Before we do a deep dive, however, let’s look at that word “cope.” To cope is to “deal effectively with something difficult.” Effectively, of course, is the operative word. Therefore, I won’t tell you about all of the counter-productive things I do when I am stressed or awash in anxiety, all the ways I succumb, the ways I let it drive me, the ways I flail and flounder. I may tell you about a way that sometimes works, but is not generally considered advisable or the best route. Let’s call it a short-term solution, but it has worked for me in that capacity, and I do enjoy it. We’ll get to that.
So, let’s talk about what works. I appreciate the way Michael worded the question because it forces us to respond positively. First, I want to say, anxiety and stress are terrible. I know well how toxic they are, how it feels to have them running through my bloodstream, how weird they make me act, how unpleasant they are, and how unpleasant they make me to be around.
I want to position myself first as a fellow sufferer. I do understand, terribly well, how awful it is to be vulnerable to serious anxiety. I understand what it feels like to be nailed speechless to the floor in an important meeting, or find myself turning the car around in circles because paralysis analysis has literally short-circuited my brain. I understand panic.
There, now that we’ve established I actually do know how serious these afflictions are, let’s discuss what works.
Love from others
First, love works. Talking to a friend or a neighbor helps. Just voicing the worries or concerns, getting the words outside of our heads, takes the edge off the sting. Our friends remind us that we all feel this way from time to time. We all feel like imposters in our lives. We all feel vulnerable. We all feel like failures. We are all, always, trying — and failing. We fail a lot, in fact. Good friends remind us that it’s human to fail, it’s human to hurt, and it’s human to fret. We’re not alone. And, post-Covid, hugs may even be in the offing again. A hug is pure gold.
Love from our selves
Sometimes I literally wrap my arms around myself. Sometimes I just imagine I am wrapping my arms around myself. When I can, I catch and notice my self-talk. I notice how harsh I can be to myself, and I change the register. Sometimes I visualize myself as a small child that needs encouragement. I haven’t yet mastered the art of self-forgiveness, but I know the term now. I know the concept. I know it’s possible. And I do manage it sometimes. My son caught me today on the way home from tennis. We were passing a great, grassy field, and I said, “We should have had more picnics there…” Then, I caught myself. I said, “Oh, that’s regret, lamentation…” My 22-year-old boy who’d just taken me out to hit the ball on the court for an hour said, “Mom, be kind to yourself. And be in the present moment.”
The breath is powerful. Breathing in for three seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, and breathing out for five seconds is a powerful practice that can reset our bodies and our minds. Remembering to say to myself, “Relax, soften, let go” as I’m doing this breath work is even better. Remembering the command, “Let yourself fall into the gap,” which I heard at a meditation retreat years ago, also helps a great deal. The gap referred to is the period at the end of your out-breath before you’ve begun your next in-breath. Conceptualizing “falling into” that gap is powerful. Sometimes it makes me feel lighter all over, as though myriad helium balloons fastened to my arms and shoulders are gently lifting in unison.
I titled the article with this one; I certainly can’t forget it now. It’s something I’ve done since I was a teenager. Just taking off. Leaving, walking, clearing the house, getting outside. Taking long strides, going fast, getting into a regular rhythm with my legs, arms, and breath. Looking hungrily at everything. That part is important. Not letting the whir in my head continue, not fixating, but allowing myself to notice what’s around me. (Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now…) Sometimes I don’t succeed, but when I do, I’m transported by the charming papery-whiteness of the birch bark, by the fat robin splashing in the fountain, by the ruby bloom-covered azalea.
Lying on the floor with my dog
I got this one from a counselor who was helping my son years ago when I was most frightened by his antics. The counselor’s name was Robert, and when I met him, I was immediately soothed by his stable presence. I was a basket of nerves in those days. He took one look at me and set out to calm me. He said, “Do you have a dog?” I said yes. He said, “Go down on the floor with her for at least 20 minutes every day. Just lie on the floor with your dog.” He was so right. Lying on the floor with Daisy restores me. She burrows into my hand with her cold, wet nose or tentatively attempts to lick my face, and I laugh. She places her paw in my open palm, and I want to cry. She catapults me into the present moment, where her liquid-black eyes spill love all over me.
Of course, yoga. Yoga always helps. The trouble is, when I’m really amped up, it’s hard for me to drop into the place where I can do a mini-home practice. And I don’t yet have the discipline to willfully stop the clatter in my head, to really drop into the practice. That said, even a little yoga helps. It provides a re-set. It prevents the shoulders from continuing to hunch up. It relieves the back. It forces me to relax my neck, even if just a little. The trick is allowing myself the gift of yoga. What stops me is feeling unworthy. When I’m really in the grips of a serious anxiety attack, I am unkind to myself. I don’t feel worthy of feeling better. I believe I deserve to feel like shit, so I keep piling it on. If you can manage to do a forward bend or a single downward dog pose, you have a chance to reclaim a tiny part of yourself. Baby steps.
