I often refer to anxiety and depression in a single breath but the two are vastly different… as are the tools I use to manage each condition. Keep reading to find what’s in my Mental Health Toolkit and how I respond to experiences of anxiety and depression.
What exactly is anxiety?
While there are many types of anxiety disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder is defined by Black Dog Institute as “overwhelming and persistent worry about several or many things that make it hard to function in your everyday life”.
What if I can’t deliver the project on time? … OMG, I’m going to get fired! … How will I pay the mortgage? … Would I survive if I were homeless? … Maybe I should update my CV before I go to sleep. Just. In. Case.
Without wanting to trivialise the experience of anxiety, it’s as if the cast and crew of a day-time television show set up shop inside your head. They work around the clock, filming one dramatic installment after another.
For me, anxiety makes itself known to me via the physical sensations of tightness in the chest, restricted breathing, lightheadedness and hot flushes. Caught up in repetitive thoughts and feelings, and future tripping, I feel detached from my body, irritable and ‘on edge’.
When I feel this way, I crack open my Mental Health Toolkit. These are the tools and techniques I rely on to manage anxiety:
When I’m anxious, my breath is typically short, sharp and high in the chest; over-breathing or hyperventilation causes a build-up of CO2 in the body. So, rather than trying to make my inhalation deeper, I focus on extending and lengthening the exhalation by a count or two (eg. inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6). Slow, deep breathing increases the circulation of oxygen, stimulates the relaxation response and improves the body’s response to stress.
If I’m super anxious, don’t ask me to sit in silence. My body and mind need to be coaxed towards stillness, which is where guided meditation comes in handy. Try this deeply restorative Yoga Nidra meditation like the one below.
Just as I find guided meditation soothing, nothing beats being guided through a restorative yoga practice. But, most of the time, I just lay on the floor and sling my legs over the edge of the bed or couch. My body (or my schedule) lets me know when time’s up. I also focus on stretching my upper back as this is the area I tend to hold most of my tension. If this sounds like you, check out my guide to Yoga for Neck, Shoulders & Upper Back.
Connecting with Mother Nature
Walking barefoot, especially on grass or sand is really grounding. Even when I used to work in the city, I’d seek out a patch of grass at lunch, kick off my shoes and reconnect with Mother Nature. Being a water sign (Scorpio), I also find being in or near water calms and replenishes me.
Grounding foods and drinks
When I’m seeking to manage anxiety, a hot cup of homemade masala chai, full of nourishing herbs and spices is my elixir. Roasted root vegetables, nuts and seeds are also grounding… basically, anything that comes from the earth or a tree.
Calming, grounding essential oils
I practise abhyanga (self-massage) with a combination of ayurvedic oils, sweet almond oil and essential oils such as lavender, vetiver, cedarwood and frankincense to manage anxiety.
This really should be #1 on everyone’s list of priorities. To thrive, I need 8-9 hours good quality sleep and I’m not embarrassed to admit that, 99% of the time, I’m in bed by 8/8.30pm and asleep by 9pm. I call it ‘sleeping in on the other side’.
Stay close to home
When I’m feeling anxious, crowds just make things worse. I say no or cancel plans where I’ll be out late, in a crowd or bombarded by stimuli (shopping malls, noisy bars, large gatherings).
According to Ayurvedic wisdom, anxiety is associated with vata imbalance (click here to learn more about vata) so the tools I use to pacify my nervous system and help me feel in control are all slow and very grounding in nature.
What is depression, then?
Depression, on the other hand, is a persistent low mood that I liken to an ominous, dark cloud that shows no sign of dissipating. Some days I feel intense sadness, other days I feel hopeless and alone. Mostly, I just feel numb. Some days I am highly functional, other days depression interferes with my ability to do the most basic things like showering or exercising. On those days, everything just feels too hard. It’s like my boots are made of lead.
