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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That Time I Got a Liebster Award (Or, Definitive Proof That My Mom Isn’t My Only Reader)

That Time I Got a Liebster Award (Or, Definitive Proof That My Mom Isn't My Only Reader) | Thanks to the lovely Sydney from Erratic Novelist for nominating me for a Liebster Award! Check out my answers to her questions here - You'll find everything from spirit animals to spelling bees!

Dang! You know you haven’t blogged in a while when you open Wordpress and no longer recognize anything because of all the updates that have occurred since you last posted. So if the formatting of this post is terrible or the links are broken or the entire blog is now in Spanish, then lo siento, mis amigos.

But technical difficulties aside, I’m super excited to pop in today amidst my little blogging hiatus (I’ve missed you guys!) and share that one of my readers, the lovely Sydney from Erratic Novelist, has nominated me for a Liebster Award!

liebster-award

A Liebster Award is given from one blogger to another in “pass it on/pay it forward” style (kind of like those chain emails from the 90s, except way less spammy.) Liebster is a German word that translates to something like “dearest” in English, so individuals presumably nominate other writers whose work they find endearing, and they encourage their nominees to do the same. There are lots of different Liebster Award guidelines floating around the interwebs, but luckily Sydney kept it fun and simple:

Rules

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions that the blogger gave to you.
  3. Nominate as many bloggers as you feel deserve the award.
  4. Tell those bloggers you nominated them.
  5. Create 11 original questions for the next nominees to answer.

So let’s play!

  1. How often do you read? I consume a lot of content by listening to podcasts, and I’ll scroll through my favorite blogs when I have a few minutes here and there; however, I don’t crack open an actual book nearly as often as I would like. My “to read” list seems to grow exponentially with each passing day, but I’ll be honest—after sitting and staring at a computer all day at work, the last thing I usually feel like doing when I arrive home is more sitting and staring. I’m actually considering paying for an Audible subscription so that I can start listening to audiobooks during some of my regular podcast time.
  2. What are some tips you have for other writers? When you sit down to write a first draft of anything (whether it’s an email to your boss or the Next Great American Novel), make like Nike and just do it. Silence your inner editor/critic and get the words out as fast as you possibly can. Don’t stifle your creativity by stopping every 30 seconds to search for the perfect metaphor or ponder the intricacies of subject-verb agreement. Let your work be fragmented, imprecise, and rife with spelling and grammatical mistakes. You can (and should) go back and revise later on, but make this a separate phase in the process. Start by just getting your thoughts on the page. 
  3. What has been your favorite scene to write? One of my favorite writing projects to date is an Autobiography of Minutes that I authored in my high school creative writing class. We were asked to narrate our lives using a series of minute poems, which for my poetry peeps, are essentially 12-line, 3 stanza poems with an 8-4-4 syllable structure. (Purists would also say that there’s a particular rhyme scheme, and that iambic meter is a must, but thankfully my teacher relaxed these rules a bit.) ANYWHO, although the project didn’t involve writing any traditional “scenes,” it nonetheless allowed me to step back and view my life as a novelist, playwright, or any other type of artist might–i.e., as a series of elements that could be arranged and presented in a number of different ways to produce a variety of intriguing results. 
  4. If you could be any animal, which one would you be? According to one of those highly scientific Buzzfeed quizzes that we all love to hate (as well as the input of numerous family members and friends), my spirit animal is a meerkat, which unfortunately makes total sense. And my favorite animals have always been frogs, especially red eyed tree frogs. But let’s be real, if I actually had to be an animal, I’d probably go with something super generic like a horse or dolphin. I mean, c’mon. Those guys are majestic.
  5. Funniest line you’ve written? “Highly scientific Buzzfeed quizzes” (See #4)
  6. Biggest inspiration? I draw a lot of inspiration from powerful quotes, moving music, deep conversations, and weekly mass. Coffee helps, too.
  7. Favorite memory? This nostalgia junkie has about a million, so instead of choosing a specific event, I’ll go with a period in my life: the months surrounding my college graduation in 2014. I was riding the high of an amazing undergraduate experience and was excited to spend the summer with my family before embarking on my next adventure (graduate school) that fall. I also started dating my boyfriend during that time, and there’s just something uniquely sweet and special about the first few months of a relationship.
  8. What are your life goals? I have a lot of exciting plans and projects on the horizon right now, but overall, my life mission is to focus my time, energy, and attention on what truly matters and let the rest fall away, regardless of what everyone else thinks.
  9. Do you have any tricks you can do? I can’t wiggle my ears or hang a spoon from my nose, but I do seem to have that INFJ ability to read people like a book, a skill that is equal parts helpful and creepy.
  10. Where do you see yourself a year from now? Since I just made a big ol’ cross-country move and started my first full-time job, in a year, I actually hope that a lot of things look pretty similar from the outside–while feeling different on the inside. For example, I see myself living in Houston–but with a more nuanced appreciation for the city after plenty of adventures (and probably some misadventures). I see myself in my current job–but with a more robust set of methods and tools for effectively accomplishing my work. I see myself with my boyfriend–but our bond is even stronger after surviving his crazy 3rd year of medical school. I see myself blogging–but in a way that continually evolves to better serve me and my readers.
  11. What is the lowest grade you’ve ever gotten? I once failed a spelling test in 5th grade–and then won the school spelling bee later that year. And you thought Akeelah and the Bee was inspiring. 

