Hi, my name is Aerial and I have anxiety.
It’s taken me the better part of a decade to admit that out loud, along with a lot of therapy. Cancer has entered my life several times and definitely left its share of damage. Like, “call FEMA ASAP” level damage, not just “clean up in aisle five” damage.
The difference between Aerial today and Aerial from a decade ago is the management of my mental health. I have my “go-to” list that helps me get through moments of angst, like the middle of the night panics when all my friends are sleeping and my husband is snoring the night away (seriously- the guy rattles windows).
While I still live with anxiety just like I did when cancer first reared its ugly head, I’m able to take control in a “not today, Satan” sort of way. Going for runs, anti-anxiety medication, and getting my friends on a Facetime call are all helpful, but they’re just not always convenient. When you’re in an elevator stuck with your friend’s ex-girlfriend waiting for the fire department to show up and you’re not a huge fan of enclosed spaces, a quick jog isn’t the best way to help. That really happened- it took hours and I’ve never been more grateful to see the light of day when it was over.
Out of all the tools handed to me by Dr. Google (he’s got horrible reviews- I don’t recommend him), my therapist, and others who say “here’s what helped me”, mindfulness is probably my most used tool. This is the practice of being really present in the moment. Easier said than done, I know… especially if your phone is anything like mine and is constantly getting push notifications. It doesn’t take much to have my brain go in 50 different directions, but with some practice, I’ve found these mindfulness exercises will provide me some moments of calm. Even if it’s only five minutes with no Candy Crush pings.
Here are a few exercises I turn to:
1. Body Check-In
This is my favorite for the middle of the night go-to. I like practicing this exercise when I’m lying down, but you can really do it anywhere: on a plane, in a car, or in the doctor’s office.
In this exercise, I focus on relaxing every part of my body, one part at a time. I start with my forehead, then move down to my nose, cheeks, jaw, lips, and so on. If my mind starts to wander, I start over. Usually, I fall asleep by the time I get to my shoulders. If I make it to my toes, I’ll start over. If I still feel tense, I start over. If my phone pings because I forgot to put it on silent, I start over. You get the picture.
2. Senses Check-In
This exercise is really great in a moment of panic. It helps me ground my brain when I can feel my thoughts getting ahead of me. Using my five senses, I find something I can hear, smell, taste, touch, and see. It can be a different thing for each sense or the same thing for all senses. I try to give each sense the same amount of time to pick apart what I’m experiencing. It’s an easy way to redirect your attention and decrease the volume of the thoughts in your head.
3. Breathing Check-In
Sounds simple, I know,. But have you ever really focused on breathing? In this exercise, I listen to the sound my body makes when I inhale. I put my hand on my chest or stomach to feel the rise and fall. I breathe in for a count of two and breathe out for a two-count. I do this for a few moments, trying not to let my mind wander (this is key)! I find it so important to focus solely on the action of breathing. If I get distracted, you guessed it… I start over.
A simpler, more fun way to do it is to blow bubbles! When you blow bubbles, you instinctively deep breathe. Focus on the bubbles as they form and float away. Plus, they’re cheap or easy to make!
I’ll be the first to admit, this one I’m not particularly good at. Not because I don’t like writing, but because when I sit down and put pen to paper, I get distracted easily, usually with to-do lists. There are some really great ways to exercise this practice. Usually, I try to at least write a list of good things that happened to me that day before I go to sleep. If I’m feeling ambitious, when I get up in the morning, I just write about the first thing that comes to mind for ten minutes. Let’s be honest though, I don’t usually make that one happen without a cup of coffee.
Cactus Cancer Society has a journaling program that sends you prompts straight to your inbox. There’s also the 30-minute tune-up journaling program on Thursdays, which is drop-in friendly and great if you’re a non-committer like me.
Or, if you’re the exact opposite and need to have a date and time scheduled, you could join Cactus Cancer Society’s eight-week writing workshop, Unspoken Ink.
Either way, I recommend using the time you allot yourself to focus on your writing and the topic that you chose. Turn your phone off and any other distractions that might take your mind off your task at hand. It’s amazing what 10-15 minutes can produce. Don’t worry about grammar, editing, or flow. Just write!
Have another mindfulness practice that works well for you? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear all about it. Because the friends that share mindfulness exercises, stay together. Maybe I’ll see you in a journaling program at Cactus Cancer Society one of these days. Until then, happy breathing.