The Recipe for Anxiety Relief
News flash: There's no single fix for chronic anxiety. Instead, you've got to do all the things to catch a real break.
Whenever I start working with a new doctor or therapist, I ask them if they believe that panic disorder can be cured. Without fail, most of them will either say yes emphatically, or they’ll say yes, but with caveats. At this point in the conversation I tell them that I believe panic and anxiety can be managed to some degree but hoping for a cure is setting myself up for disappointment and failure. Then I ask if any of their patients have been completely cured of their panic and anxiety loops. Sure, lots of them. Great. I’d love to meet one, I’ll take them out for a steak dinner at Peter Luger’s, please give them my contact info. In 15 years, I haven’t paid for a single steak dinner or met any of these mysterious people who were cured.
If somebody tells you they know or have the cure for anxiety, you’ve just met a liar or a scammer. There is no cure. Yoga ain’t gonna cure you, neither is talking about the time you froze when you had to give a presentation in class. There’s no pill that makes it go away and stay away. Some well-intentioned person will recommend exercise, like that’s going to make things all better. Spoiler alert: It’s not.
My pessimism doesn’t end there. I also don’t believe that any single thing helps all that much. You have to do multiple things to get a result. Managing an anxiety disorder is like having a part-time job. And it’s exhausting. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Giving up is the only way to ensure nothing changes.
Since my other job (when I’m not writing about mental health) is being a cookbook author/recipe writer, the best way for me to convey exactly how much it takes to get to the point where you experience some type of relief might be in the form of a recipe. Think of treating anxiety like making a stew. On their own, some ingredients like celery and turnips are kind of wack and don’t really do anything for you, but when combined with other ingredients, some time, seasoning, and a little technique, they become important parts of the whole.
There’s a recipe we all have to follow to be our mentally healthiest. (Spoken like a cookbook chef, right?) My recipe requires medication, meditation, yoga, clean eating, exercise, mindful living, solid sleep, lots of laughs, social engagement, travel to challenge myself, and meaningful work. When one ingredient is missing, the recipe doesn’t work as well. When several ingredients are missing, the whole thing starts to fall apart real soon. And of course, you don’t notice until it’s too late. Let's help that not happen to you. Here are the three key ingredients to any anti-anxiety plan:
PMA (positive mental attitude). Think of this like the onions and carrots and garlic you sauté first to get the base of flavor going. If you want to work on (and believe me, it’s work) overcoming an anxiety disorder, you’re going to need some PMA and a plan. The first thing I want you to do is write down three things you wanted to do but avoided doing because of panic/anxiety/depression. This doesn’t have to be a big deal like curing cancer, but I want you to set your goals, and when you achieve them, I want you to feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s how you’ll know it’s working. When your anxious mind tells you that everything is terrible (and it will), you have tangible evidence to prove that your negative thoughts are bullshit.
Talking. Think of this as the meat/vegetarian protein of the stew. Do not keep your feelings bottled up and hidden from the world. Speak out. If you have a close friend that you trust, start with them and see where it goes. Don’t expect your friends to be professionals or always have the best advice, but sometimes it feels good to unburden yourself and admit to your struggles.
If you’re still having trouble, it might be time to talk to a professional. I’m known for telling friends, “Believing that your therapist really cares about you is as silly as believing that a stripper is really into you,” so my view of therapy might be a little different than others. You are paying for 45 minutes of their time. In that session you can be totally and completely honest with another human being without judgment. Don’t hold back, tell them how you feel—tell them those things about your anxiety that you’ve never told anyone.
Here, I’ll do one: I have a ceramic knife set, not because I love ceramic knives, but because I feel like they’re less dangerous to me in case I “go crazy.” I thought I was going to blow my therapist’s mind with that insanity. Turns out, it’s really common amongst people with anxiety disorders, but also regular people like that church lady who lives next door to you. That kind of fear affects us all, but anxious people give those thoughts too much power, and your therapist can help with strategies to break the fear loops and limiting behavior. Just don’t expect your therapist to solve all your problems. They’re a person just like you, but they (hopefully) happen to know a little more about your condition.
Doing. This part is the vegetables of the stew. It’s in my opinion the most important part. A stew without vegetables is no kind of stew. This is the hardest part because it requires effort and determination. I don’t care what you do, as long as you do something. Don’t tell me you can’t. You have to force yourself, even if you don’t want to, to do something to be a part of the world. That creates positive momentum and propels you straight ahead. You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it.
Start with the three things from your list. You might be an anxious mess doing them. So what? You think you’re the only anxious person in the world? You think people really notice and care? What’s the worst that can happen? Now think about it and tell me what’s really the worst that can happen. I wanted to volunteer in a soup kitchen, it was on my list. I was in a panic the night before thinking about it. In a panic on the bus ride over. In a panic as I went inside and introduced myself. And in a panic when I was tasked with something important. Next thing you know, I’m running molten hot trays of BBQ chicken, corn on the cob, and collared greens. I got into a flow state with the work because it was meaningful to me, and in some of those moments, I was panic- and anxiety-free.
Transforming. These lifestyle measures are the herbs and spices that flavor the stew. I find guided meditations—specifically guided mindfulness meditations—to be extremely helpful with relaxation, but more importantly, they help me with accepting things as they are. Everybody you know has probably raved about the benefits of exercise. Cardio and yoga did the trick for me. They’re stress relievers in the moment, but the benefits extend further than just a spin class or a zoom yoga flow. If you’ve got a yoga practice going and are going hard with the cardio, positive lifestyle changes are likely to follow. You’ll be less likely to overdo it with alcohol, drugs, caffeine, and garbage food if you’re in the zone; you might even notice a physical transformation.
Now, here’s where I turn into Debbie Downer. Nothing works or will help you if you don’t keep doing it. I’m writing this column like I know what I’m talking about (I kinda do), but I’ve gone from the after picture back to the before since midway through the lockdown. The other night, my wife and I settled in for our usual Netflix-and-dinner routine. I, our family’s dedicated chef, was recovering from an abdominal surgery that came with complications, which was followed by then a second surgery to make up for the botched first surgery. My wife has many endearing qualities, though getting dinner on the table has never been one of them—and when I snapped at her about it that evening, I realized my mood hadn’t been OK in a while. Recovering during COVID turned my routine upside down, and along with my physical side effects, there were mental ones, too. That’s because staying mentally healthy isn’t as easy as popping an antidepressant and going about your day.
Here’s how it started for me: I stopped focusing on present-moment awareness because of my pain after surgery. Then I stopped sleeping well because of pain. Then I stopped exercising because I had to take three months off (that turned into six) to recover from surgery. I stopped meditating because I couldn’t concentrate because I’m hardly sleeping. I ordered takeout instead of cooking and eating healthy food because I felt like garbage and stopped caring. You see how this quickly this spun out of control?
This might sound kind of familiar to you as well considering we’re all trying to get by in pandemic mode. All the things I loved about living in NYC are not available or too risky since COVID-19 hit, and I rarely see friends and family for the same reason. And I’m kind of annoyed that I spent the first half of this thing checking in on everybody and talking about their worries and strategies to deal with them, and nobody seems to GAF about me. So, I’m going to reread this article in four weeks when I’m supposed to be healed and start all over from the beginning. Use it or lose it.
If you ever pay attention to anything I have to say about mental health and anxiety relief, please let it be this: There’s no one thing that’s going to cure you, so you have to do all the things all the time, whether you like it or not. Put in the work, it’s worth it. Now Go!