A few days ago, I woke up feeling more anxious than usual. I often start the day a little stressed about everything I want to get done, but this time the pit of my stomach felt like the eye of a hurricane on a meteorologist's screen: something big brewing. I lay in bed a moment, going through my checklist for whenever I'm edgier than I can account for:
First, I asked myself:
"What am I worried about? Are these worries real, or made up?"
"What can I do about it?"
Quickly, the worries sorted themselves, like rows of schoolchildren in a class picture.
Real worries about the health of loved ones, school issues for the kids, our budget, were up front. What can I do about these? Consult with doctors, arrange a teacher conference, make a networking call, say a prayer.
The refugee crisis, global warming, gun violence, and larger issues stood in the back row, filling me with guilt for not doing much more than social media posts. But today, I can donate to a fundraiser for Mehrangez Rahmatova, a 19 year old girl from Tajikistan who is seeking a college education in America (read her compelling story here). That's a start. I can also share some good news: Democracy Prep Public School students (all of whom have overcome significant challenges) are getting college early decision acceptances. Watch this 45 second video to put a smile on your face and restore hope in your heart).
Smaller stresses like piled up laundry and holiday shopping I acknowledged and put to the side. Yes, you're here and will be dealt with but I'm not worrying about you.
Made up fears (of people dying, of people not liking me, of all the things I haven't done coming back to bite me like a pack of wolves) I let flow through. Hi, you're not helpful, you can go now.
Then I asked myself:
"What's making me feel more anxious for no good reason?"
In the handy and accessible guidebook The 10 Best Anxiety Busters author Margaret Wehrenberg cautions against CATS (Caffeine, Alcohol, Tobacco and Sugar), substances that can make us feel jittery and affect the quality of our sleep.
When I first read that I thought if you cut me open I would quite literally bleed caffeine, alcohol and sugar. How funny that these major coping mechanisms actually make us feel more anxious. Holiday parties, cookie swaps, happy hours abound during this season, a roller coaster ride of sugar highs and crashes. Normally I would say "ah, I'm just gonna relax and enjoy!" but the truth is, I could probably exercise a little moderation in this area, feel less jittery, and still have plenty of holiday cheer.
And then, in thinking about yesterday's desserts, the eye of the storm became clear:
I need to exercise. I don't mean, I should exercise. I mean, I've been so busy dealing with all of the above, I haven't been exercising and the pent up energy and stress is making me feel more anxious for no good reason. If I want to get rid of this vortex of nerves I need to exercise.
The realization made me want to leap out of bed with relief and joy. This is something I can do, that is guaranteed to help me feel better, regardless of how the rest of the storm system works out. This piece I can control.
Before I actually jumped up to organize my day and put on my running shoes I made myself take three deep breaths. Those always help too.
This mental check took about 10 minutes - the run I took later about 30. In 40 minutes much of my anxiety dissipated and I felt stronger to handle the rest. Going from abstract, free-flowing worry to productive action is the key.
To recap, here are the 5 things I do to head off an anxiety superstorm (I'd welcome hearing yours!):
1) Ask "What am I worried about? Are these worries real, or made up" and "What can I do about it?"
2) Ask "What's making me feel more anxious for no good reason?" and "What can I do about that?"
4) Deep breaths.
5) Find reasons to smile. Smile!
Wishing you a blessed, peaceful holiday season!