And now, I’d love to spread the Liebster love by nominating my dear friend Olivia Sanchez-Felix for the award. Olivia and I met in college and immediately became kindred spirits, bonding over our love of farmers’ markets, global health, and dancing the Wobble. She’s like the cooler, crunchier, British version of me, and she blogs over at oliviasanchezfelix.wordpress.com. Since she’s in grad school, though, I’m going to help a sister out and ask her just 5 questions. She probably has way too much homework to do anyway.

Questions for Olivia

  1. If you were to write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?
  2. What’s the bravest thing you’ve done in the past year?
  3. What are your best strategies for dealing with stress/anxiety?
  4. What book (fiction or nonfiction) left such an impression on you that you would recommend it to almost everyone?
  5. What’s it like to be the cooler, crunchier, British version of Paige?

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer | Applying for jobs can be a frustrating and discouraging process, but it can also present a wonderful opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. Here's the strategy I used to clarify the skills and strengths I have to offer an employer.

In my last post, I discussed how lost I had been feeling in my post-grad job hunt until I took a step back from the applications and did a bit of soul searching. I found two strategies to be especially helpful during my little period of Eat, Pray, Résumé, the first of which was exploring my career goals in light of the kinds of problems and questions that get me really fired up–and not in terms of what I want to “be” someday.

Once I identified the issues I’m passionate about, I had to figure out what, exactly, I could offer in terms of addressing them. This is where strategy #2 came in. Are you ready?

Drumroll please…

I made a spreadsheet!

MS Excel lovers, can I get an amen?! Data haterz, stay with me; I promise that the core of this post isn’t really about spreadsheets at all.

Rather, the spreadsheet was a tool–a means of capturing an eagle’s eye view of my life and experiences so far. I went through dozens of old folders and files, reviewed past papers and projects and performance evaluations, and compiled a massive list of everything about me that could be relevant to a career, from my degrees and coursework to jobs and extracurricular activities to hobbies and personal endeavors. It was a big undertaking, to say the least, but so worth it. Because you know what happened?

I began to discern patterns.

I started to notice the types of projects at which I excel and the topics toward which I naturally gravitate–as well as the tasks that are more of a struggle and the subject areas that are more of a drag for me. I started to see which soft skills are truly my strengths and which ones…need some more work. And perhaps most importantly, I started to challenge notions I had previously held about myself.

For example, I’ve always considered myself to be a major rule-follower. And in many cases, I am–I dig structure and order and general societal harmony, yo. But reexamining my past in this systematic manner revealed something that really shocked me: when it comes to the work I do, I love pushing limits and finding new and imaginative (and sometimes totally goofy or weird) ways of doing things. Whether I’m in the kitchen doctoring up a new recipe or in the classroom using a goofy skit to convey information to my peers, I rarely just look at the instructions I’m given and say, yep, that’ll do. If you would have asked me, prior to compiling the Spreadsheet of Clarity, whether I viewed myself as innovative, I probably would have said no. But now? I would respond with an emphatic yes–and be able to provide concrete evidence to support my answer.

