Navigating the Mines: Tips for Alleviating Anxiety

T. S. Eliot once wrote that April is the cruelest month, which is probably true. While you'd expect depression rates to skyrocket during the colder months -- and they do, compared to warmer months -- April is actually one of the most emotionally challenging months of the year. Randomly, Wednesday, April 23rd (today) is actually the worst day of the year. As a hopelessly neurotic and anxious writer, I'm feeling it. It's during this time that my long-suffering, extremely patient mother will entertain my phone calls flecked with panic and worry, and predictably rescue me from my torment tornado with a voice as soothing as vapour rub. "Calm down, you're spinning." Part of me feels so fortunate to have her. The other part wishes I could move past it on my own and free her of this annoying, perpetual exercise. And so, as I struggled with yet another bout of tunnel vision and all-consuming anxiety, I made a plan on how to go about doing exactly that.

Beneath April's soil rests a thousand tiny mines, eager to detonate. Shit goes down in April, the month that takes no prisoners. I can't help but mark off the anniversaries of several catalysts as the days fly by on my calendar. But I also remember that those events have made me better and I'm grateful for that. They were difficult and painful. They were also life-altering, transformational, and necessary. They taught me lessons about myself and how I fit into the world. They saved me from making horrible and possibly irreversible mistakes. Yet they still sting with the ferocity of a second degree burn.

When I feel the anxiety rising and threatening to take hold, I recall those moments. April. But it occurred to me this morning that I've also pulled myself out of every. single. one. of those painful events. Somehow, some way, I summoned my resources. And while I'm no expert, I thought I'd share some of the things that have worked for me on the saddest day of the year, and my plan of attack when my anxiety threatens to overrule:

1. Don't ask yourself if you're doing your best. I don't know about you, but asking myself this question encourages me to come down harder on myself. It doesn't matter how many hours I'm logging, what I've done, or how well I've done it. Inevitably, I start comparing myself to others, convince myself I could be doing more or working harder, and begin listing off all of the things I intend to do but haven't yet. In short, I give myself fifty reasons to call myself a failure and chisel away at my self-esteem.

In the last year I've come to realize that doing your best doesn't mean doing what you do until you burn out, even if you enjoy it (and especially if you enjoy it), or giving everything you have to give. Doing my best might be a sixteen hour workday that results in a couple successful new recipes, a blog post, and a handful of new clients. Sometimes it means wandering around in thought, sipping on coffee, and flipping through new cookbooks at a bookstore. The second is not nothing. It's not work in the conventional sense, but it makes the first possible. It's spirit work.
Instead of asking whether I'm doing my best, I ask myself if I would make my parents proud if I were to give them a running tally of what I'd been doing, or whether my life coach or business adviser would approve. Doing this forces me to set reasonable and obtainable goals and to take much-needed days off.

2. Learn about essential oils. This is super recent, so recent that I almost feel ridiculous writing about it, but I've fallen head-over-heels in love with essential oils. The natural fragrances are so invigorating and uplifting; it's not just hype. There's special formulations for stress and anxiety that work extremely well and are now part of my stress-busting toolbox.

3. Watch your alcohol consumption. A glass of wine or two on the weekend is relaxing and enjoyable. But alcohol is a depressant. I definitely appreciate (and practically live for) a good girl's night, but consuming more than my personal max does a number on my mood and productivity level. Although it can be difficult to abstain from alcohol when so many social events centre around it, you have to do what's best for you. Apart from the toll alcohol takes on my body, keeping tabs on how I feel after drinking reinforces why I keep to my limits.

4. Remind yourself of your accomplishments. If you're working on a project that scares you, for instance, remember all of your previous projects, especially the ones that have terrified you. Whether it was a new job, my Master's thesis, or the exam I wrote to become a registered nutritionist, all have made me incredibly anxious. Yet I'm still here. A lot of what I do now makes me doubt myself, brings out my insecurities, and wakes me up at 3am. But as anyone who works in business knows and will advise, you need to trust your own instincts. You do you. Some people will gravitate towards it while others won't. C'est la vie. Focus on how far you've come and allow yourself to feel excited by the opportunities in front of you. If you succeed, you'll get to relish in a job well done; if you happen to fail, you'll have the raw materials with which to build your next success. Success may be built from successes, but growth and innovation are the children of Failures and Mistakes. It's a hard pill to swallow sometimes, especially if you're driven to do well, but it's how I've managed to move forward and to prevent my fears from paralyzing my progress.

5. Eat well, go to bed, stay hydrated, and pay heed to your caffeine consumption. These are more obvious ones, but we often forget about them. In the last few weeks I've spent a lot of time recipe testing, which means I eat whatever I've tested. Lately, that's been a lot of vegetarian food. While a plant-based diet (in the vegetarian/vegan sense) works for many people, the combination of many grains and legumes and the absence of animal protein doesn't bode well for me. I always feel my energy waning and my anxiety rising when I eat like this. Pay attention to how foods make you feel. When someone asks me about food intolerance(s), my number one piece of advice is to keep a food journal and to log how your body feels after you eat certain foods. We can debate whether a food or a food group is "healthy" all day long, but what really matters is how you react to it.

At the same time, I've learned to give myself permission to order take-out or make seemingly lousy meal choices (popcorn for dinner, anyone?) because I get busy and preoccupied. As they say, it's all about 80/20, keeping in mind that I definitely need the 80 to feel great.

As for sleep, I feel my best going to bed at 10pm and waking early (hopefully naturally.) Staying up too late, even if I get my requisite eight hours, just doesn't register the same way for me. There's studies that suggest our bodies get a second wind after 10:45pm-11:00pm, which compromises our rest. It's tough sometimes, but I try to keep this fact top of mind.

Hydration and caffeine go hand-in-hand. Your brain needs water to function and too much caffeine (it's all relative to the person) can deplete your body of electrolytes. I balance my caffeine intake by making a point to brew pots of herbal tea, sipping on spa water (water with lemon and cucumber slices, or frozen fruit), drinking green juice, and incorporating kombucha and probiotic-rich drinks into my weeks.

6. Have fun. Pretty self-explanatory, but sometimes the best way to rid yourself of anxiety is to put the project (or whatever you're concerned about) on hold, play adventurer, and recharge your batteries with some good times. Laughter really is the best medicine, and community really is the cure.

How do you take ownership of your anxiety?

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8