In 2014, I found out I had anxiety. It occurred in an uncommon way: Twitter told me. Specifically, countless strangers who watched a nightmarishly edited version of me on a Food Network show tweeted at me that I clearly had anxiety. Because I’d been so badly edited, I initially brushed those tweets off. After a few days of my phone blowing up, though, I decided to look into what exactly anxiety even was. I’d always thought of it as a debilitating condition, and as a highly functional person, assumed it didn’t fit me.
Lo and behold, it turned out anxiety was the proper term for what I had always described as “impending doom,” which was the state of being I somehow casually existed in. Every phone call from a job was bound to be a boss firing me; every call from a significant other would surely be a break up. Once I realized I was indeed anxious, I researched natural cures. Luckily, meditation worked surprisingly well, and quickly, for me. While I’m certainly not the most relaxed individual you’ll ever meet, after a month of meditating, I became one who isn’t anxious, either.
I meditated daily for about six years. Then, the pandemic happened, and like most other people, it reached into my brain and made scrambled eggs of it. Every morning when I sat down at my altar, nothing happened—except frustration. I couldn’t get into The Zone and I couldn’t even lay on my couch and follow along with a guided voice. Within a few minutes of trying that, I’d get up and doom-scroll on my phone, or start a household task. After a week or two of failing daily to find my meditative mental place even once, I gave up. It’s now a year later, and I still haven’t tried again. However, I've also managed to control my anxiety. Here’s how I’ve managed to stay mentally sound.
I check in with myself about how I’m doing as often as necessary—at least a few times everyday—and zero in on I’m really doing. I calmly and lovingly assuage concerns by reminding myself, it will be okay, everything will be okay, using my mental voice that often sounds like my mother. I inhale, give myself a moment to deeply experience the negative emotion, give myself permission to move past the feeling, and exhale. This has soothed me in countless moments and it prevents my emotions from building up.
An avid reader since early childhood, I usually try to gear my attention to “quality” fiction and to read educational nonfiction regularly as well. This year I’ve given myself permission to read any book that draws me in, even if it’s so-called literary trash. Murder mysteries, young adult fantasies, queer romance novels, and all other genres are on the table for me now. I’m still engaging my mind by reading, but I’m also facilitating my relaxation.
I’ve also watched far more TV this past year than at any previous time in my adult life. I didn’t even own a TV for much of those years, eschewing it as too mindless an activity. But I hold nothing but gratitude for it now. Escapism by way of engaging stimulation allows our brains time off to process information and events. Instead of feeling guilty, I congratulate myself for taking time to do nothing but relax and feel entertained.
I've always had a very complex relationship with working out, mostly due to the lack of inclusivity in the fitness world. Needing a way to release steam and use up energy, I began exercising at home last spring. Soon, I discovered endorphins are as amazing as everyone claims. I've been working out five mornings a week for a full year—which is the longest I’ve ever exercised for in my life without pause—and I’ve gained close to fifteen pounds of muscle. I have one YouTube trainer, Sydney Cummings, to whom I’m devoted. She’s body positive, muscular in stature, always reminds viewers to be grateful for the work their bodies can do, spends several minutes at the end of each video getting you excited for your day, and her workouts are incredibly challenging. I emerge from every session exhilarated and eager for my day, just like I used to after meditating. That happy-high feeling usually lasts for hours.
Despite being a reserved person in the public sphere, in private I’m someone who loves little more than to cuddle. I love to snuggle for hours watching a movie or to kiss my cat sleeping on me hundreds of times. Now, when I do those things, I make sure to be fully present for them. Through past somatic therapy, I’ve learned the self-soothing mechanisms that work best to relax me and give me an oxytocin boost. I use my palms to put pressure on my chest, rub my upper arms with my hands, or grip my hips firmly. These self-touch actions calm and relax me as much as ones with other bodies do.
The serene, grateful, one-with-life zone I used to tap into while meditating exists somewhere else, I’ve learned: at the edges of our consciousness. When falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning, I can easily delve into that space. During those moments I do all the work I used to do while meditating, from thanking the universe for my life, loved ones, and health, to visualizing my future goals.
On good nights I fall asleep in that place, and on good mornings I get up directly from it. When that doesn’t happen, and instead I fall asleep after tossing and turning or wake up stressed, I gently accept that. Sometimes it’s easy to feel great, and other times it isn't.
Meditation allowed the opportunity to offer gratitude for the positive things in your life. Now, without meditation, I make a point to do this as things are occurring in real time. While eating a tasty takeout meal or kissing my cat, I send a brief mental note to the universe acknowledging my joy and expressing gratitude for it. This feels highly effective because it makes me more present for those moments and causes me to appreciate them more.
Having done a lot of pranayama via yoga, I’ve learned breathing exercises work to chill me out the fastest. I don’t make myself do them to the extent I would in a yoga class, but I do them until I notice the effect. I like simple exercises that involve counting, I find it grounds me without feeling overwhelming or complex. There are innumerable online resources with photos and step-by-step instructions for this genre of healing (which has been well proven to do everything from lower cortisol to reduce depression).
We are, thank goodness, hitting the tail end of this heart-wrenching pandemic. I have my second vaccine dose next week, a plane ticket to finally see my parents booked for month, and a reservation to eat on a restaurant patio soon with one of my best friends. I like to feel pulled to activities rather than force my way into them, and I don’t feel pulled yet to try meditating again. I’m as happy and emotionally healthy as I was when I did it daily, and I'm just as grounded, too.
If this past year has changed your abilities to perform the self-care and self-growth rituals you previously loved, I encourage you to try any of the above and take note of how they make you feel. I believe we’re here to grow, not to become perfect. There’s no single, correct way to be emotionally well: Whatever brings you joy while not causing harm to anyone else is the right thing for you.