As another example, reviewing my past work reminded me of the totally obvious–I love to write. I can distinctly recall being seven or eight years old and holing up in a corner, drafting the Next Great American Novel with my super cool purple sparkly gel pen (#ninetiesbabe) while the rest of the kids did normal kid stuff. I remember filling notebook after notebook with poetry and journal entries in my preteen years and throwing myself into my creative writing class in high school. The projects I was most proud of in college were typically reports and papers, and now, here I am, blogging for funzies. Before, if you would have asked me if I viewed myself as a writer, I would have said no–I didn’t major in English or journalism, and I’ve never been paid for my work. But now? Yeah, I think I may be a writer.

Tying all of this back in with Operation Job Search, the spreadsheet-making process helped to clarify what I have to offer an employer as well as what I’m looking for in a job.  I then revisited what I had discovered when I asked myself which problems most intrigue me, and I saw an important connection. I’m fascinated  with the fact that we live in society that is both saturated with health information and plagued with numerous health problems, and I want a career with plenty of opportunity for creativity, innovation, and writing. I don’t have everything figured out, of course, but it’s becoming more and more clear that a job in health communications would be a great fit for me. So this is where I’ve focused my job search since then, and it feels so much more “right” than when I was applying to a random assortment of positions across the public health field.

So if you’re ever lost in the career exploration process like I was, or if you even just need a reminder of who you really are–I highly encourage you to do what I did. Even if you don’t make a list or spreadsheet, and even if you don’t have a lot of extra time on your hands, take just an hour or so to reexamine what you’ve done. Look for patterns. Challenge previously held notions about what you can and can’t do. What do you find?

Managing Anxiety: 5 Strategies That Have Worked for Me

Managing Anxiety: 5 Strategies That Have Worked For Me | Strategies such as embracing the diagnosis and seeing a trusted therapist can help keep anxiety at bay.

This past January, I visited my doctor to discuss some disturbing symptoms I was experiencing, namely dizziness, chest pains, and a rapid heart rate at the most unexpected and inexplicable times (such as when I was driving, lying in bed, or sitting in church). I walked into her office terrified that at just 24 years old, I was already exhibiting signs of early-onset cardiovascular disease. I walked out with the knowledge that while my heart and blood vessels were functioning just fine, my brain was another story: I was experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) along with panic symptoms. (Later on I would learn that I demonstrated many symptoms of clinical depression as well.)

In the months since these discoveries, I have taken a number of steps in hopes of improving my mental (and subsequently physical) health. I still have a long way to go, and GAD may be something that I have to learn to cope with for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, I have found a number of strategies and lifestyle modifications to be helpful thus far, and today I’d like to share some of them with you.

Unfortunately, given the relatively high prevalence of anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and separation anxiety disorder), it seems quite likely that either you, dear reader, or someone you know and love suffers from one of these conditions. So while the following strategies may not be groundbreaking, I feel compelled to share, if for no other reason than to offer hope for the many others in similar situations. And although I am not a medical professional and am therefore in no position to diagnose or treat anyone else, I do have six years of public health education under my belt, so I intend to discuss the issues in an informed and responsible manner.

I have a total of 10 tips to share, but since I’m nothing if not verbose, I’ll keep this post at a manageable length by discussing only the first half. So without further ado, here are five strategies that have helped me manage my anxiety over the past seven months. And although I’m not focusing specifically on depression in this post, many of these same tactics have helped me tackle those symptoms as well.

  1. Embracing the diagnosis and admitting that I need help. Although the diagnostic labeling of mental health issues can be a controversial topic, for me, discovering that my experiences had a name was immensely helpful. It enabled me to research the disorder and better understand what was going on in my body and mind; it gave me an explanation for my irrational thoughts and actions other than “I’m ridiculous” or “I suck.” It provided me with the vocabulary I needed to communicate my situation to others and helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. And most of all, having a diagnosis forced me to finally acknowledge the gravity of my situation and motivated me to take action and reach out for help. I was no longer just “stressed about school”; I was truly miserable and functioning suboptimally in almost every area of my life, and I lacked the knowledge and resources to turn things around all by myself.
  2. Taking medication. I was initially a bit reluctant and ashamed to take the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that my doctor prescribed. The list of potential side effects made my current symptoms seem like a cakewalk, and since I’ve always been an advocate of making holistic lifestyles changes rather than relying solely on pills, I felt like a hypocrite for taking meds right away without at least attempting therapy first. (Therapy came later; see item #3.) But my desperation drove me to start taking the medication anyway and I’m so glad that I did. My panic symptoms (dizziness, chest pains, and racing heartbeat) have completely disappeared, and I haven’t experienced any noticeable side effects. We eventually upped my daily dose a bit and I’m happy with where we’re at right now. Yay for normal serotonin levels!

