I had my first experience with anxiety when I was 13. It was an excruciatingly hot summer in Las Vegas—though all summers in the desert are excruciatingly hot—and I couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that something was seriously wrong with me. My thoughts raced constantly, and I felt on edge all the time, leaving me unable to enjoy any of the activities that come with summer vacation for a 13-year-old. I had no responsibilities, no pressures, and no tangible worries, yet I couldn’t sleep at night or feel at ease for any extended period of time. While I spent three months inside my head, unable to be in the present moment, it seemed like everyone around me was blissfully content. No one talked about mental illness then, and at the time, I assumed I was the only person on earth feeling that way. My parents took me to the doctor only for me to struggle to describe what I was feeling and be sent home with a clean bill of health because I was fine in a physical sense.
Maybe if mental health had been addressed in school or even in my own home, I would have had a better idea of what was going on. Maybe if I had known that anxiety ran on my mother’s side of the family and could be a result of my genetic makeup, among other factors, I would have felt more understood. Because no one knew how to talk to me about anxiety and I myself couldn’t put words to the feeling of not being comfortable in my own skin, I remained confused and felt constantly misunderstood. I was wracked with worry, and I was more concerned about why I felt this way than being able to identify what it was.
Over the years, I’ve developed an understanding and an acceptance of my anxiety, along with a desire to talk about this taboo issue. Ahead I share my experiences and personal strategies for coping with anxiety, as well as insights from clinical psychologist Beth Kurland, PhD, who has her own suggestions for finding ways to feel at ease.
Ten years after my initial experience with anxiety, I feel more in tune with body and my feelings than ever before. Over the years, I came to understand my feelings of seemingly irrational discomfort for what they were: anxiety, an incredibly common mental illness that an estimated 31% of American adults experience in their lifetime. Anxiety can affect everyone differently. Some feel anxiety as a result of specific events, people, or activities while others, like me, feel anxiety even when there is no particular trigger. In my case, genetics likely play a large role in my predisposition to feelings of anxiety. As I grew older, I came to learn that the disorder runs in my mother’s side of the family, offering me some explanation for why I often deal with anxious feelings and thoughts. But it can also be caused by any number of combinations of genetic, biological, and environmental factors.
In addition to learning more about why anxiety is a part of my life, I came to accept my predisposition for the disorder as a part of what makes me who I am, rather than something to be shameful or afraid of. The first time I saw a therapist, I felt embarrassed and out of place. I was a teenager, and it was not nearly as socially acceptable to go to therapy then as it has come to be in recent years. I was apprehensive, and in the end, I found that traditional counseling really wasn’t for me, but I did have one major aha moment while nervously sitting on a couch across from a woman and a box of tissues. She instructed me to greet my anxiety with acceptance, rather than with disdain and panic. I had become accustomed to spending my time actively running from this feeling, and when it hit, I immediately succumbed to it, begging it to leave me alone and blaming myself for having a broken brain. For the first time, I was being told to acknowledge my anxiety as simply something normal that was happening. I began to tell myself, I feel anxious, and that’s okay.
The ability to accept the feeling of anxiety as just another one of the many things that make me who I am was incredibly freeing. It took time, but I became less and less scared of the feeling sinking in and setting up shop inside me. Now I identify the feeling and begin to focus on what I can do to move through it.
In my personal experience, I’ve found that my own versions of wellness and self-care are the best cure for my racing thoughts. While some people greatly benefit from traditional counseling and therapy to cope with feelings of anxiety, I prefer to focus on how to best serve my mind and body through physical activity, meaningful relationships, meditation, and proper nutrition. Thanks to a surge of wellness-based practices gaining popularity with incredible speed, I’ve found so many opportunities to feed my body and soul in ways that bring my mind stillness and contentment.
“When we are mindfully engaged in an activity, it helps take us out of our head and quiets the constant narration in our mind that can pull us into the past, the future, or unhelpful mental ruminations and worry,” explains Kurland.
Personally, I achieve this state of flow by going for long runs outside, practicing yoga, writing, and being at the beach. When these methods aren’t enough, I focus on breathing techniques I’ve learned through various yoga and meditation lessons and try to think about whether or not I’ve been properly nourishing my body with the vitamins and minerals I need to feel my best. For everyday stress, I’ve also adopted a variety of self-care routines, from indulging in a face mask and 20 minutes of stillness to getting offline and connecting with friends.
“The research that I am aware of supports the fact that aerobic exercise, mind-body practices like yoga and those that involve breath awareness and breathing techniques, as well as increasing social support can all be helpful for reducing anxiety,” says Kurland.
While everyone is different, she believes that the important thing is finding what allows a person to relax and be engaged mindfully. She describes this as “giving [your] full attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental way,” adding, “When we feel safe and at ease, we turn on the part of our autonomic nervous system that helps us to physiologically experience relaxation and dial down our stress response.”
In addition to my personal strategies, Kurland recommends utilizing cognitive-behavioral strategies to cope with anxiety. Essentially, this means paying attention to your thinking in a way that allows you to recognize the thoughts that feed your anxiety and identify how these thoughts might be exaggerated or flat out untrue. “When we begin to pay attention to our thinking and replace these distortions with more accurate, realistic thinking, it can reduce anxiety,” she says.
Everyone experiences anxiety differently. For some, it comes in the form of day-to-day stress caused by anything from work to personal relationships. For others, it can be a seemingly unexplainable constant state of mind. What I’ve found to be most helpful in my own life is practicing self-acceptance no matter what. Instead of judging and questioning why I have certain feelings, I work toward being content to experience and work through them by doing the things I find most rewarding and invigorating in life.