Whether it's stress, anxiety, depression, anger, existential dread -- we all know what it's like to be maxed out on all.the.feelings™. I have found over the years there are a few things that can help me when I feel I'm on the edge and I'm really just not looking to go down into that particular precipice.
The first thing that I think is most important is to simply give yourself permission to feel the things you are feeling, and take the space and time you need. You don't need to suppress the feelings, hide them, pretend you're not going through something. You are allowed to not be okay. You are not weak, less-than or pity-able for experiencing all.the.feelings™, whatever they may be.
Anything beyond that equals major bonus points. Here are some of the things I have learned to do when I've realized that I'm in a shaky head space, I've come to terms with that reality, and I want to move through it in some way.
Take Space Away.
If you need to be on your own, then do it. It's not selfish. You have permission to turn off your phone, or to let messages, calls, texts etc wait until you're ready to communicate. Of course, if space and time is what you need right now, it's best to communicate that need to your partner, ideally in as a calm a manner as possible.
This method of coping sometimes also makes me a little annoyed, at least at first. Why am I fucking cleaning right now? Am I not just entitled to live in a neat, tidy and clean environment? That's my angsty, stressed brain talking. Once things start to calm down a little bit, I remind myself that cleanliness is a whole-household affair, and one that every single member plays a role in -- including the various fur-children. Everyone has a different level of what constitutes as clean and tidy, and also has a different barometer for how important being clean and tidy is to them. This is something I struggle with a lot, if you couldn't tell. The only times I fantasize about living alone are when I'm pissed about cleaning.
That aside, cleaning is seriously one of the first things I do when I'm getting all worked up. In fact, sometimes I will find myself scurrying around tidying, doing loads of laundry and washing dishes and I'm all like, "Wuh oh, what's going on? What's wrong? Time to check in with myself here, apparently."
Why do I clean if it sometimes also annoys me? I think it gives me some sense, however minor, of having control over my environment, and by proxy, my life. Also, I know that I just feel better when things are more organized and clean in my home. I can breathe a little deeper, calm down a little more, and know that a small measure of the chaos has been settled down.
Cooking and baking are two things I really enjoy, but find that I make less and less time for these days. So, when I'm starting to feel overwhelmed, this is one of my go-tos. Yesterday when I was losing it to all.the.feelings™ I cleaned the kitchen (see above) and then went about baking two loaves of bread and starting some mango chickpea curry on the stove.
What's interesting about this is I think it perfectly illustrates the two reasons I love cooking: taking care of myself and taking care of others.
I made my favorite Vermont Honey Oat loaf, which was the very first loaf of bread my friend taught me how to make years ago, when I had just graduated college but hadn't left town yet. It's an amazing sweet and hearty loaf of bread that reminds me of that beautiful time hanging out with good friends and learning something new. It also happens to be my wife's absolutely favorite bread recipe, and I always know she's going to be happy when she walks in the door and smells the wafts of warm slightly cinnamon-y bread.
Now, the mango chickpea curry? That was 100% all for me. And, I think there's something equally beautiful in taking the time and care to make food that only I will enjoy. It's literally self-care, cause it's all for myself. I often won't make meals like curries or recipes with mushrooms, peppers or any host of other ingredients my wife doesn't like because it's kind of silly to make multiple dishes for one meal. So, when I go ahead and do it, just for me, it feels absolutely the right kind of indulgent. And in this case it's a healthy, vegetarian meal to boot. Win win.
this is a different loaf of bread. but I like to bake. you get the idea.
Work In The Garden.
I wish there was a way for me to garden all year round. I'm certain if I could baby some plants and raise some veg in the dead of winter my SAD wouldn't be nearly so bad. Then again with climate change and the end of the world approaching, anything is possible, right? Ok. I digress.
Have a decent sized yard in our new home has afforded me the absolutely glorious privilege of having an equally decent sized garden and I find it immeasurably challenging, fun and comforting. Having a task to accomplish every single day is a good thing for me. Having a way to engage with nature every single time I step outside of my house is even better.
it's a work in progress.
