Precedented tips for staying calm during these unprecedented times.
We’ve been living in the throes of a worldwide pandemic for almost a year now. Most Americans have been staying at home and socially distancing for at least nine months. About 7% of the country is out of a job (twice the pre-pandemic average). Essential workers are potentially exposed to the virus every day.
Our individual and collective health, economic stability, social connections, and way of living have all been overthrown. So there’s never been a better time to talk about anxiety, amIright???
First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson is the best book I’ve read about anxiety — probably because it’s not written by a doctor or therapist but by a fellow fretter, as Sarah likes to call us anxiety-ridden folk.
I’m not knocking the books by medical professionals; it’s crucial to understand how anxiety manifests in the brain and body and how different methodologies can help us better manage our anxious tendencies. (The Body Keeps the Score is an absolute must-read if you have PTSD.) But it’s undeniably comforting to read advice from someone who actually has anxiety and can describe in finite detail what it feels like.
Here are some of the best takeaways from Sarah’s book, mingled with my own experiences trying them:
You’re not alone — and you’re not broken.
An estimated 19.1% of American adults have had an anxiety disorder in the past year, and 31.1% will have an anxiety disorder sometime in their lives. This includes everything from generalized anxiety disorder to social anxiety to PTSD.
In fact, anxiety is the seventh leading cause of disability worldwide. It’s more common than migraines.
While I’m sharing this statistic to highlight how prevalent anxiety is, I hesitate to use the word “disability.” The human condition is fraught with insecurity, guilt, and melancholy aplenty — there’s no reason to label ourselves as broken because we have anxiety.
My advice: change the narrative. Anxiety isn’t something to be fixed but rather attended to, just like your skincare routine or workout regimen. Stop trying to rid yourself of anxiety (which is an unrealistic goal) and instead focus on building healthy habits that can ease your anxious symptoms. Anxiety will likely always be part of you — so acknowledge it, accept it, and then do the work.
And consider this: not every effect of anxiety is negative. In fact, this is where the title First, We Make the Beast Beautiful comes from. Sarah explains that anxiety is the beast and the source of our suffering, but that anxiety is made beautiful when we realize that it also may be the source of many of our good qualities. The anxious are often more empathetic, overachieving, motivated, accepting of flaws, and adept at dealing with threats. Remember this the next time you wonder if you’re broken…
Meditation helps. A lot.
I equate meditation with magic. I’ve simply never come across anything else that has so many proven benefits for mind and body. Meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce pain and inflammation, improve insomnia, enhance mood, aid in quitting smoking, soothe anxiety and depression, and more.
Meditation is also the best resource for quelling the anxious phenomenon I refer to as brain buzzing. If you’ve ever heard the incessant drone of cheap overhead fluorescent lighting, you know what I’m talking about. Except the drone is the tiny nagging thoughts that linger in the peripheral and build, higher and higher, like a fugue symphony until all I can hear is my anxiety shouting at me from every corner of my brain.
Aaand this is where meditation comes in. Meditation requires extreme focus. Diligent practice. Conscious mindfulness. In other words: meditation is freaking hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that you can’t possibly give your anxiety much attention while you’re doing it.
Consistent meditation practice strengthens your ability to quiet your anxiety — not just during meditation but throughout your day. I love the way Sarah explains meditation in her book: “it’s actually the repeated gentle returning to a quietness that counts. It’s this sturdy vigilance, this steering toward stillness, that builds the relaxation response — or calm muscle — in your being. And slowly, slowly you notice this calmness playing out in real life.”
I learned to meditate at a Buddhist temple. If there’s a temple near you, I highly recommend attending a meditation class or scheduling time to talk with one of the leaders. (You don’t have to be Buddhist to do so.) You can also learn to meditate with an app. I use Calm, and I’ve also heard positive reviews of Headspace and 10% Happier. Start with the guided meditations and simply follow the instructions.
You can rewire your brain.
Neuroplasticity isn’t just a word you can throw around at parties to sound smart. It’s the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways. This means the brain is like a muscle, and parts of the brain can become stronger with use.
“Every time we practice an old skill or learn a new one, existing neural connections are strengthened and, over time, neurons create more connections to other neurons. Even new nerve cells can be generated,” says famed neurologist Oliver Sacks.
