough to know that I actually had control over it, so instead I built my life around it. I avoided the situations that exasperated it, or if I couldn’t avoid them I made sure to create an escape plan, often making up excuses for why I’d have to rush off.
My anxiety wasn’t really social, I’m a pretty social introvert, it got inflamed in other more obscure scenarios like sitting in a movie theater, riding the subway, or walking through an open park, making it all the harder for me to understand (and all the more fearful of when a panic attack might strike).
But my shortness of breath, that followed me everywhere…
Your Anxiety Is Trying to Tell You Something
Instead of listening to my anxiety and what it was trying to tell me, I tried to suppress it, shoving it deeper and deeper down.
In fact, I didn’t even always believe it was anxiety.
I went to countless doctors throughout the years about my shortness of breath issue. It felt impossible to believe that I was doing that to myself. So instead I convinced myself that I must have some undiagnosed pulmonary problem. And when the doctors would tell me “I had the heart and lungs of an athlete,” my heart would sink. Because that meant the scariest truth of all, the problem was in my mind, not my body…
When I finally decided to seek therapeutic help, the therapist immediately shoved pills at me. I was told his magic pills would cure it all for me. Presto, anxiety is so easy to fix! And so I took his magic pills, and while they eased my anxiety, they also robbed me of something else…
I remember it so well, an attorney I had worked with for years came back to my old law firm after being away on maternity leave. Before she left, I had never taken a pill. After she came back, I had been on them for a couple of months, unbeknownst to her. One day, as she sat in my office, she looked at me and said:
“Liz, what happened to you? You used to have such an amazing sparkle. You don’t sparkle anymore.”
She confirmed what I already felt. Right there and then, I knew I had to get off those pills. They may be the answer for many, and that’s totally understandable, but they were not the answer for me. They didn’t change any of the things that were causing my anxiety in the first place and they left me feeling dull.
And so I began to learn other ways to ease my anxiety. Ways that completely changed my life. And now, like everyone, there are situations that make me feel anxious, but I no longer feel chronically anxious. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I couldn’t catch my breath. I’m sure it happens, but now it goes away as quickly as it comes.
If you too experience general or chronic anxiety, here are a few tips to help ease it:
1. Listen to Your Anxiety, Trust It.
For the two decades that I lived with chronic anxiety, there were so many areas in my life that were out of balance. I was in relationships I shouldn’t have been in. I was putting up with things I shouldn’t have been putting up with. And I was in a career that was not my calling. In so many ways, I felt like I was suffocating.
My anxiety was shouting at me to fix these things, and I was ignoring it. Instead of listening to it, I was viewing it as my enemy. But in reality, it was trying to protect me more than it was trying to hurt me. The moment I started listening to it, is the moment things started to change.
If you’re experiencing general anxiety, there are likely areas of your life that you need to work on or heal. Stop and think about all the things your anxiety could be trying to protect you from. What is it asking you to look deeper into?
Imagine that anxiety has your back and is actually asking you to create a stronger foundation for your life. Where would it lead you?
2. Set Boundaries Where Needed
As a natural people pleaser, I often try to go with the flow, not rock the boat, make everyone happy. But that was leading me into some dangerous territory as there were things I was not properly protecting my well-being from.
And so in my effort to keep the peace, I was often betraying myself. And my mind and soul took note. Anxiety was their way of getting me to pay better attention.
Looking back, if I hadn’t stopped to listen to my anxiety, I might never have made the changes I needed to. I might be still fighting to breathe.
Ask yourself, where in your life do you need stronger boundaries? What are you allowing that doesn’t sit well with your soul? How can you protect yourself better? And in what ways is your life out of alignment with your values?
3. Avoid Anxiety’s Posse
Sugar, caffeine, alcohol – anxiety’s BFFs. Here’s what one article on this topic says:
“Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol all increase lactic acid levels in the bloodstream. Recent studies show that a high accumulation of lactic acid in the body can increase anxiety and cause panic attacks. Caffeine also blocks adenosine, a neurotransmitter that is believed to play a role in suppressing arousal and promoting sleep. Without adenosine, the pituitary gland produces adrenaline and the increase in adrenaline can either cause or increase symptoms of anxiety. In addition to increasing lactic acid levels in the blood, sugar intake causes a release of insulin which decreases blood glucose, which can result in mood swings and agitation. Alcohol use also causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels, leading to increased anxiety and agitation.”
As a highly sensitive person, my energy depletes easily. But I didn’t always understand why that happened, I just knew that I was often tired. Instead of finding healthy ways to increase my energy, I used to try to jumpstart it with sugar and caffeine. In college, it was pretty normal for me to snack on chocolate bars and other sweets throughout the day. This led to constant highs and lows in my blood sugar levels which created a cess pool for anxiety.
Slowly but surely I began to reduce my sugar intake. It’s hard a first if you’re a sugar addict like I was, but eventually your taste buds change. Now the things I used to snack on daily are WAY too sweet for me.
With respect to caffeine, everyone is different, but I’ve found that I simply cannot handle caffeinated coffee. It leaves me anxious for the entire day. So I drink decaf when I crave the taste of coffee. If my kids have kept me up all night I’ll occasionally indulge in a caffeinated cup, but my body responds so quickly to it that I usually regret it.
I drink lots of tea but limit myself to one caffeinated cup in the morning. Anything after that is decaf. And I sweeten it with either a spoonful of apple honey (it’s amazing!) or nothing at all.
