It was a simple enough mistake—a small wrong curve that took me over the bridge into Manhattan instead of to my parking spot in Long Island City. But as soon as it happened, I began to lose my mind.
By the time I landed on the other side of the Queensborough Bridge on E 60th Street, I was consumed with an overwhelming anxiety that took my breath away, forced me into shakes and tears, and left me feeling completely exhausted by the time I parked my car near Central Park.
It was an acute panic attack, but it emerged out of an underlying low-grade anxiety that is constantly bubbling below the surface of my life.
My anxiety expresses itself in different ways, but is defined by an excessive and persistent concern over uncertain outcomes in my life. It often leaves me feeling exhausted, restless, irritable, and prone to panic attacks in seemingly harmless situations…like crossing a bridge.
While I am the first to admit that I cannot control my anxiety or hold back a panic attack, I do believe it is helpful to adopt certain postures and practices to help manage my anxiety and perhaps prevent acute expressions of angst.
In particular, my counselor has suggested building more margins into my life as a means of decreasing the amount of things going on and increasing my ability to tolerate uncertainty.
In his book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D. describes margins as “the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating.”
As soon as I read those words I could not help noticing the contrasts between my exhausting and suffocating anxiety and panic attacks and a life lived with proper margins, rest, and space to breathe.
Even if you aren’t struggling with anxiety, we live in a world that expects A LOT of us. We are told we should not, or cannot, be under-achievers; that we should always have something on our schedule; that we must always be on-demand in a stream of e-mails, texts, messages, tweets, pings, snaps, etc.
Being engaged and involved and achieving much in this life does not have to lead to anxiety and being overwhelmed. Margins not only create space for us to play, to relax, and to catch our breath—they also help re-create us and restore us for the work that is ahead.
But we cannot expect margins to just happen. They have to be planned. We can, and should, preschedule margins into our lives. This way, we can look to not only rest from our work when we are totally fatigued and empty (or after an acute breakdown), but instead we can work from our rest, be productive from our margins, and be filled with positivity and flexibility based on our daily, weekly, and annual rhythms.
The esteemed rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of making margins as “sanctuaries in time.” He invited people to carve out time and space in their lives to just be, rather than to do.
Building margins is going to look different for different people, but here are some ways that I am working on building margins into my life to help manage my anxiety and reduce the panic in my life:
- Build space in your daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedule to do. Crazy, I know, but it is making all the difference in the level of low-grade anxiety that I feel that is just about to boil over in my normal life.
- Create more space in your home by de-cluttering. Choose your method: hug things and see if they bring you joy, or just rid yourself of that social-team building sports sweater you got from your work three years ago. Whatever you do, create space in your home so that you aren’t overwhelmed in a place that is supposed to feel safe and induce rest.
- Spend some time away from the constant deluge of social media. Consider doing a “digital detox” or taking a “digital sabbath”to get some perspective, learn your place, and set some healthy boundaries.
- Get out! Head into nature, take a hike, have a picnic with your family, or go camping to literally breathe in the fresh air. Don’t plan on tackling a mountain, running a marathon, or pushing yourself too hard, but instead turn from the “results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
- Sleep on it. Say it with me now: “seven to eight hours.” Repeat it like a mantra. Make it your life’s motto. Now, go make it part of your daily routine and enjoy some sweet dreams.
In our world of “go, go, no…go faster,” it is important to build margins into our schedules, our homes, and our lives. Margins give us space to rest, to re-create, to breathe, and to be.
While more margin in your life will not cure your anxiety, it can certainly go a long way in taking a big chunk out of it and creating space for the unexpected—like when the kids have an accident, when your bank calls with bad news, or you take a wrong turn onto a bridge and end up driving through Manhattan looking for a parking spot.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on anxiety from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.