I Tried Living Out Of 2 Suitcases To Fix My Anxiety. Here's What Happened
It’s not a conventional story. I recast my anxiety as beautiful by adopting a minimal mindset. But it didn't happen overnight.
My journey started at my low-point. After a particularly rough break-up, compounded by Hashimoto's, an auto-immune disease that reared its ugly head, I had to leave a job I loved. I was sick and unable to walk, unemployed, and unable to leave the house as each day turned into one rolling panic attack. I'd often go without sleep for three or four nights at a time. I’d gone mad. I was stripped bare, quite literally. Right down to two suitcases I had left. From this place, I took myself and the few belongings I had to a shed in the forest, where I lived for 18 months, determined to get my life back. But even after I started to feel better I still hadn't fully understood my lifelong battle with anxiety. Eventually I got down to living out of a 20-pound backpack for up to five months at a time, which I wrote about in depth in my latest book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful.
Minimalism can be fruitful for the spirit. Especially if you suffer from anxiety.
I’d grown up on a subsistence living property, the eldest of six kids and my parents struggled to feed and clothe us. Resourceful minimalism has been in my bones my whole life. This type of minimalism isn't the same thing as the minimalist lifestyles that are trending today, though. The very "fashionable" minimalism that has gone mainstream is often about aesthetics. But I see the benefits of the practice a little differently: It can help us free ourselves from the psychological burden of clutter, since clutter in the closet often means clutter in the brain.
I think that minimalism can indeed be fruitful for the spirit. Especially if you suffer from anxiety. Here's why:
Buying stuff triggers anxiety.
Buying requires us to make decisions—should I go with red or blue? What am I trying to say to the world about my identity with this pair of Mum jeans? And making decisions can trigger anxiety.
Why? It’s quite biological. The decision-making parts of the brain—the limbic system and neo-cortex—are directly linked to the anxiety-controlling center. The anxious tend to have a fired-up neo-cortex, and so these two parts of the brain enter a go-nowhere tug of war in our heads when faced with choice.
A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found the anxious tend to have decreased "neural inhibition," too, a process that sees one nerve cell suppress activity in another, which is critical in our ability to sift through choices.
Thus, when I’m anxious, I find it impossible to make decisions, and being asked to make too many decisions, even banal ones like which toothpaste to get, can send me into an anxious spiral in a supermarket aisle. You too? As Kierkegaard once wrote, "There would be no anxiety without possibility."
Buying stuff is about reaching out, away from ourselves.
One of the most significant threads of my anxious journey is that throughout the ages anxiety has been associated with a grasping outward, or inability to sit comfortably with ourselves in the present. Ironically the very thing that can trigger deep anxiety is what we resort to when anxious. Some of us grasp at alcohol, drugs, partners, gurus, and self-help books. Some of us grasp out to more shiny things—cars, jewelry…more stuff! We think it will satiate our burning desire for—what?—we don’t really know. But it just leaves us feeling emptier. And so we grasp some more. The classic addiction cycle, right?
Of course, when we shop and accumulate stuff, what we’re really doing is avoiding what I think is at the heart of most anxious souls’ desire—to come in closer contact to ourselves. To be OK as we are. To sit comfortably with ourselves with just the clothes on our backs. Only once we do that can our anxious beast become beautiful.
Sarah recently sat down with mindbodygreen to discuss her journey with anxiety and the routines that help her find more ease. Tune in to the inside story on mindbodygreen's podcast.