How I’ve learned to manage my anxiety naturally

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Beautiful young girl with a cup of morning coffee standing on the balcony in the rain. Thinking concept.

Image: Shutterstock/Khomenko Maryna

“The crossfire of human emotion is hard to explain, and certainly more difficult to cope with at such times and under such circumstances.”

I came across this quote while reading my grandfather’s autobiography this past weekend. While he was referring to the pressures and anxiety of being at war, I’m not sure anything I’ve ever read has felt more applicable to all aspects of the human experience.

Human emotion is what sets us apart from every other living thing in this world. We feel such complicated emotions as humans—emotions that supersede our need to just survive on this earth. Depression takes precedence over our health, feeling in love can cloud our survival instincts. It is precisely what makes humans different from beasts—we can’t separate ourselves from what what we feel. Our feelings have driven all of human history. Yet even after all this time, we aren’t the best at coping with this thing called human emotion.

I’ve always been a pretty anxious person (although for most of my life I didn’t even realize that this feeling of intense fear was called “anxiety”). I remember feeling nervous as hell to speak in front of the class as a child, and that developed into being nervous to be around people in general. It wasn’t crippling for me, and I was pretty good at hiding it for a very long time. Most of my friends never knew how I felt behind closed doors. My family never saw me uncomfortable around anyone. I just put one foot in front of the other and would do my best to push through that intense feeling of fear in the most random of situations—whether it was before a job interview or just walking through Target, I just thought that sinking feeling of fear was normal—a part of being human.

One night my little sister and I were catching up over a cup of tea. She put her hands over her eyes and said something that woke me up to the reality of anxiety.

“Sometimes I just start feeling scared about something, but I don’t even know what triggered it or what it is I’m even scared of. I’m just always so anxious.”

I remember it felt like a light had just blinked on above my head. I let out an internal Oh… and all at once realized that this wasn’t a normal thing to feel constantly. I could ignore it for myself all I wanted, but I couldn’t ignore that my little sister felt this way. I wanted to help her—but how could I help her from living in fear if I didn’t even know how to help myself?

Once I (finally) identified what this aching fear even was, I became capable of tackling it head on. I learned that those frequent moments in my life where I felt too scared to move or couldn’t get myself up off the floor would have been classified as anxiety attacks. I began paying attention to what my triggers are and how best to cope when in an anxiety-inducing situation. But more importantly I learned that anxiety is not something that can be cured, it’s something that needs to be controlled in order to live a happy and healthy life.

Determined to not to have to take medication for my anxiety, I gave myself time to learn natural ways to help myself control it. Here are the natural ways I’ve learned to control my anxiety and feel happier and healthier in my life.

I learned what triggered my anxiety

As I said earlier, learning what exactly triggered those moments of severe anxiety was the first step in being able to cope and adjust to it. For a lot of us, many of our triggers (which are just stimuli that cause us to feel anxious) are rooted deep and are often linked to what we have experienced in the past. Our bodies react to these stimuli in an anxious manner in order to warn us of a past experience’s outcome.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to be in the kitchen at the same time as my dad. It wasn’t that I necessarily wasn’t allowed, but I learned through experience that it was best to stay out of the kitchen if he was occupying it. In a small house, it quickly became a rule I lived by. When I was spending the holidays with a boyfriend’s family a few years ago, my boyfriend at the time spoke of an observation he had of me. “Whenever somebody starts cooking in the kitchen, you leave and stand in the doorway.” Ah, that would explain my unwillingness to help with the stuffing. I had never really thought about it before that moment, but his observation helped me realize what one of my triggers were: kitchens.

I know, sounds irrational. But that’s the complicated truth about anxiety-triggers. It’s not fair, and sometimes their obscurity can throw us off completely and make us feel like we are just imagining things. It’s important to understand that your reasons for your anxiety are valid, no matter how “random” they might sound to others.

It has taken some patience and practice with myself in order to get to a point where the “kitchen stimulus” no longer sends me running to the doorway. I had to actively remind myself every time a pang of anxiety came my way that I could change this behavior. I could begin to feel comfortable again in this setting, and the past doesn’t have to dictate any part of my future.

I learned to breathe in the moment

I realized that a large part of what made me anxious was fear of the future. I would get a stomach wrenching fear of what could or could not happen—living in the future while still living in the past is brutal on your mind. I was never really living in the moment. I was never accepting the present for the gift that it really was, but I was instead trying to fight this sinking feeling of fear.

No amount of talking myself through it would help. In fact, that just added to the anxiety. I tried to reason my way through it, write my way around it and run my way out of it. But what I realized was that putting any emphasis on this feeling was still taking away from the present moment, the only moment I was really guaranteed.