  3. Seeing a therapist with whom I really connect. Once I finished the semester and my schedule was more accommodating, I started making the 1-hour commute to visit a therapist who came highly recommended by several people I know. Although I wasn’t expecting to find a perfect fit on the first try, after just one session with Nicole, I completely understood why these individuals had spoken so highly of her. She was warm, funny, and an incredible listener, able to weave the various threads of my experiences together into a coherent picture for me to gaze and reflect upon. I laughed, I cried, and I discussed things I hadn’t even realized were bothering me, and the whole time I felt completely comfortable and respected, even when she pointed out that some of my thoughts or actions might be irrational or counterproductive. I’ve continued seeing her all summer and can’t believe the difference. Whereas my medication has helped alleviate my physical panic symptoms, therapy has helped tackle the thought patterns that send me into a spiral of anxiety in the first place.

  4. Talking and writing openly about my experiences. Initially, I wanted to share what I was going through with as few people as possible–my parents, my boyfriend, and maybe one or two friends. I was still processing it all myself and didn’t know how to go about discussing it with others. So for a while, I waited, avoiding the topic whenever possible and speaking vaguely of “appointments” and “medication” whenever I couldn’t get around it. And that’s totally okay! Eventually, though, I felt that I was ready to share–that in a way, I needed to share. My public health education had taught me many things, one of which was that mental health issues are incredibly common and yet all too often not diagnosed, treated, or even discussed. I had always lamented this reality and wanted to do something about it; here was a glaring opportunity. So I started by writing, and then, with some trepidation, by sharing that writing. Hitting “publish” on my first blog post was both terrifying and thrilling; I was finally being completely open and honest about my mental health, but what would people think? Would friends and family suddenly find me burdensome and unstable? Would colleagues be less likely to trust me with major tasks at work for fear that I might not be able to handle the pressure? Would everyone roll his or her eyes and tell me to get over myself? I was fortunate to receive an overwhelmingly positive response, but I see now that even if I hadn’t had such a warm reception, sharing my experiences was the right move for me. On a personal level, writing and talking about anxiety, depression, fear, perfection, vulnerability, mindfulness, identity, and more have been incredibly therapeutic, and on a professional level, I like knowing that in some small way, I’m helping to fight a stigma that causes so many people to suffer in silence.

  5. Being patient with myself. In some regards, I’m a very patient person; however, when it comes to my own personal development, I often expect myself to have it together at all times, to be good at things on the first try, and to flawlessly and immediately adapt to whatever life throws my way. When I started realizing that I would never expect this level of perfection from a family member or friend, I knew that it was time to start being kinder and more patient with myself. I’m going through a lot of life transitions right now, with graduation, moving, and the search for my first full-time job. It’s okay that it’s taking me more than a day, a week, or even a month to wrap my brain around it all. I also can’t expect managing my anxiety to be a perfectly linear process; there will still be plenty of days when I find myself overthinking the smallest of things, worrying about the unlikeliest of scenarios, or feeling tense and panicked for no discernible reason. I’m aiming for large-scale progress, not day-to-day perfection.

So there you have it! In the next installment, I plan to focus more on health behaviors such as sleep, exercise, and caffeine intake. In the meantime, if you have any advice of your own for managing anxiety (whether or not you have a diagnosed disorder), please feel free to leave a comment and enlighten us!

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences

Good Mourning: Grieving the Loss of Past Experiences | Sometimes the best way to move forward is to give ourselves permission to grieve experiences and identities from our past.

I’ve always loved a good, sad, heart-wrenching love song, and I think I finally realized why.

Interestingly, it’s not because I’ve actually experienced a terrible break-up. Although I’ve had my fair share of crushes, dates, and awkward romantic encounters that I’m hoping we’ll all laugh about in 10 years, I don’t have any actual ex-boyfriends. And although I can certainly relate to the pain of having unreciprocated feelings for someone (I was the mayor of Friend Zone City from 2006-2014), I can’t relate to what it’s like to be hurt by someone who actually told me he loved me. As a result, my affinity for melancholy music puzzled me for a long time (and probably freaked out my current boyfriend). But last week, as I was driving to work and listening to Bring on the Night, a beautiful, brave, and tragic tune from The Corrs’ latest album, it occurred to me that break-up songs don’t just help us get over romantic relationships. These melodies are there for us as we mourn all kinds of losses and cope with all sorts of pain: friendships that end with bitter words and cold silences, as well as those that simply fade over the years as everyone grows up and grows apart; identities we shed like snakeskin in order to adapt to our continually changing circumstances; and memories so golden and sweet that we wonder if maybe the best years of our lives really are behind us.

