Plenty of scientific evidence proves that the old proverb “go with your gut” is legit. The systems in our brains that are responsible for intuition react much, much faster than the ones responsible for deep thoughts and conscious, analytical decisions. And not only are they faster—they’re generally right. Instinct is an important evolutionary advantage, designed to keep us safe in the heat of the moment! These academics back up things humans have known since the advent of guts: Your first thought is often your best thought, to paraphrase the poet Allen Ginsberg.
What these facts don’t take into account, however, is how many of us are living in bodies that, psychologically speaking, are less intuitive overall. “Go with your gut” is pretty meaningless advice if your gut isn’t BFFs with your logical brain. For people like me who struggle with our mental health, our diagnoses often render our gut instincts untrustworthy at best. My anxiety means my natural responses to tricky situations are often to feel panicky, run like hell, get sick, or act out, regardless of the reality of my situation. l often find my hand forced in the direction my disorder wants me to move, rather than doing what’s best for me.
Luckily, over the 27 years I’ve spent on this planet, I’ve found ways to get myself out of it. Once you realize that stopping a horrible panic attack can sometimes be as easy as doing some karate, eating a banana, or taking a nap, you’ll look at your symptoms differently. You’ll actually see right past them, straight to where your intuition is, waiting to help you make awesome, healthy decisions.
All of these solutions can be enacted in different ways, depending on your surroundings. What works for you when you’re home alone might not be right for when you’re at the movies, having dinner at grandma’s house, or doing homework with your lab partner. I’ve listed tried (by me!)-and-true action plans for every situation.
I think in words instead of pictures, so I often find that writing about my problems is a good start to getting through them. Try carrying a notebook around (or start a new note on your phone if you’re more electronically inclined). When you’re faced with a problem, write out how it makes you feel, its ideal outcome (even if that ideal outcome is “monsters land on the surface of the planet and take it out with a death ray so I won’t have to deal with this shit right now”), and possible (non-death-ray) solutions.
Don’t worry about maintaining great penmanship or grammar. When sentences start pouring out of you, your brain is working low-key to solve whatever’s going on. You might find you want to read it over later and see if any themes or possible solutions jump out at you— or don’t, if the act of writing was enough to make you feel better.
PLAN OF ATTACK:
When you’re alone: Sometimes I find it helpful to write a letter about everything I’m feeling about the situation addressed to the person who caused it (or, if the problem is caused by a situation or circumstance rather than a person, address it to your feelings, the Universe, even to yourself)…then I delete the ever-loving shit out of that letter. Actually sending it could mess things up, especially if you wrote it from a place of sickness or anger, but the very act of writing it can lend you an immense amount of clarity and/or relief.
With a friend or small group: If you need a second to process something when you’re with pals, this is a great time to pause, whip out a notebook, and tell them you just remembered something you forgot to write down in class! Turn to a blank page and jot out a few sentences until you feel better. If you need to fill a page, tell them you just got the inspiration for a new short story/the introduction to a term paper/a letter to your Congressman about protecting local beaver dams.
In a public space: Since everyone’s on their phones all the time, pulling yours out and “sending a text” won’t draw any extra attention. Chill for a second and vent in a note or write a text to no one. Nobody will be the wiser.
METHOD: Making Art
Maybe you start writing and immediately self-editing and judging your own feelings. You might be worried that if you put your deepest feelings down on paper, someone could find and read them, and you’ll have to suffer the consequences. How about instead, you grab crayons, glitter, paintbrushes, magazines and glue, a sketchbook, or whatever medium you prefer, and start making something tangible? Art can be a safer means of expression for people concerned with invasions of privacy by parents or nosy friends. Science genius humans think routine creativity can be really good for you in the long run, too, which means it could theoretically function as a replacement for more damaging behaviors you might tend toward when you’re not feeling well.
