7 Strategies for Staying Afloat During a Major Life Transition

7 Strategies for Staying Afloat During a Major Life Transition | Whether you're graduating, moving, getting married, or just feeling overwhelmed and uncertain, I've got seven strategies to help you infuse more joy, meaning, and simplicity into your crazy days.

So far, 2017 has been the Year of the Major Life Transition (or MLT, a totally unofficial acronym I invented just now). In January, within the span of just a few weeks, I received and accepted a job offer, moved from a medium-sized town in north central Indiana to the most populated city in the state of Texas (#cultureshock), and started my first full-time position out of graduate school. In many ways, I was so ready for the change–ready to be done with resumes and cover letters and actually launch my career, ready to live 15 minutes rather than 15 hours from my boyfriend, and ready for a new beginning after two physically, mentally, and emotionally draining years of school. And since I had left most of my belongings in boxes when I moved back in with my parents last fall, I was even ready in the practical sense.

And yet, nothing can truly prepare us for the ways in which an MLT will transform our world, nor can we fathom the range or patterns of emotions we may experience throughout the process. In the months since the move, I have felt excitement, joy, peace, and conviction that I made the right decision, as well as loneliness, overwhelm, exhaustion, and doubt–sometimes within the span of a single day or even a single hour. Throughout all these ups and downs, a few key tools and strategies have helped me to stay afloat, and since many folks are undergoing MLTs this time of year, I’d like to share them with all of you. And even if you’re not graduating, moving, and/or getting married in the coming months, think of the following as ways to infuse more joy, meaning, and simplicity into your days. 

1. Decluttering in every area of life

Back in December, I wrote about my discovery of Joshua Becker’s book, The More of Less, and my subsequent mission to pare down my material possessions. Since then, I’ve continued exploring what it means to live a more minimalist lifestyle, and I’ve gotten rid of a ton more stuff in the process. I’m by no means a hardcore minimalist, but I can now attest to the incredible freedom that comes with allowing yourself to let go of things that no longer serve you and merely take up your time, space, and attention. And during periods of rapid change and perpetual uncertainty, it’s so much easier to find peace of mind when your surroundings are simple and uncluttered.

This “back to basics” mentality has begun to spill over into other areas of my life as well. For example, I’ve started taking a hard look at my technology-related habits in an effort to reduce digital clutter. I gave up social media for Lent after realizing how many of my precious after-work hours were spent mindlessly scrolling through newsfeeds, and once I survived that first painful week or two, I found myself actually enjoying the break. And by the time Easter rolled around, I noted significant improvements in my ability to focus and remain patient and present. Now that Lent is over, I’m slowly adding social medial back into my life so that I can find the balance that works best for me. The free iPhone app Moment has been really helpful in this regard, since it allows me to track the total amount of time I spend on my phone, the amount of time I spend using specific apps, and the number of times I pick up my phone each day.

I’ve also tried keeping my personal calendar as decluttered as possible. In high school, college, and graduate school, I maintained a pretty busy schedule–I worked, volunteered, played instruments, and joined a number of clubs. These activities brought me immense joy and introduced me to some of my best friends. Right now, though, I’ve found that what I need is massive amounts of margin–white space in my calendar to allow me to breathe, rest, and do things on my own terms. I’m still recovering from the move and feeling its aftereffects in waves, and quite honestly, I think I’m still recovering from the intense anxiety of the past two years. At some point, I’m sure I’ll be ready to get more involved at my new parish, join a book club or yoga studio, or start volunteering again. But right now, I just need time, space, and stillness. And that’s okay.

2. Revitalizing my workouts

I’ve been doing yoga on and off for years, and I’ve always cherished its numerous physical and mental benefits. Recently, though, my practice was feeling a bit stale and in need of a little somethin’ somethin’. Thankfully, one of my lovely readers introduced me to the Yoga with Adriene Youtube channel, and y’all, I am in love! Adriene Mishler, the yogi behind it all, is incredibly talented, encouraging, funny, and real, and she has created dozens (hundreds?) of free workout videos for all levels and purposes, including losing weight, relieving anxiety, improving digestion, and healing a myriad of injuries. (She even has holiday yoga, yoga for when you’re angry, and yoga for hangovers!) Her motto is “find what feels good” and her emphasis on personalizing your practice based on what your mind and body need on any given day has completely rejuvenated my workouts. She’s also so good at helping you retrain your brain to notice negative self-talk and replace it with more positive and accurate messages. This month, I’m making my way through her 30-day Yoga Camp series, so I’m sure this won’t be the last time you’ll hear me gush about my new YouTube bff. 

