Finding the Calm

Have you ever watched a thriller movie that’s suspenseful from start to finish? Have you ever found yourself realizing, maybe halfway through, that you’ve been tense the entire time? Or maybe you realize when the movie is over that you actually feel exhausted? 

Now, if you can, imagine what it might be like to feel this way for an entire day.

Got it?

OK.

Now imagine what it might be like to feel this way all the time.

Welcome to anxiety and OCD.

In my first article, I explained some of the thought processes that come with OCD, and the need for things to feel “just right.” I’ve expanded on that sentiment to go on and talk about some of the habits that my OCD has caused me to do in order to alleviate my anxiety. I’ve shared some of my experiences with therapy, and the intensity of feeling stuck. Something I haven’t really touched on just yet is relaxing.

I suppose it’s appropriate that the topic of relaxation would have eluded me for this long because, in all honesty, relaxing doesn’t come naturally to me in my everyday life. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy relaxing- slipping into sweats, grabbing some comfort food, and curling up with my fiancée and puppy for a day of watching lighthearted TV on Netflix. But still, in many cases, I find it hard to truly relax.

 Relaxing with my puppy, Tucker

Relaxing with my puppy, Tucker

From a physical standpoint, at least as an outsider might see it, I do my fair share of relaxing. I make time to catch up on my DVR, spend time watching a ballgame, and occasionally I’ll take up some casual reading. What’s harder to see, though, is that even in these moments of what might appear to be relaxation, my mind and body are not on the same page. 

The distinction that I would make here is that there is often a level of disconnect between what’s going on in my mind and the things my body is telling me. More often than not, my mind runs the show. So even when I’m lying in bed attempting to go to sleep at a somewhat reasonable hour, my mind is typically frantic, as though it were closing time on the trading floor on Wall Street.

The extent to which this happens varies, and is largely dependent upon the things I’ve done during the day and the things I have coming up in the days to follow. Whatever the case, it’s as though my mind isn’t satisfied unless it’s done everything on my to-do list, and even then, it feels like it needs to be doing more.

I brought up the analogy of a thriller movie because one, I believe it’s relatable to most people, and two, it parallels and embodies the purpose of my story very accurately.

When watching a suspenseful thriller movie the tendency, for many, is for the mind to wander, and to tap into our adrenaline triggered by the “fight or flight” response. This response is the body’s natural, subconscious reaction to stress, the symptoms of which include an increased heart rate, the tensing of the muscles, rapid breath and tightening of the chest. Whether we realize it right away or not, our bodies go into a heightened state. It is only when the movie ends, or we make a conscious effort to control our breathing and release the tension in our muscles that we begin to relax again.

Living with OCD and the anxiety that comes with it is a lot like watching a suspenseful movie that never really ends. Even when I try to allow my body to relax, my mind has other plans.

That deadline is coming up soon I really should exercise more My friends are mad at me I may never find the right job Did I put the leftovers away I should have done more today I didn’t play with the dog enough It’s too warm Am I letting people down Maybe I should move I’m never going to fall asleep…

I left punctuation out for a reason- punctuation implies at least slight pause. Punctuation, at least in terms of my thoughts much of the time, is a myth.

It's exhausting.

If you have OCD, it’s probably a fair guess that you understand this completely, although I don’t think that you need to have OCD to be able to identify with these feelings. Even if you’re lucky enough not to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or other anxiety disorders, I would imagine that these feelings are felt by just about everybody, albeit to varying degrees. This is actually in some ways a good thing because it’s something I believe we can all relate to.

One potential difference, and an important one at that, is that while those of you without anxiety disorders may be able to synchronize the body and mind and to relax relatively easily, for those of us with OCD, relaxation can be quite evasive. This means that those feelings of tension, the elevated heart rate, the rapid breathing and tightness in the chest are far more constant, or at the very least more regular parts of our daily lives. 

So how do I relax?

Well…

Frankly, this question still gets me. Sometimes I find myself at a loss for an answer, and you may find this, too. What I do know is that because finding the calm in my life doesn’t often come naturally, in order to relax, I actually have to try not to think.

