My baby just left for her first day of her last year of high school. I’ve been doing these first-last parenting moments for a long time—27 years and 1 month—to be exact, so today I am twingy with nostalgia. My brain shows me a snapshot of her first day of kindergarten. She climbs on the bus, bolstered by the presence of her neighborhood buddies, and I am proud of myself her for not crying.

Of course, a couple minutes later, I hop in my car and race down the street, pulling into the parking lot just as the bus stops in front of the school. I hide between cars and wait until I see her skipping toward her classroom. Smiling. I heave a sigh of relief and drive the long mile back home.

I walk into the front door and lose it – there is Blankie, laying on the front bench, so lonely and discarded. I am in a puddle for the rest of the morning.

Every year I look forward to seeing friends’ first day of school posts on social media. I love that we document these important days to mark the passage of time. Marveling at how other people’s kids seem to have gotten older in the blink of an eye. Our school district asked senior parents to send in our kids’ first day pictures with the hashtag lastfirstday…. I love that too. The collective experience is validating and strengthens our communities.

First and last days are happy occasions. Reasons to celebrate. But they are also sad. In my office I hear lots of stories from Moms and Dads who wrestle with the bittersweet emotion that comes with sending kids off to faraway or unfamiliar places. We want them to launch and live their lives and see the world, but our hearts ache at the ripping apart. In one of my favorite books about grief, Walter Wangerin writes, “What causes the sadness—even in seemingly good times? Why, for example, does the mother of the bride, who truly desires best things for her daughter and who genuinely loves this son-in-law weep at the wedding as though it is a funeral?”[1]

It’s a part of parenting for which I was largely unprepared—the love comingled with sadness. My oldest daughter was two weeks old, rocking in her swing, and I sobbed as I thought of how much time had already passed and how I loved her so much I thought my heart would burst. I didn’t expect it to hurt so much.

It’s a dialectic – two seemingly opposite ideas that are both true. When my kids were younger, I lamented about the passage of time. A much older friend reminded me of a family she knew whose profoundly disabled adult daughter would never leave the home. “You wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said. And of course she was right, our kids are supposed to launch, and we are certainly sad when they can’t (or won’t).

At the very same time, we must give ourselves (and others) space to grieve the loss of things that will never be the same. It can be exhausting to try and hold these two truths in balance. But time demands that we must.

How? Whether you are sending your baby off to kindergarten or a big kid off to college and beyond, here are some thoughts:

Lean in-Ugh. I hate using over-used phrases. But this one works so well. I have learned, through a lot of experience, to lean in to pain. There is much to be learned in the dark hours of grief and loss. When you feel sad, resist the urge to run from it. Embrace it. (And by the way, embrace doesn’t mean wallow.) Put words to your feelings. Feel all the feels. Connect your feelings to other experiences and the experiences of others. What is life trying to teach you? How can you grow from this moment?

Avoid comparing– On the first day of school your neighbor does the happy dance and you can’t leave the dark corner of your room. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Don’t assume anything about their experiences. You feel what you feel, and for the most part, you don’t have a lot of control over your initial feelings. They just are. Over time you’ll sort things out, but for now, remember that everyone handles experiences differently and you are allowed to have your experience.

Create space for transition-Transitions are hard. Bad ones and good ones. It takes time to adjust to new routines and empty spaces at dining room tables. Give yourself some time to get used to things. Try not to judge yourself for not moving ahead faster. And if you do seem to be doing fine, don’t judge that either. The important thing is to keep moving forward, even if the pace is slow.

Reframe – The same mother who sends her child off to college and is devastated at the loss can also find joy in having more time to pursue volunteer work or a new hobby. The dad who reluctantly puts his child on an airplane for a semester overseas can enjoy getting to know that child differently through email correspondence. Reframing is about looking on the bright side and making lemonade out of lemons, and finding something—even if it’s a little something—to smile about.

And speaking of…practice gratitude. As a person who can lean toward the anxious and depressed side of things, I have to say that my number one tip for getting out of a funk is to be thankful. There is always something to be thankful for. If you’re not sure about that, stop what you’re doing and take a look around. What do you see? Your hands? Your puppy laying at your feet? The sun high in the sky or a big oak tree? Now try to imagine your life without it. Gratitude has a way of settling us down and helping us focus. Gratitude doesn’t take pain away, but it is a balm to soothe an aching soul.

In the past 27 years and 1 month I’ve sure had a lot of firsts and lasts with my four kids. I have said a lot of good-byes and cried a lot of tears and had lots of happy hellos with big open arms. I’ve spent many a sleepless night worried about whether they would fit in or have someone to eat lunch with or fearing they’d leave their backpack in an airport terminal. I’ve been stretched and grown in ways I didn’t know was possible. Today I’m feeling especially grateful for the privilege of holding both the joy and the sadness in my very full heart.

