Today is not about food. Today is World Mental Health Day and I decided to share my story of living with anxiety. I will also share what I’ve been doing to keep it in check and improve the quality of my life.
In order to make this post easier to digest, I will skip the background information about mental health and what anxiety is. If you’re here, you probably know that already. If not, check out this website: www.mentalhealth.org.uk or this one www.anxietyuk.org.uk. There are so many resources online, but it can get a bit overwhelming sifting through.
I’ve been battling anxiety on and off since I was 17. It seems to flare up really badly every two years, generally around big life changes which I usually generate. Funnily enough, as much as I love routine and comfort, half of me is always dying for a challenge, novelty and adventure. But my anxious brain can’t keep up, so I put myself through hell by pushing myself out of my comfort zone.
While this can be seen as brave, my anxiety has paralysed me with fear and guilt many times. So I started to associate change with negative feelings. Instead of seeing the world as my oyster at those exciting times of moving to another country, changing jobs or travelling to a new destination, I see danger, failure and endless worst case scenarios. But NEVER have my worst fears become reality!
The anxious mind equates uncertainty with danger. This is irrational.
This is the first big lesson I am going to share with you: you are NOT your anxiety. It’s just a brain pattern. A pre-set. It’s a distorted perception of reality, anchored in fear. Your brain chooses to see an opportunity or a change as something bad, dangerous, etc.
Before starting to write this blog post, I looked back through some of my notes. This is what I wrote five years ago:
‘I’ve always lived in fear that I will fail. This fear turns into panic attacks, then total numbness and ultimately a tragic loss of precious time. This is the time where I should be thinking, creating, making things happen. And this is what annoys me most about anxiety – its ability to kill time. And when you’re young and full of potential, the feeling of seeing your life pass you by because you’re incapable of getting it together, usually triggers more panic attacks. It’s vicious cycle.’
Does this sound familiar?
We usually fear the fear, not failure or the situation itself. We are worried about how we are going to cope, our reactions, what others will think, what we are going to feel. We get so worked up before we even know what the outcome of an event is. I find myself saying things like: ‘I just want to know already and deal with it’ or ‘I wish someone would make a choice for me’, so I don’t have to exhaust myself with the endless possibilities and outcomes my mind perceives. Isn’t it true though that most of the times the outcome is better than our vivid anxious imagination? Again, it’s all about perspective. And unfortunately, people with anxiety lose that. We live in our heads, in our pre-sets, in our worst case scenarios. But here comes lesson number two about anxiety: learn to trust that you WILL cope just fine.
Another thing I learned in over ten years of dealing with this friend of mine: Anxiety is not a weakness. People with anxiety are some of the strongest people I know. You are not less of a person. In fact, every time you do something in spite of your anxious feelings, you are brave. Because it takes SO MUCH strength to push through despite wanting to crawl into a cave, to feel the fear and still do it, to feel paralysed but still make a decision. So don’t forget lesson number three: You are much stronger than you give yourself credit for.
Before I move on to my top 3 strategies to keep anxiety under control, let’s recap the lessons:
- You are NOT your anxiety.
- Trust that you WILL cope.
- Anxiety is NOT a weakness.
It’s time for a short disclaimer acknowledging I am not a mental health professional and my advice is based purely on my experience and what works for me.
I’m going to get straight to it. Here are the top 3 things that made a huge difference to me:
Up until recently, I used to beat myself up for having anxiety. I hated it and because of it I hated myself. I also blamed people or external factors. Long story short, I dealt with it in a very negative way and felt terrible when I wasn’t able to see the glass half-full, when I wasn’t grateful or happy, when I pushed people away with my behaviour.
Through therapy, and self-help, I am learning to accept anxiety as a separate voice. I am not associating it with who I am, I am accepting it as thoughts, not reality. I am taking control and working to train my brain, not fit everything else around my anxiety. (Not that this comes easily when really intense fear strikes, but progress is better than perfection.)
You may recognise this pattern, but we tend to avoid anything that can trigger anxiety: getting on a plane, meeting new people, being in a crowded place, public speaking, public transport! etc. But avoidance feeds anxiety. Yeah, I know, it’s crazy how our minds work.
So, my first tip for you is to accept this is something you have to work on. And be kind to yourself! There is nothing better you can do at this moment than say to yourself, as creepy as it sounds: ‘It’s ok. I got you. I understand you. I love you.’
It may have taken you a while to acknowledge you have a friend called anxiety, but it’s ok. You are not alone and you can and should talk about it. In fact, you should do more than that: you should try therapy.
The same way we take care of our bodies, our teeth, our diet – our mind needs care too. And as much as our friends and family are willing to listen and probably really want to help, I found that therapy was the most helpful thing for my anxiety. Here’s why:
- A therapist will help you navigate the type of anxiety you’re experiencing (phobias, panic attacks, general anxiety, health anxiety, etc) and will offer appropriate support. By that I mean asking the right questions, giving you tools, asking you to think about certain patterns, dig deeper into your past, what the root cause of your anxiety is (usually has its beginnings in childhood and was triggered by something you’ve experienced then; it can also be passed on from behaviours you’ve seen in your parents, which we absorb as children subconsciously). The more you understand your anxiety with professional help, the better you can deal with it!
- Friends and family can only help to a certain extent. They are emotionally invested, so it takes a toll on them trying to be there for you, especially during a particularly intense episode. Unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t go away with one good talk with a loved one. Even if it helps so much 🙂 It just needs longer to be undone (at least at the beginning). So it can be really hard and exhausting for someone who isn’t trained in dealing with this, to take on the task of not just listening, but, out of love, also trying to help. This doesn’t mean we can’t talk to our friends and family! We can and we should, but we need to be mindful of how much they can take on. I encourage you to reach out regardless. Don’t keep it in.
