My neck feels tight and I can’t catch my breath. My eyes are on the brink of releasing tears. Nothing in particular set off my anxiety, but rather several things: I lost a client, I overreacted when my husband accidentally broke my favorite mug, and I haven’t exercised in several days.
I’m anxious, irritable and tense. But luckily, I know the perfect solution.
I pull out my one-line-a-day journal and flip to a recent passage dated March 6, 2019.
Day 2 in Tulum. A wonderful day. Visited the Gran Cenote (so cool!), then the Tulum Ruins. Had lunch on the water, then went swimming in the Aktun Cenote. Had a yummy drink at Gitano (mezcal, pineapple, spices + agave) then a delicious dinner at Arca, an outdoor restaurant. Walked around downtown Tulum and split a gelato. The perfect day.
I take a deep, releasing breath. These negative feelings are fleeting, I remind myself. They will pass, and there will be more perfect days like this on the horizon. There have to be.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve done everything you’re supposed to (save for medication) in order to manage it: therapy, exercise, journaling, mindfulness meditation. Although these coping mechanisms have all helped me get a much better grip on my anxiety, I’ve always grappled with one thing: accepting negative emotions.
I often repress adverse emotions. Whether it’s anger about something a family member said or sadness from a news segment, I tend to hold back any emotions that fall on the “bad” spectrum. I know it’s illogical, but I worry that if I let myself fully feel them, things will just continue to plummet downward and the positive feelings will never return.
People with anxiety tend to repress negative emotions, says Heather Lyons, a licensed psychologist and owner of Baltimore Therapy Group. “Avoidance of aversive stimuli is a pretty common way of coping with anxiety,” she says. “The difficulty is that while avoidance helps us bring down levels of anxiety in the short term, over time it allows anxiety to build. When we avoid, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to desensitize to our discomfort or even to challenge our assumptions about these aversive experiences.”
Repressing my negative emotions only served to exacerbate my anxiety. Sure, I felt OK in the short term, but I was setting myself up for some serious problems long term.
I’ve begun to slowly ease myself into fully feeling adverse emotions.
“If you fear that allowing negative emotions will cause you to be overwhelmed by those emotions, allowing yourself to experience those emotions will help you realize that you’re capable of experiencing them without being consumed or harmed by them,” Lyons says.
I’ve worked hard in therapy to accept and process undesirable emotions, and I’ve experienced higher highs as a result. Even though therapy has helped me immensely, I still struggle to accept negative emotions at times, which led to me develop a coping mechanism that’s all my own. I call it my “Golden Days.”
Six years ago, I began keeping a one-line-a-day journal. Some of these journals have six blank lines, while others have 10. But the overall gist is the same: You write a super succinct summary of each day.
Shortly after starting these journals, I noticed that whenever I’d have a particularly low day, I’d flip through them in search of bright moments. Remembering all of the joyous days gave me optimism in the face of whatever I was struggling with, be it family tension, the death of a loved one or a work hurdle.
To save myself the time of searching for one perfect day in a sea of thousands, I began marking my favorite days with small gold star stickers. After nearly six years (2,147 days, to be exact), I have 58 Golden Days. Some are simple, small moments like taking my 3-year-old niece to a fancy tea party and spontaneously visiting the best burger joint in the city with my husband. Others are major milestones like our wedding day and my graduate school graduation.
Whenever I’m having an anxious or depressed day, I flip through my one-line-a-day journals and relive my Golden Days. I try to remember exactly how I felt—the exhilaration of saying “I do” on our wedding day, the tenderness at seeing my niece enjoying her tea party, the nervous anticipation of being handed my diploma. Each time, I feel a sense of calm wash over me. Reading about these days helps me remember that whatever negativity I’m experiencing in the moment is fleeting. It will pass. It always does.
On Jan. 20, 2019, I very abruptly learned that my parents were getting divorced. It was like a swift blow to the stomach—until that moment, I thought my parents were happy and in love.
Looking back at my one-line-a-day journal, I see that on Feb. 10, 2019, just three weeks later, I had a Golden Day. My husband and I went on a day trip from Chicago to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to see a collection of breathtaking, bright blue ice castles.
Had you told me that three weeks after I received this crushing news I’d have a wonderful day filled with laughter, warm drinks and beautiful views, I would’ve been full of doubt. I wouldn’t have believed it.
Reliving these days not only fills me with a sense of calm, but it also helps me remember that regardless of what I’m dealing with, there are always extraordinary moments ahead. My Golden Days practice is my way of reminding myself that not every day will be full of joy, but many will be, and they can happen at any moment—even right after the worst ones.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash