Mantra Monday: Dealing with Anxiety

Typically, I reserve Mantra Monday for writing about discipline, with the hope that it will inspire some of you to incorporate some positive daily habits – one small step at a time – into your lives. I tag these posts with fitness and and all of its synonyms, because a lot of the content has to do with physical fitness and how to maintain discipline to get into shape. Today’s post is different, though.

Mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness.

I have chronic anxiety. I also have mild depression (these are not the official names of my diagnoses, that’s just the best way I can describe them to other people). Most of the time, I manage these disorders quite well with the help of therapy and medication, but sometimes, the anxiety “breaks through” the meds and then I go through something terrible.

We’re taking time to discuss mental health today because things like depression and anxiety can become major obstacles to discipline, and can rob us of the experience of becoming our best selves. Sometimes maintaining discipline and working out physically can help with mental illness, but if you’re too depressed to get out of bed, it’s pretty hard to take those first steps. Anxiety and depression, then, are discipline roadblocks, and we must learn to smash them.

What my anxiety looks like:

My anxiety rises early. If I have to wake to an alarm, it rages as soon as the alarm goes off. If I don’t have to wake to an alarm, the anxiety usually wakes me up somewhere between 7:30 am – 8:30 am. When I say the anxiety rages, I mean the following: My whole torso tingles like it’s been flooded with adrenaline. You know that “butterflies in the stomach” feeling people describe? It’s like that… except if the butterflies were really angry and hopped up on cocaine. Everything trembles and shakes. My shoulders collapse in on each other and I curl up.

Tina Belcher from "Bob's Burgers" looking anxious.

I compulsively moan if nobody’s around. If somebody is around, I go to where nobody’s around. I sound like Tina from Bob’s Burgers. It’s quite funny when I’m not in the throws of it. I curl myself up. I rock or pace back and forth. All the while, my torso tingles terribly with the tremors of the tumultuous chemicals flooding my system.

Fight or Flight

I’ve been told by a few different therapists and books that the particular state my body goes into each morning is similar to a flight or fight response. I’m not a neuroscientist, so I don’t know the exact ins and outs, but it does feel like adrenaline is coursing through my veins. It feels like everything is amplified The word that keeps coming to mind to try to describe it is hypersensitivity.

Usually, it subsides about a half-hour after I take my morning meds, and some days are definitely worse than others. It doesn’t seem to be related too much to circumstances, though. Sometimes my body just goes on high-alert first thing in the morning for no conscious reason at all that I’m aware of.

What My Mind is Doing Through All of This

The anxiety starts the moment I wake up. Every day. Some day’s it’s mild and barely noticeable, but other days it’s a killer. While my body is tingling and raging, my mind can’t organize itself into a series of cogent thoughts. Usually, I’m thinking about what I have to do that day. The trouble is, I can’t arrange all of that information in such a way that it doesn’t seem like it’s all going to fall apart and go horribly wrong.

My mind jumps from topic to topic without the chance to properly examine or process any of them. Here’s the best example I can give of the internal monologue when I’m anxious first thing in the morning:

Shit! Am I late? What do I have to do? What time is it? [looks at clock] Okay, it’s not too late. I have to write for Client A today – I’m already late on that. My UpWork JSS is still at 88%. How much money did I spend yesterday? I have to get up and get started on writing for Client A, then I can get to work on Client B’s stuff. If I get that done today, I’ll get paid next Tuesday, and I can pay this bill with it. What did I say to so-and-so yesterday? I haven’t heard back yet. I shouldn’t have worded it that way. That was stupid. How much money did I spend yesterday? [checks phone] Okay, not terrible, but I was still stupid. I need to go find some new clients now. And look for some other part-time work. I ate too much yesterday. I need to do better today. Shit, I forgot, Client C still needs this done. Okay, I have to get up and do that. How much money did I spend yesterday? [Checks phone again] Oh yeah. Okay, I need to get up and look for part-time jobs.

That whole set of thoughts occupies about a second of time in my stream of consciousness. Then cycle continues until I get up and pace around starting and not finishing anything. When my anxiety is finally attenuated enough for me to get a plan for the day put together, I sit down and get to work.

After the Attack

The duration of these attacks depends on the day. Most of the time, I have plenty of time to get everything done and whatever interpersonal issues I may be worried about are not nearly as severe as I imagine them. I’m usually able to get right back to work as soon as my chemicals get all balanced again. For me, the anxiety rarely lasts past the first hour or so of the morning, but it can rear its ugly head any time there’s a bad life event.

How to Stay Disciplined When You Have Anxiety

Everyone’s anxiety manifests differently. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, so I can’t give you a definitive list of effective treatments for anxiety. What I can do is write about what works for me.

