Oof, I don’t know if any of you fellow anxiety-ridden-folks have been feeling the same, but the past few weeks have been rough. I don’t know if the moon is doing something, if it’s the change in the season, or if it’s the ever pressing weight of a poorly governed world run by a select group of billionaires who care for almost no-one that’s been heightening my anxiety (although I’m pretty sure it is the latter).
I’ve been living with chronic anxiety for many years now – I’ve been officially diagnosed for five years but, in hindsight, I think my anxiety disorder first popped up when I was doing exams at secondary school. The disorder itself isn’t really specific; I don’t have any large triggers, but it tends to manifest itself around personal health, achievements, perfectionism, and worst case scenarios. Normally, with the help of medication and plenty of learnt techniques, it’s not a day to day bother. I can catch the feelings as they arrive, squash them into a ball, and throw them away. But like with every condition, there are some bad days. And recently, there have been a lot more bad anxiety days than usual.
I’ll start by saying, this isn’t a sign of my anxiety disorder getting worse. It’s just there’s just been a lot happening. For a start, we’re still living through a pandemic, unable to see our loved ones, let alone hold them, and constantly living under the threat that you are one cough away from being in the hospital. Then there’s women getting killed by police officers, Asian and Black people being attacked and murdered, and a government who cares more about money than it’s people. And personally? Well, I’ve been balancing working in Higher Education, having a huge workload but the same hours in a day, doing a Masters, buying a house, planning a wedding, losing my great-grandfather, living with PCOS, and trying to, you know, exercise and eat well. Oh, and I had an eye infection.
All of this added together, has been a nightmare for my anxiety. So there have been a lot of days where I’ve felt slightly ~off~, or in a heightened state, or even fully anxious with a brief panic attack thrown in for good measure. The hours after a day of anxiety or after a panic attack are so draining and can feel so empty. It’s so easy to just slip under the covers and sleep it all away until the next day, but that’s not necessarily the healthy way to heal. Thankfully, having years of being an anxious soul under my belt, I’ve learnt the importance of post-anxiety self-care. So, I thought I’d let you know what I do to look after myself and my mind after a particularly tough time with my anxiety, and what I do to ensure I am allowing myself time to get grounded and rest! Let’s get into it…
Step One – Grounding
This step differs on whether I am having a heavy anxiety day or if I have just had an anxiety attack, but the general idea involves grounding myself. Not like I’m a teenager who has stayed out too late and has now had their phone and X-Box taken away, but pulling myself back to the here-and-now in a gentle way.
If it’s been a particularly heavy or tough day at work and it’s triggered my anxiety, I force myself to shut the laptop and log off on time – no staying past what I am paid to do if it exacerbates my anxiety. I acknowledge to myself that it’s been a tough day and that’s okay.
If I’m at the end of a panic attack, then it’s a little different. I use box breathing to get myself to a place where my thoughts aren’t racing at 100mph. Then, I take the time to move and stretch different parts of my body; a child’s pose here, a forward fold there, a side stretch in between. Sometimes, I may even venture into a veeeery short Yoga with Adriene video as a catalyst to start stretching (like this ten minute practice for self-care). Not only do I do this to relax my body and give it some tender care, but I can work out exactly where I am still holding tension. With any areas with leftover tension (for me, I hold tension in my shoulders and back), I then take the time to focus on them with stretches and a brief massage.
Step Two – Ritual
If Step One is centering and accepting that ~anxiety is shite~, then Step Two is where the typical self-care really begins. It’s hot bath time, baby! Slipping into a hot bath (or a hot shower) after a mentally tough day has almost become a ritual – once I feel the hot water on my skin, I can feel a lot of the buzzing and negative feelings begin to wash away, moment by moment. I love to use bath oils like Neal’s Yard because the scents are made from essential oils and are so relaxing. Depending on how I am feeling, I use the bath to read a book, go on my phone, stare at the wall, or even have a good, deep sob. If you gotta cry, you gotta cry.
Step Three – Cleansing
Continuing on with the cleansing aspect of self-care, I do my skincare. I don’t care if it’s the morning, lunch time, after work, or two minutes to midnight; just like a hot bath, taking care of my skin may look superficial, but it’s a real act of self-care. In this situation, I see my skin as a representative of me, my body. So treating it well, washing away the dead skin, slathering it in moisturiser; I feel like I’m doing that to me and my emotions too. By having dedicated time to care for my body and my skin, I am giving time for my anxiety to settle down, as in my personal case, it takes a few hours for the feelings to start to fade.