I understand that this might not seem widely available, but there are free services available in the UK (ThinkAction is one I’ve used before), hopefully in your country too, or if you’re from Romania (my home country) I can put you in touch with a few really good therapists. If you can afford it, it’s one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
3. Self-care plan
This is where you can truly make a difference to the quality of your life. This is when you decide how much you let anxiety rule your thoughts, how much you feed it and how you shape your behaviour around it.
Now, it’s important to know that it takes time to get this right, to know what works, to have the will power to actually follow the plan during those dark moments. It also has more chances of success if you have followed points 1 and 2 first. Accepting and understanding your anxiety really well will ensure you take the right steps to take care of yourself during turbulent times.
This isn’t a prescription and you probably need to create your own. But for inspiration, this is how mine looks like:
Take time off*
If things get too much, I take time off and have learned NOT to feel guilty about it. Mental health is as important as physical health. I used to force myself to go to work even though I was experiencing severe anxiety but I usually starred at my screen and was too consumed with worry to be able to focus. I felt too guilty to stay at home.
You are not helping yourself, your employer, business, project or anything by being consumed with anxiety and trying to do work too. Whenever possible, be honest and open about your anxiety, talk to your manager and take time off. Tomorrow is another day and you’ll probably be more productive and able to do a better job.
This can also come in the form of taking time off to breath, meditate or just take a break. Whatever suits your circumstances, but take some time off.
*Sometimes, however, distraction helps, especially if you’re really passionate about your job or if the work environment is a safe and happy one.
Write things down
There’s no better way to get outside your head than putting it all down on paper. Just write it all. I actually have a journal called: Talking to my friend, Anxiety, where i document daily anxious thoughts, but in the third person. E.g. My anxiety made me believe that… Because anxiety is not me! Remember lesson number 1 🙂 I’m basically trying to figure out what anxiety is saying and what my true inner voice is saying.
If I’m going through a particularly distressing episode, I also try to answer these questions:
- Is my thought/fear/worry rational or logical?
- What proof do I have this fear/worry is rational or logical?
- How much do i believe it is actually true? (%)
- Does it help to have this thought/worry/fear now?
- What can I do/think differently about it right now? (How can I reformulate this thought? Can I make a plan?)
Don’t underestimate the healing power of music. Here’s an example of the sort of music I use to calm anxiety. YouTube is a gold mine, so look for something that works for you. Sometimes soul music or jazz works for me too.
I’ve learned to create a ritual out of my self-care action plan. And aromatherapy is a powerful, powerful ally. Whether I’m taking a bath, or using a lavender shower gel, scented candles, essential oils or aroma diffusers, I always create a calm, relaxing environment in which to recover and take care of myself, usually involving all of the above. I recommend Lavender Oil, Boswellia Carterii, Wild orange + Peppermint, Rose, Bergamot. Rub oils on your wrists, temple and back of the neck.
Eat well and hydrate
Plants are always my favourite remedies. Apart from eating good, nutritious food, I make sure I drink plenty of soothing teas, like camomile, rose tea or peppermint.
Watch videos or listen to podcasts
When I need a little more help with changing perspective on what I’m thinking or feeling, I look up videos on dealing with anxiety, or TED talks. It’s a good idea to keep these handy in a playlist for when you need them, just like with music.
This is something I have to force myself to do sometimes. As much as I ADORE being outdoors, my mind is very stubborn sometimes and will talk me out of this simple self-help tool. But trust me – ignore what anxiety is saying, just get out, get some fresh air, somewhere quiet, not too crowded, somewhere in nature. Sit there in silence and look at the sky, the grass, people, children, birds. Or walk. You will slowly feel the benefits.
This is probably the most important aspect. It’s usually key in maintaining good mental health. But it’s also the hardest to achieve when an episode of anxiety strikes. However, if you follow the steps above, your mind an body should relax enough to ensure a good night’s sleep. Maybe not the perfect night’s sleep, but better than a horrible sleepless night. Any sleep is better than no sleep!
Share your self-care plan with your partner or someone you trust, so they can give you a nudge and remind you of these steps that will make you feel better.
When we’re caught up in it we feel like nothing’s going to work, but try anything off this list, or combine as many as you can, and I promise you it’ll make a difference. And if you can’t, that’s ok too. Tomorrow you’ll do better. Remember lessons 2 and 3: You are stronger than you think and you will be able to cope! Just be kind to yourself and give yourself as much time as you need.
I am learning to deal with anxiety every day. Some days I’m so good at it, some days I struggle. I have anxiety-free months and other times I don’t want to leave the house or get on a plane. I’m not perfect, but nobody is. Everyone is dealing with their own issues, even those people you think have their whole life figured out. So don’t think you’re alone or inadequate. The most important change I made is going to therapy, and that’s my biggest recommendation. If it’s beyond self-help, therapy will make a difference! Even remote, online or over the phone. It made me feel normal. Because the biggest burden I had to remove first was the feeling of being crazy, or having something wrong with me.
I have to stop this massive post here, as I feel it’s already a mission for you to read through it. It has been extremely therapeutic for me to share this, and I truly hope it helps you see anxiety differently, if only a little bit. There is a lot more to discuss, but let’s pause here for now. Let me know if you want more info on any of the points I made.