How To Deal With Anxiety: A Personal Manual
I had my first anxiety attack when I was in college. At intermission of a play I was in, I'd need to be coached through a breathing exercise to calm myself down. I wrote it off as my body's response to a heightened emotional state that I was forcing myself into for the sake of the character. And, as many artists do, I was willing to sacrifice my body for the art.
My second anxiety attack happened the night before I launched my magazine (if you've been rocking with me long enough to remember EDGE, that's dope!). I locked myself in my bathroom and coached myself through those same breathing exercises from college (deep inhale, hold for 5 seconds, long exhale). I wrote it off, again, as just nervous excitement about doing something I wasn't sure I was good at and being on the brink of sharing it with the world. Nervous, not anxious, I told myself. I could handle nervous. Plus, you launch once then it's smooth sailing. Everything would be fine. I was a businesswoman and sometimes you have to sacrifice to make things happen.
I saw my anxiety attacks as weakness that I had to maneuver around. And as they continued to pop up at various moments throughout my life, I knew that I couldn't continue to write them off as "push through" moments. Dealing with anxiety as a creative can be an incredible time suck. It's debilitating at its worst and just annoying at its best but it can be dangerous if you refuse to call it by its name. Once I accepted that what I was experiencing were, in fact, anxiety attacks, I had to figure out how to not let them run my life. I started with...
Yoga + Meditation
I know...you're rolling your eyes. But this is a personal manual and I have to be honest about what helped me. Now, you don't have to go all Russell Simmons with the yoga. I find just stretching a bit in the morning and before bed coupled with a brief moment of silence in my day helps. Silencing my mind for a little bit helps me to separate my positive, uplifting thoughts from my "the world is a terrible place and my art cannot survive here...WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT MALE ROMPERS?!?!" thoughts.
I swear by the power of taking pen to paper. I am an avid morning journaler but I'm sure any time you spend with your own thoughts can be empowering. Journals are safe spaces (assuming you don't live with anyone who would invade your privacy ) where you don't have to censor your emotions. These are actual words that I wrote in my journal: "The Reasons I Can't Believe In A Supportive God"---and then a subsequent list that I am sure will be in my welcome package at the pearly gates as a "so what was all this about, sis?" moment. But I was reeling, angry and disappointed. I needed that moment. And no one could judge me. That is what journaling gives you. Free reign.
Very Limited Social Media
Oh, man, listen. Nothing will make your anxiety worse than scrolling through the highlight reel of people who seem to be happier, sexier, richer, more successful, more well-travelled and prettier than you are. Seeing Puff Daddy waking up on a yacht while Cassie smizes in a bikini that costs more than your rent is sure to take you from "Who Run The World? Girls." to Girl, Interrupted in .003 seconds. On a normal day, social media and the luster that it brings to the lives of others can serve as motivation for you but when you're already in a state of panic about your life, on any level, it's sure to do more harm than good. Avoid it as much as you can.
Give Yourself A Break
My style of discipline is Joe Jackson. Rehearse an audition until it feels like the words are coming from your mouth. Edit a script until its Shondaland worthy. Workout so hard that you can't feel your legs in the morning. Don't eat that. Drink more water. Deep condition your hair. Don't stay up too late. Face mask day. Do your nails...not that color though. Chile, look, I'm insane. And sometimes the pressure I put on myself helps me to make moves when I'm afraid. But far too often, it riddles me completely unable to do anything for fear of it not being perfect. I start to tell myself "if I can't impress me, surely I won't be able to impress anyone else" and that only puts me into more of a panic. Giving myself the ok to eat french fries, skip the gym, write something for fun, spend too much time watching Braxton Family Values (daddy Braxton is tripping with Ms. Wanda, ain't he?!) is sometimes all I need to make it through a tough mental time. Give it a try.
No "if only...then..." Statements
"If only my parents were rich then I wouldn't have to worry about my bills, I could just make my art". "If only I were naturally skinny then I could eat pizza all day and not worry about gaining weight". "If only natural hair did itself then I wouldn't have to spend my life savings on hair products". Catch my drift? These statements are useless. They do nothing but offer unrealistic barriers to your happiness while playing into the idea that your current feelings or circumstances are permanent rather than momentary. Don't play this game with yourself.
Cry, Scream and/or Sleep
Pretty self-explanatory. Babies know what's up. They don't suffer from anxiety because they just let the shit out. They're not trying to play by the rules or appear to have it all together. They're a mess. And sometimes, so are we. So let it out. I know my neighbors probably think I'm a mental patient but me no care. My favorite is when you cry and then it turns into laughter and then you just fall asleep. Whew. Amazing.
Engage Your Brain---Gently
Coloring books are great when I'm anxious. There are no words or rules. Novels are also a great way to massage your little brain into a more calm state. I'd steer clear of self-help books during this time---you don't need to know that Oprah manages her empire and still finds time to plant and grow her own tomatoes while balancing a school of orphans on her hip---it's just not going to make you feel better, beloved. The key here is to get your brainwaves going on things other than your worries not to compile more stress on top of them.
I used to pride myself on being able to suffer quietly. I thought it was a sign of my strong Black woman-ness to never open up about what I was going through and to just handle it. I hit a lot of walls doing this and then I realized, I have friends! And family! I've been given all of these people who love me enough to help me hold some of my heaviness, I don't have to do it alone. And neither do you.
Yes, anxiety is LOUD but it doesn't need to become the only voice you can hear. You can drown out the dissonance with an action plan but you have to know what you're fighting against first. Anxiety can lead to depression and, in severe cases, suicide. So if you're struggling---know that you are not alone and that you can win.
Do you suffer from anxiety? Have anything that works? Leave it in the comments to help someone else.
Check out Perfection Is A Myth here for more personal stories from women like Iman.