Step Four – Comfort
Hot bath, done. Skincare, done. Comfortable, loose pajamas? That’s Step Four. Sometimes I struggle with body image, and I also get huge disparities of bloating with my PCOS, both of which can act as triggers for my anxiety. So I make sure to put on some oversized, comfy, and clean pajamas. I also find the act of popping on PJs makes me immediately think ‘it’s time to relax, the day is done, yessss!’, which is another sign to my body to say ‘hey, it’s time to rest’.
I know some of you reading this will think everything I have done so far is ‘superficial self-care’. It’s all on the surface, all essential oils and cleansers and fluffy socks. Well, I hate to break it to you, but everyone is different. For me, looking after my body and treating it gently after a panic attack is what works for me. This isn’t a therapy session, I’m not working out my triggers, or trying CBT. It doesn’t have to be deep, it just has to be effective. It might look like just essential oils and cleansers and fluffy socks to you, but to me, I am signaling to my body and brain that I deserve love and care, and that it’s okay to relaaaaax.
Step Five – Food
Once I’ve slid my moisturised self into a comfy old t-shirt, I make sure to make something to eat. If I’ve struggling with anxiety, my relationship with food goes one of two ways; either my brain thinks ‘nah she’s not hungry’ and I don’t eat enough, or my brain goes ‘SHE NEEDS ALL OF THE SUGAR, FEED HER, QUICKLY’ and I eat everything in sight and everything on JustEat. So I try to balance this out by giving myself the task of making something. I don’t mean a full three course dinner. I’m talking about bung-in-the-oven nuggets and chips, a quick tomato sauce with pasta, a slice of cake, or even a trickier family recipe (I’m thinking of my family’s stew recipe, mmhmm). However tempting it is to just order a kebab, I know my body will feel better if I eat something I make, with ingredients I know won’t set off my PCOS. So whilst this task can be tricky to gather the energy to do sometimes, the positives of Step Five outweigh the negatives, so I just have to focus on that.
Step Six – Rest
This is perhaps the most important step for me. I like to be busy and productive at all times. Even when I’m relaxing. I could be watching Drag Race and I’ll have my laptop out, planning blog posts. I’d be playing Red Dead Redemption and halfway through I’d stop to make a huge spring cleaning spreadsheet. I’ve got that hustle-hustle-hustle mindset innately within me, so when it comes to moments of anxiety, I really have to push myself to just relax. So I get a book in my hands, play a video game, watch a favourite film, and try and try and try to keep focused. Don’t pick up that phone to plan content. Don’t email that person about that task. Don’t fix that wardrobe door. It normally takes a while, but after working on Steps One to Five, and following that ritual of self-care, I am usually ready to just be.
Step Seven – Sleep
The final step is my favourite one, and it’s aaaaall about sleep. A few years ago, I struggled with incredibly bad insomnia as my anxiety would settle in for a wild ride as soon as I closed my eyes. Even if I go through my full post-anxiety self-care routine, the nighttime is still a breeding ground for my anxious thoughts. To challenge this, if I’ve had a rough day with said anxiety, then I make my nighttime routine one of pure relaxation. First of all, I make sure I only go to bed when I feel tired, when I feel like I can actually sleep. Then, I make sure my diffuser is full of water and topped up with lavender and eucalyptus essential oils; I honestly think this is the most relaxing scent. A step which truly makes me feel ready for bed is using either thisworks’ Deep Sleep Body Cocoon Lotion or Lush’s Sleepy Lotion on my shoulders and back, where I hold the most tension. Then, I either put my phone on charge away from me (and away from the desire to read the news) or I find some ASMR videos to watch. At the moment, I am finding Ediyasmr to be my favourite, especially when anxiety strikes. Her videos mainly focus on reiki and meditation, and whilst I don’t specifically believe in the power of reiki and the like, her videos are warm, gentle, and genuine, and put me right to sleep.
So, those are the seven steps I put into my life if I have had a heavy anxiety day or are coming down from a panic attack. Hand on my heart, I find this works for me when I am struggling. Throughout these steps, I always make sure to remind myself that ‘it’s okay to feel like this’, ‘you have a chronic condition’, ‘you are not weak’. Little mantras of support can go a long way. I also remind myself that I might not be fully energised tomorrow and that’s okay. Everyone is different and goodness knows I am not a doctor (well, not yet; I’ll get that PhD in arts one day!). But it’s all about finding what works for you, treating yourself with care and love, and ensuring you are in a safe space. If it works for you, it works for you.