Lifelong Anxiety, How Do I Learn To Relax?
July 8, 2018 6:34 AM   Subscribe

I've had lifelong anxiety. I am taking meds and going to therapy. I want to learn how to relax. I've never really "learned." Details inside

I've had lifelong anxiety. I am taking meds and going to therapy. I want to learn how to relax. I've never really "learned." I get so anxious sitting down to read a book or watch television. I am a very active person and always want to be doing stuff. I have OCD and racing thoughts. I think that I do better when I am engaged (gym, work). I love literature and art. I would like to be able to consume them like a "normal" person

I seem to often need alcohol or marijuana to relax. The paradox is that I am then less able to concentrate and understand narratives. I know that I am not going to transform from an anxious person to a zen master, but I would like to improve. I know that this is going to have to be done in stages and small steps.

I am looking for suggestions or resources other than sitting/breathing meditation.

Thank you in advance
posted by kbbbo to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I’m the same as you! I’ve started making sure I put my phone away and commit to watching an hour long episode of a show I like and also read regularly. I think that too much phone activity has wired our brains to make it difficult to concentrate and get absorbed in narratives (and often the phone, looking on Amazon, reading the news triggers anxiety in me)
posted by catspajammies at 6:42 AM on July 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I find a change of scenery helps me. When I was working a stressful job, I would sometimes stop on the way home from work and treat myself to a glass of wine and a cheese plate someplace quiet. Preferably with a nice patio in good weather. Take a magazine and use an app blocker to lock out your phone for a certain amount of time. I started small, with a ten minutes. That was usually enough to get me over the hump of mindlessly reading the internet or looking at work emails. And because I wasn't at home, I didn't have the distractions of household chores nagging me.

I should really start doing this again.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 7:10 AM on July 8, 2018

Thanks guys! I just wanted to chime in after catspajammies and say that my phone is a problem. I'd actually research what movies and shows I'd want to watch, AS I was already watching one.

posted by kbbbo at 7:14 AM on July 8, 2018

Have you tried guided meditation for anxiety/relaxation? There are tons of them available on YouTube; here's an example to get you started. These sorts of guided audios are great "training wheels" for learning relaxation--the more you repeat them, the better/faster your response will be, and with practice you can invoke the same physiological response pattern in other settings on your own.

Also, relaxation rituals or routines can be helpful in triggering the right response--something like making yourself a cup of your favorite tea in a special mug or lighting a special scented candle.
posted by drlith at 7:38 AM on July 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

One thing that my therapist suggested that has really helped lately is, instead of focusing on needing to relax or be calm, just taking the time to acknowledge that I’m really anxious or really angry, in my case. I find that just accepting the anxiety in the moment instead of fighting it seems to help it to dissipate more quickly.
posted by FencingGal at 7:52 AM on July 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

Came in to say, just sit with it. Sit on the couch and mindfully feel anxious. Feel the sensations in your body. Remember that nothing is happening. You're just on the couch, no tiger in the room so to speak.

Often I find I'm anxious because I'm just afraid of being alive. When I sit with the anxiety and let it be without trying to compensate for it, I get this feeling of relief. It's so backwards because anxiety tells you to do something, but resisting the urge to act is often the solution. Best of luck to you.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:04 AM on July 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Agree with others, just being mindful about your feelings is a way from not having to live inside them. So while breathing/meditation may not work for you (which is fine!) the concept of getting some distance from your thoughts can at least help you understand that they are just thoughts.

I have been going down this path for the past few years. A few things that helped me (also I am a meditator but I'll skip that part)

- starting and ending the day OFF SCREEN. Like I literally set a timer when I wake up and I have 45 minutes with no screens other than reading a book on a Kindle. So helpful for "setting me up for success". Reading before bed, usually something immersive like catchy fiction, is also helpful
- Exercise like it is my job My tired mind is a little quieter than my unexercised mind. So just walking more places I use to drive, whatever.
- Food/drink is part of it. If you are used to smoking or drinking to adjust your mood, it may take a while to really get off of that but remembering that a lot of it is habit that feels necessary but may not be. Eat as healthily as you can stand. Watch caffeine. Keep track of how different foods affect your moods which can also affect your anxieties.

For me a lot of it was monotasking. Like I literally had a goal of "Watch more TV" because it was just doing ONE thing and not being on the internet doing six things at once (I literally stopped writing a blog post to answer this question) and it helped. Doing some things that are a little labor-intensive like yard work and/or cooking was also a good way to practice focusing.