When I feel this heavy, sinking taking hold, these are the things I prioritise to manage my experience of depression:
Getting up early
Tempting as it is, I find sleeping too long exacerbates depressed feelings. I set my alarm for around 6am and do my best to resist the snooze button.
Vitamin D and Vitamin Nature
I practice a more invigorating style of yoga or forgo yoga entirely for high-intensity workouts. I want to get my heart racing and build up a sweat. I want to feel alive!
Listening to upbeat music, mantras and podcasts
This is no time for soul-sucking anthems; bouncy, feel-good vibes only! And, while it may not be your cup of tea, chanting sacred mantras in the car ensures I arrived at my destination uplifted. If I’m not in the mood to sing, I’ll listen to an inspiring podcast. Not only am I inspired and reassured by the obstacles other people surmount, but it feels like I am part of a conversation without the pressure to contribute (or get dressed!).
Fresh, prana-filled foods
You know, foods that were once alive! Fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables, including loads of leafy greens. This goes hand-in-hand with reducing processed foods and things I can easily over consume or numb-out on like alcohol or chocolate.
Compliance with medication
Compliance and consistency may seem too mundane to include in this list but it’s critical when it comes to anti-depressants. Keeping my prescription medication and supplements on the kitchen counter provides a visual reminder and lessens the likelihood I’ll forget.
Magnesium plays an important role in the body but, due to changes in agriculture and diet, most adults are deficient. Benefits include both increased energy and relaxation (confusing, huh!), relief from muscular aches and pains, and decreased inflammation. Some studies have also shown magnesium to be helpful in treating depression. I get it any which way I can via supplements, warm magnesium sulphate baths and topically applying magnesium oil.
Uplifting essential oils
Basically, any kind of citrus works like a charm: bergamot, wild orange, lemon and tangerine essential oils are my favourite mood enhancers.
I book in for a massage and demand extra cuddles from Luigi (who am I kidding… I lay on the floor and rub his belly). Dog’s are man’s best friend AND the best natural medicine you can get your hands on.
Celebrating the small victories
Yes, getting out of bed counts! And brushing your teeth earns you BONUS POINTS! As Bo Forbes, psychologist, yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Emotional Balance emphasises, subtle practices can have a tremendous impact over time. It’s not about immediate results and instant healing!
Understanding the need for gradual, progressive change, the importance of incremental healing, and the delay between actual change and felt change can help you stick with these subtle, healing practices, even if you’re not sure they’re working. – Bo Forbes
Can you see a pattern? So as not to reinforce the feelings of depression, I try to do things that stimulate the opposite feelings. It isn’t always easy. In fact, it rarely is. But it works for me. Keep in mind that depression doesn’t look one way, which means what works for me may not work for you.
If you find yourself having intense, sad or depressed feelings for longer than two weeks, and they start to affect the way you’re living life, it’s important to get help.
Tell a friend
Choose someone you trust and let them know you’re not doing so well.
If they ask how they can support you, let them know what you need. Perhaps it’s having someone who is willing and able to answer the phone at any hour of the day when you’re having suicidal feelings. Maybe it’s having someone cook you a meal or drive your kids to school. It may be as simple as sending you a text once a week to let you know you’re not alone.
Visit your GP
I’ve developed a good relationship with my GP and have no qualms about walking into her room and breaking down in tears. She has provided support through the highs and lows, and is open to exploring a range of treatment options. It took me a few tries to find the right GP so, if you don’t feel supported, try someone else.
You’ll notice Mother Nature has a big role to play in mental wellness.
Consciously or not, humans instinctively crave connection with nature and the benefits, such as stress reduction, focus and productivity, are backed up by research. This tendency is known as biophilia.
When we go back and spend more time in nature, we realise how good it makes us feel. We remember that we don’t actually need material possessions to make us happy. The good feelings we get when spending time outdoors cannot be topped by anything we can buy off the shelves. – Dr Mahdi Mason, Earth Healing
Whether it’s essential oils, fresh food, supplements or just getting outside, there are plenty of ways to connect with nature.