That seems kind of counterintuitive, doesn’t it? It’s true, though. The amount energy it can take to stop thinking almost seems to defeat the purpose in the first place. With that said, there are a few things that I find helpful that I would suggest giving a try if you’re looking for ways to calm yourself from your day-to-day stress.

 

Writing

Many times when my mind is racing, it’s because I’m thinking of all the things that need to be done, and when and how I’m going to do them. Recently, I’ve made a conscious effort to pick up pen and paper and actually write things down, and I’ve found that if nothing else, it eases some of the burdens of having to remember everything.

Now, I know I’m likely not the first person to make this suggestion and I probably won’t be the last. Honestly, I can’t tell you how frequently I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to keep everything organized in my head. What I do know is that writing things down again has made a difference for me in terms of my anxiety. When I find my mind racing with all of the things that I have to do, I feel a sense of relief when I put it all on paper (and I mean literal paper, not typing it on the computer). Seeing it written out in front of me helps me to process, prioritize, and plan my schedule accordingly for the coming days. 

Another way writing helps me find calmness is by giving me an outlet for my OCD’s intrusive thoughts. I’ve dabbled with poetry, journaling, and other forms of writing and personally, I love finding different ways to express what’s going on inside of my head. When I’m feeling particularly stressed, writing can be a therapeutic experience. Though sometimes revisiting a difficult time or situation from my past does cause some tension, I find that once I get myself started, the words tend to come naturally, and by the end, I feel that a negative energy has been released. In fact, writing this blog in itself has given me a great sense of satisfaction and has helped me to relieve a great deal of stress.

 

Listening to Music

Music is a tremendously versatile outlet and tool for channeling our feelings. We can use music to match our moods and emotions, like listening to an angry song when we’re frustrated or needing to release energy, an upbeat song to fuel a workout, or a sad song when we’re upset. We can also use music for the exact opposite, to change our moods. I’ve used music as both a tool to help me focus and as a distraction or diversion from things I would rather not focus on. The music I’ll listen to varies based on my mood and purpose in listening. 

Like most of you, I’m sure, I use music to get my adrenaline pumping and motivate me during exercise. When lifting weights, my selection tends to be more rock-based; when doing cardio, I shift more towards something with a good beat. Then there are moments when I feel I need to focus on work or to relax my mind at the end of the day. In these cases, I find it helpful to listen to instrumentals, particularly because there are no lyrics to sing along to, which I personally find distracting. More specifically, I like to listen to artists like the Vitamin String Quartet, a group that has covered a considerable amount of popular songs that resonate. I’ve done some of my best work while listening to them, and they’re basically one of the only forms of noise I can tolerate when doing work.

 

Drawing

Many people don’t know this about me, but I nearly majored in art as an undergrad in college. Art runs in my family, and I was fortunate enough to inherit some artistic abilities, my favorite being drawing. I sometimes have a difficult time creating more open-ended and conceptual pieces. Instead, I like to do pencil drawings mainly from observation, because it allows me to create while satisfying my OCD-driven need for structure. What’s somewhat ironic is that when I’m drawing I still tense up, but the biggest difference is in the effect it has on me mentally. Drawing allows me to focus my energy on one specific thing, and I get so wrapped up in creating that my mind becomes quiet. Even though there is an intensity channeled towards the artwork, I find a great sense of relief from any intrusive thoughts.

Obviously, these are just my personal preferences, and what works for me will not necessarily work the same for you. Perhaps exercise is your release; perhaps it’s breathing, meditation, or prayer. Whatever it may be, the main takeaway here is that it’s important to not only find but to make time for things that help to calm you down when you feel stressed or anxious. Stress management is one of the essential tools to develop in working through your anxiety. Whether it’s drawing, writing, music, or some other activity I encourage you to try any and all of my suggestions and to come up with some of your own.

How do you cope with stress? Share your comments at the bottom of the page.

© Copyright Whatismyhealth, February 5th, 2017