Above all the most important part of me was trying to maintain a positive attitude. My anxiety really drove me towards being a perfectionist. And I liked that! Being tolerant that relaxed me actually is sometimes late to things (WHAT) and does work that might have a typo (AAAAA) or just brings a bag of chips to a party occasionally (STOP IT) has been one of the hardest things. Best of luck, you are doing the right things.
posted by jessamyn at 8:24 AM on July 8, 2018 [10 favorites]

I've found the technique of R.A.I.N. (recognize, allow, investigate, and non-identification/nurture) to be really helpful for learning how to sit with the anxiety. If you are ok with a Buddhist influenced take on it, Tara Brach offers R.A.I.N. focused resources, including guided meditations, that you may find helpful.
posted by jazzbaby at 8:27 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

- Exercise + Breathwork + Meditation.

At the end of a yoga class (exercise, breathing) you lie down for a meditation, the idea is that the exercise preps your body to relax. I used to hike a strenous hill/mountain, do a guided meditation at the top, then hike back down. Same concept.

- Guided Meditation w/ Binaural Beats!!!

- Regular professional massage might do this for you.

- Research float tank centers in your area!

- Supplements.

Magnesium, 5HTP, NAC, L-Glutamine, L-theanine (bolded because that one might be your jam!) and definitely find a bio-available iron supplement because if you tends towards anemia that will cause anxiety.

Exercise longterm will help balance your hormones and sometimes cure anxiety, but you should get your bloodwork checked.

Alcohol and pot don't help the next day, they just make it worse. This may also be interfering with your meds. If you have to choose one, choose pot. (Check with your doctor.)

That's it. You can see improvement maybe near immediately with some combo of Magnesium, Iron, L-Theanine, L-Glutamine, Vit C + Exercise.
posted by jbenben at 8:28 AM on July 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Doing something with my hands while consuming passive entertainment helps me stop both the distraction and the urge to reach for the phone. For me that's actually knitting, especially complicated lacy patterns.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding knitting while consuming entertainment. I find comedy very helpful and drama/action movies to be counter productive. Movies with sexism/racism/violence don’t help me relax. I try to screen for this kind of stuff before I sit down to watch.

Long term, I get a lot out of swing dancing. The physical exercise, the relatively brief connection with other people, the easy social acceptability of declining or asking for a dance. The things translate well for me as remindersnij other situations that rejection, while unpleasant, wont physically hurt me. I’m also a pretty bad dancer and it’s heloful for me to be reminded that almost nobody is watching me.

I did a long course of DBT therapy that was designed for survivors of trauma. DBT is a skills focused therapy with emphasis on mindfulness and emotion regulation, so it might be worth looking into.
posted by bilabial at 9:04 AM on July 8, 2018

Can you exercise outside, alone, without a screen. This may be a simple bridge to quiet time. So you can walk/jog/bike in science foe the joy of it. You're still doing something, but you're unfocused.
posted by Kalmya at 9:05 AM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I will say that definitely my phone/laptop has made a huge difference in life compared to before. I struggle a lot more now to just sit through a movie at home without pausing it to do other things or to read a book for long periods of time without stopping. i can't help you with the anxiety side of things but perhaps reducing screen time overall could really help your ability to focus on other things. And that's advice I really need to take myself.
posted by acidnova at 10:33 AM on July 8, 2018

I was part of a clinical trial where I got to try the Spire Stone for a week. It sits under your clothes and monitors your breathing, giving you a gentle vibration if it notices you're tense. It also hooks up to an app on your phone that visualises your breathing and helps you learn to calm yourself in realtime. I found it really helpful; it enabled me to notice the bodily feelings of anxiety building before they became overwhelming, and gave me a surprisingly reliable way to calm down quickly when anxious. If you feel like you might be a bit detached from your body's own signals that anxiety is building, or you find yourself distracted during relaxation exercises, thinking, "Am I calm yet? How about now?", the Spire might be a good option to try.
posted by embrangled at 11:33 AM on July 8, 2018

(I should add that the trial wasn't by Spire, it was through a local university where the investigator was looking into consumer devices that might help survivors of complex trauma maintain a mindfulness/relaxation practice. I tried a bunch of different things - EEG headsets and heart rate monitors and the like, and the Spire was the only one I would actually consider buying for myself).
posted by embrangled at 11:40 AM on July 8, 2018

nix the alcohol, but a toke or two won't hurt you.....
posted by patnok at 1:31 PM on July 8, 2018

