17 Ways Gay Men Can Manage Their Anxiety During Uncertain Times
2020 has seen an unbelievable amount of stressors. (You probably didn’t know that right?)
For gay men, these extra stressors add to the already higher levels of anxiety that gay men experience in comparison to straight men.
So what does this mean? It means that more than ever, gay men are prone to feeling overwhelmed by anxiety (this is already showing up in research).
And that’s okay. I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t feel anxiety, and that everything will work out in the end. Anxiety is partly about fearing what may happen in the future. And right now, there are many reasons gay men may feel anxious. But even if anxiety makes sense, that doesn’t make it enjoyable.
So with this in mind, here’s a list of ways gay men can manage their anxiety during uncertain times.
1. Intentional breathing
Intentional breathing will always be at the top of any list I write about grounding and anxiety management. The reason is that it taps into the foundation of your feelings: your physiology. By working to modulate your breathing, you can help to bring your body out of a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.
An easy way to do this is square breathing. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, breath out through your mouth for 4 seconds, and then pause for 4 seconds before repeating. Check out this Facebook post for more detailed instructions and a diagram on square breathing.
2. Ask yourself about the meaning of your anxiety
If a physiological intervention into your anxiety doesn’t work, sometimes a more philosophical approach can. This is the approach taken in Morita Therapy, a Japanese therapy introduced in the 1920s.
Asking yourself “what does my anxiety mean to me personally?” can give some clarity to the chaos and uncertainty you might be feeling right now. It won’t remove a stressor, but it can take you out of catastrophizing (see tip #9) and help you see the bigger picture of why anxiety is showing up for you the way it is.
3. List, and focus on, what you can control
Listing what you can control right now is a useful practice because the act of making the list itself is something that you can control. In addition to calming and organizing your thoughts, it will also give you a list of actionable things you can focus on to take care of yourself.
4. Stay in the present (as best you can)
The ability for humans to project themselves into possible future scenarios is an incredible ability that enables us to carry out all sorts of complex tasks and projects.
However, this ability is also a large contributor to anxiety, and what I like to call F.E.A.R. (future events appearing real).
This isn’t a suggestion that you stop planning for the future. But it is a suggestion to try refocusing on the here-and-now. This can calm your mind and body as you become aware of what’s happening in the reality of your present moment.
Check out this article on mindfulness if you’d like some more detailed guidance on how to bring yourself into the present moment (hint, one of them is tip #1 from this article).
5. Let yourself feel your feelings
Feelings exist for a reason. They’re a type of information that’s meant to orient us to our present environment. This doesn’t mean that they’re a conclusion on what we need to do, but they are trying to tell us something.
What does this mean? It means to simply listen to your feelings and what they’re trying to tell you curiously and non-judgmentally.
When you let yourself fully feel your feelings, the intensity of them will usually pass.
6. Let yourself grieve
This is an extension of tip #5.
2020 has been a year full of losses. And with any loss, whether it be a loved one, a job, or even a sense of safety and freedom, there is a grieving process. Grieving can look different for different people. But what’s important to know is that it’s an emotional cycle your mind and body need to complete in order for the feelings to pass.
Take a moment to think about what you may have lost recently, and let yourself experience any emotions that come up. It may be hard, but connecting with these feelings will help you feel less stuck in them over time.
7. Activate your mammalian diving reflex
Activate my what? Yup. This is a reflex humans have when their face is submerged in cold water. When the reflex is activated, it’s a great method for reducing anxiety in about 30 seconds.
But you don’t have to submerge your whole face in cold water to get some of the effects. It also works to place a cold object such as a metal water bottle filled with cold water, or an ice pack wrapped in a cloth, against the area directly under the line of your cheek bone.
You can read more detailed instructions about how to activate the response in this article.
A caution: don’t try this technique if you have any existing heart conditions or an eating disorder because of the way this technique slows your heartbeat.
8. Move your body
One of the evolutionary functions of uncomfortable feelings like anxiety is to make our bodies move. The physical movement then metabolizes the feelings of anxiety in our bodies and we feel better. It’s a simple reward system our body tries to use in order to protect us.
This is why anxiety is uncomfortable and can make you feel jittery. From an evolutionary standpoint, your body is begging you to move because it believes this might make you take an action that will keep you safe.
While you may not be in any physical danger in a given moment, you will still feel better once you’ve expended the anxiety in your body. This is one of the reasons why exercise and moving your body is considered so good for your mental health.
9. Avoid catastrophizing
Easier said than done right? But for some people, taking a more cognitive approach to their anxiety is a good way to organize their thinking and focus on what’s real in the present moment.
Ask yourself: what’s actually happening right now in the present moment? While our minds love to wander toward disaster scenarios, focusing entirely on worrying about something often doesn’t help us change a future outcome.
When you find your mind wandering and starting to play out catastrophic future scenarios, non-judgmentally try and redirect your thoughts to some other topic more grounded in the present and do tip #3: focus on what you can control.
10. Play it out and plan ahead
This one might sound similar to catastrophizing, but it’s actually very different. This tip involves asking yourself in a systematic way what some of your worst fears are right now.
How is this helpful? It’s because of this next step: once you’ve articulated your current worst fears, go through what you would actually do in each of the scenarios (writing this all down can help).