1. Talk to Your Doctor.

If you suspect that you have anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue, then you need to speak to your doctor about it right away. Mental health is serious, and even if you just take the step of talking to your general physician about it, she or he may be able to direct you toward the care you need. In many cases that may require medication, but in a lot of other cases anxiety and depression can be managed with therapy.

2. See a Therapist.

If you can afford it, go see a counselor. There are a couple of reasons for this. First – if nothing else, it gets you out of the house on a regular basis. Doing that alone works to help build routine, which is a great foundation for discipline. Second, therapists are experts at guiding your conscious thoughts to the conclusions you need to form in order to grow. Therapists also have a lot of helpful mental exercises that you can do to rehabilitate your mind and get it back into shape – similar to the exercises we do to get our bodies back into shape.

3. Try Power Posing. Seriously.

This is me being an Amy Cuddy cheerleader again, but if you haven’t seen her TED Talk about body language shaping your brain chemistry, watch it below. It’s worth the twenty minutes. Then go to the library or your favorite bookseller and get a copy of Presence and read it. It’s really a great read and it’s full of practical advice.

The mind shapes the body, but the body also shapes the mind.

4. Take a Walk

U.S. Airman standing at the position of attention.
The position of attention.

If you can, go out for a brisk walk. When you do, imagine yourself marching like a soldier. Dr. Cuddy discusses walking posture in her book, but she also mentions the position of attention for soldiers, and how it is a great example of power-posing. Marching is basically walking at the position of attention. When you march, straighten your back, raise your chin, and take large confident strides, with a coordinated, alternating arm-swing. That is, when you place your left foot forward, swing your left arm backward and your right arm forward.

The reason soldiers march like this is not physical. It’s mental. By standing up straight and confidently marching forward, their bodies are convincing their minds to be brave. You can take advantage of that same power. All you have to do is go for a walk march. Not only will you be getting exercise, you’ll be sending endorphins and other wonderful neurotransmitters and hormones to your brain that will help get rid of your situational anxiety.

5. Sing.

If you’re alone in your car, or if you’re out of earshot of others, sing your lungs out. It doesn’t matter whether you sing terribly or not. Singing will make you feel better. I wrote a little about this when I did the piece on the blues a few weeks back. There’s something about controlling your voice and sending energy out through it that is immensely powerful.

Again, I don’t know all of the science that is behind it, but it makes sense, nonetheless. First of all, when you sing loudly, you’re forced to control your breathing – which helps with anxiety. Second, using the muscles in your diaphragm can help loosen them up and relieve the tension in your torso. Third, the act of creating something beautiful – even if it’s not really beautiful – is another way to release endorphins into the brain.

I subbed in a special education classroom a couple of weeks ago, and part of the curriculum for the day was to practice using a microphone (many of the students would be giving small speeches at graduation). When we were finished with the practice, the para-pros suggested we do a little bit of karaoke. I set it up and ran the system for the kids.

I learned some wonderful lessons that day. First, there’s not much in life more satisfying than watching a child with special needs sing her heart out in front of her friends – even if she can’t hit a single note. She’s ecstatic to be singing, and her friends are ecstatic to be listening to her. Second, singing is powerful – whether you can sing or not. Most of those kids that day had trouble speaking, let alone singing, but when they got the microphone in their hands, their faces lit up, they gave it their all, and they were transformed by the act of singing.

I encourage you to sing. There’s a quote I already used in a previous post – again found in Amy Cuddy’s book, but quoted from a much earlier psychiatrist, William James. James said, “I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing.” The implication of James’ words is the same as the claim I made further up in the article – our minds shape our bodies, but our bodies also shape our minds.

And Now We Circle Back to Cultivating Discipline.

If you’re depressed and anxious, and you’ve never cultivated the discipline to do much if any physical activity, you need to take baby steps at first. Discipline is a seed that must be planted in the field of commitment and cultivated by determination and repetition.

If you already have some discipline, I encourage you to summon it when you’re in the throws of anxiety. Go do something physical. Get your endorphins flowing. It will help. I feel better every time I leave the gym. Every time. No matter how anxious I felt before I went in, no matter what else is falling apart in my life, I feel better when I’ve worked my body over something fierce and head out the Planet Fitness doors.

Alright, Brandonians, speaking of discipline, I’ve got some client writing to do, so it’s about time I got on that for today. I’ll be at the gym later – check Instagram for updates, and please be sure to follow me on all of the social media outlets and subscribe to my music on your favorite streaming service. Have a great week and I’ll see you back here tomorrow!