Just wanted to add that a lot of supplements don’t play nice with psych meds. I don’t know what meds you’re on, but 5 HTP, rhodiola, St Johns Wort, and ashwaghanda are all serotogenic and contra indicated for use with psych meds. So please check with your dr before trying any.
posted by mermaidcafe at 2:08 PM on July 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was also going to suggest the knitting, either on its own or while watching TV or listening to a podcast or the radio or whatever. Something very simple that you can do absolutely at your own pace (i.e., no birthday deadlines or whatever!). Use a yarn that feels good against your fingers and looks beautiful to you. For me, it really "soaks up" some of the excess energy when I'm watching TV. You can't really rush it (much); you're just sitting down making simple repetitive gestures with something that is pleasing both tactilely and visually.
posted by praemunire at 2:09 PM on July 8, 2018

When I was in high school, I took a yoga class and learned progressive relaxation. Lying down, closed eyes, starting at my toes, consider each set of joints, consciously releasing tension from them with each exhalation of breath, moving up my body, do the arms, starting at fingers. Relax neck and shoulders, relax facial muscles, scalp. Some people tense muscle groups, then relax them. When I am super-tense, I can't do it. The answer to that is to exercise and be tired enough. I don't enjoy ambient/ New-Age style music, but very chill piano jazz works for me if I'm not up for silence. This practice gets easier with repetition.

My hyper-cerebration - racing thoughts - and the OCD that took years to recognize are worse these days, so I need to re-learn this technique. One of my coping mechanisms for racing thoughts is to build my ideal house in my mind. Some other thought challenge would work as well.
posted by theora55 at 5:01 PM on July 8, 2018

I can’t stand meditating for the sake of it, but find that I end *up* meditating accidentally thanks to the repetitive breathing and rhythm of 1) swimming and 2) walking, specifically outside, ideally in a green space or near a body of water (both of which have calming properties of their own). Pace should be steady, duration about an hour (LISS cardio vs intervals etc).
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:14 PM on July 8, 2018

Seconding Cotton Dress Sock's recommendation for repetitive, preferably outdoor exercise. Long, long solitary bike rides with an audio book or a podcast are amazing for getting you out of your head. Ditto swimming.

Definitely try a physical activity that requires focus and deep breathing like yoga, but don't beat yourself up if it just doesn't 'take' with you. I also find powerlifting (with a coach - look out for powerlifting clubs near you) and pilates to be similarly calming. Just any activity where you really need to deeply focus on your body and breathing.

Try going without alcohol for a bit. I stopped drinking late last year after I realised that alcohol - even one glass of wine - was a major anxiety trigger. The really shitty thing about anxiety is that anxiety begets anxiety, so if anything is keying up your body it's going to make it worse and worse. Dropping the alcohol has made a really major difference to my anxiety levels, so it might be worth a shot for you! Give yourself a fighting chance against the anxiety.
posted by nerdfish at 11:13 PM on July 8, 2018

This goes a little counter to the usual wisdom. It may work wonderfully for some and terribly for others; YMMV.

During very anxious periods, I play audio in the background while I'm doing a lot of things (podcasts, audiobooks, audio dramas, etc.). Choose an audio type that's easy to dip in & out of. Something you can half pay attention to but which is still engaging enough to keep you from following your own train of thought. Music isn't distracting enough for me.

Like you, I do better when I'm engaged. Tasks where there's nothing to focus on, like showering or walking or laundry, tend to give my thoughts too much space to turn into thought spirals I can't get out of. Distracting myself during these "vulnerable" periods gives me more mental spoons during the rest of the day. That way, when I sit down to focus on something I really want to do/watch/read, I can, because I haven't spent all day battling an exhausting thought spiral.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to be present and alone with my thoughts all the time — but when your anxiety is out of control, the prospect of straight up meditating, or even going for a walk in silence, might be too much. Distraction isn't a long-term solution, but judicious use can be helpful, and can help loosen the grip of constant racing thoughts; think of this as a sort of stepping-stone on the path as you continue treatment.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 1:03 AM on July 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

What you say about wanting to be able to engage with literature and art resonates with me in that I get anxious about not being busy or productive; and that's more about the core sources of anxiety (i.e. what is it I'm scared to look at in myself if I ever just stop and breathe) - I don't know where you are with that. And sometimes, honestly, it takes the right med to make all the difference. Anyway. Yeah, just sitting/breathing doesn't work, but I find more bodily methods surprisingly helpful: weighted objects, holding (this grounds you), and tapping (this helps you to process what's making you anxious). (These are trauma oriented ideas, but they basically work by telling your body to stop freaking out, and I think anxiety works in the same physiological pathways.)
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 7:09 PM on July 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

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