**First, I want to clarify that I am not a therapist or medical doctor of any kind. I write these posts based off my own life experiences and the research I've done and the questions I've asked my own therapists and doctors. What I say is by no means end all be all. The tricks and tips I'm going to suggest have helped me personally. My goal with this blog (which has stayed the same from the beginning) is to write in order to connect with people. If one person finds one thing I say helpful in dealing with their own mental health issues, then I'm successful. You need to do what's best for you and I am only here trying to be vulnerable in hopes it helps you in some aspect of your life journey.
**Secondly, I'm going to be using the terms stress and anxiety throughout this post and I thought it might be helpful to clarify the difference between the two, as I know they tend to be used interchangeably. Unless you've been diagnosed or have done enough research to know you're on the anxiety end of the scale, you may not realize the difference. You don't know what you don't know, right? I think a big reason we confuse the terms is because they result in many of the same physical symptoms - racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, and muscle tension to name a few. However, once these symptoms become more intense and severe (including more symptoms such as chills, headaches, hot flashes, and chest pain) that's when you know you're leaving stress town and heading for anxiety city. Essentially, stress and anxiety stem from different factors. Stress tends to be caused by actual factors and events in your life - like a test or presentation, a first date, a confrontation, etc. Anxiety tends to be driven by fear and tends to stick around after the initial stressor is gone. Let's go with the test situation, you stress yourself out and cram and study as much as you can. You lose your appetite and the worry of failure keeps you from sleeping. The test happens, perhaps it even goes well, but you still can't stop fixating on it. Now that it's over, you fear you failed it or did poorly enough that this one test will lower your GPA. If you're in high school, you worry and pressure yourself about how that one test is going to ruin your chances at getting into your dream school. If you're in college, you worry about how that one test will translate into a grade, into your dean's list streak, into how you could never possibly be picked for that perfect internship after such a terrible grade, etc. In a most basic understanding, with stress you know what you're dealing with. Anxiety comes up and punches you in the gut whether there's actually something going on in your life or if you simply think something is. Or, if nothing is happening at all. That's why anxiety is such a b****, it's everything and nothing all at the same time.
As I've mentioned before, one of the things I was diagnosed with while I was getting the help I desperately needed is generalized anxiety disorder. I went through a period of time where these anxiety-ridden episodes manifested themselves in complete panic disorders. I'm talking times where I was paralyzed in the fetal position, bawling my eyes out, barely able to breathe. However now that I know the symptoms and my triggers, those attacks have gone down significantly. But yea, I am basically an anxiety/stress ball of a human being by nature. I've honestly been dealing with stress and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I've mentioned that fourth grade was a big year for me when it comes to my mental health journey. Not only was I dealing with bullies and felt completely isolated from my family, friends, coaches, and peers, but that was also the time in my life when I started fixating on death. I used to get lost in deep thought and anxiety wondering about what came next, because even though I went to a Catholic grade school, I didn't fully buy the idea of "living in heaven with our eternal Father." In pairing with the bullying, I often found myself in a debate between wanting to live and wanting to just not be here anymore. I thought coma's were really cool, because at that time, sleep was the only real escape I had (as I was being bullied both in school and the dance studio). I knew from that age I had so much to do with my life, I just wanted to skip ahead to the good part.
I'm the kind of human that finds themselves revved up over a plethora of things. I get worked up over something as small as being early or late to a meeting or event. Yes, you read that right, if I am not exactly on time to something, my heart races and I begin to entertain every terrible outcome from being either early or late. For example, if I'm early to meet a friend, I worry I got the date/time/location wrong, or worse, that because my friend isn't also early, they were in some kind of horrific accident. I don't know why I'm like this. I obviously wish I wasn't. But as I'm reflecting and trying to grow and live the happiest life I can, I know that stress will always be a part of who I am. Take me in sickness and in health right?
This last month in particular has been more stressful than any other recent month. I think in a post or two I voiced the thought of going back to school. I started studying for the GRE, however the more and more programs I started looking into, the more my gut kept telling me this isn't the right thing to be doing right now. So I stopped my search and reached out to one of my dad's clients who I met last year and is in the marketing world himself. He's an incredible man with one of the most impressive résumés I've ever seen. Long story short, he killed it in product marketing in the tech sector, grew a company exponentially, became VP of said company, left that company because he wasn't being challenged enough and found joy in business coaching. Over the last two-ish years, he found a pattern in his coaching clients - that most of them don't understand anything about marketing and they were making crucial, yet easily fixable mistakes in how they saw that part of their businesses. He did his research, participated in certification programs and mastermind courses, and is now transitioning his coaching company into a full-time digital marketing agency.
