I’ve always been an anxious person, but it took until I was in my early 20s to understand there was a difference between being anxious and having anxiety, and by that point in time it was only because someone had to tell me I was suffering from a solid case of the latter. As a naturally solitary person with consistently high emotional levels, I’m one of those odd folks who loves to talk about themselves but never the stuff that could truly help. I’m also incredibly bad at figuring out the signs of an impending anxiety attack and am more likely to let the strain build up until it has nowhere to go but out in the messiest fashion possible. It’s good to talk and let people know how you’re feeling but that’s so often easier said than done.
I’ve always found emotional and mental solace in pop culture. I am hardly unique in this regard. It’s a go-to crutch for so many who aren’t ready to reach out to family, friends or professionals. If I feel the all too recognizable first twinges of anxiety, I typically reach out for music or podcasts, something that can fill my head with noise for an hour or so. I suck at doing one thing at a time, as if my brain believes focusing on a singular element is a waste of time and productivity, so I like to go for walks while drowning out the world with sound. There’s no set playlist for this. I’m one of those awful people who loves to find a new song, listen to it repeatedly for a solid fortnight, then get bored of it and ignore it for a couple of years. There are staples I return to - the true sign that I love something is that I never get sick of it - so a strident walk of anxiety calming is best suited for these choices. If you want to stomp out the frustration that comes with anxiety, that feeling that you undeniably suck and can’t do anything about it, I recommend Daft Punk or Justice, although any French electro act will do. For podcast choices, I need laughter so I usually go for a classic How Did This Get Made? episode I could practically recite from memory. Anxiety makes the negative voices in my head louder, so the bellowing honks of Jason Mantzoukas work wonders for balancing things out.
If I can focus my brain on something else beyond my own inability to think or breath properly, I find my anxiety can be managed more appropriately. As I’ve written about before, I took up knitting and crochet earlier this year, partly for stress relief and also as a more creative means to procrastinate from finishing my Master’s thesis (that’s all done now). A handy side-effect is that the monotonous repetition of such crafting helps the brain to turn off, and if combined with the right background noise, it can be the exact remedy I’m looking for. I can still only make rectangles and squares - everyone I know is getting a scarf this Christmas whether they like it or not - but I’m now experienced enough in the simplest stitch that I can do row after row without keeping count and everything manages to stay straight.
Anxiety makes my brain crave the familiar. I need the stuff I know works and have no time or inclination for experimenting during these times. That means doing the same things, eating the same foods, watching or listening to the same stuff, and reacting in the same ways even if they’re proven to be detrimental.
While my pop culture tastes tend to skew a little darker and more misery laden - usually, I love an arthouse film that makes me feel emotionally bereft for hours after viewing - anxiety makes me turn the other way and run towards predictable sweetness. I want nice people being nice or doing nice things, from cooking shows to Let’s Plays of the video games I played as a kid to fan-fiction where my ships get fluffy and completely out of character. This craving has only increased over the past couple of years as our society gallops towards a ceaseless hellscape of insufferable misery. Many of us had previously wondered if the current political age would leave to an audience verve for politically engaged stories that reflected the aggression of our time, but I think we’ve gone in the opposite direction. We want safety, we want Mr. Rogers and The Great British Bake Off and every Mamma Mia sequel we can get our hands on. That’s not to say the two elements can’t converge, but sometimes our brains just need a reminder that there are good things and good people out there, and that can make us good too.
Of course, an important part of living with anxiety is that you have to be smart enough to understand that, some of the time, none of this stuff will work: You won’t have the energy to go for a walk or the weather will be too bad; the nice people baking cakes or speedrunning Psychonauts will suddenly be too irritating to deal with; your hands will be too shaky to crochet or the thought of doing stitch after stitch will make your mind want to gag. You’re too tired, too irritated, your mind is too irrational, you can’t concentrate, and your coping mechanisms don’t work. And that’s okay. There are days when you just need to stew in your anxiety and let it wash over you until its time has passed. That’s not always easy to deal with. After all, you’ve got shit to do today and you can’t have this crap in your way. Sometimes, you just need to talk to someone, to let someone know how you’re feeling and give them the heads up. I think I’ve gotten better at this, although I’m sure a lot of people would be quick to refute that. You find your own way through your tangled mind maze.
If you’re dealing with anxiety or think you are, check out Mind’s list on self-care for anxiety and further information on treatments, causes and useful contacts.
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