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5 Little Things That Could Help With Anxiety

They helped mine; maybe they'll help yours, too.

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Hey team! I'm Alanna, and I am a fairly anxious person.

Alanna Okun / Via my old folder of photobooth selfies

It comes in waves: Some days and weeks and months are totally fine, but then it all comes crashing down on me. I start to spiral about a relationship or a conversation that happened at work, and the next thing I know I'm dry-heaving over my bathroom sink. (It took me a long time to realize these were, in fact, panic attacks, and not the result of sketchy takeout.)

Part of what makes dealing with it so tiring is the reaction I have to my reactions. I get frustrated with myself for letting relatively small things get to me like this, for letting my vague (and mostly wrong) predictions about the future ruin my present so handily. I tell myself to be better, and when I can't, I feel even more helpless. And that means even more anxiety! The human brain is a rich tapestry.

But in the past few years, I've found a couple of things that do help. They're small, mostly, just little mechanisms that help pull me out of the sludgy fever of my mind for long enough to get back on track. They don't fix or cure anything, and they're no replacement for the therapist I see every other week. (Shoutout to Dr. K.) Above all they remind me that I live in the world, not in my head, and that I've made it to the other side of my imagined catastrophes enough times already that I probably will again.

1. Pacifica, an anxiety-regulating app for iOS and Android — free to download with additional in-app purchases

Alanna Okun

A version of this review appeared in our first ever Things We Tried post.

When I wake up in the morning, I grab my phone and swipe through, in order: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, work email, personal email, and now this lil guy. It’s so simple — you can record and track your mood over time using a series of preset descriptors, practice a meditative breathing exercise, and set goals for your emotional health. There’s also a physical health tab (with categories like sleeping, eating, and drinking) where you can record how well you’re treating the husk that carries your brain around.

The app itself is free, and so are the health and mood trackers, but in order to have full access (which includes 22 relaxation exercises and the ability to customize your health tracker) you have to upgrade for $5.99 a month or $35.99 for the year. It’s truly mind-boggling how long it took me to pony up for full access because, like, I spend several dozen times more than that on therapy and booze every month?

I like looking at the map of my brainscape over the past months and having a record of the highs and lows; usually the lows feel so big and dramatic that it’s actually comforting to realize what a relatively small percentage of my life they comprise.

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2. Acquiring a pet.

Sarah Kobos

I've written about my unexpected German snail before, and he's been puttering along just fine for the intervening eight months. He is now about twice as big as when I first got him, made fat on a yuppie diet of CSA vegetables. I feed him every other day, clean out his jar once a week, and let him ooze around on the kitchen counter about as often as I remember and want to hang out. Sometimes we take selfies. Mostly he naps.

So really it's more like owning a quasi-active plant than an actual capital-P Pet, but having something to care for helps get me outside of my own human-sized perspective. My snail provides me with a perpetual series of tasks to complete, and while they're easy, they're also imperative to his survival. And so I can't put them off the way I do with so much else (laundry, dishes, half-finished drafts), too anxious about order and perfection to let myself begin. Just the small act of cutting up a cucumber or running a paper towel around the jar lid is enough to prop the door open for other, bigger things I have to do: cleaning the bathroom, feeding myself, replying to a difficult email, starting a project I'm not sure will go well.

Maybe this could work for you with a succulent or a cat; for me, it's a snail.

3. Stress Doctor, another app available on both iOS and Android — $4.99

Alanna Okun

I also reviewed this app — the only other one I've used consistently and truly found helpful.

When panic attacks are imminent, I use Stress Doctor. A wonderful friend recommended it after I described the nausea and shortness of breath that creeps up on me whenever I need it the least.

It’s a simple exercise that functions almost as a game. You put your finger over your phone camera in order to track your heartbeat (witchcraft!) and try to match it with the rise and fall of your breath. The app tells you when you’re doing well by rewarding you with these little sideways yin-yangs. It logs your progress over time and there’s a section where you can add notes for context. (I never do, so I’m always left wondering what, exactly, it was that made my heart go so raggedly on April 9.)

Just knowing the app is there makes me feel so much more in control, a lot like the single prescription Xanax I keep in my backpack; not long ago I was at drinks with a friend and felt an attack starting to come on. I pulled out the app right there at the table and started my breathing. I did not win any little yin-yangs, but I did manage to swallow the panic and also most of a beer.

4. Puzzles 'n' games, preferably pocket-sized.

There is always a right answer, or at least a way through to the other side. Just like life! Hahahahahahha!!

My favorite phone game right now is this fairly good free cribbage app; I say "fairly" because either I am dumb or you can't listen to music/podcasts while the app is open, which is annoying when I have to choose which mindless activity I would rather indulge in while the subway is stuck underground and I am trying to crowd out thoughts of my own impending death/inexcusable lateness. But I suppose that does make me focus on the game (which, whether you are a fan of already or not, you should read about in this lovely Hairpin essay) and above all, it provides me with a collection of miniature obstacles and bite-size triumphs. It's a welcome pattern and set of rules to follow for a minute when the rest of the world feels chaotic.

The same goes for more narrative games (the Zelda and Pokémon franchises will forever have my heart and wallet), which I play on a red Nintendo 3DS, and which let me feel, if only for a few minutes, like I get to be the protagonist in my own life.

5. Making stuff.

Alanna Okun

Hold up: there's a strong chance that right now you're like "Ugh, Alanna, I am not going to buy a snail nor a Game Boy nor am I going to sit down and make a CRAFT when the last thing I made was a half-assed friendship bracelet at Camp Idontwannadoit." BUT there are so many ways creativity can manifest — in photography, writing, doodling, baking, exploring, and yeah, the craftier stuff as well. What matters is the physicality, and the repetition, and the sense that even if you can't solve the big snarling problems taking bites out of your brain, you can at least solve this tiny one right in front of you. It's also a great way to occupy your hands if you're prone, like I am, to picking or pulling or any other compulsive behaviors.

And I know these embroideries seem wicked negative, so backstory from this Community post: I made them during a heightened period of anxiety, when I noticed that the same anti-mantras kept swirling around and around in my head. Usually I would try to ignore or outrun them, but that usually just made them louder. To combat this, I decided to try and control them with embroidery (as one does). Spending an hour or two stitching a sentence — bringing it into the physical world however you choose — is one of the most efficient ways to realize how little power those words really have. (Not to mention how contradictory they are — how can I be too much and not enough at the same time? Anxiety is super dumb.)

This method might not work for everyone but now when one of my toxic strings of words worms its way back into my head, I can at least picture it in my own handwriting instead of as a terrifying shapeless mass.

I always love to hear about what's helped other people with their own anxiety — feel free to leave a comment, and maybe we'll feature it in an upcoming post.

And to learn more about depression and anxiety, check out the resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here and here.

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