I live with (and work with, and mother with, and create with) chronic generalized anxiety disorder. It has taken a long time for me to share this openly. The stigma around mental health is still so strong! But that is why I need to share this. It has meant so much to me when other moms and entrepreneurs have shared their journey. If this post can help just one person feel less alone, it is worth it.
Before I dive into the weird strategies I have for keeping my anxiety under control so I can do meaningful work, there is one critical disclaimer. I do take medication, I do go to therapy, and I do practice yoga and meditation and journaling. Supportive and loving friendships and a caring husband are all essential. In no way am I trying to make anyone think that if you come up with the one right "trick" can you solve mental health issues. But, that aside, our brains are tricky and funny things. Creativity can sometimes help, and either way, it makes life a little more fun.
AND - even if you don't live with chronic anxiety, maybe you know someone who does. Or perhaps these ideas will give your non-anxious brain a new perspective too. One other note for the neurotypical among you, these strategies will not work for everyone. If someone you love has anxiety (or any other concern) and they tell you this doesn't help them - believe them. As I say to my kids all the time, the one thing you can never know is how someone else feels unless they tell you. And when they tell you, believe them.
Changing Up My Log-In Screen and Other Randomness
Colors, sounds, smells. All of these stimuli can be triggers for anxiety. Even if you have never had anxiety, you are probably familiar with the feeling of dread that occasionally accompanies the sound of your alarm in the morning or the sight of someone with whom you argued. After a few bad days trying to log in to my computer to work is the same feeling. Or seeing my email background will remind me of a stressful email I got the day before. Or opening my cell phone screen will suck me into scrolling through Facebook to escape. The great news is that I have control over what I see when I open my email or computer or phone. And it can be random!
By turning on the random screen background, themes in my email, and occasionally rearranging my phone home screen, I avoid getting stuck in mental loops. When I open my laptop, my surprise and curiosity circuits in my brain are triggered instead of the stress ones. As an added benefit, sometimes, the image that pops up on my screen is exceptionally captivating and gives me a shot of pleasure and awe—a much better mental place to start working.
Soduku Puzzles and Tetris
More and more research is showing that mindfulness can help reduce stress and anxiety . The only problem with that is often it can be hard to slow the brain down enough to focus on being mindful in the first place. The solution? Tetris or Soduku puzzles.
Let's talk about Tetris first. Studies show that Tetris specifically can help reduce anxiety and focus your brain. While researchers are not sure why this is, one speculation is that because you have to focus on the rapidly falling tiles, it helps drown other thoughts out. I use this as an occasional exercise to focus before I dive into a task. To maximize this strategy, I will play one game of Tetris and then set a timer for focused work for 20 minutes.
Next, Soduku. Psychology Today theorizes that playing games like Soduku are calming to the brain because there IS a correct answer. Unlike the messiness of life, there is a single solution. I find the action of solving solvable problems satisfying and anxiety-reducing.
For Soduku puzzles, I prefer to do them on paper rather than an app or on the computer. The action of writing is also calming and helps ground me in the real world.
A caveat, watch out for phone apps or online sites with tons of ads! Not only do these interruptions of your thoughts defeat the focusing purpose of the game, but the ads themselves may be upsetting. One of the things that I like about the basic Tetris game on their website or paper Soduku is that it doesn't trap my brain in a reward circuit link. For example, with special bonuses, or limited time extras, or any of the many other tools game creators use to keep you playing for hours. It can be a fine line between intentionally relieving stress to be more productive and using distractions to avoid and ignore.
Baking Productivity Cookies
Okay, I don't have a thing called "Productivity Cookies," but maybe I should invent a recipe. As I mentioned before, using a timer can be a powerful tool to keep me from getting mentally stuck. The only problem is that sometimes I ignore the timer when it goes off. Know how to prevent that from happening? Put some cookies in the oven! Nothing quite like the smell of burning cookies to snap you out of your funk.
Baking is in itself helpful for my anxiety because it focuses me on my senses, what is happening right now in the physical world instead of in my fears, and gives me a sense of satisfaction from completing something. Bonuses to this strategy include that my baby falls asleep in the baby carrier while I walk around the kitchen, and everyone else in the house loves the fresh baked goods!
Pause My Inbox
Geeky tools make my day, and one of my favorites is Boomerang for Gmail. It is one of my big secrets to getting to inbox zero daily. And it is also useful for avoiding distractions when I need to get work done.
I just hit the "pause" button, and no new emails come into my inbox for a while. Time to set a goal set, a timer, and get working!
When my husband is done with work, he gets in his car and drives home. He works on industrial robots, so they can't come home with him. Out of sight, out of mind until the next day, for the most part.
Working on social media at home is a different world. There is no off switch. I have been known to work early mornings before the kids are up on holidays, on weekends, after the kids go to bed, and while sitting in the pickup line at school. Don't get me wrong. Flexibility is one of the significant advantages of having my own business and working for myself. As my kids have grown up, I have been able to put them first. I can squeeze in events and coffee dates and volunteering. But I have to be careful with it too. When I had my daughter last year, I decided to actually take maternity leave. And the world did not stop turning!
It means that I have to be more intentional about my work. I need to say no to projects or clients that don't respect my boundaries. And I have to be all in during work time. But the value of actually closing the computer, stashing my phone, and being present is unmeasurable. It has taken me time to find that balance, and it is an always evolving work in progress, but I am so much happier now accepting that breaks are worthwhile and will help my productivity in the long run.
The Upsides of Anxiety
We tend to stigmatize brains that work a little differently. There have most certainly been days that I wished I didn't have anxiety as a part of my life. And treating it is essential. However, each of our different and unique brains comes with advantages too.
For example, I am genuinely good at empathizing with others, seeing potential roadblocks or problems and solving them, and thinking outside of the box. I can consume large amounts of information in a short amount of time and make connections from disparate sources. All these things are significant advantages in life and my business.
I would love to hear from you - how does your brain work differently? What are the positives of the mind you have? What strategies have you discovered to help minimize the downsides?