How to Stop a Runaway Train (or: how not to be an anxious wreck)

Essay, Personal

Maybe your heart races all the time and you’re not sure why. It batters your ribcage like a dazed bird against a windowpane. You skip breakfast because you have a vague, persistent ache in your stomach. If you speak in class you start stuttering like your pulse.
Maybe you’ve got memories that reel unbidden through your mind,  a movie on mute and fast-forward. You sleep little. Sometimes you shake. City buses make you implode. Your internal monologue is very scared and very loud, much of the time.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I saw that scrawled on a bathroom stall. I like the the ring of the words, though I don’t know if they’re true. I do know a few ways to quell dizziness.

1. Go for ambling, aimless walks: you need to get out of your head. It doesn’t much matter where– urban and natural landscapes alike are throbbing with Things That Have Nothing to Do With You. It’s grounding to be amongst them. Try to think of nothing but the flex of your muscles and the rhythm of your steps. Take hard, hungry breaths that burn your lungs a little.

2. Make a Playlist for Chilling Out. This doesn’t have to be a slow or soft playlist. Ambient electronica might be soothing for a lot of people, but maybe the rawness of riot grrl or hiphop does it for you. Have no regard for niche or snobbery– if Ke$ha calms you down, have no shame.

3. Clean like a motherfucker.

4. Make art, whether you think you can or not. Perfectionism is paralysis, and breeds more anxiety. Urgent creativity is cathartic and sometimes produces shitty art. That’s great– shit is fertilizer.

5. If these methods sound a little clichéd or superficial, it’s because they are– they’re worth doing, but they won’t provide sustainable stability. Mental illness is cyclical. Severe anxiety can’t be washed away in a bubble bath. Find a good shrink if you haven’t. If you’re uninsured, don’t be afraid to ask about a sliding scale; many therapists will be willing to work with you or to refer you to someone who can. If you’re a student, your campus may have free counselors. Keep in mind, though, that therapy can make you feel messier sometimes. Analysis doesn’t necessarily help the hyper-analytical. Medication is fickle and can be hard to obtain. If treatment isn’t feasible for you, coping mechanisms become vital. Know yourself and what you need. Try not to get entangled in self-diagnosis- the internet can make you into a psychological hypochondriac. You are not a list of symptoms.

Some resources/reading:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
The Icarus Project
Mad in America
The Magic Bullet by Anita Felicelli for The Rumpus
 On Falling Apart by Sady Doyle for Rookie
 Blue Christmas by Rachel Prokop for Rookie

How to Crawl Out of a Hole


Once, I had a writing teacher that told me I should write every day regardless of what was going on in my life.  “I don’t care if your mother dies,” she said, “you write through it.”

“Oh.  Oh.  Okay.”

And then I graduated, got super depressed, and forgot all about her advice.

*     *     *

  1. The first step is to try not to feel bad about feeling bad.  This is near-impossible at times –– most of the time.  Goes without saying that it can be really fucking difficult, in a culture that perpetuates the idea that the disenfranchised are lazy, greedy assholes and hard workers are successes, to accept that sometimes bad things just happen and you fall into a depression deep enough it seems like you can’t dig yourself out.  Allow yourself the leeway to feel bad without labeling yourself pathetic or a failure or weak or hypersensitive or etc. etc. etc. because of it.   Feelings aren’t rational or moral.  They aren’t indicative of something innately wrong with you.  They just are.
  2. If you start to feel bad about feeling bad, and you’re driving a car, pull over and wait.  Tell yourself that some days suck, period; you can feel better; you will feel better, at some point.  Wait until you finish crying and hiccuping.  Sit on the shoulder.  Turn off the radio; brightly colorful music can make one just as heartbroken, sometimes, as sad songs, and eventually you will have to continue driving somewhere.  Think of where you want to go.  Think of how you will get there.
  3. Try not to punish yourself for being you.  Say, if you’re sad and only feel in control by skipping meals, make yourself eat.  Even if it repulses you as you’re doing it.  Even if eating makes you feel sick.  You’ll get sicker if you don’t.  This will be hard; I’m sorry.
  4. Talk to your friends.  Start here.  Sometimes it’s easier than talking to family.
  5. If you have the kind of family environment where this seems doable, talk to your family about how you feel.
  6. Write like a motherfucker.  (Or draw, compose, make YouTube supercut videos –– whatever artistic outlet you have.  If you don’t have one, please try to find one.  Create something.)
  7. Some of what you create will be amazing.  Some of what you create will be shit.  This is totally okay.  In fact, it’s the case most of the time.  We all have shitty patches.
  8. What are you afraid of?  Make a list.  Put it on the wall where you can see it.  Stare it the fuck down.
  9. Watch “How to Be Alone.”  When this went viral I watched it enough times for it to sink into my pores.  The poem’s transcribed on my wall.  It helped.
  10. What do you want?  What do you want to do?  Make another list.  Put it next to the other one.  How many of the things you want are you not pursuing due to fear?
  11. Roll around on your friends’ floors/couches/beds and cry.
  12. Find a therapist in your area, if you can’t dig yourself out.  Or even if you’re making small scoops, little indents in the side of the hole wall with a soupspoon.  No human is an island.
  13. When you’re at a point where you don’t feel terrible every day, maybe only once a week –– or once every two weeks, or a month, or two months –– when you’re a point to engage again with the world, almost, maybe, mostly –– reread the list from Step 10.  Pick something you want and make yourself do it, even though it might still be scary.  You can’t be the type of person who does such-and-such unless you just do such-and-such.
  14. Be a person who does such-and-such.

This post is Heather’s contribution to Molly Templeton’s How-To Issue.