Have you ever thought about the way you react to stress and anxiety? If you haven’t, I would highly recommend it.

Think about they way you speak to people when you’re stressed. Are you patient and kind, or are you abrupt and rude?

Think about the way you go through your daily routine when you’re stressed. Are you focused and efficient, or are you scattered and making mistakes?

Everybody experiences stress differently. Whether we realize it or not, we handle this stress in a certain way, even if that means not doing much about your stress at all. Doing nothing is, in itself, a reaction— it’s passive and inactive, but technically, it’s still a reaction.

Some have a high tolerance for stress, remaining even-keel and level-headed for a long period of time before any signs of wear start to show. Others are far more sensitive to stress, and it takes very little to cause aggravation and frustration. When you have an anxiety disorder like OCD, it’s likely that you fall into the latter category.

No matter what your tolerance level is, at some point or another, you’re bound to be pushed to a breaking point. When you do, it’s important to have an outlet for your stress. Having a coping mechanism in place can be the difference between driving safely and having road rage, having a conversation and starting an argument, or falling asleep and lying restless in bed for hours.

And, when you have an anxiety disorder, having an outlet can be the difference between simply functioning and not functioning at all.

When I first found out I had OCD, it came on very suddenly. I’m sure I had always had it, but my OCD “outbreak” (when my symptoms first made themselves glaringly obvious and my habits were impossible to ignore) came on by surprise. It was like a switch was turned and all of a sudden, I was barely functional.

The first few weeks were torture. I couldn’t walk over a doorjamb, feed myself, finish a sentence, or even cough without the intense need to repeat it until it felt “just right." I didn’t go to school, and the only times I left my house were to go to the doctor or to take a drive to pick up food.

Getting into the car was an ordeal, but once I was there I felt relief. For some reason, the only thing I could tolerate was Burger King, so my mom and I made many a trip through the drive-thru. We would order food and eat parked in the parking lot or while driving around because it was soothing to me (this may also be part of why I associate food with being comforting).

To her credit, from the beginning, my mom was always adamant about me being functional despite my at times paralyzing OCD symptoms. The things I took comfort in, I was allowed to do. Our drives to Burger King got me out of the house, so we did this frequently. Wherever I went, I would carry a legal pad and something to write with, whether I used it or not (though most of the time I would). Somewhere in an old filing bin at my parent’s house is a small stack of legal pads, each page filled with things from cursive letters to lists, to sports team names and other doodles.

I also found relief in playing basketball. We had a hoop above my parent’s garage, and I would spend hours in the driveway practicing my jump shot. It didn’t matter if it was dark out, if I was sick, if it was raining or even snowing. My neighbors could attest to it, that almost every day, I was out there in the driveway shooting hoops.

Although I never could have labeled these things this way at the time, being in a moving car, writing, and playing basketball were some of my first “outlets.” As I grew older and learned to drive, I would often drive around town just to ease my mind and relax. I still carry a pen and paper (and now my laptop) with me most places, despite friends making light-hearted jokes about the backpack I often bring with me wherever I go. And while I rarely have time for it any more, whenever I get the chance to play basketball, even if it’s just shooting around, it’s like I’m right back in the driveway at my parent’s house.

For all I know, I was allowed these things as a kid simply because I was so limited in just about everything else that seeing me do something at all was progress. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I was allowed to do them. At a time when I felt completely trapped by my obsessions and compulsions, these outlets were my escape.

That’s not to say that these things weren’t in some way connected to my OCD. In fact, the ritualistic and repetitive way in which I would write, and even practice shooting hoops were absolutely OCD-driven to some extent. The difference, however, was that these things soothed me and brought my anxiety down to a manageable level where I could actually function.

Much of what I write for this blog I write as anecdotes, stories from my past that remind me of the struggles I’ve experienced with OCD and the lessons I’ve learned from them. I’ve learned that having an outlet for anxiety is not only a good thing— it can be life-changing. For me, my outlets allowed me to get out of the house and to go about living a somewhat “normal” life, but you don’t have to have OCD to benefit from having an outlet for your stress.

Remember, we all have stress— anxiety disorder or not— and we all deal with that stress differently. Actively doing nothing to cope with your stress and anxiety is still “doing something,” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. You have the power to change that by making a point to be mindful and aware of how you feel on a regular basis.

If you notice yourself feeling tense, frantic, or scattered, ask yourself why you think that is. Then, also take notice of when you don’t feel that way. What are you doing in these moments? Why do you think you feel differently in these moments than in others?

The things we’re doing when we feel calm could very well be the blueprint for our coping mechanisms, but you have to ask the questions and be listening for the answers. When you get them, be receptive to them. Let them sink in. Chances are, the answers you find to these questions are the key to finding your own outlets for reducing your stress and anxiety.

Listen to them. Make time for them. Use them. And trust me, I know it won’t always be possible, or easy. I don’t write enough, play basketball enough, write, draw, sing, or seek out my other outlets as much as I should. It’s always going to be a work in progress, and it very well may be for you, too. If something doesn’t work, try something else. There’s no shame in starting over, as long as you’re still trying.

Keep going, you’ve got this. I’m with you.

What are your outlets for anxiety and stress?
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