If you’re experiencing unexplainable anxiety, try cutting out or drastically reducing your sugar, caffeine (including sodas) and alcohol intake. You’ll be amazed at how much doing so reduces your anxiety.
4. Eat Responsibly
Healthy eating is essential for reducing anxiety as your body and mind are so connected. According to Harvard Health Publications:
“In addition to healthy guidelines such as eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water to stay hydrated, and limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine, there are many other dietary considerations that can help relieve anxiety. For example, complex carbohydrates are metabolized more slowly and therefore help maintain a more even blood sugar level, which creates a calmer feeling… A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits is a healthier option than eating a lot of simple carbohydrates found in processed foods. When you eat is also important. Don’t skip meals. Doing so may result in drops in blood sugar that cause you to feel jittery, which may worsen underlying anxiety.”
When my anxiety was at its peak, I was working incredibly long hours as a lawyer and self-care was last on my list. I was snacking on candy and chips to get through the late nights, fueled by coffee in the morning, and not drinking nearly enough water. My entire body chemistry was a wreck.
Ending these bad habits and eating a healthy plant-based diet helped me tremendously. Not only does it keep the pounds off and teach my little ones the value of eating veggies in every meal, but it makes me feel calmer and more balanced. When I indulge in too much processed food, I always end up feeling “off.”
I’m not perfect at this, I am human after all, but now my indulgences are just that – indulgences – not habits.
There are so many healthy eating cookbooks out there but here are a few I’ve enjoyed:
- Crazy Sexy Diet, Eat Your Veggies, Ignite Your Spark and Live Like You Mean It, by Kris Carr
- Crazy Sexy Kitchen: 150 Plant-Empowered Recipes to Ignite a Mouthwatering Revolution, by Kris Carr
- Go Clean, Sexy You – Your Guide to the Healthiest Year of Your Life, by Lisa Consiglio Ryan
- The Kind Diet – A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet by Alicia Silverstone
5. Check Your Nutrients
Nutrient imbalances in your body can help fuel anxiety. It’s a good idea to see a nutritionist to check your vitamin levels to see if anything is off.
I used to be really lazy about taking vitamins but would often feel worn down and not understand why. Eventually, I learned that because I eat a vegan diet, I need to take extra steps to make sure I’m not lacking in certain nutrients (like Vitamin B and Iron). And it’s important for most people to supplement their Vitamin D levels.
Now I take vitamins religiously, because I’ve made it my self-care priority, and doing so has changed my energy levels dramatically without the nasty edge of caffeine.
Here are the vitamins I take daily:
- Deva Vegan Multivitamin & Mineral Supplement
- Vitamin Code for Women
- Deva B12
- Deva Omega-3 DHA-EPA
- Source of Life Garden Vitamin D3
- Gaia Adrenal Health (if I’m feeling particularly worn down)
- Dr. Ohhira’s Probiotics (if I’m having stomach issues)
Everyone has different nutritional needs but the more you prioritize your health and self-care, the less breeding ground there is for anxiety.
6. Get Moving
Getting some form of exercise daily, even if it’s just a long walk, helps to ease anxiety. Exercise releases endorphins, relieves stress, increases your energy, helps you sleep better, improves cognitive function, elevates your mood and more.
If you’re strapped for time, even just ten minutes a day can help. Before my little ones were born I was pretty obsessed with going to the gym and the effect it had on reducing my anxiety and increasing my overall well-being was tremendous. Now it’s harder for me to get to the gym so I do most of my workouts at home, sometimes with my little ones on the mat with me.
I found this site incredibly helpful – How to Exercise at Home: The 50 Best Free Online Workouts. I’ve tried many of these free workouts but I am now obsessed with Yoga with Adriene. She has a yoga video for every life or physical need and her energy is so soothing.
Whatever form of exercise works for you, commit to doing it at least a few days a week for at least ten minutes a day, along with the other tips above, and you should see a difference in your anxiety levels.
7. Find Compassion
When you’re suffering from chronic anxiety it’s so easy to beat yourself up and feel like you’re alone in your struggles, but you’re not.
In today’s world of technology, social media and constant online distractions, it’s really no surprise. We’re so overly connected through social media and we are constantly inundated with new information and horrible news. It can feel like life is impossible to keep up with.
So when your anxiety peaks, don’t attack yourself further for it. Instead, show yourself some compassion. Love and accept yourself no matter how anxious you feel. Surrender to what you’re feeling and learn from it.
What is your anxiety asking of you? What can you do to soothe it? What boundaries or habits can you create to take better care of yourself? What areas of your life are out of alignment?
Perhaps staying off of or reducing time spent on social media is the answer. Perhaps it’s reducing contact with a toxic or narcissistic person in your life. Perhaps it’s taking up mediation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques. Perhaps it’s seeking therapy.
Reducing anxiety takes work, but it’s the best kind of work. It’s the work that shows you what your soul needs to feel calm, balanced and at peace.
Maybe anxiety isn’t the enemy after all…
Everyone’s experience with anxiety is unique. There are no one size fits all solutions. But what it does require from everyone is showing yourself enough self-love to prioritize your well-being and do the work it’s asking of you.
Once I started using anxiety as my guide, it led me down all the right paths. It was a rough road at first, but it eventually led me to the peaceful home and family I’ve managed to create. And now anxiety no longer hangs around as my constant sidekick.
For me, anxiety presented a doorway to a better life. But it was up to me to open that door and see where it would lead me.
Once I did, I finally learned how to catch my breath.
Have you struggled with anxiety? What methods have helped you to ease it?
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