3. Meal planning

I first discovered the beauty of meal planning in college, but now that I’m working full time, I have an even greater appreciation for its benefits. I love cooking and experimenting in the kitchen; however, when I arrive home in the evenings, the last thing I want to do is dream up what to have for dinner. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’ve reached decision fatigue for the day. And that’s where meal planning comes to the rescue! On the weekends, when I’m more rested and less rushed, I take some time to find a few fun yet relatively simple recipes to make the following week and then head to the grocery store to get everything at once. It’s so much more appealing to prepare a homemade meal after a long day when you’ve already done the thinking and the shopping! And because I’m #human and don’t want to spend all my time in the kitchen, I also leave room in the menu plan for using up random leftover ingredients in an omelet, salad, etc, or simply heating up a healthy-ish frozen meal. Balance, simplicity, and flexibility, y’all. 

4. Starting the day with a creative and energizing activity

As you may know, I took a little blogging hiatus during the move so that I could focus my time and attention on the 1.67 million tasks that apparently come with relocation. And while I’m grateful that I allowed myself this space, I quickly began to notice that not having a regular creative outlet was draining in its own way. However, when I was ready to start writing again, I faced a bit of a dilemma–I was always too tired and braindead to produce anything noteworthy or even grammatically correct in the evenings, and I was already waking up pretty darn early for work. I used this conundrum as my excuse for a while until I realized that if I didn’t actually do anything about it, I might use it as my excuse forever. So I began tracking my time (using the free web service MyHours) and analyzing the data in search of opportunities to streamline and/or rearrange my schedule. I ultimately concluded that mornings were my best bet and figured out how to free up about 45 minutes to write before work. Yes, I now get up really darn early, but I’m kind of loving it. I feel so much more energized and alive when I start my day with a creative activity, and writing has been an invaluable way to express and process all of the thoughts and emotions that this MLT has triggered.

5. Consuming lots of great audio content

During the workday, I get by with a little help from my friend Pandora radio. I’ve created artist-based stations for deep concentration (e.g., Explosions in the Sky), chilling and contemplating life (e.g., Ben Rector or The Head and the Heart), and rocking out/powering through projects (e.g., Smashing Pumpkins or Bleachers). And when I’m cooking, cleaning, or commuting, I’m almost always listening to one of my favorite podcasts, which range in topic from minimalism to productivity to Catholicism. These podcasts inspire, challenge, and entertain me, while also getting my mind off whatever might be stressing me out at the moment.

6. Being honest with others

Every time I finish exchanging pleasantries or remarking on the weather with someone, I feel like I ought to be awarded this shirt (#introvertproblems). But I also understand that it’s not always the right time and place to discuss life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and I have learned the hard way that many people just want you to say “okay” or “fine” when they ask how you are. As a result, I often end up erring on the side of caution and promoting the very small talk that I despise the most. Recently, though, I’ve tried to find a balance and take advantage of opportunities to dive a bit deeper. When someone I feel I can trust asks me how the job/move/etc. is going, if it seems like the right setting to provide more than a one-word answer, I’ll try to be honest; there is a lot I love about my new life, but there are also times when it’s stressful and exhausting and I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The results? Family members, friends, and even several new coworkers have shared amazing words of encouragement, advice, or wisdom, not in a shallow or dismissive “you’ll be fine” sort of way but in a compassionate “I’ve been there” manner. Simply knowing that I feel overwhelmed because I’m human, and not because I’m lazy, inadequate, or incapable, can go a long way.

7. Enjoying the little things

By which I’m mainly referring to my regular practice of enjoying a delicious bowl of ice cream. Because even with all the above strategies in place, sometimes you just need to plop down on the couch, dig into some mocha-Oreo-cookie-dough-swirl (which is totally a thing, and a beautiful thing at that), and remember that everything is okay, you’re going to make it, and by golly, you deserve to enjoy the ride.

Do you have any MLTs on the horizon?

What strategies do you find helpful for maintaining health, happiness, and perspective during stressful or uncertain times? 

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Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can’t Be Answered With Just a Google Search

 

Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can't Be Answered With Just a Google Search | Is my anxiety a #firstworldproblem? Have I "suffered enough" to be depressed? What if my anxiety actually drives me to perform better at work or school? Thoughts on these tough questions + more in today's post!

In the year or so since my diagnosis with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I’ve had a lot of questions.

What exactly is GAD?

What causes it?

How common is it?

What are the best strategies for managing it? 

And in this Information Age, a simple Google search or a “Hey, Siri” can go a long way in shedding light on these types of data-driven inquiries. However, the experience of mental illness also raises many questions that are far too delicate, complex, and individualized for this method of answer seeking– questions that can’t be sufficiently addressed by examining “just the facts, m’am.” These are questions that require us to draw upon additional sources of knowledge, including personal and collective experience and intuition, to formulate an adequate response– and questions to which an “adequate response” may look a bit different for each of us and may shift over the course of a lifetime. These are the questions that come to mind again and again and tug on our psyches until we finally decide to face them.