A fire in the fireplace is incredibly soothing and calming. The crackle, the mesmerizing red and blue bodies of the flames, the scent, and of course, my dog, Daisy, showing how it’s done, stretching out in front of the fire, letting her face, chest, and paws grow alarmingly hot… I follow her lead, and I am healed. This one combines getting on the floor with the dog, and the primeval pull of fire, the camp fire… safety, security, warmth, a circle of friendship, stories, love, community, and timelessness.
A bath! I draw a hot bath, tossing three handfuls of epsom salts in there. I make black tea with a little sugar and milk and set that on the corner of the tub. I make sure my New Yorker is within reach. I place a fresh, dry washcloth nearby so I can dry my hands before picking up the magazine. I read the poems. I read the fiction. I read the personal history. If I was undisciplined and brought my phone into the bathroom, I sometimes pick it up. If I do that, my bath goes poorly. My stress and anxiety increase. If I remembered and had the discipline to leave the phone elsewhere, I am happy. I pull the curtain just so, so that the bathroom light shines through, suffusing the cocoon-like space with a celestial glow.
Yes, weeding. You’d think since it sends me into a kind of quiet place, I would love weeding. I would seek it out. Wouldn’t you think that? But, no. For some reason, I have a belief that I dislike weeding. I don’t like getting dirt underneath my fingernails that is almost impossible to remove. I don’t like getting sore knees. I don’t much like the interminability of weeding. The way I seem to be making progress, but then, when I look up, I realize I’ve done about 1/100th of the yard, or less and that my little weed pile is pretty paltry. Still, I must admit that when I’m weeding, I do kind of disappear. It is kind of meditative. And I do make incremental, but measurable progress. This is soothing in its own way.
Let’s not forget the power of music. Although I love music, when my mind is taking me for a ride, I often forget how powerful it can be to change a mood, pretty much instantaneously. Don’t underestimate this tool. Lately, I’ve been listening to Apple Music’s various Chill stations. Classical Chill. Jazz Chill. Ambient Chill. Music changes the mood of a room instantly. When my head begins to get weird, if I can remember music, music to concentrate by, music to inspire creativity, I can avert the worst of it. I’ve especially learned this from my son of late, who listens to Study Beats or Classical Concentration. There’s the very special Max Richter, for example. Those are tunes for working, creating, concentrating. When it’s time to fold laundry or make dinner, you can put on the fun stuff: the luscious, romantic Joan Armatrading. The unforgettable Roberta Flack, alone, or with Donny Hathaway... Or the BeeGees, oh my God… David Bowie’s Under Pressure… (Okay, okay, I’m stopping.) Whatever floats your boat — remember to put it on. Music helps.
Yes, a burrito. And I almost forgot about it. Once, years ago, when I was gasping for breath, hyper-ventilating about something or other, out of my head and frenzied, my dear friend Colleen, who was older and wiser than I, who was my surrogate mother and my teacher, the godmother of my children, and once upon a time my boss (!), said, firmly, “Christy. Stop. Hang up the phone, and go get a burrito. You need protein. Call me back after.” I did exactly what she commanded, and you know what? It worked.
This is the one I probably shouldn’t include because, obviously, it can be problematic. It should never be used as a replacement for any of the healthier options, but it is a way I sometimes deflect stress and anxiety. Furthermore, I like it! These days, my favorite cocktail is called Paper Plane. The name alone cheers and charms me. It’s not too strong, it’s shaken with ice and poured into a pretty coupe glass, it’s not too sweet, it’s a pretty pink. And it’s lovely, my go-to cocktail, just one, mind you. If you have more than that, it takes on a sinister cast.
According to the New York Times Cooking site, Paper Plane is “a rich, immediately likable whiskey sour lent plenty of culinary complexity by the amaro and the Aperol.” Good to know it has “culinary complexity”! Lol. :)
Recipe for Paper Plane
3/4 ounce bourbon
3/4 ounce Aperol
3/4 ounce Amaro Nonino
3/4 ounce lemon juice
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker three-quarters filled with ice. Shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Strain into a coupe glass.
Then, play Laura Branigan’s Gloria while imbibing, and dance in your kitchen.
Ann Marie Steele 2021, Casey Botticello, J.J. Pryor, Cholia “CJ” Johnson, Ryan Fan, Roz Warren, Kylie Craft, Ellen B. Marshall, Venu, Christine Stevens, Dr. Christine Bradstreet, Stephanie Benjamin, MD