Two weeks ago, I shared the news that I have been dealing with some pretty intense anxiety on a daily basis. In that same post, I asked if you had any recommendations for audiobooks or podcasts on the subject of meditation. I had concluded that slowing down and breathing more would be the solution to this problem, and I wanted to collect data and insight from all of you, so I could map out a plan to get back to my normal self as quickly as possible. Yes, I can see the oxymoron in that statement: I knew I would have to slow down, but I wanted to do it right away and get it over with. (More on this later.)
The first piece of advice I took was to listen to my friend Brooke McAlary’s interviews with Kevin Janks. I will admit that I was secretly praying I would find a story of someone who had gone through exactly what I was going through. (Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for, to some degree? To make that connection and feel like you’re not alone?) So, at first, I was disappointed because I couldn’t quite relate to his story about where he thought his anxiety stemmed from. In fact, it made me wonder what the heck I had to be anxious about. I don’t have a high-stress job or demanding clients or anything like that. My tasks are my own and most of my deadlines are self-imposed. I am in control of that part of my life.
But then Kevin started describing how his anxiety felt – like there was something crushing his chest – and I let out a huge sigh of relief. Yes. YES. That is exactly what my anxiety feels like.
In the weeks leading up to when I published that post, I woke up every day feeling as though there was an elephant on my chest. And if the elephant wasn’t there, at first, he stomped his way over by 8am and curled up to have an all-day nap. It wasn’t painful, but it did feel like there was a weight on my chest that had squeezed my lungs down to the size of peanuts. As a result, I was constantly gasping for air, feeling as though I could never get enough oxygen. And the worst part was that, as time went on and this continued, I couldn’t focus on anything. I would stare at my computer and think about working or writing, but I couldn’t. All I could do was try to catch my breath and calm my anxious mind.
Since listening to Kevin describe his experience, and identifying how my own anxiety physically felt, the solutions to help minimize it became a lot more clear. Aside from downloading those episodes of the Slow Home Podcast, I did two other things that day. The first is something I’ll tell you about in further detail in a future post. The second thing I did was meditate. It started with a simple 10-minute body scan. I closed my eyes, took slow and deep breaths, and focused on different parts of my body. During those 10 minutes, I couldn’t help but notice the weight was being lifted from my chest as my heart rate and blood pressure normalized. I opened my eyes and felt more relaxed than I had been in weeks.
Honestly, I felt like I was floating. The oxygen I so desperately needed had finally poured in. It was like the time I flew back to Victoria after being in Toronto for months and the fresh, ocean air made my eyes glaze over. There was no weight; only light. I thought I was cured.
So, you can imagine how disappointed I was when the elephant came back a few hours later. I didn’t even see him coming. He just stomped his way over, sat down and crushed my lungs again. Fortunately, when I noticed that it felt like I was gasping for air, I knew what to do. I closed my eyes and took a few more deep breaths, until some of the weight had lifted. As the day went on and the weight got heavier, I took more deep breaths. Eventually, I stopped what I was doing and meditated for 10-15 minutes. That seemed to remove about 90% of the weight, even 100% for a short while. And I have repeated this process every time I have felt him start to stomp across my chest since.
One of the most interesting things I have learned since starting my very-new-to-me meditation practice is that nothing is going to cure my anxiety overnight. But when I said earlier that “the solutions to help minimize it became a lot more clear,” the keyword in that sentence was “minimize”. I am learning that lots of things reduce my anxiety: switching tasks, going for a walk or hike, soaking in an epsom salt bath and even reading. And, of course, meditation has proven to be beneficial in more ways than one. I’m sleeping better, focusing more and getting all of my work done. The weight is still there, but these small wins show huge promise. I need to exercise patience and know it will take time to feel like myself again.
Aside from listening to Brooke’s podcast, I have read two books in the past two weeks, one of which was 10% Happier by Dan Harris (another recommendation from many of you). Like Kevin’s interview, I couldn’t relate to everything Dan shared in his book. However, when he started talking about the period of time in which he used drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, a rush of memories and thoughts flooded through me. Something I’m starting to come to terms with is that I have probably had a low level of anxiety for many years, but I used a lot of quick fixes to alleviate it. Alcohol, drugs, junk food, shopping, etc. Things that would make me feel 100% happier in the moment.
Of course, none of them worked. Quick fixes never do. They are bandaids put over deep wounds that need more love and care and a longer recovery time. Yet I continued to do these things over and over again for years, and paid for it in other ways that I ignored for even more years. I reached my heaviest weight, made countless regrettable decisions and ended up being maxed out financially – all because I was always looking for that quick fix.
The more I think about the title of Dan’s book, I can’t help but wonder: what would you do differently, if you stopped thinking every bad day needs to be “fixed” with something? Or if you gave up on the idea that any problem could be solved with one big purchase or one night out? Or if you stopped trying to increase your productivity or the number of workouts you do by 100%, 200% or more? Or if you stopped comparing yourself to your favourite influencers, and feeling as though you have to start doing exactly what they do RIGHT NOW to reach their level of success? What would it look like if you only tried to be 10% happier, in any given scenario?
Could it help you find even a few simple things to be grateful for on the seemingly worst days? Could it keep more money in your bank account, which could later be put towards things you truly value? Could it help you find more satisfaction at work, at home and in your relationships? Could it stop you from making regrettable decisions? Could it give you some perspective and remind you of the incredible progress you’ve already made? Could it make you 10% happier? And wouldn’t that be great?
When I think about some of the biggest changes I’ve made in my life – specifically, quitting drinking and impulse shopping – I know that they weren’t made overnight. The same way I’m learning that lots of things reduce my anxiety, there were a lot of things that helped me in those scenarios too – and oddly enough, many of them are the same. Deep breathing, walking, hiking, and reading in the bath. Writing about it here also helped. Right now, I’m doing a lot of that too, but in a notebook for my eyes only. None of these things has ever made me 100% happier overnight, but they have all helped me feel 10% happier in the moment. They are mini quick fixes, if you will, but part of a long-term strategy.
I know it’s not always easy to look at a long-term plan and feel like it’s going to work. Trust me, this is the #1 struggle people share with me when they talk about why it’s difficult to stay motivated when saving for retirement. But just like our monetary investments, I believe a long-term approach to happiness will give us the best results. You are worth the time and energy.
So, I’m not cured. As much as I wish I could, I can’t slow down, meditate a few times and expect my anxiety to disappear. But I can say I feel better. I still have two hours left of Dan’s audiobook to get through, so I don’t know the ending quite yet… but as I noticed myself feeling a little better each week, I applied the book title to this specific period of my life and realized that is all I could really ask for: to be 10% happier and healthier than I was the week before. Two weeks ago, I meditated and thought I was cured. Last week, I realized I was 10% happier. Today, I think it’s safe to say I’m about to hit the 20% happier mark. This feels like good progress. And I’m in it for the long haul.
What could you do today to feel 10% happier?