For me, one of the hardest parts of growing up has been learning to allow myself to mourn these losses in healthy and productive ways. I tend to swing to one extreme or the other: I either bottle up my feelings and tell myself to get over it and quit living in the past, or I let the grief consume me and color my present circumstances with longing and regret. I also tend to focus so much on what I no longer have that I neglect to celebrate what I have gained in the process. So today, I’m cranking the sad tunes and pouring my heart out, in hopes that putting my thoughts in writing will help me to reflect on these losses (or perceived losses) in new ways, to swim through the sadness and, rather than drowning in it, come out on the other side.

One loss I continually struggle with is that of my identity as a musician. I played the piano from age 6-16 and the viola from age 11-15, until I no longer had time in my busy high school schedule for adequate practice. Giving up these instruments was not a decision I made lightly, and to this day, a part of me aches whenever I am reminded of this former me, perhaps by the sound of a string quartet or the sight of a grand piano (swoon). I miss the duets and life chats with my piano teacher; I miss filling the rooms of my house with music and silently tapping out scales and arpeggios on my desk at school; I miss mastering the classics that have delighted for centuries and figuring out catchy new pop songs from the radio by ear; and most of all, I miss having a way to speak when words weren’t sufficient, a means of allowing my feelings to fly directly from my heart to the keys or the strings without having to go through my overly anxious and analytical brain first.

And yes, I realize that music can most certainly be a lifelong passion, and that in theory, I can pick up playing again whenever I choose and take my instruments with me wherever I go. However, as I get older and begin to see my adult life filling up with other responsibilities and pursuits, the more I begin to doubt whether I will ever regain my identity as a musician, or whether I should even strive to do so. It would take a considerable amount of work, as my “music brain” is rusty, my fingers have lost their former ease and dexterity, and I no longer have weekly lessons and yearly recitals to provide structure and motivation. In addition, there are so many places I want to go and things I want to learn and people I want to spend time with that I don’t know how playing an instrument–let alone two–will fit in. I’m not saying that I’ll never sit down at a piano or pick up my viola again, but I also don’t want to promise myself that I will, at least not on a regular basis. But no matter what, I am eternally grateful for those years of musical exploration and expression and for everyone who supported me along the way.

Another loss I mourn is that of my athletic side. (I always hesitate to refer to my former self as an “athlete,” since I never played an organized sport; when people at the gym used to ask me what I was training for, I would laugh and say “life.”) Prior to a string of injuries and health issues that have kept me largely sedentary for the past 4 years, I spent hours on the road, on the bike, on the mat, and in the pool. I was determined to overcome the perceived lack of athleticism that had haunted me throughout years of elementary and middle school gym classes, and in the process I honed my strength and speed and flexibility until I was able to out-run and out-push-up many of the other girls and boys. (My ability to throw, catch, and kick is a different, and far more comical, story…)  The gym was my second home, and I owned more workout clothes than regular clothes. When I wasn’t working up a sweat, I loved to spend time creating new workout playlists or catching up on the latest issue of Runner’s World. I had incredible energy levels without drinking a single cup of coffee and was far more focused and relaxed in school.

This training came at a price, though, and despite my attention to safety and proper form, I experienced several major injuries. Maybe I pushed myself too hard, maybe I have bad luck or weird anatomy, or maybe it was a combination of things. All I know is that even after multiple cycles of physical therapy, a shoulder surgery, and months upon months of rest, the pain isn’t completely gone to this day. I feel like I’m living in a completely different body now, one that tires from carrying grocery bags or shopping at the mall and frequently feels stiff and awkward. In the past few months, I’ve been able to start easing into yoga again, and that has been an incredible blessing both mentally and physically. I doubt that I’ll ever return to my former level of fitness, and I’m okay with that; it might even be for the best. But I also wonder if I’ll ever be able to run, bike, or swim again at all, and that thought is much harder to handle.  For now, I’m just trying to be grateful for every movement that I am able to perform.