Today I’d like to share three such “nagging questions” about anxiety and depression that have posed a particular challenge for me in my mental health journey. I’ll also discuss some of my thoughts related to each one in hopes of sparking an open, honest, and productive dialogue. I’d love to know if any of you have had these same questions, and if so, what insights you can offer. I’d also love to hear what other “nagging questions” you’ve faced in your life, regardless of whether you’ve experienced a mental illness. 

So let’s get this soul-searching party started.

1. Do I “deserve” to feel this way?

As most of us are acutely aware, our world is brimming with pain and suffering. Far too many of our fellow humans experience hunger, poverty, violence, homelessness, debilitating illness, persecution, and other direct threats to their wellbeing on a daily basis–and in comparison, my worries seem pretty darn petty and meaningless and my “struggles” practically scream ease and privilege. What do I really have to be anxious about? Have I really suffered enough to warrant depression? Do I “deserve” to feel the way I do? Shouldn’t I just shut up and be grateful?

This is a difficult thing to explore from the inside without spiraling into guilt, shame– and as a result, further anxiety and depression–so I find it helpful to step outside my own experience and think about what I would tell a loved one if he or she came to me with these same questions.

I would first clarify that no one chooses whether or not to experience a mental illness. These conditions arise out of complex gene-environment interactions, not because people wake up one day and decide they want attention or special concessions. Some people do, in fact, behave in certain ways because they want attention or special concessions, but this is not mental illness.

Secondly, when we look at issues like poverty, we have to remember that just as mental illness isn’t directly caused by a lack of material goods, it isn’t prevented or cured by simply acquiring more of them. There are plenty of people who “have it all” and still suffer from anxiety and/or depression, as well as plenty of people who own very little and do not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the real issue isn’t whether someone “deserves” to be anxious or depressed, whether he or she has “suffered” enough to warrant these experiences. As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of guilt- and shame- inducing questions don’t serve to alleviate the anxiety and depression– in fact, they’ll likely make it worse, and no one benefits from that. On the other hand, owning and accepting one’s experience and taking the actions one can to manage symptoms and strive to lead a healthy and productive life is a far better response. The more we take care of ourselves, the more we’ll be able to give of ourselves to others and contribute to the betterment of the world–and everyone benefits from that.

2. What if my anxiety drives my success?

As someone who has undoubtedly experienced anxiety for most of her life (long before any official diagnosis was made), I can look back and see a lot of worry and stress–and also a considerable amount of “success” in terms of good grades, leadership roles in extracurriculars, etc. Which leads me to wonder, what if my anxiety was actually a key factor contributing to these achievements? What if being tightly wound drives me to perform better? What if I start taking steps to reduce my anxiety and find that I’m no longer “successful”?

Thankfully, as any good scientist knows, correlation does not equal causality. (In fact, if you’re ever in need of a good chuckle, check out Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations. Good news for Nicolas Cage fans and cheese lovers alike!) So just because I’ve experienced anxiety and success at the same time does not mean that anxiety directly causes success.  In fact, research supports what most of us already know from experience– that a moderate level of psychological arousal contributes to the best performance. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be motivated to do your best–but being totally freaked out will send you into overdrive and inhibit peak performance. 

It’s also important to examine how we’re defining success here. I mentioned things like grades in school and achievements in extracurriculars, but what about the even more important things, like relationships, health, and spirituality? I would argue that my periods of highest anxiety have most definitely not correlated with my “best successes” in these arenas. Just ask my family, my doctor, or, well, God. 

And finally, even if I did somehow determine that my anxiety was an important driver of  success, the real question is, at what cost? Is getting good grades or a strong letter of recommendation or an award or a scholarship really worth the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social toll that anxiety takes on us? Is it worth the headaches, the stomach pains, and the heart palpitations? Is it worth the paralyzing fear and constant feelings of scarcity–that what we have isn’t enough, what we do isn’t enough, what we are isn’t enough? Is it worth the opportunities missed because we couldn’t pull ourselves together and the joy lost because we couldn’t get out of our own heads and just be in the moment?

Now, of course, my answer would be no, but I have the benefit of hindsight. If you would have posed these questions to my overachieving high school self who hadn’t yet experienced the worst that anxiety has to offer, I would have been like, “Yeah, but…SAT scores/college applications/MY FUTURE.” So I think it’s something I needed to learn the hard way, otherwise, I never would have believed it. 

