I once heard a comedian share this dark-humored analogy: Claiming you know clinical depression because you’ve experienced situational sadness is like claiming you know Italy because you’ve had a meal at Olive Garden.
As a fellow sufferer of the former, I chuckled in empathy, then wondered if the same comparison could stand when people purport to understand anxiety because they’ve struggled with external stress.
Yep, I battle with clinical anxiety, too.
In recent years, the stifling anxiety had mostly subsided. I’d worked through a ton of therapy to process and reprocess my traumas. Even without medications, I hadn’t had a panic attack in years.
But this year, after a series of unfortunate events, my anxiety shot through the roof. That’s not even supposed to be a metaphor — I mean I literally bit through the roof of my mouth because I was grinding my teeth so badly.
Finally, I confided in some friends and realized I was far from alone. Maybe most others had no diagnosable disorder, but our symptoms were uncannily the same: teeth grinding, jaw clenching, heart racing, rapid breathing.
— DCist (@DCist) August 16, 2020
Maybe there isn’t such a world of difference between me and the stressed-out masses. Okay, so we’re all suffering from an escalating anxiety crisis. But besides commiserating in agony, what can we do to cope?
Of course, different things work for different people. Some people seek out the calming poses of yoga. Others relieve their stress by cultivating a garden. Still others quell their nerves by adding CBD to their morning coffee.
But there’s one grounding technique that’s proven effective for many forms of anxiety: creating a safe space around you by engaging all the five senses.
Anxiety Hack: How To Clear Your Space With Mindfulness
By attuning to what soothes you in sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture — an exercise in mindfulness — you can build a sanctuary in your environment that conveys a calming effect, says Jessica Kicha, a licensed mental health counselor and sex therapist.
First, find a low-traffic area in your living space. “When we have people and/or pets running around, it can make it challenging to find your center and feel grounded,” Kicha explains.
Then, Kicha advises, add the following elements:
Five different things you like to look at. “This could be a photograph, a favorite plant, or some cool artwork,” Kicha says.
Four different textures. “Choose textures that you enjoy or find interesting,” she recommends. “Some suggestions would be something cool, smooth, bumpy, soft or fuzzy.”
Three different sounds. “Some folks like to have a little tabletop water fountain, singing bowls, or music players,” Kicha explains. “Try listening to one sound at a time, and move on to the next when you feel ready.”
Two different scents. “Some people will keep incense, a diffuser, essential oils, or even little spice jars,” Kicha says.
One thing to taste. “Maybe it’s some mints, gum, or even your favorite candy,” she notes. “Make sure it’s something that brings you pleasure.”
Once you’ve set up your personal sanctuary, says Kicha, “Try to give yourself at least 10 minutes to let the relaxation sink in. Our nervous systems are not light switches that can turn on and off on demand.”
Anxiety Hack: How To Break The Clutter-Anxiety Cycle
Of course, there’s more to creating a safe space than simply adding pleasurable stimuli. Another anxiety hack for your home is to subtract the elements that trigger a stress response.
Case in point: clutter.
“Minimizing clutter is an essential aspect of reducing anxiety,” says Megan Santiago, a therapist intern who practices mindfulness with her clients. “It can be anxiety-inducing to have excess stuff that makes it harder to find what you need, or tripping over things that you may not even need.”
“It can be helpful to have bins and baskets or other places where you can store excess stuff — especially if you have kids,” adds Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It’s also helpful to create a space of your own within your home where you can go, even if the rest of your house is messy and chaotic.”
Another stressor to avoid, note the experts, is artificial light. “Try to avoid blue lights, TV, computer screens, fluorescent lights, and LED lights,” recommends Dana Colthart, a licensed clinical social worker. “These can all stimulate us and keep us awake.”
“Instead, you can purchase red light bulbs, night lights, and dimmers,” Colthat advises.
Red light bulbs that emit red light waves will help trigger your body’s natural sleep response by increasing your body’s melatonin.”And finally, urge the experts, surround your space with plants. Houseplants serve the best of both worlds — they stimulate your senses yet strip away the toxins.
— Food & Wine (@foodandwine) July 27, 2018
“Plants are powerful healers. Let them enter into your life. Build a relationship with them,” says Blanca Vergara, a coach and mentor for female leaders. “You’ll find yourself calmer. Your cognitive ability will increase. And your places will become magnetic for all but good things.”
How do you build your safe space into a sanctuary? Do you use any of these anxiety hacks? Share your tips in the comments!
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