In addition to the loss of these identities, I am saddened by the conclusion of certain experiences, particularly by the end of my time as an undergraduate student. My campus, with its infectious energy and breathtaking beauty,  provided the landscape for a whirlwind four years of growth, creativity, excitement, and discovery. I met some of the best people I may ever know, developed a passion for public health, traveled abroad for the very first time, and started my journey home to the Catholic Church. At my commencement ceremony, as I stood in my cap and gown and addressed my fellow members of the class of 2014, I reassured everyone that this was just the beginning, that the best years of our lives still lay ahead. At that time, I was feeling inspired and hopeful, and I truly believed what I was saying. In the two years since then, I hate to admit that my 24-year-old self has often thought otherwise. Grad school was lonely. Therapy is helping.

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I will admit that I feel a bit lighter after putting all of these thoughts into writing. Before I close, though, I feel I should add that I don’t want pity, nor do I need to be reminded of the many people who would gladly trade their problems and losses for mine. I’m incredibly blessed to have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and a roof over my head and people who love me. In fact, I realized that I needed help precisely because I had all these things and was still miserable, precisely because I had such a full life and yet felt so empty. Part of turning my outlook around is allowing myself to grieve if that’s what I need to do, regardless of how others may view or judge the process. I hope you, dear reader, will understand; however, it’s also okay if we disagree. I’ve got my break-up songs to get me through. 😉 

What Anxiety Feels Like (And Why I’m Done Letting It Stop Me)

What Anxiety Feels Like (And Why I'm Done Letting It Stop Me) | Anxiety is uncomfortable, but we can't let it keep us from telling our stories.

Today was an anxiety day.

My therapist, Nicole, would probably prompt me to describe my anxiety in terms of where I’m feeling it in my body, what it looks like, etc. She’d encourage me to “lean in” to the discomfort rather than turning and running away, to “talk” to the feeling and ask what it needs from me.

Although I always feel a bit silly playing this game, it’s surprisingly helpful. So I would respond that the anxiety is in my stomach–right alongside fear and sadness and all of my negative emotions, apparently. But unlike the sadness and the fear, which tend to take the form of big, bulky shapes in dark, foreboding colors (like slate gray or deep purple), the anxiety is a fluttery, feathery thing in pale blue. It’s like crepe paper blowing in the wind, except far less festive. The more I think about it and “lean in,” the more rapid the fluttering becomes, and the uneasiness in my stomach escalates from a simmer to a rapid boil. And I have no clue what it needs from me because I’m not even sure exactly what’s causing it.

Well, that’s not totally true. I could probably venture an educated guess: I just returned from a 2-week vacation only to be slammed with stress and conflict at work (doubly awful on a jet-lagging brain); I miss my long-distance boyfriend like crazy and don’t know when I’ll see him next; and, oh yeah, I just graduated with my master’s degree last month and have no idea what I’m doing with my life from now on. And quite honestly, I’m so tired and worn down from earning said degree that I’m not even feeling all that motivated to figure it out. Rather than job searching or soul searching, I’d rather search for the nearest pillow and take a nap.

So yeah, that’s probably some of why today was an anxiety day.

And although I keep feeling the urge to write about it all, I also keep hesitating to do so. Sometimes I push aside the urge to write in favor of doing “real” work, something that will make me feel productive when I cross it off my to-do list. Other times I push aside the urge because I don’t have the energy to put my thoughts into words, or at least words that sound good, and being the perfectionist that I am, good isn’t good enough. And sometimes I push aside the urge in favor of doing other things for other people and convincing myself that “me time” is overrated and narcissistic anyway.

But I want to stop making excuses. I want to stop worrying about writing something elegant and start focusing on writing something real. I want to stop acting like I’m superhuman and don’t need breaks and start allowing myself to be the vulnerable, limited, imperfect human being that I actually am. What I write may not always be pretty or make sense or result in a publishable post. But I’m tired of letting anxiety stop me, of letting it rob me of my happiness, my motivation, my creativity, and my joie de vivre. I’m tired of letting anxiety win. Quite frankly, I’m just tired.

So listen up, you fluttery, feathery, pale blue thing that has taken up residence in the pit of my stomach: Don’t get too comfortable. I’m telling my story, and you can’t stop me.