PLAN OF ATTACK:
When you’re alone: This is the time to really go for it! I like to pull out all the stops, get every craft supply I own out of storage, and make a giant mess. Start a long-term project that you can pull out whenever you’re not feeling great. You don’t have to be Matisse to benefit from this—the mere act of scribbling all over a piece of newspaper and going fuckin’ ballistic might make you feel a little better.
When I’m feeling unsure of or down on myself, I temporarily refocus my attentions on making something that helps distract me from those thoughts, like picking up a crayon and scrawling giant, aimless loops on a piece of paper, or drawing pictures of what’s frustrating me. Your version doesn’t have to revolve around drawing or painting: Try papier-maché, make a soothing glitter jar, or homemade gak!
With a friend or small group: Carry a sketchbook and pens in your bag. If your friends like art, too, pull out some pages and try playing exquisite corpse, a game that involves dividing a piece of paper into thirds with each person trying to draw a third of a person before folding the paper over so the other people can’t see it, which always gets people laughing. If you’re home or hanging out at someone’s house, try craft tutorials. Hand-sew some patches onto a jacket or make a DIY face mask—anything that gets your creative juices moving.
In a public space: If you’ve got your sketchbook (or even a pen and napkin or scrap paper), doodle your surroundings. Acknowledging where you are and what you’re doing can quickly recenter you if you start to panic or dissociate. Draw the landscape; the person at the table next to you; the contents of your bag. Focusing on the details of what’s physically real can take you away from intangible feelings and bring you back into yourself.
Meditation has been championed for centuries as a way to re-situate the mind in times of turmoil. Like many other healthy practices, meditation requires practice and a time commitment. Many believe the best way to start meditating is to make time for it every single day, but you can start small—I sometimes sit quietly in a comfortable position for a few minutes at a time, clearing my mind of residual thoughts and focusing on Just Being There. Sometimes, when I let my thoughts unfocus instead of trying to be something or someone, I feel a great sense of inner peace. That’s the best thing about meditation: resting in a place of personal power without self-judgement or -expectations.
The health benefits of meditation, according to many medical professionals who deal with mental illness, include increased physical wellness, better sleep, increased immunity, and lowering your blood pressure, which could lead to a major decrease in anxiety overall. Meditation can be preventative as much as it is a technique you can pull out in times of need. There’s a reason people all over the world have loved it and incorporated it into their daily practices.
PLAN OF ATTACK:
When you’re alone: Here’s a wonderful guide on meditation for beginners. It might seem hard at first, if, like me, you already have major issues quieting your mind, but it’s worth it in the long run. Frustration is part of the learning process—after all, what’s harder than mastering your own thoughts? Once you do that, you’re kind of unstoppable. Practicing when you’re alone makes it easier to pull out simple centering techniques when you’re in public spaces.
With a friend or small group: Many meditations include mantras, aka words, sounds, or utterances that help focus your attention and keep you in the moment. Author, New Age thought leader and meditation expert Deepak Chopra says, “Repetition of the mantra helps you disconnect from the thoughts filling your mind so that perhaps you may slip into the gap between thoughts.” Mantras are meant to be repeated silently in your head, which makes them perfect to lean on when you’re out with other people. You can calm yourself down by quietly repeating a mantra in your head and nobody has to know! What mantra you use isn’t necessarily important; what matters is that you choose a sound or word that resonates with you. When I get nervous before my band goes on stage, I find it useful to hum quietly and steadily in my lowest vocal register. Not only does it center and refocus me, it warms up my vocal cords and regulates my breathing, lowering my heart rate and making me less nervous overall.
In a public space: Who knows how much great thinking has been done in public restrooms? Duck away, lock yourself in a stall, and pause for a moment. Giving yourself even two minutes to breathe could help you handle your feelings. If you’re blushing, nauseous, or crying, try running your hands and wrists under cold water. I can’t count how many times that trick has worked for me. Here are some other ways to get back on your feet after a bathroom cry if you don’t feel like explaining your flushed face to whoever might be waiting for you outside.