If there’s one thing that has always bothered me a great deal about myself, it’s anxiety. I am an anxious person – probably extremely anxious. And this anxiety is compounded by the fact that I run a business where we organize conferences once every two months. Given the nature of my job, my body is on an emergency response clock all the time. I am hassled and worried about every small detail that goes into producing a conference.
Last year, my anxiety levels reached a stage where I wasn’t able to sleep at night. The dreams I had at night when I was (wakefully) asleep were all about event-related tasks — clearing pending bills for vendors, completing unfinished tasks after an event was over and things to do for upcoming events.
The lack of sleep bothered me a great deal. Why wasn’t I able to sleep? I finally consulted the psychotherapist who knew about my situation. He suggested getting on anti-depressants. That’s when the alarm bells in my head went ringing — I realised I had to learn to deal with my situation before it got out of hand.
I didn’t want to take to anti-depressants. I needed to work on my body and mind in order to deal with my situation. Here are a bunch of things I have been doing since almost a year now to cope with anxiety.
Among the things the psychotherapist said to me during that visit one year ago, the one that stuck in my head was “reduce carbohydrates.” I recognized that the foods I ate had a direct correlation to my anxiety. Sweets and rice added to my anxious state. Coffee wired me up even more. Switching to eating vegetables with high water content and drinking more water helped slow down my body. Basically, the trick to cope with anxiety is to slow down. Slowing down means working with my mind and body to periodically take a step back and relax, rather than react to situations and persons.
Reactions feed anxiety. Reactions need not always be mental and verbal. Drinking coffee ‘habitually’ as a ‘reaction’ to staying alert is fodder for anxiety. Reducing the intake of carbohydrates — especially the intake of sugar — helped me enormously. Later, I realized that avoiding fried foods in the week leading up to a conference is a great way to be less worked-up. Not only did I lose a lot of the weight I had gained during the early ‘startup’ years and post-pregnancy, my body began to feel better and lighter. This had a positive impact on my self-esteem and helped me decouple some of the habit patterns that fuelled my anxiety.
Sleep is the most important cure for any ailment. For most part of 2015, I barely had more than four to five hours of sleep. I recognized that giving my body at least seven to eight hours of sleep was critical to declutter my mind and therefore my body. Lack of sleep — especially with a breast-fed one-year old who won’t sleep through the night — was one of the primary reasons for my weight gain. If I didn’t sleep enough, I was sluggish throughout the day. The sluggishness made me eat anything that charged my body. Eating anything added to the highs and lows underlying anxiety. I had to (un)learn to sleep without feeling the guilt that I wasn’t attending to important tasks at hand.
Which brings me to the point that many a times, the tasks that I felt were important to attend to were important only in the scheme of my emergency response habit. My ‘natural’ reaction to an incoming email or message was to respond immediately even when the situation did not always warrant an immediate response. I had to unlearn how to stop responding, and to prioritize my task queues. One part of the unlearning was to switch off my phone from time to time and reduce notifications. I noticed that the moment I received a message — email, Whatsapp, Telegram, you name it — my body felt a sense of alert. I had to reduce the sources of alerting my body, and prime my body to be alert only when there was a real situation.
On that note, I also learned that I have to lower expectations of myself. I have to learn to let go when a task is not fully complete in a day. I have to reduce the number of tick marks I expect myself to put in a day to that checklist. I have to stop adding items to each day’s checklist. I learned how to break a problem down into smaller tasks when I was stuck with situations that bothered me. Overall, reducing expectations of myself contributed most immensely in helping me become aware of the mental aspects of my anxiety.
Following from #4, I took a fairly strong position against multitasking. I recognized that in my quest to become a superwoman, I was always multitasking. But multitasking was becoming a huge source of my anxiety in that if I wasn’t able to complete all the tasks I was juggling with at the same time, I was frustrating myself and increasing expectations of myself. Whereas, completing a single task – slowly and deliberately – meant I was allowing myself the space and time to be more focussed and therefore feel more fulfilled by the end. It is for this reason that I now strongly oppose the stereotype that ‘women are more productive (members of the workforce) because they can multitask’. It is not by nature that we multitask — it is by the role we occupy as caretakers and bearers of responsibility (owing to our socio-cultural conditioning) that we multitask (much to our detriment).
I also began exercising to help my body release anxiety through cardiovascular activities. While running initially helped me release the stress through sweat, two months down the line I realized that setting time and pace goals was equal to increasing my expectations of myself. By then, I also recognized the need for working on my muscles. I have said this repeatedly — muscles store emotional energies. Muscles are among the first to respond to stress and anxiety. Therefore, strengthening the muscles and working on them to release the tension and stress is critical. For a couple of months, I gave up on running and focussed on strength training.
Last, but not the least, I have recognized the value of shutting off from the world and learning to let go. A large part of my anxiety was driven by the fact that I was holding on to far too much – at work, in relationships and in my expectations of myself. (Un)Learning to let go has been difficult but important from the point of view of making space within myself to enable openness for new experiences. Moments of quiet, silence and peace are also important to become aware – in the everyday noise – when my body is starting to pace up and get agitated. This awareness goes a long way in slowing down the body and not succumbing to the habitual patterns of anxiety.
I am certainly far less stressed than I used to be. I am not completely free of anxiety, but I do know when I am getting worked up. My work and personal relations have improved a fair bit. There is still a lot of work to do – emotionally and mentally – but the most satisfaction I have felt is lowering expectations of myself so that I can free my mind of clutter and open myself to new experiences and journeys.
Zainab Bawa is the co-founder of HasGeek. This post was first published here.
Images used for representational purposes only.