After a while, the only thing I could think to do was to breathe. Sounds obvious, right? But I learned that deep breathing is an instant way to meditate and calm your mind (and central nervous system). I inhale for five seconds, and exhale for seven seconds. It helps for me to focus on the details of what I’m seeing and feeling with my senses to bring me back to the present moment. I’ll find myself really noticing the leaves swaying or feeling the breeze on my skin—anything to remind me that I am here, not there. I look at my surroundings, taking in the entirety of the moment—whether I’m on my way to work or just trying to fall asleep at night.

I take time to feed my soul

One of my good friends once gave me the best advice when I told her I felt like my thoughts weren’t healthy: You need to paint more. I’ll never forget the way she said it, with an undertone of duh. She knew me, she knew my spirit and my passions, and she knew it had been far too long since I did something simply to feed my soul.

All work and no play is a surefire way to whittle yourself down to a pile of nothing but stress and anxiety. The things that feed our souls vary from person to person. For some of you, it may be exercise. Maybe going on a run helps you clear your mind and get your brain out of work mode. Maybe it’s playing with your kids or going out with your spouse. Maybe it’s painting, singing or writing. It doesn’t matter exactly what it is, as long as it’s something you’re passionate about and isn’t anxiety-inducing. Just remember, your soul needs fed, too.

I cut back on my coffee habit

This part has been pathetically difficult for me. I love coffee. It’s just a simple truth. I am not the kind of person that gets headaches if she doesn’t have it, but I will be super crabby if you try and speak to me before I’ve had at least two cups in the morning. That being said, caffeine has had some very negative effects on my anxiety. Coffee contains caffeine (duh), and caffeine is a stimulant. And stimulants can be an anxious person’s worse enemy. All that caffeine can basically send your mind and body into overdrive, causing that little anxious-bug in your brain to jump around and leave you feeling exhausted and completely jumbled.

Even worse? Coffee is extremely acidic. So between that and the anxiety, too much coffee can contribute to stomach ulcers. Which, in case you’re one of the lucky people who have never experienced the pain of a stomach ulcer before, can make your life very uncomfortable and make it difficult to eat, drink, or feel well in general.

I’m not going to tell you to stop drinking coffee altogether. Mainly because I wouldn’t even be able to do that. But cutting back on my caffeine intake has definitely created a calmer environment for my body. I try to just drink 1-2 cups a day, and never before a known anxiety-inducing situation.

I surround myself with a relaxing environment

If you’re a Type A person like I am, the environment in which you surround yourself with has a large role on your mental state. I am a big believer in creating a zen environment to decompress in after a long day.

It really doesn’t take much effort, and it certainly doesn’t require a home-makeover. I simply keep my house full of calming colors and soothing candles, and I am almost always playing some soft music when I am home. Decluttering is also a great way to create a calming atmosphere for you to allow yourself to rest in. Being able to come home from work and know that I’ll feel at ease as soon as I step in the door is always calming to me.

I give myself grace

Another unfortunate cause of my anxiety for a large part of my life has been my perfectionist habit. But my perfectionist habit was an interesting one: I knew how to give everyone else grace to be themselves, but I didn’t think that rule applied to me. I was hard on myself for years—on my appearance, my feelings, my mistakes, you name it.

I struggled for a long time trying to appear perfect in all aspects. I wanted to look like I had all my ducks in a row. I didn’t want anyone to ever see me sweat anything. This ungodly amount of pressure I was putting on myself to appear perfect to everyone else was eating away at me. I never felt pretty enough, smart enough, or talented enough. I thought everyone could see the flaws I hated so much about my body and personality.

I remember the day I realized it had all become too much. I didn’t want to appear perfect or unflawed or anything other than just me. I wanted to just be accepted for the way I was. But then I realized, the only person not accepting me was me. 

Easy fix, right? Wrong. Learning to accept myself for the awkward, giggly, romantic and dorky person I was has been one of the most challenging chapters of my life. It’s not easy loving yourself, as I think many of us can attest to. But once I learned to just let go a little bit, I was amazed at how my life changed.

I was making real friends who knew the real me and loved her. I wasn’t afraid of speaking in public anymore. I wasn’t scared to wear something I wanted to wear. I was slowly but surely loving myself and becoming comfortable with the person that I am. And while it’s been a journey getting here, finally being able to accept myself has been one of the best anxiety-busters.

So if you experience occasional anxiety, I’m here to tell you that it’s perfectly normal. Fear not. But if you’re anything like me where this stupid disorder has kept you from living your best life, I encourage you to do some research on natural ways that you can care for yourself. There is nothing more freeing than being able to tell your anxiety “Not now, I will handle this myself.”

But if even after trying all these natural methods you still can’t take a deep breath without that anxiety-bug biting you, be sure to consult your doctor and see what other options might be right for you and your lifestyle.