3. How will I ever “repay” my loved ones?

As I mentioned to above, anxiety always comes at a cost. During my time in grad school, it definitely cost me my ability to fully show up in my relationships and be the daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, classmate, coworker, etc., that I wanted to be. I didn’t set out to become a selfish, angry, or distant person, of course, but I got so caught up in my own thoughts and problems and stresses that that’s essentially what I became. My tank was constantly empty, leaving me with nothing to give to anyone else.

Now that I’m in a much better place, I often wonder how I will ever “repay” these individuals for the love and grace they extended to me during this dark time in my life. I use quotation marks here because I know that strong and meaningful relationships are “give and take” and that my loved ones aren’t expecting to be showered with gifts and praise in exchange for their support. However, when you’ve just come off a long period of take, this question doesn’t feel unreasonable. Furthermore, despite the massive improvements I’ve experienced, I still have GAD, and it’s a lot like walking with a tiny pebble in my shoe–it’s always there, but there are days I don’t really notice it, days when it’s just a minor annoyance, and days when, seemingly out of nowhere, it lodges itself in just the right place and pain shoots through my entire body. And during those latter days, I can be pretty pathetic–like lying on the floor unable to move pathetic. Cancelled plans pathetic. Call my mom and cry pathetic. But now I’m honestly kind of hesitant to go to loved ones, because I feel like I’ve already used up all my “pathetic anxiety time” with them for now. To continue with the financial analogy, I made some major withdrawals from my relationships during my time in grad school, and I haven’t rebuilt my savings yet. 

I don’t really have a great response for this one, because I’m still struggling to figure it out for myself. My loved ones have assured me that they’re not keeping score, and I’m learning how to believe them. I’m also learning how to take care of myself so that I can show up for them–on a day to day basis as well as during those times when they’re in a low place and need that same kind of unconditional love they gave me. 

For those of you who struggle with anxiety and/or depression: Have you asked any of these same questions before? If so, what insights do you have to offer? What other questions tend to nag at you? 

For those of you who don’t necessarily struggle with these issues yourself: There’s a good chance that you know and love someone who does. What insights might you provide if they came to you with these questions?

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It’s Taught Me About Managing Anxiety

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It's Taught Me About Managing Anxiety | Inspired by fellow creatives, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and added gratitude journaling to my morning routine. And I'm so glad I did! But even though the practice has helped to reduce my anxiety and bring more joy to my days, it has also taught me that the relationship between gratitude and anxiety is more complicated than I originally thought.

I recently started a gratitude journal, and oh my gosh, you guys.

But before I launch into a discussion of the many benefits I’ve experienced, I should point out that I was initially pretty hesitant to adopt this practice. I participate in a number of online communities for writers, bloggers, and entrepreneurs (hey, a girl can dream), and even though it seems like everyone in these groups is constantly singing the praises of gratitude journaling, the whole thing sounded a little too “kumbaya” for me at first.

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Let’s all gather ’round the campfire, friends, and write in our gratitude journals!

Plus, being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I was always concerned that I would, like, do it wrong or something. I puzzled over questions such as How many things should I write about each day? Should I use numbered lists, bullet points, or paragraphs?  Do I simply state the name of the thing I’m grateful for, or do I write a brief description of why I’m thankful for it? Can I repeat items, or do I have to come up with unique entries every day? And so on and so forth until I began to wonder how I manage to accomplish anything on a regular basis.

So in summary, between the perceived cheese factor and the Great Formatting Dilemma of 2016, I avoided jumping on the gratitude journal bandwagon for quite some time. More specifically, I avoided it until I started feeling like my morning routine was missing something.

I’ve discussed morning routines here before and how overhauling mine has improved my mood and ability to handle stress in so many ways. For example, getting up extra early allows me to savor some quiet time and gear up for a full day of people-ing (#introvertproblems), and engaging in an activity I love (like yoga or writing) first thing gives me the energy I need to tackle the not-so-fun items on my to-do list later on. But even though my morning routine has greatly improved over the past few months, I felt that it was time to take things a step further. Everything I was doing was very “me”-focused, and I wanted to incorporate something that would turn my attention outward a bit more–to others and to the world around me.

Then I read Kate Wilkinson’s post Why I Write a Gratitude Journal (And You Should Too), and I couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon any longer. Kate helps creative entrepreneurs turn their passion into a successful business, so her take on gratitude journaling was very practical and actionable. I loved how she described the practice as a tool for “training your brain” to appreciate the goodness in your life right now–even as you strive to achieve bigger and better things in the future. Plus, she totally annihilated my lame excuses and resolved the Great Formatting Dilemma by providing a free downloadable template. I’ve since deviated from this outline a bit as I’ve grown in my own journaling style, but it was totally the jumpstart I needed to initially get going.