I'm trying more and more to be intentional in the ways I engage with my gardening when I'm in a struggling space. When I'm struggling I tend to get wrapped up in my head, and sometimes disassociate from my physical self. Here are some ways I try to connect through all my senses:
- See - Seeing and hearing are the most straight-forward senses in the garden. As soon as I walk out that door, or even walk up to a window, I'm hearing the birds chirping away and seeing all the flowers and seedlings. But, further engaging in my physical self and environment means also trying to practice the art of noticing. Observing more closely. Noticing different plants, how seedlings have grown and changed.
- Hear - There are a cacophony of sounds in my garden. We live on the main street in our small but densely populated old coal town. So, there are lots of people sounds to distract me. Instead of focusing on that, I try to listen most closely to the birds, which literally flock to our yard, since we have one of the few green spaces in the immediate area with significantly more biodiversity. I try to identify the different bird calls, what kind of bird is that and where is it? I try to listen to insects, and the wind in the leaves of the red maple.
- Smell - This is another pretty easy one, minus my pollen allergies. Smelling flowers is an immediate reward for all the backbreaking work of gardening. Why oh why do I do all this super hard work? Oh my gosh I'm exhausted blah bleh blah -- oh my what's that glorious smell? Second only to smelling the flowers is smelling the herbs I grow, especially the basil and the lavender. I have a chunk of oregano that's grown into a massive bush, which I get to harvest from every single day because, again, it's massive.
- Taste - And when I pick those herbs, you better belief I much on 'em, too. But, mostly, I like to snack my way through the veggie garden. There's nothing like a 1000% fresh cherry tomato popped right off the vine. Or a petite sweet pea. Or a leaf of baby spinach. Bonus points if it just rained and everything is freshly washed for you.
- Touch - My garden is full of so many different textures. Soft lambs ear. Prickly artichokes & globe thistle. Waxy sedum. Velvety sage & lavender. But there is also touching and working with the soil itself. Soil is kindof magical stuff. And there are tiny microbes in that soil that actually work like antidepressants. Not kidding. So, every day that I get to dig in the ground, plant out plants I grew from seed, work with my hands and my body in that way, I feel very accomplished and happy, but, in a very real way, I'm also getting a dose of happiness. Yes please.
Go For A Walk.
I feel very lucky that walking is built into my schedule 3 to 4 times every single day. I have to walk, because my dog Joanna has to walk. And, there's something really positive in that structured time, because for me at least, physically moving through space when you're trying to move through a quagmire of shit in your mind can be productive. I'm changing my environment, which can help my brain shift the connections it's making, and maybe break the repeating thought-cycle.
Plus just going outside and being in nature has never, ever failed to make me feel at least a tiny bit better. My favorite places to walk are either on a trail near our house along a river (we always see animals during the evening walks: beavers, foxes, ducks, herons) or also near our house, through a wood and a little wetland. Sometimes I prefer to be alone on these walks. Othertimes it's nice to walk with my wife. Always with my dog.
Listen To Soothing Music.
Soothing music for me is typically my Classical Solo Piano station on Pandora. Classical or meditative music has always been a resource for easing my state of mind. I was probably the only middle schooler burning incense, blasting George Winston and cleaning my room.
I used to listen to angsty music when I was feeling angsty, but I avoid that now like a shark in the water when I'm on my period. Why tempt it?
Watch Something Immersive And Comforting.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is disengage. And if I'm gonna disengage then I want to do it with something that's going to make me feel something better than what I'm otherwise feeling in the moment. So, that means either one of my favorite feel-good movies (even if they're guilty pleasures) or something that's going to 100% distract me (again, even if it's a guilty pleasure like Fixer Upper. Cringe.)
I think this is helpful because sometimes your brain just need a break from all the things before you're ready to circle back and start to process what's wrong and what you might want to do about it.