Second long story short, that reaching out turned into an internship opportunity with the future of a full time job with the new company once it's up and running.
So essentially for the last month, I've been doing my normal job (still full time, 40-45 hours a week), teaching dance and choreographing for the studio, freelancing art/design projects, doing this blog thing, trying to balance my love/need of working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, prioritizing my relationship and trying to have date time, trying to have any kind of social life, and now adding another 20ish plus hours a week doing intern learning/training/designing/ect.
Needless to say, I'm a bit stressed out, overwhelmed, almost overstretched, and in a constant anxious state.
There have been more than a few breakdowns and cry sessions. Thank God for my parents, close friends, and Greg, who let me vent and cry and voice my frustrations and concerns. But most importantly I am so grateful they all keep reminding me how capable I am to achieve these goals and how proud they are to see me growing and chasing a better life. That's probably the most important part of overcoming stress and dealing with anxiety - and let's face it, any obstacle in your life - surrounding yourself with people who only want the best for you and believe in you more than you believe in yourself.
There are a few other tips/tricks that I've been utilizing lately as to not fully lose it. I do my best to incorporate them into my daily life, but I'm still struggling too. But that's okay. Because I'm trying, and that's the best place to start.
1. The PLEASE Skills
Probably the most important thing I ever learned in therapy. You cannot be an effective human if you don't take care of yourself on the most basic level. Plain and simple. End of story. This skills help you reduce your emotional vulnerability, aka the times you feel like a raging, crazy, irrational human. The more intentional you are at maintaing a balanced lifestyle, the less likely you are to lose emotional control in stressful situations. The "acronym" stands for: treating Physical iLlness, balanced Eating, avoiding mood Altering drugs, and balanced Sleep. Seems pretty basic right? If you have an illness or disease, take your meds. Eat your fruits and veggies. Stay away from drug stimulants - especially alcohol (a depressant) when you know things aren't as peachy as you'd like them to be. And get your sleep. It's crazy how out of whack your mental state can get when you neglect these things. Even just not getting enough sleep is enough to drive a person over the edge or do/say something they'll regret when in a more stable place.
2. Taking Brain Breaks
As counterintuitive as it seems, when you feel your to-do list is never ending, take 10-20 minutes to take a break. There are studies out there that show your brain stops retaining information after 90 min max of studying or learning something new. Same with your never ending to-do list. Greg and I used this tip very effectively on Monday actually, as I was reaching my tipping point. As I sat in front of my laptop, with tears in my eyes and my chest getting tight, Greg suggested we take a slight break and carve our pumpkins for Halloween. So that's what we did. I stopped focusing on everything I needed to do. We put on the first episode of the first season of Stranger Things and did something creative. And I can't emphasize enough how much it helped me. Taking a slight recess from everything going on and being mindful and using my hands was exactly what I needed. By the time we were done, and I think each episode is close to 40ish minutes so it was definitely on the longer side of a brain break, I was recharged and ready to take on a few more chapters of my training course.
I personally find that creative things are the best brain breaks, but that's most likely because I'm a pretty creative person. In therapy we used to have to do a mindful activity every session - usually for ten minutes tops. My favorites include intense coloring pages, elaborate connect the dots, and mindful stretching. By re-focusing your brain on the task at hand and getting lost in numbers on a page or coloring, it's much easier to regain focus and prioritize once you're done with said activity. Next time you find yourself getting caught up in your whirlwind of anxiety or stress, seriously try a mindful connect the dots, it's weird how well it works...
3. Get Moving
Elle Woods said it best, "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don't shoot their husbands." Not that I have ever contemplated shooting Greg or anyone else for that matter, but she has a point. Whether it be mindful stretching, a full on yoga practice, a long run, a HIIT circuit, or boxing, do something to release that nervous/anxious/stressful energy. And again, it doesn't have to be an hour long session, ain't nobody got time for that. 15 min is all you need and there are hundreds of Youtube videos and Pinterest pins you can do in your living room if that's what you need. Technology is awesome in that way. Take advantage of those positive attributes.
4. The TIPP Skills
Another set of extremely useful tips from therapy, the TIPP skills help with distress tolerance. The acronym stands for: Temperature, Intense exercise, Paced breathing, and Paired muscle relaxation. For me personally, temperature and intense exercise are the ones I find most helpful - hence exercise having it's own bullet point. But all four do a great job of helping a person chill out in a pinch, especially in a situation where knocking out five minutes of jumping jacks is frowned upon.
