The Stress I Like

Travel is my favorite stressful thing to do. Airports, foreign languages, unfamiliar surroundings, unusual food. All of it can make the most cognitively well-adjusted among us break out in a sweat. But, man, do I LOVE it. And because I don’t want anything to get in the way of my adventures, I handle my mental health with care. 

When I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder over 15 years ago, I knew I’d have to do some hard work to make sure it did not get in the way of my relationships, career, or desire to see the world.  

Below I’ve compiled the habits and behaviors that help me manage life’s stressors with fewer panic attacks, less worst-case thinking, and more peace. I hope you or someone you care for might find this helpful. 

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor. Nothing in this post is sanctioned medical advice or written to be a one-size-fits-all solution to what is an individual condition. I’ve done some reading and research, but I had to figure out how GAD lived in me before I could live with it. Everything I’m writing here is a case study of one test subject. Please read on mindful of this disclaimer. 

1. Trigger Warning: Knowing and Owning Yours

I took this photo in Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Israel. Thanks to anxiety management, I was able to enjoy every second of this crowded, loud adventure.

If you’re someone who, like me, has suffered from panic attacks or other negative reactions to stress and anxiety, you are going to have to do some sleuthing to uncover your physical, psychological, and environmental triggers. You have to make space for this work in your life if you want to start feeling better.  

Once I began sifting through my most anxious days, patterns emerged. When I had to deal with large crowds, loud noises, too much caffeine or alcohol, and/or too little sleep, I was more  likely to spiral into persistent worry, tension, and doomsday thinking. 

As soon as I made these connections, I advocated for myself at work and changed my behaviors. I talked to my department chair and was excused from pep rallies. I developed classroom management strategies that helped keep the din at a manageable roar. Concerts became a rarity for me, no matter how much I love live music. I improved my eating and sleeping habits. These adjustments took a long time and were often interrupted by life, but over time I found I could keep the worst manifestations of GAD at bay.   

I am an extroverted-extrovert (that’s a thing, right?), and saying no to the joyous energies of pep rallies and live music saddens me (and gives me some serious FOMO). I love wine and coffee and staying up late. But keeping my nervous system in check is worth the sacrifices.

2. Breaking News: Eating Vegetables is good for you

This is a zucchini from my father’s garden. He tells us they get so big because they are ‘hidden’. No one believes him.

I’ve found I’m better at adding things to my daily diet rather than restricting.  Maybe that sounds like you, too.

That said, I consciously eat vegetables at every meal. I’m also mindful of not overeating foods that have little to no nutritional value, but I’m not super strict about this. I just make sure to eat my vegetables.  

As long as I get in lots of veggies, the other foods tend to stay balanced in my diet. Really. I shoot for 5-6 cups of veggies a day. And for whatever reason (cue the gut health gurus), this also helps keep anxiety at bay.

3. Breaking News: Exercise is good for you

I strive for 30 minutes of exercise a day. Most days this looks like weight training (I like Bodi for its wide variety of programs and nutrition support). Other days it’s getting out for a couple miles’ walk with my dog. Sometimes it’s yoga (if you’re a teacher, download the Down Dog app and get a subscription for FREE). Stress likes to bundle itself up in my muscles and if I do not consciously work them (in addition to daily movement), my anxiety shoots through the roof.

4. Don’t forget the SPIRIT in Mind, Body, & Spirit Wellness

My photo of Christ’s tomb inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This is Christianity’s holiest site. Being here is overwhelming in the best way, and I’m grateful for a spiritual life which gives me the peace to travel.

No matter your personal spirituality or religious practice, spending time in prayer or meditation can help manage anxiety. As a Christian, I start and end my day talking to my Creator.  When I center my days on my faith, I focus more and worry less. Spending time in prayer and meditation helps me process stressors and work with my body’s responses to anxiety.

I love, love, love the Hallow app for guided meditations and prayerful music. (Clicking that link will give you three months free of the full app; the free version is great too!) There’s an entire section in the app on mental health including sessions on stress and anxiety, healthy habits, grief, and healing wounds. Whether or not you subscribe to a specific religion, you can ground yourself in a spiritual practice.  

5. Better Living with Pharmaceuticals

Since my diagnosis, I have used medication twice, for about a year long each time. Both times I was prescribed Paxil (Paroxetine). I’ve found a low dosage of that is all I need. It can be hard to know when you might need some pharmaceutical assistance. I called the doc when none of the other anxiety management strategies were helping due to situations which amplified and complicated my anxiety. 

I’ve described medicating my GAD in this way: Let’s say my anxiety is an elevator. My elevator goes from the first floor to the 100th in about five seconds flat. When I have medicine on board, the elevator stops at the tenth floor, where I can get out and take in the view.  

PLEASE speak with your doctor about whether or not medicine makes sense for you. 

Final thoughts…

All of these strategies work in a shifting balance.  

Sometimes I need more rest and less exercise.  

Sometimes I can’t avoid the environmental triggers, and I just have to white-knuckle it through.  

Most of the time I don’t want to eat my vegetables. 

I, like you, am a work in progress and am constantly evolving. Be patient and kind to yourself. Being a human is hard. 

Anxiety’s horizon can loom over everything in your life. I know. I hope this post helps you or someone you care for. Please share with anyone who might find this information helpful.  

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