A non-guilty pleasure? Gardeners World. Or an allotment tour like Homegrown Garden.
Drink Lots Of Tea With Honey.
This is another one of those seeking comfort things. Also similar to picking herbs in the garden. It engages my senses, keeps me hydrated (good if I've also been crying, which happens ridiculously easily) and makes me feel like I'm taking care of myself. I like tea. Honey is good too, especially if it's raw and local. Double check on the indulgent factor.
Earl Grey is my favorite. Chai is my second favorite. I'll sometimes indulge in a fruity blend, because I'm fancy.
Write In A Journal.
I used to journal daily when I was in high school and even early on in college. It was something that helped me process all my thoughts and feelings, and hella impressed my therapist. I tried to end every entry with 3 good things I could say about that day, even if they were minor. It was a positive way to end the night. I don't do that so much anymore, I guess because I'm way more worried about someone else reading my adult concerns than my adolescent ones, and I feel a little ridiculous writing in a diary. But I will say that on the occasions where I have felt really at a loss, and totally maxed out over the past 6 months, I have turned to writing in a journal every time. It's like a confessional, getting out the things you are kind of thinking but not sure you really 100% feel, just so you can think about it and process it without uttering the words to someone else. Maybe you're not ready to say them, or maybe you don't actually mean them in the first place. Either way you need to find out.
I don't really advocate reading your past journals. At least I avoid mine like the plague and am pretty positive I will burn them all in a large sacrifice to the sun before the planet explodes in flames anyways, thank you climate change. Seriously, I find my youthful journal entries embarrassing to a traumatic degree. Another way to deal with that, I guess, is to just burn the entry right after you write it. I used to write letters to myself, or to other people, and then burn them afterwords as a way of letting go. I was a seriously angsty teen. You probably already got that.
Take A Shower.
Realistically, this is probably my most often employed coping mechanism for pretty much everything that is ever wrong. Feeling sick? Take a shower. Anxious? Shower. Headache? Shower. Don't like anyone in the entire world and ready to start screaming? Oh yes, get thee to a shower and stat.
It's not water wise or really good for my skin, but there you have it. Running water and essential oil soap calms me the fuck down. When I was having panic attacks in grad school, I'd take multiple showers a day. Sometimes my wife would just hold my hand. One time she got in the shower with me fully clothed. She's committed. It might have happened more than once.
Take A Nap.
I am not a good napper. My brain doesn't typically like to slow down after it's entered overdrive. But, I have found that if I can do the following things, sleep is possible and absolutely everything is better after even just a little more sleep:
- Darken the room. Lined blackout curtains are an absolute must.
- Turn on a noise barrier. We have a kinda loud fan in the hallway for exactly this reason and we turn it on every single night. It keeps me from waking up in the night thinking I've heard something scary, and also means that every time I hear it turn on, it signals sleepy time to my brain.
- Lower the temperature. Even if I feel guilty about the electricity usage and non-eco-friendly aspects of AC, I turn it on if the bedroom is warm.
- Get into comfortable, clean clothes, because I've probably already showered (see above).
- Close the door, because my brain already wants to keep going, and will cling to any distraction I feed it.
- Turn on an audio book that I always listen to when I need to sleep, which I find comforting, immersive, and fully know the plot of, so I'm not going to stay awake trying to pay attention. For me, this is Harry Potter. I'm no longer embarrassed to admit that. In fact, there have been plenty of nights where I have only gotten to sleep because of the Harry Potter audio book series. When I was in college & grad school I tried to listen to sleep meditations. They helped a tiny bit. Harry Potter is way better.
So, there you have it, 10 things I typically do when I am having all.the.feelings™ and somehow need to cope.
Full disclosure - I had written half of this blog post yesterday and then lost it, because apparently I am beyond the ability of saving my working drafts or I have reached such a level of dependence on Google Docs that I forgot that not every platform has an auto save feature. UGH.
Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.