Thursday, October 2, 2014

Where Do You Put Your Anxiety?

Anxiety. It's what's for dinner!

Not really. But as I read more about the probable connection between eating disorders and anxiety, and how feeling "stressed" (anxiety, right?) is often a trigger for binge eating, compulsive eating, obsessive food thoughts or just plain old comfort eating, I think about my weight history and wonder how it might have been different if I had better coping mechanisms for stress. I guess I never really learned what to do with my feelings when I was a kid. I saw my mother drink her stress away. I watched kids in school doing things like acting out, getting in trouble, using drugs, running away, getting in fights. Me? I didn't really know what to do with my feelings, except pray. Pray, read my Bible, try to be a good girl. And stuff my feelings down deep, deep inside where no one would see them... where I could ignore them, at least for awhile.

Somehow, I didn't notice the kids who dealt with stress by doing constructive things like playing sports or joining clubs. I didn't understand the impact of that kind of a supportive environment, and the way channeling your energy into, say, a soccer game or an art contest or horseback riding, helped actually relieve pressure. I wasn't allowed to play sports or join clubs. I learned to internalize my anxiety, although I didn't learn to stress eat until much, much later in life.

Whether you have anxiety or just have stressful things to cope with in your life, that energy has to go somewhere. Some time ago when I was having a hard time emotionally dealing with a health issue one of my kids had, I started to feel like I just could. not. cope. with one more thing. I was so stressed out I wasn't sleeping. I keep having food thoughts and wanting to eat to 'escape.' But instead, I shut down. I internalized all of that negative energy and worry and became paralyzed with fear of what 'might happen.' I spent days feeling unable to DO anything. It's like the power of the anxiety turned into some kind of trap, keeping me from moving forward... or moving at all.

On one particularly bad day, I met with a friend who had gone through something similar with her child years ago. We started to talk about coping: support groups, counseling, accepting help from people. I asked her how she coped... what she did with her anxiety and stress. And she said:

"My house was cleaner than it had ever been in my life! I started volunteering for a non-profit and put all my focus on helping others there, in all my spare time. I grew the most productive and beautiful garden you ever saw and then canned all of the vegetables that resulted. I planted flowers all around my house and had the most perfectly manicured yard on the block."

That's where she put her anxiety. That's how she channeled that overwhelming, seemingly-negative energy into something positive and useful. Instead of letting it shut her down and paralyze her (by internalizing it), she sent that energy forth into her environment and let it be productive.

I don't know how I never knew that was possible until she told me. It seems so simple. But I had felt like I was powerless, because the stress and anxiety was something uncontrollable. But she showed me that even if you can't make those feelings go away, you can direct and express that energy into something good. This bit of knowledge has truly changed my life. 

I used to sit in the living room eating bags of mini Reeses cups and pints of Haagen Dazs while wondering how I would ever gather the energy and motivation to clean up the house, walk the dog, sort the laundry or get anything done on my many lists of tasks that seemed completely overwhelming. Now I take my stress energy and just START somewhere... DO something. Put that energy to good use. You'd be surprised how much energy you actually have available when you are upset about something, even when you feel "exhausted" from stress, if you channel it into mopping the floor or working in the yard rather than letting is boil inside you while you sit and/or eat.

I am sure lots of people already know this, but maybe there is someone out there like me, who needs to hear this. I do hope someone out there will really HEAR what I am trying to share. You might think you have no energy when you are stressed, but I read somewhere that "anxiety is energy without a goal." So true. Don't let it drain you... give it some direction and let it help you. Spending it on productive tasks is a relief!


Connie C. said...

Great post! Channeling our negative energy into something positive is such a great idea. It's odd how some of the most obvious things aren't so obvious.

heidi said...

I have learned over the years that sometimes when I'm depressed, or stressed or whatever, that for me, the act of cleaning my kitchen can help tremendously. Even just cleaning out the sink, or sorting out the refrigerator, will be the start of something good.

A great book is "100 Ways to Motivate Yourself: Change Your Life Forever" by Steve Chandler. It is available as both an audio book (which I listened to first) and then later also read. A huge thing I took from the book was, "DO SOMETHING". Do anything, just start. The act of doing the 1 small step makes you feel better, which in turn makes it that much easier to take that 2nd positive small step.

Sometimes, when you don't feel like you have control of your life, small things (mopping the kitchen, putting on a nice outfit/hair/makeup, or even cleaning out your car), can make you feel like at least you're winning in this one area of your life and can really dispel that hopelessness we all sometimes feel.

It's a hard lesson to put in to practice when you are feeling down, but an incredibly effective tool for changing your mood and your surroundings.

Lyn said...


great comment and so true! In fact I am cleaning out my kitchen cabinets today and it really does lift the mood and take your mind off other, less controllable worries.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm TL and I just came about this blog a few days ago. I must say, I really enjoy reading this blog. This blog is what I wish my blogged is.

I've been overweight all my life and it's just been in the last 5 to 7 years that I started taking my health a little more serious since I was diagnosed with diabetes in 2008. Also been homeless for a great deal of this time. I love to cook healthy food but there are days that I feel emotional or stress that I ditch cooking healthy for eating out or pigging out. Then I start feeling guilty about doing it and the next day I stop what I've been doing correctly and fall back into old patterns. It's very hard when the only true person I have is a friend that I've known for over 20 years but yet I still don't feel comfortable enough sharing with him as he is going through the same thing. I'm 40 years old and at one point a few months ago weighed a little over 350. Now I weigh 315. So, things I'm doing is working but I do a lot of self sabotaging. I find that most support groups I go to just doesn't cut it for me. I've been to a few OA meetings but just don't see any use in them. I've tried getting personal trainers and/or going to gyms but it seems I'm unable to continue them because I either have nobody to go with or the trainer will only like show me how things are done before leaving, leaving me alone. Then I stop doing it. Probably one of the reasons I love work. I look forward going into work because I'm around people there. Sorry for the long post. I've thought about canning and doing gardening myself but unable to do the gardening right now as I live in apartment complexes.

Anonymous said...

My therapist once told me to imagine my anxiety as a straight jacket made of toilet paper. I am sitting wrapped up and feeling trapped with all the bad energy inside. I can burst through the paper wrapping and then put the energy outwards to take action to help myself. It sounds like you are saying almost the same thing. It works, I have tried it! Thank you for bringing this to light.


LHA said...

Excellent post! I will use these ideas for sure.

JSP said...

After a tragedy in my personal life and it's aftermath there were many many days I sat in a chair with my head spinning. My current mantra is "do the next thing". It is a command really. I say that to myself and the next question is what is the next thing? Something pops in my head and I force myself to go do that. Usually a sense of accomplishment comes with the completion of that thing and I do something else. Sometimes I end up back in the chair. But something got done.

Lyn said...

I'm sorry JSP :( That is so hard. Thoughts and prayers for you and your family.

Anonymous said...

my problem is I started cooking and baking when I am upset. Now I am gaining weight. Cleaning sounds like a better idea.