Before my cancer diagnosis in January 2012, I had experienced just two anxiety attacks in my entire 44 years of life. One was sitting in horrific traffic in Yekaterinburg, Russia on my way to see a judge about adopting my daughter. The other was right before moving out of my condo to get married. Both attacks were truly frightening– I would double over, unable to breathe, my heart pounding, palms sweating, wanting to die. But in general, I was able to handle tremendous amounts of stress really well, juggling all kinds of tasks without really dropping anything. I was pretty amazing, I thought.
And then life threw me quite the curveball: multiple myeloma. And then life threw me a few more curveballs, one after the next. Calling the police to have my then-husband, who was drunk and screaming at me, removed from our home. Filing for a legal separation. Quitting my job. Moving two states away with my children and our cat and into my parents’ basement. Major chemo and treatment. And a horrific divorce during which my husband called me every awful name he could find in the dictionary. Bam! Bam! Bam! Anxiety was my new “favorite” emotion. I had terrible insomnia. I was afraid to sleep without the TV on. I dreaded text messages (it was usually another awful accusation from my ex). I would stand in line at Costco and break out into a sweat for no reason, heart pounding.
Time has made coping with bouts of anxiety a bit easier simply because I recognize them for what they are. And most of the time, simple techniques help calm me tremendously. Here are my go-to stress busters:
- Exercising: During exercise endorphins are released, which is a natural mood enhancer. I enjoy walking, hiking, skiing and yoga most but just about anything that increases my heart rate helps. (Honestly, few things make me happier than Bikram yoga. During a session, I learn to breathe and get time to meditate. It is a slice of peace and heaven. So calming.)
- Eating Right: There is something incredibly empowering by treating my body right. I may not be able to control cancer or relationships, but I can control what I put in my mouth. I try cutting down on anything processed and gorge on fresh fruits and veggies, wild fish, and whole grains. I have discovered new ingredients that I didn’t even know existed. Cooking is also incredibly calming to me. The smells and tastes are great distractions and my body simply feels better when I give it nutritionally dense, delicious food. And when my body feels better, so does my brain.
- Drinking a lot (and I’m not talking alcohol!): I feel horrible when I’m dehydrated. Water with fresh lemon is my favorite beverage. So is coffee, though too much caffeine is a huge no-no for treating anxiety. Still, the smell of coffee brings me huge joy so this is something that I rarely deprive myself of.
- Massage: Studies show that massage decreases stress and anxiety. I’ve actually made near-weekly massages part of my schedule. I still feel like I am mentally, emotionally, and physically healing from a really tough few years and this is part of my strength-building recovery program.
- Talking it Out: I have many supportive family and friends who stick with me no matter what. When life is really challenging, find someone to talk to– your dad, a friend, therapist, church pastor. Join a support group. Get on an online chat room. Do not keep things inside.
- Writing: Just putting my thoughts down on paper helps me keep things in perspective. I used to keep a notepad with me so that whenever I needed to write, it was ready for me.
- Breathing: Taking deep breaths is amazingly calming. It gives me just a few extra moments that I need to compose myself and my thoughts.
- Smiling and Laughing: Doing these two things releases serotonin and endorphins. I love getting silly with my kids. Taking selfies together, going see a funny movie, reliving funny memories. Anything to lighten my mood helps.
- Aromatherapy: I often bathe in essential oils that are known to calm the soul, like lavender, geranium, marjoram and lemon. One time in clinic getting a chemo treatment, I was starting to have a panic attack and my nurse put peppermint oil under my nose. Awe, it was amazing. We also have a diffuser in our bedroom and I love going to sleep with a favorite scent in the air.
- Medication: When all else fails, talk to your doctor about prescribing an anti anxiety medication if things are really extreme. There have been times where nothing else will work and there is nothing shameful about using it when necessary. Even a glass of wine might do the trick.