So now every morning, before I dive into writing or exercising or any of my other pursuits, I pause, pull out my notebook and pen, and reflect on three things I’m feeling especially thankful for that day. Sometimes these are Big Important Things, like my faith or my family or a recent experience that really moved me. Other times they’re silly little things, like the cup of coffee I’m drinking as I write. (Actually, most mornings it’s the coffee, but I force myself to write about something else instead so that my journal doesn’t turn into one long Ode to the Greatest Beverage on Earth.) 

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

I also jot down my prayer intentions for the day, since my prayer life has definitely gone down the toilet this past year and this is part of my effort to fish it back out. (But that’s a whole other post for another day.)

And you know what, guys?

The results have been amazing. Team Kumbaya all the way. I’m considering making t-shirts, really.*

Taking just a few minutes to deliberately practice gratitude each morning truly impacts my mindset throughout the entire day. For one thing, I simply notice more of the blessings in my life–and for someone who’s constantly lost in the La La Land of her own thoughts, this is a big deal. Simply observing the many good things in my life brings me back to the present moment much in the same way that repeating a mantra does. Instead of being haunted by worries of what might go wrong, or enticed by daydreams of how much better things could be, I’m able to focus on what actually is. And more often than not, this reality offers a number of blessings, even if I have to dig through some pain and disappointment in order to unearth them.

Secondly, when I truly appreciate something, I tend to treat it with a bit more care and respect. This has proven especially important when it comes to the people in my life. When I consciously think about how grateful I am to know them–and, conversely, what my life might be like without them–I’m much more likely to seek ways to better love and support them, to truly cherish our time together, and to overlook small annoyances in favor of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

All of this kumbaya business got me thinking about whether starting a gratitude journal sooner would have benefitted my anxiety recovery process–or even prevented my anxiety from getting so out of control in the first place. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but what I realized is that the relationship between anxiety and gratitude is more complicated than a simple “increase gratitude, decrease anxiety” formula. Based on my own experiences, I think it’s possible to be so deep in an anxiety disorder that truly appreciating anything is nearly impossible, and other steps must first be taken to reign in the fear and apprehension and create space for gratitude.

Six months or a year ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I could rattle off all the “blessings” in my life like a kid reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I knew that I had a roof over my head and food in my fridge and people who loved me, and at least on an intellectual level, I recognized that for those things, I should be grateful. Yet thinking about what I should be thankful for didn’t do anything to ease my anxiety; in fact, at my lowest points, it only made everything worse. It made me feel both intensely guilty for being unappreciative and totally alienated from everyone else who was able to experience genuine gratitude. I truly think that I needed to get to a certain point in my recovery process before a practice like gratitude journaling had a place. I needed to take medication and get all those neurotransmitters back in order. I needed to see a therapist who could help me give my ugly thought patterns a much-needed makeover. And I needed to allow my exhausted body and brain to soak up some genuine rest. All of these steps have enabled me to feel something other than worried, isolated, guilty, and hopeless.

And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

Have you ever tried gratitude journaling (or any other method of practicing gratitude)? Share your experiences in the comments below!

*Darn, it looks as though someone beat me to it.

5 Ways that Traveling Rejuvenates the Mind, Body, & Soul

Remember when I discussed my love-hate relationship with traveling? Below is a story that I’ve wanted to share on the blog for a while but haven’t due to a fear of sounding spoiled or ungrateful for “complaining” about an incredible opportunity. But I finally decided that in order to truly illustrate how crippling anxiety can be–and how much it can lead someone to think and act in ways he or she isn’t proud of–I needed to share. I also hope this post will serve to remind me, as well as anyone else who suffers from anxiety, of why it’s so important to travel anyway, worries and all.

5 Ways that Traveling Rejuvenates the Mind, Body, & Soul | Anxiety can tempt us to remain in the comfort and familiarity of our homes forever, but sometimes traveling is exactly what we need to calm our minds and lift our spirits.

Imagine having the opportunity to enjoy a two-week summer vacation in Europe with your significant other.

Even better, imagine that airfare costs are already covered, and you’ll get to stay with relatives who can help you navigate the unfamiliar landscape and plan all sorts of fun activities. Sounds pretty peachy, right? I mean, who wouldn’t totally jump on this once-in-a-lifetime chance?

Well, apparently me.

More specifically, the anxious and depressed version of me that was presented with this exact opportunity last winter.

At that time, I was so exhausted and overwhelmed by school, work, and life in general that the thought of any additional commitment, let alone one of this length and intensity, was simply too much to bear. My mind was so ridden with anxiety that I could think only of what could go wrong, and my heart was so depleted of hope and enthusiasm that I no longer knew what it meant to enjoy or look forward to things.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, was totally jazzed for the opportunity–as anyone in a healthy state of mind would be–and (lovingly) begged me to say yes. Thankfully, in between lengthy periods of fear and dread, I experienced a few moments of clarity that enabled me to see how much the trip would mean to him and to our relatives abroad. So after weeks of painful deliberation, I agreed, albeit with great reluctance. And in the months leading up to our departure in May, I continued silently dreading the trip and wanting to bail approximately every 5 minutes.

