Not to brag, but I’ve always been a nervous creature. From a very young age I’ve curated fears the way my peers cultivated hobbies. At various points my phobia playlist had in rotation: swallowing pills, turning on the stove, fireworks, dogs, and speaking to people who were not in my immediate family.
As humans we naturally grow more wary and cautious with age. It’s biology. Things that didn’t faze us then faze us now: heights, dying, milk chocolate. You get the existential picture. But I’ve always been a rebel, a hipster of fear. I was scared before it was trending. Imagine my surprise, then, when the November 2016 election results descended on all of us like Stephen King’s The Mist and suddenly I found myself surrounded by liberal-bubble peers freaking out at a level I could only acknowledge as, well, deeply familiar. “Hey,” I thought. “Welcome to the neighborhood! Jump into the hot tub — the water’s freezing!” Despite my slight resentment of this mental gentrification, I did my best to show folks around. Unfortunately, it did not turn out to be a temporary fad in the vein of drop-crotch onesies. Anxiety has decided it’s feeling downright zeitgeisty these days. In fact, for 2019, I’m working on tackling my newest fear: maintaining follow-up eye contact after the initial eye contact with a new acquaintance.
So what can be done? I wish there were a magic formula for Netflix and chilling your way through the panic and horror that is being a living, breathing human right now. Though, hey, there is always The Great British Bake Off for a temporary scone haze. But realistically speaking (I know, I know, we are living in a post-reality era, but still), I would encourage you to follow the principles my fear tries to “accidentally” make me forget. These are simple, no-frills strategies, like being present and showing up for what you can, like your work and your friends and your trivia night and your cat. Limit your phone time and consumption of Internet content, whether that’s social media, the 24-hour news cycle, or both. Our smartphones now feel like baby monitors that we should constantly be checking, but they can quickly turn into triggers for feelings of fear, isolation, sadness, despair, helplessness, anger, and frustration. Make time to see people in person, even if that’s just choosing to video chat versus texting — it can make a huge difference. Get involved with your community, whether that’s on a micro or a macro level. Donate to an organization that’s doing important work, like Planned Parenthood, RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), or the International Rescue Committee. Or volunteer to be a Big Brother or Sister, or sign up at a phone bank to get people registered to vote. There’s no shortage of ways to get out of your own head.
I have tried to follow many of the things on this list myself, to varying degrees of effectiveness. But when all else fails, I have found that rubbing a dog’s belly is a great solution. I am also not too proud to say I have resorted to YouTubing “the sound of a waterfall.” Oh, and I’ve noticed that doing very basic things like drinking enough water and exercising can be very helpful self-care. And I almost forgot! I’ve been regularly coloring in a coloring book full of dogs that my friend got me, and I’ve broken pretty much each and every tip of my colored pencils, but that just means it’s working.
Lastly, you can make friends with your own head. Everyone is prequalified to go to therapy, start a regular practice of meditation or mindfulness, write in a journal, or mentally take a few breaths every so often (focus on the exhale part). Often the root cause of anxiety is feeling as if you should be prepared for the worst, but that’s no excuse to stop living the best you can. Anxiety might not always feel like your friend, but at the very least it’s a frenemy. It means well, but so do you, and right now, you’re busy buying new succulents.
For more stories like this, pick up the January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec. 7.