9 Things I Learned In Therapy That I Actually Use
This is like my mental health toolkit.
In my final therapy session before I would move from Boston to New York, and after eight months of hard work sorting through my anxiety, my therapist said to me, "You have all the tools you need to nail this."
"Do I???" I said, second-guessing everything before I made the leap to a new city. But it's been almost two years since that last session — and she was right. Whenever I find myself feeling anxious, I recall a tip or mantra from our sessions that calms me down. They've become second nature at this point.
Here are the tools I find most helpful on a daily basis:
1. Talk to yourself like you would a friend.
It only took one session for my therapist to say, "Let's work together to figure out why you're so hard on yourself." She didn't need much time to realize that I put a lot of pressure on myself and try to please other people too much. So, she advised me to talk to myself like a friend. I would never say, "Everyone will hate you if you don't go to that party this weekend" to a friend if they really needed some time to chill, so why would I say that to myself? To quote RuPaul, "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?"
2. Say irrational thoughts out loud.
If I'm ever having a completely irrational thought when I'm by myself, like, "I shouldn't have texted [person] — they probably think I'm so clingy and they're going to tell all of their friends how weird I am," I say it out loud so I can hear how it really sounds and challenge it with logic. It was just a text! It's easy to go 'round and 'round in your mind, convincing yourself you are, in fact, the clingiest person to have ever walked the planet, but actually hearing the words come out of your mouth lets you realize how absurd that idea actually is. Moral of the story: Don't believe everything you think.
3. Focus on your breathing.
Whenever I feel my mind getting crowded with stressful thoughts, my therapist told me to stop for just 10 seconds — whether I'm on the subway, in bed, or wherever — and focus on nothing but my breathing. I stare at something in front of me (not concentrating on it, just using it to anchor my vision) and focus on each inhale and exhale. It brings me back to the moment, and helps me get to the bottom of whatever is stressing me out — instead of overanalyzing, I'm just letting the emotion arise naturally and present itself to me.
4. Learn to say no.
Like I mentioned earlier, I used to care way too much about pleasing everyone around me. I was afraid to say no — whether someone was asking me for help or inviting me to an event. I thought they would be sad or angry or disappointed with me if I didn't say yes to everything, until my therapist said something so simple that I remember on the daily: "They're adults. They can handle it." If your mental health would benefit from saying no, say no. If the person is upset with your decision, they just have to deal! It's not on you to manage their emotions.
5. Move your body when you're anxious.
One of the first things my therapist told me to do to ease anxiety is to get up and move — whether that means walking, running, going for a ride, or just dancing around your living room. Sitting in the same place stewing in your anxiety isn't doing you any good. Moving your body will help clear your head, boost your endorphins, and channel all of that nervous energy into something active. Anxiety usually makes me feel trapped, so by walking around the block, I give my mind and body the sensation of forward motion: I'm not stuck, I'm progressing.
6. Recognize your triggers.
If you know that being around a certain person or going to a specific place will trigger your anxiety, take steps to prepare emotionally (if you can't avoid the situation altogether). Come up with ways to refocus your energy and attention. For example, try as I might, I know that I'm going to feel a little anxious when I'm in a crowded movie theater or Broadway show, so I try to make sure I can get the aisle seat so that I feel less trapped, or I bring a little something with me that I can fidget with in my hand, like a stress ball.
7. Practice "child's pose."
I'm not a regular yogi, but my therapist taught me that whenever I'm feeling anxious, an easy yoga position I can practice at home to soothe my anxiety is child's pose. All you have to do is kneel, sit on your heels, and stretch your arms out in front of you, letting your head relax onto your yoga mat or a pillow. Nothing feels better than a good stretch in the morning, so I actually look forward to doing this pose when I wake up. If only all exercise could be done in bed.
8. Replace "but" with "and."
When I first started seeing my therapist, I had just moved in with my boyfriend, which (spoiler!) is a big life change. I said something to her along the lines of: "I'm so glad I moved in with him, but I really miss having my own space, so, like, what gives? I thought this is what I wanted." She asked me, "Why does it have to be a 'but'?" My desire for more alone time, she explained, didn't negate my decision to move in with my boyfriend. Replacing "but" with "and" ("I'm so glad I moved in with him, and I miss having my own space") allowed me to make room for both emotions, instead of driving myself nuts like, "WHAT IS THE TRUTH?" I was able to shift my focus from conflict to resolution: finding ways we could still be independent in our shared apartment.
9. And remember that progress isn't linear.
I may not be nearly as anxious as I was when I first started therapy a couple of years ago, but I'm only human, so I still have days when I feel nervous or blue. And that's fine! We've all been there. As my therapist reassured me, having a bad day doesn't mean that all of the progress I've made is suddenly null and void. There are going to be ups and downs. Always know that what you're feeling isn't permanent, so while it's here, remember that it's OK not to be OK.
BTW, here are some other helpful posts about therapy:
• Here's How To Know If You Could Benefit From Therapy
• A Beginner's Guide To Starting Therapy
• 17 Things Therapists Want You To Know Before Your First Session
• 26 Tips That Will Make Finding A Therapist Less Miserable ■