This can help you feel better because if your fears do come true, you now have an actionable plan to address that situation. In addition, it often helps because you may realize that you’re better equipped to handle a situation than you might have initially imagined.
11. Limit your social media and news intake
Do you find yourself doomscrolling your way through anxiety? Maybe you even found this article while feverishly looking through the newsfeed on your phone.
No judgment–many of us have been there (including myself). Unfortunately, it doesn’t tend to help feelings of anxiety.
You don’t need to stop your social media and news intake entirely, but try and take a break if you can. While you’re on your break, try one of the tips on this list to let your mind and body have a rest.
12. Explore your senses
Sometimes when we’re highly anxious it can feel like we’re hyperaware of everything. But we can also become disconnected from some of our senses.
Stopping for even a moment and asking yourself the following can bring you back into the present moment and out of anxiety (this can work for fear, panic, and dissociation too).
Ask yourself these question about your senses aloud, and then answer them to yourself aloud.
➡️ What are 5 things I can see right now? Then say: I can see _________.
➡️ What are 4 things I can feel/touch right now? Then say (while touching): I can feel _________.
➡️ What are 3 things I can hear right now? Then say: I can hear: _________.
➡️ What are 2 things I can smell right now? Then say: I can smell: _________.
➡️ What is 1 thing I can taste right now? Then say: I can taste: _________.
13. Practice gratitude
You’ve might’ve heard this one before, but it’s because it can work so well. Practicing gratitude can be a great way to give yourself the mental shift needed to calm your mind and body. An easy way to do this is to write down a list of the top 10 things you’re currently grateful for. If 10 is too hard, try writing down 1-2 things to start.
If you’re interested, this article covers how to practice gratitude and some other useful mindfulness skills.
14. Go outside
Again and again, research has shown that going outside is good for us. In fact, if you can’t go outside, research has also shown that even looking at pictures of nature can reduce some anxiety. This is one of the reasons “walk-and-talk” therapy has become popular in some places: getting outside and moving your body has all sorts of positive mental, emotional, and physical effects.
15. Build a calming environment
What sort of environments do you find calming? Maybe it’s a kitchen filled with the aroma of a cooking stew, a candle-lit bubble bath, or a dimmed bedroom with clean bedding.
Whatever it is, really think about the whole experience. What does the lighting need to be like? The smells? The textures? The sounds?
Make your environment an immersive experience and let yourself indulge (without guilt if you can 🙂).
16. Take breaks from disagreements
This is actually a method I recommend in couples and relationship counselling, but it works for all types of relationships.
Give yourself permission to take breaks from divisive or heated debates with those around you. This can mean physically removing yourself from the presence of another person. This doesn’t mean a dramatic exclamation and then storming off (although it’s understandable to feel this way sometimes).
Rather, it’s saying to someone: “you know, I want to be able to have a respectful conversation where I can actually hear you, but right now, I need a moment to cool off. Let’s pick this up in about half an hour.”
There’s good reason for this. It’s actually so that your body has a chance to physiologically calm itself. For most people, this takes between 15 – 30 minutes. However, it can take longer, so take as long as you need to feel physically calm.
Here’s the trick though: while you’re taking a break, don’t spend that time thinking about what you’re going to say when you stop the break. In fact, distract yourself with some other task or topic entirely during the break.
17. Dig into the self-care toolkit you already have
We each have ways that we already take care of ourselves whether we realize it or not. Sometimes when we’re anxious we can forget that we already know lots of tried and true ways to take care of ourselves. Think about what you found comforting as a child, or in the past. These can be a great source for self-care ideas that will help alleviate your anxiety.
If you want some ideas to get you started, check out this infographic I made with ideas for nourishing and grounding yourself.
Bonus #1: Connect with those around you
Sometimes when we feel full of anxiety we can close ourselves off and isolate ourselves. This can be helpful sometimes when we need a break (see tip #16). But after a while, a lot of us need some form of connection to stay regulated.
Reach out to someone you know digitally or in-person that can offer support. And yes, this includes nonhumans like pets.
Bonus #2: Write a letter to yourself
Have no one to reach out to at the moment? That’s okay. Try writing a compassionate letter to yourself. In the letter, write to yourself in the sensitive, understanding, and compassionate way you might to a close friend or family member.
This can sound silly to some people, but give it a try. It’s a surprisingly powerful therapeutic tool I use with counselling clients. The other benefit is that it’s something you can read over in the future to help with feelings of anxiety.
This is a place to start
This list is a place to start. 🙂 Try some of them out and see what works for you. If one of them doesn’t work, it’s important to try another. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it simply means you need to find a different approach which is suited to your unique needs. We’re all different, so different strategies will work better for different people.
Another strategy that helps people with understanding and managing anxiety is counselling. If you think counselling might be a good option for you, click the button below to book a free consultation call.
MA, CCC, RCC
As a counsellor at The Centre for Gay Counselling, Jordan excels at helping fellow gay men understand their emotions better, heal from past trauma, and grow their sense of self-worth so that they can enjoy living fully as themselves. He believes that gay men have inherent worth, and that they deserve to live fulfilling lives. Interested in working with Jordan? Click the button below to get started.