These days, "Treat Yo Self" is a familiar phrase to all whether we're Parks and Recreation fans or not. But I find myself shaking my head when I see posts on social media that talk about coping skills. Is eating cake a coping skill? What about a Netflix marathon?
All too often, we conflate ways of coping with the practices that actually perpetuate our anxiety. Television and a glass of wine are great, but if you're only distracting yourself from your anxiety, then sooner or later it's going to find you like an angry Internet troll. Coping will get us through the temporary, but learning to study and bind our anxiety is the ultimate task.
As humans we learn to manage our reactiveness through two convenient mechanisms: drugs and relationships. We've all seen the science of how similar brain pathways activate whether you're smoking crack or falling in love. But tolerance only increases over time, and we can find our identities sinking under codependent and addictive behaviors.
Lucky for us, there is a third way to bind up our anxiety, and it's just sitting with it. At least in the short term, anxiety won't kill you. It's unpleasant and agitating, but it also can provide you with valuable information about yourself. Growing into a mature, nonreactive adult is about getting comfortable with this uncomfortableness.
Sitting with your anxiety can include a number of behaviors, but here are five examples.
Practice being alone. You can't sit in a waiting room these days without watching everyone pull out their smart phones to curb their boredom or nerves. Simply being alone with your thoughts on a walk around the neighborhood or at a stoplight can provide you with valuable intel about your emotions and stressors.
Maintain contact with difficult people. Our reactivity to others often tells us more about ourselves than the objects of our irritation. While it might feel good to cut off a family member or friend who's difficult to be around, maintaining some contact with them to practice managing our own emotional reactivity can do wonders. Family is a great place to start, because we usually experience the strongest emotions with our relatives.
Foster one-to-one relationships. Did you know that it's nearly impossible for two people to talk for more than a minute or two without referring to another person? We often manage our anxiety by bonding through our common dislike of another, or we bring in a third party to hear our complaints when we're unhappy in a relationship. So before you pick up the phone to text a friend about your horrible boss, consider what it would look like for you to take responsibility for your emotions and the relationship.
Get curious about your anxiety. Curiosity is a soothing agent, and it's one that therapists employ all the time. If you can get intrigued by the sources of your anxiety and the solutions, you're already halfway there. Play detective and pay attention to your physical symptoms, your thinking, and your emotions. That knowledge might be the key to motivating yourself to change your bad habits.
Take inventory of your values. As humans, we all crave love, acceptance, and approval. But when we shift like chameleons to fit in with the group, this lack of identity can make us highly emotional creatures. Sitting down and writing out your beliefs, values, and principles is a great way to start building a stable self that won't waver under the pressure to be liked or accepted all the time. What's important to you regardless of others' opinions? Figure that out.
Every day we can engage our anxieties, or we can distract ourselves from them. The goal isn't to stop distracting yourself, as this is an evolutionary mechanism that helps us get through the trials of life. Rather, the goal is to start engaging your anxiety in addition to those distractions. When you take some time each day to sit with your anxiety, your mind won't have flee to your phone, television or refrigerator like a refugee. And that piece of cake will taste even better.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.