Things finally started to turn around for me during the week before we left, when I attended my first therapy session and got a much-needed dose of perspective (as well as some helpful strategies for managing my anxiety while traveling). By that time, I had also completed my final semester of grad school and gotten a few nights of decent sleep under my belt, and as I’ve said before, adequate rest truly does wonders for my general outlook on life. As a result, I was able to board our first flight with significantly less apprehension.

To make a long story short, as you’ve probably already guessed from the title of this post, the trip ended up being fantastic in spite of all the worry and hype. I assumed that traveling would only further drain me, but instead, I found the two-week excursion to be completely reinvigorating. I’ve taken several smaller trips since then and have noticed similar effects, so I’m convinced that there’s something both energizing and healing about going somewhere new, even if the thought of doing so initially generates a lot of anxiety. Specifically, here are five ways that I believe my trip to Europe served to rejuvenate my mind, body, and soul when I needed it most:

  1. It provided a much-needed change of scenery. Although I had fantasized about spending my first few weeks of summer break lounging around and doing next to nothing, I’m not sure I would have been able to get the R&R I craved this way. I still had an ongoing research project to wrap up and a summer job to prepare for, so if I had remained within reach of my desk, laptop, and Bottomless Pit of Death and Despair e-mail inbox, chances are that I would have spent all of my time either working or feeling guilty about not working. By leaving everything behind and surrounding myself with brand-new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, I was finally able to break free of old habits and thought patterns that only served to heighten my anxiety or spiral me deeper into depression.
  2. It allowed me to lose track of time. In my day-to-day life, I tend to be pretty obsessed with plans and schedules and staying “on track.” When I travel, though, I typically pay far less attention to the clock, only checking the time when I need to make a flight, dinner reservation, or the like. In Europe, I went with the flow and slept when I was tired, ate when I was hungry, and let activities and conversations last as long as necessary without feeling pressured to wrap up and move along to the next agenda item. And it. Was. Awesome.
  3. It enabled me to engage in many rewarding conversations. One of my favorite things about traveling with family members and friends is that spending extended amounts of time with these individuals naturally seems to spark awesome discussions. Long walks, relaxed meals, and late nights provide the opportunity to go beyond small talk and delve into the things that really matter. And being in a different city, state, or country always opens my eyes to new insights and observations about the world, providing the perfect springboard for a good heart-to-heart.
  4. It included plenty of rest, great food, and exercise. Vacations can definitely present an opportunity to skimp on sleep, eat a ton of junk food, and forgo exercise, but I think the most rejuvenating trips incorporate healthy habits in an organic way. On this trip, for example, we didn’t schedule any sort of daily workouts–but boy, did we end up walking a ton as we explored beaches, castles, markets, and more. We also didn’t adhere to any sort of diet plan, but in our efforts to enjoy the wide variety of foods we encountered, we ended up eating plenty of fresh, wholesome stuff along with the French pastries, Danish hot dogs, and other treats.
  5. It reminded me what I’m capable of. For some people–maybe even most people–going on an extended trip may not require much strength or bravery, but for me, it took a whole lot of both. So when all was said and done and I had accomplished the thing I had feared and dreaded for so long, I regained a bit of confidence that I could take on additional challenges in the future. And I regained a bit of hope that maybe anxiety and depression didn’t have to be my forever.

Your turn! Tell me, do you find traveling to be rejuvenating? Why or why not?

Have Anxiety, Will Travel? Balancing Worry & Wanderlust

Have Anxiety, Will Travel? Balancing Worry & Wanderlust | For those of us who struggle with anxiety, the excitement of traveling is often met with equal amounts of worry and stress.

Traveling.

For someone who struggles with anxiety, few things are as bittersweet.

One one hand, I love experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a place for the very first time or revisiting old haunts and feeling the warmth of nostalgia flood in. I enjoy adopting a totally different schedule–or no schedule at all!–for a time and engaging in the late-night life chats that inevitably unfold with my travel companions. I appreciate the reminder that my hometown is just one tiny speck on the map and my lifestyle is just one possible way. I even get a kick out of packing my suitcase with non-perishable snacks and three-ounce toiletry bottles and feeling like I have everything I need in life in just one bag (er, maybe more like two or three). Simply walking into an airport sends my heart racing with excitement and possibility as I imagine where other travelers might be headed and ponder, yet again, how insanely awesome it is that we can wake up in one city, state, or country and fall asleep that night in another.

