10 lessons I learned from living with anxiety: How I manage anxiety
To celebrate World Mental Health Day today (because I think we should celebrate and reward mental wellness)...
....and to take stock of just how far from I've come since I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety back in 2011, I wanted to note down the biggest things I have learned from having anxiety.
1. No one can read your mind.
People don't know what you're feeling if you don't tell them. Don't assume someone SHOULD know you well enough to just know how you're feeling and get upset when they don't intuitively know. Help them out. It's easy to walk away from a relationship because they didn't 'get you' but if you don't tell them when you're struggling or when they've hurt you, they won't know. Have a conversation, explain what you're thinking. It's scary, I know! But the hard conversations are the most important conversations.
2. Exercise for your mental health first. Your physical health second.
Getting a hit of endorphins helped me come off medication and it's one of the ways how I treat my anxiety naturally. I don't exercise to burn calories or look good. I exercise, almost daily, to feel good, to have more energy... Any additional benefit is just a bonus.
3. Don't wait 'til you're drowning to put on a life vest.
When you feel like, "I've got this!", it's easy to get lazy and stop doing the things that keep you grounded. But preventing anxiety from taking over is key.
I used to wait until I was drowning in anxiety (that's exactly how it feels, btw) to do the things that make me feel better like enjoyable exercise, saying no, taking a lunch break, meditating, seeing my counselor and making room for downtime. Now I do these things daily - before getting anxious - and you know what? I don't really struggle with anxiety much.
4. Know when anxiety is talking...
Is it you or anxiety talking? Anxiety will often jump to conclusions, make black and white statements and catastrophise. For example: "I've ruined everything. They'll never want to work with me again" or "she didn't call. No one cares about me".
Often, I jump to conclusions based on limited evidence, so I find this simple brain exercise called 'reality checking' helps me realise when anxiety is talking:
- What is stressing me?
- What evidence do I have that this thinking is correct?
- What are some other possible realities/truths (e.g What happened last time?)
5. Have a chat
I see a counselor once a fortnight. Proudly. You go to the gym for your physical health but what do you do proactively to look after your mental health? Speaking to a mental health care professional isn't just for people who are struggling. Seeing a counselor has made me stronger, more resilient and definitely more successful. I'll keep seeing a counselor always so I can be the best version of me. It isn't scary. It's just a chat!
6. People feel awkward talking about mental health.
It's like making a phone call after someones died. It's really hard for people to know what to say. But if you don't start talking about it with your people, they'll always be awkward talking about it. You can teach them that it's ok (no - that it's important!) to have the conversations.
7. But people really do care...
Even though they don't know how to ask, or what to say, they do care. In fact, they want to have the right words to say. You can help give them the words to say so they know how to support you. Remember, they can't read your mind (see point number 1)! Teach them a simple question they can ask you that will give you a safe space to talk, like: "Have you been feeling anxious this week?"
8. Having anxiety does not make you weak
In many ways, anxiety has made me stronger. It's made me a lot more empathetic. Because I have anxiety, I pay close attention to people's reactions. When others are hurting, because I've been there before - I know the pain - I get it. So I'm happy to sit with you, without judgment.
Anxiety also allows me to do what I do (help people who struggle with out-of-control eating let go of guilt, restriction, and comparison). Because I've been there myself, I'm driven - not by money or fame - but because I teach others what I wish I knew when I was struggling, too. Here's a letter I wrote to my 16-year-old self.
9. You don't ever stop having anxiety
Sometimes, I'd think anxiety had gone! I've fixed it. But then sure enough, as soon as I stopped doing the things that kept me feeling in control, anxiety would come hang out. Accept you're prone to a mental health condition, and then build your life to support and prevent it.
10. A healthy diet can prevent and treat anxiety - and depression
You feel good when you eat a healthy diet. And research backs up your good vibes! Turns out a healthy diet (think Mediterranean style) can prevent and treat mental illness like depression. Like exercise, eat well because it makes you feel good, not to look good. Because when you feel good, you naturally look good. Meanwhile, here are 5 mood-boosting foods I eat to support my anxiety.