Temperature: When you get upset, the body's natural reaction is to get hot, hence why peoples faces get red and flushed. To counteract that natural body process, get some ice and try to reverse that tendency. You can splash your face with cold water, put some ice behind your neck or on your forehead, or even blast the AC on your face in the car. I think the most used Temperature technique is the polar plunge, which is when you literally dump your face into a bowl of freezing cold ice water. By doing so, A) your brain can't focus on anything but the coldness on your face and B) your heart rate actually slows in reaction to the ice water. It's weird, but genuinely works. Now, because I can't just stick my face in a bowl of ice water every single time I get worked up, I keep a frozen lemon or lime in both the office freezer and our freezer at home. Lemons and limes freeze better than any other fruit and won't melt on you. Next time you're feeling panicky, grab that frozen lemon out of the freezer and roll it around on your wrists or hold it behind your neck. I can't tell you the number of times I've used this trick, especially in therapy when I had to talk about something that made me particularly upset. (I've even done it while writing some of these more personal posts!)
Intense Exercise: I technically just talked about this, but to reiterate, do an intense exercise to match your intense emotion. You don't have to go run a marathon. Sprint down to the end of the street, jump in the pool for a few laps, or do jumping jacks until you’ve tired yourself out. Increasing oxygen flow helps decrease stress levels. Plus, it’s hard to stay dangerously upset when you’re exhausted. When you have to focus on catching your breath and remembering how to breathe, it's really hard to get anxious over that presentation you have next week.
Paced Breathing: This is one I generally have a hard time with, but that's because I have a very hard time sitting still. But there are some people this works wonders for. There are a number of different breathing techniques so take some time to figure out which one works for you. The most common is called "box breathing" where each breath interval will be four seconds long. Take in air four seconds, hold it in four seconds, breathe out four, and hold four. And then start again. Continue to focus on this breathing pattern until you feel more calm. My personal favorite is the breathing GIF
where you breathe in and out to a growing geometric shape. Steady and full breathing (aka breathing to fill your entire lung capacity) helps with the body's natural fight or flight response, keeping you in a calmer place and less likely to do something drastic when you get overwhelmed.
Paired Muscle Relaxation: There is a lot of science behind this methodology of paired muscle relaxation. The idea behind it is that when you tighten a specific muscle, then relax it and allow it to rest, the muscle will become more relaxed than before you tightened it. And bonus, relaxed muscles require less oxygen, meaning your heart rate will actually slow down when doing this kind of exercise. So essentially, pick a specific muscle or muscle group.Tighten them as much as you possibly can for five seconds. Let go of that tension and be mindful as those muscles being to relax. Before you know it, you will begin to relax as well.
5. Hydrating and Self Care:
My last small tip is to do something for you and to drink your water while doing it. I preach about self care, especially on the Mi Mentality instagram page. I think it is SO important. You cannot help or take care of others unless you are taking care of yourself first. This kind of pairs with taking a brain break, but when you are too stressed to do anything else do something that you know always makes you happy. Facemasks and lighting candles are big in the self care world. You can read your favorite chapter of your favorite book, or read some of your favorite poetry. You could write your own poetry. You could go for a mindful walk or cuddle your pet. Literally, do anything that reminds you what you love about life. I suggest pairing that activity with drinking as much water as possible for a number of reasons but I'll only bore you with two of them. A). Your body is roughly 60% water. 60 freaking percent. That's huge. Staying hydrated does a number of positive things for your body so just do it (consider it a PLEASE skill). B). I know a number of people who consider themselves to be stressful eaters. I also know a number of people who suffer from some kind of disordered eating or disordered guilt over disordered eating. I am one of those people. I'm also odd when it comes to stress eating. There are times where I want to over indulge and stress eat everything. There are also times were I am so stressed I want to throw up and never eat again. I have yet to figure out the pattern and maybe I never will. But back to the point, instead of reaching for the pint of ice cream, fill your water bottle with some nice cold water and start with that. And not just like a small 8 oz, I'm talking like 24-32 oz. Again, we discussed how cooling your body temperature helps with your stress but by also being mindful and hydrating, you may be able to fight that urge to eat all the reese's cups in your possession. Now I don't want this to be seen as some kind of weird restriction tip, because by no means is that what I am trying to say. If after you drink your water and you still want a cookie to help make you feel better, by all means, eat the cookie. I will always tell you to eat the cookie. But if you are anything like me and you've gone on a binge because you're stressed, you know what a terrible feeling that is. Drinking water is just a tool in trying to deal with those negative urges and emotions.
Stress is a part of life. We all have dealt with it and will continue dealing with it. These tips have helped me, and the next time you get too stressed to function, I hope they can help you too!