But–and there’s always a “but” when it comes to anxiety–the very elements of traveling that contribute to its novelty, excitement, and ability to impart perspective can also trigger huge amounts of worry and stress. The mere thought of plunging into unfamiliar and uncertain situations that are largely out of my control often tempts me to call the whole thing off, to generate a flimsy excuse as to why I can no longer go, and to retreat to the safety and comfort of my home, where adventure may not await but where at least I know what to expect.

As I’ve discussed in my recent 2-part series on strategies for managing anxiety, I’ve come a long way since this past January when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Things like getting enough sleep, seeing a therapist, and practicing yoga have helped immensely in enabling me to feel healthy, balanced, and like my true, upbeat, goofy, passionate self again. But certain situations, especially those involving any type of travel, seem like an open invitation for those old, irrational thoughts to creep back in–a reality with which I was confronted this past weekend when I went to visit my younger sister just a few hours away.

Typically, I wouldn’t know spontaneity if it knocked on my door and delivered a pizza, so I was quite proud of myself for accepting her last-minute invite without hesitation. I was also truly excited to spend time with her and knew that it would be a low-key trip: the drive was easy, I would be staying for only one night, and I was visiting my sister, for Pete’s sake, so I should be able to just relax and be myself. As you can imagine, then, I was completely blindsided by the uneasiness I felt at various points before, during, and even after the trip. (Yes, after!) Don’t get me wrong, I still managed to have a great time overall, and I don’t regret the visit one single bit. But I was certainly reminded of how much stepping outside of my normal routine can shake me up, how much I obsess about and overanalyze things that should be fun and carefree, and how lonely it is to feel anxious while everyone else appears to be relaxed and enjoying themselves.

I plan to write more on the topic of travel anxiety, since it’s an obstacle I am truly committed to overcoming and would love to help others tackle as well. I took several longer trips this summer (including a two-week stay in Europe), so I have many thoughts on the matter!  I want to make the posts as relevant and useful as possible, so I invite you to comment below (or drop me a line at turningthepaigeblog@gmail.com) and let me know which aspects of travel anxiety you’d like to hear more about!

A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over

A Playlist for New Beginnings: Songs for Moving On & Starting Over | Here are some of my favorite songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

This past weekend, I attended a concert featuring Mat Kearney, one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. As he strummed the first chords of his early single, “Nothing Left to Lose,” I was immediately taken back to the very first time I ever heard the song: 9th grade, on the school bus, in the dark of the early morning. The melody caught my attention as it played over the radio, and in typical 2006 fashion, I lamented over the fact that I didn’t know the name of the song or artist–and therefore wouldn’t be able to purchase the track on iTunes and download it to my brand new, hot pink iPod nano. (Will this be the “walk uphill both ways to school” story that I tell my future children?)

In that moment of reminiscence, I was truly awed by the power of music to so instantly and effortlessly transport us to a different time and place. Often, these times and places are from our past; for example, whenever I hear the Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann,” I’m suddenly a little girl again in my old house on Heritage Street, and I’m dancing around the living room with my dad and younger sister as the tune plays on our stereo. And whenever I hear “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, I find myself a college freshman once more, cruising in the car with my girlfriends on a sunny August day as we pass by a fraternity house and hear the song blasting from their speakers.

But I think that music also has a way of carrying us into the future–whether by lifting us out of a dark place and encouraging us to press onward, by enabling us to grasp the bigger picture and deeper meaning of our current situation, or by simply reassuring us that we’re not the first person to ever feel this way. So last spring, when I could finally begin to discern the light at the end of the grad school tunnel, I started searching for songs that took me to the place where I wanted to be. Over time, what began as just two or three tracks gradually blossomed into a full-fledged playlist that I’m excited to share with all of you today. The songs that comprise my “New Beginnings” soundtrack speak to a variety of emotions and experiences associated with moving on, from waving a hearty goodbye to the past and embracing the future in all of its uncertainty, to hesitating in taking the first steps forward, to remembering that it’s okay to not have it all together yet.

So without further ado, happy listening! I hope that wherever you are in your life right now, these songs will bless you with a dose of positivity and encouragement. And if nothing else, some of these tunes are pretty darn catchy! (I dare you to sit still through “Goodbye,” “Movin’ on Up,” or “Welcome to Your Life.” Go on, try it.) Then, when your jam session is complete, comment below with your thoughts on the playlist and/or tell me about your favorite songs for moving onward and upward!

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. Enjoy! 

A Playlist for New Beginnings | Songs for saying goodbye to the past, embracing the future, and remembering that it’s okay to not have it all figured out yet.

