As an anxious and hypersensitive person, I absorb and react to the environment around me easily. Dreary news headlines? Alarming city sirens? Another person’s negative opinion of me? It physically affects me like a dry sponge in water.
At 19, after an anxiety disorder diagnosis, I gradually set out to explore what wellness meant to me — and how I could better control my triggers. I learned to meditate, created a yoga practice, committed to counseling and medication, and tried cannabis.
But the simplest thing that’s had one of the biggest effects on my overall health?
Rediscovering the power of a good long soak in the bath.
In Greek and Roman times, bathing was not only an opportunity to practice good hygiene and keep well, it was a place for socializing, entertainment, and convalescence as well.
Bathing was such a well-loved activity that elaborate bathhouses were erected. Some could accommodate thousands of people at a time.
After the Roman empire fell and with the rise of Christianity, bathhouses also fell out of favor. Bathing was seen as controversial because it challenged the Church’s belief that pleasuring and addressing the needs of the body was sinful.
Many of those ideas still persist in our culture today. Our society extols starving ourselves in favor of the “perfect” body, hides sensuality and sexuality behind the doors of taboo, and under Capitalism, it prioritizes constant productivity over breaks for self-care.
Though I was a relatively social and well-liked kid, I was also deeply introspective and critical of my body and personality.
I was sopping up damaging cultural attitudes from TV, pop music, and magazines that taught me my body was an object, that indulgences should be limited, and that loving yourself should come second to pleasing others.
And, around fourth grade, I began to be bullied for my sensitive nature, interest in jazz and rainbow crochet hats, and worst of all — my not-so-flat tummy.
One particularly vicious girl in my fourth-grade class even wrote, “Alexa is fat” on the bathroom stall door. For much of my adolescence, I felt ugly and unlikable.
I remember having anxiety — nights of insomnia, chest tightening, and crying fits. During the day, I doubted my every word, became hyper-vigilant of how I acted, and spent hours in the morning to get my outfit perfect.
But in contrast to the unforgiving world, the bath was a safe, easy place. I sat in swirling, sudsy waters, with a rubber ducky nearby, thinking about life.
Alone in the tub, I sang to myself, gave myself a silly shampoo hair horn, and connected to my growing body and mind in a positive, joyful way.
I continued to take baths like these until I was about 12, until my parents encouraged me to shower for efficiency’s sake.
For the years that followed, baths were a symbol of the ultimate, off-limits indulgence.
I often wonder what I’d be like if I’d continued to see bathing as more than a necessary chore? Would I have been more resilient to beliefs that haunted me and decimated my sense of self?
My partner treated himself to long luxurious soaks when he was having a bad day, or sick, or sore after a workout. I marveled at how easily he took care of himself in general, and noticed that baths were a big part of that.
So last year, when I entered a particularly anxious period, he began drawing me baths of my own.
At first, I resisted. It’d been more than a decade since I’d taken a bubble bath, and I was worried about “wasting” time and water on myself.
But as I sunk down into the hot, fragrant water, it was like a long-lost version of myself was coming up for air.
There she was, that 12-year-old Alexa who found so much solace in water, who intrinsically knew how to love herself after a hard day. Something shifted and I realized I was still that Alexa.
As childlike innocence, grief and shame bubbled up, I met them halfway from behind the locked bathroom door. I embraced my naked body the same way.
The body hair I’d criticized, the belly fat I’d punished, the thighs I’d hidden under loose clothes, I greeted and accepted it all. The tension rose off me like steam.
Since then, baths have become a weekly ritual. They are the most powerful way I know to consciously recalibrate and love myself.
I light my favorite candles and incense, put on some chill playlist on Spotify, and season the bath with my favorite salts, bath bombs, and lavender and tea tree essential oils.
I’ve even found a little legal cannabis, thanks to the laws in my home state of Washington, can deepen the benefits of a soak.
The results? I know how to manage my anxiety and I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack in years. I take baths regularly as a preventative measure and also when I feel triggered.
Now it’s my tub, not me, that overflows when I’m brimming with feeling — and my mental and emotional health is all the better for it.
Alexa Peters is a freelance writer in Seattle, WA. You can find her pieces about culture, wellness, and nightlife in Leafly, The Seattle Times, Thrillist and more.