I remember exactly what I felt when my doctor first told me that he thought I had depression and anxiety. Relief. That’s the best way I can describe it. Relief that there was an explanation, that someone understood what was happening, and somewhere I could find help.
You might think that’s a strange response to being told what I was told. I’m not sure I would have put ‘relief’ at the top of my list either, had I not lived through that conversation. But there was no denying it. I had felt so heavy and so sad and so out of sorts for so long that naming this feeling felt like I was being handed back control. The reigns were in my hands again. Here was something I could rally against, something I could take small steps towards getting the better of. Before that moment it was just a fog of confusion, fear and stress. Now I felt a small glimmer of hope, a tiny flame of possibility starting to burn in side of me.
As we investigated further into what I had learnt that day it became clear that I was more anxious than anything else. I knew this was something, that with the right tools, could be managed and I was determined to find healthy coping mechanisms that would carry me through the worst days. Ways to deal with the cards I’d been dealt.
I am under no illusions that everyone’s anxiety is the same, because it’s not. But I do know that our anxiety doesn’t have to define us. And for some of us it’s just a period of life that is heavy and hard but will pass. For others it lasts a bit longer, and becomes something we learn to live with.
Over the past few years I’ve learnt that my anxiety levels take gentle tending, like a delicate summer rose. And I’ve learnt that small victories, like being on top of the washing or the grocery shopping for the day or eating a healthy lunch can soon snowball into bigger victories that help me stay on top of life.
I’m a big believer in sharing what works. That’s not to say what’s worked for me will work for you. But I wouldn’t have found these coping mechanisms if someone else hadn’t shared them first.
So, here are some ways I build those all-important small victories into my day.
1. Prioritising Rest
Rest is so important. I don’t know about you, but I am far less able to deal with my anxiety when I am tired. And ironically, the more sleep-deprived I am, the more I struggle to sleep. It’s a vicious, horrible cycle that snowballs into an avalanche resulting in horrible panic attacks. Prioritising sleep and rest means I’m prioritising my health and loving my family and friends.
2. White space in my calendar
I think most of us find it difficult to say no to things. I know I’m forever agreeing to go somewhere or do something for someone. I find the word ‘yes’ on the tip of my tongue far more often than the word ‘no’. But I also know that I am at my most stressed and my most anxious when I have no white space in my calendar. One busy weekend after another, after another is a sure fire way to ratchet up my anxiety levels and I can almost guarantee a panic attack will show up uninvited right, slap bang in the middle of the busiest week.
Keeping margin in my calendar takes discipline, planning and sacrifice. It means saying no to things I might want to do (and things I don’t actually want to do but feel bad saying no to). And here’s a piece of wisdom someone passed on to me – say no first, it’s much easier to change your mind from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’ than it is to back out of something you’ve committed to.
A few spare hours here and there in your calendar might seem like nothing, but this is a small victory that has made a massive difference.
3. Menu planning and regular grocery shopping
It sounds like a trivial thing, but having a plan in place for food and knowing that I have all the right ingredients ahead of time cuts down my anxiety levels massively. It takes a bit of time to work out the meal plan every week and order the groceries, but on weeks when it works I always feel a little bit like I’m winning at life again. Plus, eating well helps tremendously.
There are days when everything feels a bit harder than it should. Anxiety just makes you feel heavier and slower and more flustered. Simple decisions become a maze of possibilities and molehills quickly become mountains. On those days I’m so grateful when I have good routines and habits I can fall back on that work without me having to think too hard about them. Some of these are what I like to call ‘gentle rules’, like ‘always shower before you go to bed’ or ‘always eat at least one vegetable for dinner’ or routines like ‘on Fridays we do a white wash’. And some of them are just familiar – comfortable outfit choices that I know work, an easy-to-cook meal that I know can be ready in 15 minutes.
The more I fight for these small victories, the more I realise how important they are in getting through the day.
So here’s to picking grace over guilt, choosing to celebrate the small, seemingly mundane things that are actually huge achievements. Choosing to look up and out, rather than in and down. Breathing deeply. Taking it one step at a time. Learning to let go. And let go. And let go. Here’s to all those small victories over our anxiety.