An anxious brain has a threat system that’s as strong and vigilant as a Navy Seal. It identifies potential threats and activates defense mechanisms before the logical part of the brain even realizes what’s happening.
To rewire the brain, we need to build habits that strengthen our soothing system rather than our threat system. Over time, our soothing system learns to take charge and our threat system weakens, forming new neural pathways.
To trigger your soothing system, I recommend trying two things: pausing and practicing self-compassion.
In stressful moments, pausing gives you the opportunity to reroute the neural response that wants to trigger your threat system. Delay your reaction with a series of deep breaths, the 5–4–3–2–1 exercise, or another grounding technique. When practiced consistently, the pause strengthens your soothing system and starts to change your default neural response.
Self-compassion is also crucial. When anxiety rises, we often feel frustrated with ourselves or ashamed at our inability to regulate. But all this does is exacerbate the anxiety. In these moments, it’s better to simply acknowledge our anxiety and treat ourselves with the same compassion that we like to receive from others — a reassurance that the anxiety will eventually pass, that we are worthy despite our anxiety, that anxiety is just one part of the many aspects of being that make up the whole.
And this brings us back to the concept of mindfulness — being able to step out of ourselves for a moment to focus on what is rather than what we perceive and to acknowledge without judgment. Herein lies yet another reason why meditation can be so effective…
Your diet can deepen or lessen your anxiety.
You probably thought the bold suggestion to rewire your brain’s neural pathways would be the most challenging advice you’d read here, but I’ve got something that is perhaps even bolder: cut down on the caffeine.
Caffeine is a stimulant and causes many of the same symptoms that we feel when anxiety is high: restlessness, fast heart rate, rapid breathing, jittering, gastrointestinal issues. As such, it can cause a more severe anxiety response.
There has been a notable decrease in my anxiety since I lowered my caffeine intake. I’m less reactive and nervous, and I find it easier to pause and ground myself when my anxiety starts to rise. I drink tea rather than coffee if I yearn for a little morning pick-me-up, and I rarely have more than one cup a day.
Sugar can exacerbate anxiety, so Sarah advises readers to drastically reduce sugar intake. I ate Reese’s Pieces while typing this, so I haven’t tried sugar reduction myself, although I don’t eat much sugar to begin with. But based on my experience with caffeine reduction, I have no doubt that sugar reduction works.
(Sarah only briefly touches on sugar reduction in First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, but she does have a website, program, and series of books devoted to the low-sugar lifestyle.)
Sarah also notes that “researchers have found that folk who eat more fermented foods (which contain gut-healing probiotics) have fewer symptoms of social anxiety.” Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, and kimchi. Or try some of my favorite less-healthy, also-fermented, crowd-pleasing foods: cheese, sourdough bread, beer, wine, and olives.
Embrace a grateful mindset.
There are countless gratitude exercises out there — and I recommend them all. Any habit that helps you embrace a more grateful mindset is a good one. Just like practicing meditation or triggering our soothing response, focusing on gratitude makes it more difficult for the brain to rush into a fight-or-flight response.
Sarah cites a note from neuroscientist Alex Korb in The Grateful Brain: “Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli.” Meaning that your brain can’t effectively feel gratitude and anxiety at the same time.
In moments of stress and strife, I often compel myself to identify a few things that I’m grateful for. It forces me into that ever-crucial pause and takes the edge off the tension I’m feeling.
Following the rule of confirmation bias, a grateful mindset will also begin to color your perceptions and interactions in a positive light. Says Korb, “once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for.”
So be grateful, for blessings big and small. The more blessings you count, the more will surely arrive.
A final note: Do the work.
Like any worthwhile accomplishment, easing anxiety takes considerable effort. Sitting back and hoping it gets better won’t yield any results — your active participation is required.
And don’t look at the work as another source of anxiety. You don’t have to overhaul your whole life at once, nor should you. Choose a single habit, build it up, then choose another. And so on.
As Sarah says, “Simply show up. Start. Things will flow.”
***I’m not a medical professional. While I strive to present accurate information, anything I say here should not be used as a substitute for advice from a licensed medical doctor or therapist. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, please seek treatment from a qualified medical professional.***