I was first diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in my early teens. In the decade since, I’ve tried individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, inpatient therapy, SSRIs, benzodiazepines, aromatherapy, prayer, witchcraft, getting a dog, getting a
bigger dog horse, swimming, running, rock climbing, yoga, meditation, and denial. I’m not a medical professional, but if 10,000 hours makes you an expert, then I know everything there is to know about anxiety.
1. There is no substitute for professional help - but there are useful complements
No amount of inspirational quotes set over soft-focus images of redwood forests are going to cure your anxiety disorder (or other clinically-diagnosed mental illness). Nor will lavender oils, or exercise. And if anyone’s suggestion comes bundled with a sales pitch, you should run for the hills. But that doesn’t mean you should automatically disregard the things friends and well-meaning strangers recommend just because they aren’t magic cures.
No matter how hard I tried to like yoga, I couldn’t, despite how many people swear by it as a relaxation technique. But to my profound surprise, I have found that distance running works for me. I don’t know whether it’s primarily the endorphins, the fresh(ish) London air, or the soft tinkling sound of the medal collection I’ve amassed by running 19 half marathon races so far this year. What I do know is that it helps. Sometimes, by giving me a reason to get out of bed - other times, by helping me shake off my body’s fight-or-flight response to noticing a missed call from my boss.
Maybe you don’t see the point in running unless you’re being chased. Maybe the smell of lavender makes you want to vomit. But I believe there’s something meaningful and helpful out there for everyone.
2. Talking about anxiety can be challenging, but rewarding
Of all the things I’ve tried as coping strategies, honesty and openness has been one of the most freeing. I spent the majority of my life compounding my anxiety by trying to cover it up or explain it away when all I really needed to do was be frank. Coming up with elaborate lies when I RSVP no to parties (since it’s no longer unsuspicious for me to tell my friends “My mom said I can’t go”) only adds to my stress, and sometimes even creates anxiety for your friends.
Now, if I don’t want to go because the party will create more anxiety than fun for me, I just say so. This isn’t intended to be a way to opt out of everything that will ever challenge you - sometimes, the event is too important to your friend for you to miss it, and other times, it will be rewarding to push through that anxiety. Knowing yourself - and having an open and honest relationship with your friends - will help you decide which is which.
And best of all - many times I’ve jokingly confessed to having extreme anxiety about something I told myself is stupid, like feeling panicky about not knowing how to order food in a restaurant I’ve never been to, I’ve been met with an immediate chorus of “Me, too!” that made me feel a little less lonely.
3. Anxiety isn’t all bad
This was the hardest thing for me to recognize, probably because anxiety feels really bad. But often, you can funnel anxiety into productivity in ways that translate to success and long-term happiness.
I’ve always been a conscientious student and employee, and I think there’s a good case to be made for the argument that my anxiety is part of the reason why. I used to bolt awake as a child and race over to my bag to triple-check that my homework was inside, having had a stress dream about my teacher yelling at me. That obviously wasn’t ideal, and I have better coping strategies now that can include medication and techniques like list-making. If you’re in the bolt-awake phase of your anxiety, I urge you to seek some help, because there’s no good that comes of that degree of suffering.
But the better-managed anxiety I live with now does still lead to objectively good results, like being at the airport extremely early despite Transport for London’s belief that rain is a good enough reason for train delays (in London.) And knowing what it feels like to have anxiety has made me more able to identify it in other people, and be more empathetic toward them when it causes them to behave in ways that are less than ideal.
I hope on this World Mental Health Day, we can all reach out to share tips, empathize, and support each other. Invite someone you know is struggling out for some coffee, or lend them your weighted blanket. But if you try to drag me to Hot Yoga, we will no longer be friends.