[1] Mourning into Dancing, by Walter Wangerin, 1992

The first time I remember having a panic attack, I was in my 20’s. I was between jobs and staying with my parents for a few weeks before moving to Chicago. My days were lazy – I’d sleep in, watch a little TV, hang out with my siblings, and stay up late reading the stacks of Reader’s Digests on the coffee table.

One evening, sitting in my car in a grocery store parking lot, I was overwhelmed by a sense of doom. Paralyzed, I couldn’t get out of the car – I was terrified someone might attack me on the way in. Later that night at home, I couldn’t stop obsessing about how easy it would be for someone to break into the house.

That was my first real taste of anxiety and it was miserable. Desperately in need of relief, I did some sleuthing, and wondered if maybe my steady diet of daytime talk shows and true crime mysteries might be contributing factors. Not to mention my routine of staying up late reading and sleeping until late morning.

I decided to keep a better schedule and change up my routine. I spent more time outside and went blueberry picking with my mom. I turned off the television and learned how to can peaches. And I started feeling better.

Since that time I’ve learned I’m not alone.

Anxiety is a debilitating disorder that affects over 40 million of us and is the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorder. Symptoms can be as benign as a mild sense of uneasiness or as serious as an inability to leave the house. The physical manifestations of anxiety can make us feel like we are dying (read more about why here). In fact, people often think they are having a heart attack when it’s actually anxiety.

While benzodiazepines (such as Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax) are often prescribed for anxiety, there are a lot of good reasons not to take them. For one, they function more like a band-aid, meaning they may provide some short-term symptom relief, but do not address the root of the problem. Two, these medications are highly addictive and can easily be misued. Withdrawal symptoms are miserable. (Some of the worst anxiety I’ve seen is in people who were unable to obtain Xanax after taking it for a long period of time.)

Ultimately, with a few exceptions, medication is not the answer. Lifestyle changes and behavioral interventions are far more effective. These don’t always provide the instant relief so many are looking for, but they will help address underlying causes, and hopefully prevent future symptoms from escalating. I’ve found a lot of people fail to see the connection between lifestyle habits and their anxiety symptoms, but the reality is, the choices we make can have a significant impact on our mental well-being.

If you are suffering from anxiety, ask yourself if any of these common habits could be exacerbating your symptoms:

  1. Staying up too late/interrupted sleep – according to the National Institutes of Health, 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. (I can’t help but notice this is about the same prevalence of anxiety disorders.) The sleep/anxiety problem is a vicious cycle—poor sleep habits can cause anxiety and anxiety can disrupt our sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, try first to adjust your routine. Experts recommend avoiding screens within 2 hours of bedtime, going to bed the same time each night, keeping your room cool and dark, and developing a pleasant bedtime routine. If you have tried all these things and continue to have trouble sleeping, consult your doctor. Getting regular, quality sleep needs to be a priority in all of our lives. For more information, click here
  2. A diet high in sugar, processed foods – Full disclosure – there aren’t really any studies exploring the effects of food on anxiety. However, we do know that sugar and processed foods aren’t good for our overall health. We also know that the mind and body are connected, so what is bad for your body is bad for your brain. If your diet is heavy in sugar and processed foods, you probably aren’t consuming enough fruits and vegetables, which we know make us feel better. If you’re not convinced, keep track of your anxiety symptoms on your regular diet for 3-5 days. Then eliminate sugar and processed foods from your diet for 3-5 days and see how you feel.
  3. Lack of routine – Keeping busy can definitely help ward off anxiety symptoms. Many people tell me their symptoms of anxiety (and depression) can be worse on the weekends. As much as we may despise routine, it really is good for our mental health to have some order in our lives. Routine gives us purpose, helps keep us grounded, and can provide security. Again – if you’re not sure about this, try implementing a simple routine – even on the weekends, and see if there’s an impact on the way you feel.
  4. Unrestricted electronic time – As wonderful and convenient as it is to be able to access any piece of information we could possibly need any time we want, it can be overwhelming. Even now, I have my computer in front of me, my iPad playing music and my phone at my right hand. You’d think that staying on top of every phone call, email and penny in our bank account would provide a sense of relief and free us up to do other things. In reality, it typically just creates more anxiety. Try to put some limits on your media/music/electronic time. Stop watching the news before bedtime. Declare one day a week to be “device-free.” Delete the computer games from your phone. Just because you can access it doesn’t mean you need to.
  5. Procrastination – I confess, when it comes to procrastination, I am the worst. So I know from experience that how putting things off adds fuel to the fire of anxiety. Granted – we need a little anxiety to help get things done. But the more we put them off, the more anxiety snowballs. When we procrastinate, all we’re doing us dumping our current problems on our future self. If you’re a procrastinator, resolve to be better to your future self. Commit to doing one hard thing every single day. (Preferably as early in the day as possible.) This will give you a sense of accomplishment, and might even spur you on to do other hard things. I guarantee this will help decrease your overall anxiety level.

While many people hope that taking a pill can alleviate their symptoms, the relief provided is temporary at best. If you want to get a handle on anxiety, start by evaluating your daily habits and see if there are some adjustments you can make