Managing Anxiety: 5 (More) Strategies That Have Worked for Me

Managing Anxiety: 5 (More) Strategies That Have Worked for Me | Strategies such as getting more sleep and drinking less coffee can help keep anxiety at bay.

In my last post, I discussed five strategies, such as taking medication and seeing a therapist, that have helped me manage anxiety in the months since I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Today I have five additional tactics to share, this time focused on daily lifestyle modifications.

  1. Overhauling my sleep schedule. Thanks to a combination of evening classes, a heavy workload, and my natural night owl tendencies, I essentially morphed into a semi-nocturnal zombie during grad school. Based on my sleep habits in high school and college, though, I know that I typically feel my best when I go to bed and wake up on the earlier side. So this summer, I have made a concerted effort not only to get more sleep, but also to sleep during the hours when I seem to benefit from it the most. Though challenging, these changes have truly paid off. I find that when I’m well-rested, I’m better able to keep minor problems and inconveniences in perspective rather allowing them to overwhelm me and completely derail my day. When my mind is clear and focused, I can accomplish more in less time and approach challenges with greater patience and creativity. And by golly, when I don’t spend my entire day eagerly awaiting the moment I get to crawl back in bed, life is just a lot more fun.
  2. Restructuring my morning routine. Now that I’m waking up considerably earlier than before, my morning routine has gone from frantic to focused and from exhausting to energizing. Not surprisingly, having sufficient time to shower/get ready at a comfortable pace and eat an actual breakfast–sometimes even while sitting at an actual table–has helped to minimize a great deal of chaos. But even more importantly, building in a bit of “me” time to work on a writing project or other creative endeavor before the craziness of the day sets in has paid off immensely. Until recently, I thought that this idea sounded not only unrealistic but also totally indulgent–have fun before the sun rises? Start my day off with my want-to-do list rather than my have-to-do list? Ain’t nobody got time for that! But after listening to a series of podcasts about optimizing morning routines (by Jeff Sanders of The 5 AM Miracle), I realized that I could make time for these activities and that doing so could positively impact numerous areas of my life. When I indulge my creative side in the early hours, I actually look forward to getting out of bed, feel more energized throughout the day, and dread the challenging or unpleasant items on my to-do list a little bit less. And my anxiety, which is typically fueled by feeling overwhelmed and out of control, is greatly lessened by this daily dose of intention and self-care.
  3. Drinking less coffee. Y’all, y’all, y’all. Coffee is my spirit animal. I love the taste, the smell, the feeling of holding a warm mug in my hands, and the excitement of trying new varieties and exploring different cafes. So when I realized that my beloved beverage was causing me some problems (such as nasty withdrawal headaches if I didn’t have my usual fix), my feelings of betrayal were worthy of an Adele power ballad. Since the thought of trying to break a caffeine addiction amidst the craziness of school and work was far too daunting, I decided to wait until after graduation to do anything about it. And since I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up coffee entirely, I chose instead to cut back to one cup in the mornings. I eliminated my afternoon java by gradually transitioning from half caf to decaf to no coffee at all, and after surviving an initial rough patch (thank goodness for extra strength Tylenol!), I found that my energy levels and mood noticeably stabilized and my usual “after dinner” headache seemed to disappear. Perhaps one day I’ll decide to eliminate my morning cup as well, but for now, I plan to savor it with all my might.
  4. Practicing yoga on a regular basis. I started doing yoga in the 7th grade and continued practicing until I injured my shoulder during my junior year of college. The long, frustrating process of recovering from this incident has included surgery, several rounds of physical therapy, a boatload of rest, and even a semester of wheeling a bright green rolling book bag around campus and totally bringing sexy back. Then, several months ago, I was finally feeling strong enough to roll out my mat again and try a few poses. I experienced some stiffness in my shoulder but no pain, so I gradually began practicing more frequently and for longer periods of time. And oh, how good it feels to be back! The deep stretches help to relieve the tension that tends to accumulate in my neck and back when I’m anxious, and the emphasis on mindfulness helps me to focus on the present rather than letting my thoughts run away with worries and worst-case scenarios.
  5. Getting lost in a funny, heartwarming story. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but for some reason I took it upon myself to watch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls on Netflix this summer. As I sit here in the post-finale slump, counting down the days until the revival series premieres in November, I can look back at all the ways in which the show has proven to be an unexpected blessing in my recovery process. Sometimes it simply provided a much-needed laugh or distraction from my problems, whereas other times it hit close to home and challenged me to see situations in my own life in a new light. But most of all, watching a cast of generally lovable and well-meaning characters navigate the challenges of life reminded me that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to mess up, to have an “off” day (or to just take a day off), and to have doubts and questions even when you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. (How’s that for a binge-watching justification?) 

And that’s a wrap! As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please leave any questions or comments below!