Staying Calm in a Stressful World

The past six months, I participated in a health coaching program. I’m excited by the effects I’ve seen and wanted to do a post to share the process.

Panic Attacks Are Real!

two bikes leaning on a post by the road with grasslands behind them

Our bikes on the open road in South Dakota

Understanding my moods and working to make them more positive is something I’ve worked at a long time. In particular, and the end of my cross-country bicycle trip, when I returned to “normal life” after living outside, on the road, for several months, I started having anxiety attacks: my heart would skip, I’d think I was dying, and a tight feeling would settle in my chest. One time, my limbs went numb. It would take about two hours for the feelings to pass.

When the first doctor (in an ER in Colorado) told me I’d probably had a panic attack, I didn’t realize he was serious. As far as I knew, “panic attack” was a made-up term kids used on the playground when someone got over-excited, as in “don’t have a panic attack.” Finally, after I’d returned home and had a second trip to an ER, I thought to look up “panic attack” on the fledgling Internet. Turned out it was a real thing.

After I learned about panic (or anxiety) attacks, I was able to stop them from happening. I started telling people I’d had them. I often got a response like, “Oh, that happens to me.” I realized that attacks were common, but no one talked about them. But talking about them could only help other people, so I included them in the epilogue of my memoir of the bicycle trip, Somewhere and Nowhere.

Last weekend, at the NC Writer’s Conference, I discovered a new symptom: I was scheduled to meet with an agent to learn about pitching and get feedback on my novel. About an hour before the meeting, I started getting dizzy; I left my conference session early and found a place to stand in the hallway, taking deep breaths. I didn’t recognize the symptom, but it seemed likely to be anxiety. My conference friend Fran said I should write about it, which inspired this post.

Strategies Developed via Health Coaching

silhouette of person meditating, surrounded by words like Notice, Listen, and BreatheOver the years, I’ve tried a lot of strategies to manage anxiety, which can get worse during stressful times. A main strategy is getting enough sleep. Everything looks worse when I am tired. I’ve become an early morning person, shifting my schedule to have more good hours before work, and less hours in the evening, when everything seems bad. I’ve never succeeded at officially meditating, but have had a regular practice of forced sitting still and doing nothing for several months at a time.

But I’ve never managed to practice all my strategies at once, or to do them in the long term.

This year, my health insurance included health coaching, so I signed up, with the goal of managing stress and enjoying every day more. I shared the ideas I’d tried through the years with the health coach. She helped me implement a few new ideas each month, and to get back on track when I got off. By the end of six months, I was regularly practicing all my strategies. Here they are:

  • Step outside or walk at lunchtime (4x per week); as winter darkness comes, do 15 minutes to get some sunshine
  • Sit still after work for 15 minutes (5x per week); try to do a longer period of 30 minutes 2x per week
  • Do something nice for myself (2x per week)
  • Spend some time outside (2x per week)
  • When something upsets me, try to recognize it as soon as possible and turn the situation around, letting go of whatever happened and not continuing to think about it
  • Stop checking email at 3 PM (every day); since everything seems worse later in the day, looking at email can easily result in becoming upset or worried
  • Stop working at 5 PM (Friday)

Lessons Learned

blank calendar with icons for health activitiesWhen I’m tempted to skip an activity—like I get home from work and it seems like there is no time to spend sitting for 15 minutes—I remind myself of how much better I feel in the long term when I maintain my practice. Also, sitting still seems to slow time, and the whole evening will be more productive if I do it.

The health coach helped me understand that it’s not the end of the world if I “mess up” and miss a few days of taking care of myself. There’s no reason why I cannot immediately start up again.

I use a calendar to keep track of how I do each day. I created one I can easily print that has icons for each of my activities across the top. At one point, my calendar ran out and I had not printed a new one. Not having the calendar made me realize how much it helps me stay on track. (A PDF of my calendar is here.)

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