I had my first panic attack at age 20. It was a sunny day, and I was sitting in New York City's Union Square Park. Nothing was wrong. I wasn’t under any particular stress. I was panicking for absolutely no reason. Pretty soon the attacks — and the varied symptoms, which included labored breathing, heart palpitations, dizziness, sweating, crying, coughing, and vomiting — were happening on a regular basis. Sure, some coincided with classic anxiety situations (public speaking, deadlines, a new job). But, the most frightening ones were those that occurred at the grocery store, in the shower, or while eating lunch. These were quiet moments where my lack of brain business paved the way for a zero-to-60 anxiety explosion, all for no apparent reason.
Ahead, I explore the rising prevalence of anxiety in our culture and how, with seven mindful and meditation tips I've incorporated into my life, I've learned to reclaim my life from stress and anxiety.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photograph by Sara Kerens.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health
, 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Everyone knows about anxiety, but not everyone realizes that it doesn’t always spring from trauma or overwhelming events. In fact, the anxiety of the mundane can be particularly upsetting because you can have no idea where it came from or how to get rid of it. It's easy to feel guilty, broken, and utterly helpless. For me, this led to a prescription for antianxiety medication, which I took on a daily basis for nearly a year. The medication provided relief from my constant panic, but although I was no longer having attacks, I also wasn’t crying, getting angry — or remotely interested in sex.
Just to be clear, I am not anti-medication; it absolutely helped me at the time, and I know plenty of folks with serious anxiety disorders for whom medication continues to have a positive effect. However, I have also learned that for myself and others with the all-encompassing diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or what I like to call Anxiety of the Mundane or, alternatively, Neurotic New Yorker Syndrome), there are plenty of steps we can take to remain unmedicated and in control of our anxiety. So, here are seven things that have helped me stay panic- and medication-free.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photo: Image Source/REX USA.
No, this doesn’t (necessarily) mean a German psychoanalyst with a couch asking you about your sex dreams. A Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), although unable to prescribe medication, is trained in various therapy practices and is likely to be more affordable than a psychologist or psychiatrist. I found Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with an LMSW an extremely helpful and accessible option for my anxiety, and my therapist steered me towards various coping techniques, including making lists of daily happenings broken into two columns: “Real Life” vs. “In Amelia’s Mind.” (Example: “Argument with boyfriend” vs. “Probably gonna break up because I’m a failure and will die alone!!!”) Seeing the irrational ramblings of the second column really helped snap me back into reality.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photo: Image Source/REX USA.
I hardly know anyone who gets eight hours any more. And, although it’s true that not everyone needs the same amount of sleep per night, I know I am happiest — and less likely to disintegrate into the "Anxiety of the Overtired" — with a complete eight-hour snoozefest behind me. To get that much sleep, I have to fight and win a daily battle with my internal teenager: I shut down my phone and computer well before bedtime and cuddle up with chamomile and a book at 10 p.m. like an old lady. I even pack my lunch the night before so I’m not staying awake thinking about what I have to do in the morning — and if I weren’t such a just-rolled-out-of-bed type, I’m sure I would lay out my clothes for the next day as well.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photograph by Janelle Jones.
I will eat practically anything, so I’m happy to tailor my diet towards yummy stuff that will also help me calm the hell down. My dietician friend Amy Rosenfeld, MS, RD, CDN gave me the inside scoop of foods that protect against surges of the stress hormone cortisol: foods with magnesium (spinach), omega-3 fatty acids (salmon and other fatty fish), and antioxidants (dark chocolate, berries and citrus fruits). The brain also releases the “happy hormone” serotonin when it breaks down complex carbohydrates — whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, or barley. Finally, Amy recommends warm skim milk (yes, hot cocoa counts) to reduce muscle spasms and soothe tension.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photograph by Mark Iantosca.
While straight-up ujjayi or “yogic” breathing (slow inhales and exhales through the nose where the breath passes against the back of the throat, creating an ocean-like noise) can work wonders to calm the nervous system, my favorite breathing technique is slightly more active. You simply close the right nostril with a finger and inhale through the left, and then close the left and exhale through the right. Then inhale through the right and exhale through the left, and keep repeating the cycle. Called nadi shodhana, or “channel-clearing breath,” this is a great balancing tool that I often call upon on airplanes or while waiting impatiently in that uncomfortable paper gown at the doctor’s office.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photograph by Atisha Paulson.
Meditation. Easier said than done, I know. When your mind or breath is spinning out of control, it may not be possible to focus your thoughts and meditate. Because of this, I advise meditation as a second rather than first step when coping with anxiety. If you feel the downward panic spiral beginning, hop yourself into a grounding yoga pose or take a seat and begin some rounds of nadi shodhana breathing. Once you have enacted a small physical change, it will be easier to start to gather and focus your thoughts to meditate. An easy self-guided meditation is to do a body scan, focusing your thoughts and breathing on relaxing each individual body part, one at a time. There are also plenty of great (and free!) meditation videos, podcasts, and apps available
to guide you.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photograph by Justin Namon.
I am a firm believer that yoga helps with virtually anything that ails you, and anxiety is no exception. As a yoga teacher, I’ve helped students of all ages settle into “grounding” poses that help calm the mind by bringing energy downwards and out of the anxious head space. Happy baby, squats, garland pose, and even good old classics such as child’s pose and downward dog are great ways to slow down, connect with the earth, and calm the constant buzz of thoughts.
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens; Photo: Stock Connection/REX USA.
According to ancient Chinese medicine, anxiety comes from an imbalance in the kidneys or the heart — the organs that rule fear and emotional unease, respectively. Supposedly, essential oils can work to nourish these organs, dispel fear, and give the wearer a better sense of self-worth and security. My massage therapist and herbalist friend Brandi Ryans, LMT, recommends frankincense oil to calm and reassure the lungs, helping overcome short, agitated breathing. For the heart, Brandi recommends flower extracts such as bergamot oil and ylang ylang, which release pent-up emotions, slow the heartbeat, and reduce restlessness and agitation. I wear her handmade-oil combinations everywhere from job interviews to family reunions.