There’s a huge amount of help out there for people with various mental health issues, especially anxiety. There are countless blogs, self-help books, TED talks, meditation apps. I’m not competing with them, and know my little article is just a drop in the ocean of the internet. To be honest, it’s as much to be a reminder to myself as it is to help anyone else out there. But either way, whilst on my 1km swim the other morning (my meditation), the words formed in my head so I’ve tapped out some advice / reminders / musings on how to deal with anxiety from someone still working out how to get through the fog myself.
You’re not alone
I know it’s an obvious start, and thankfully the ‘taboo’ of mental health is slowly but surely disappearing. But sometimes – particularly if you have a partner who doesn’t suffer from anxiety – it can feel like you’re the only person who feels the way you feel. Just a short note to remind you that you are not alone, there are many of us who deal with mental struggles on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. You are unique in the way you see the world, but the same as everyone else in this uniqueness.
After that cheesy beginning, here are just a few other things I’ve realised on this journey:
It’s okay to have bad days
Olympians get ill. Geniuses get the wrong answer. Beauty Queens get spots. It’s okay to have days where you can’t manage your anxiety, and it all feels a bit much. There is no quick fix to managing any kind of mental health, and cutting yourself some slack will do you more help than beating yourself up for needing a cry on your drive to work.
Since I was 10 years old, I’ve had migraines – some of which are triggered by chocolate. That’s never really stopped me indulging and my sweet tooth led me to always pick the richest, most chocolatey options on the dessert menu. Yet over the last 2 years, eating chocolate has led to panic attacks and an intense fear of getting a migraine. It’s unfounded and irrational, but nevertheless a very real and horrible experience. I’ve therefore decided to more or less cut chocolate out of my diet.
I’ve gone through two trains of thought with this: 1) I need to get over it, 20 years of chocolate-eating proves it’s fine, and I need to just get a grip; 2) if my body’s telling me it doesn’t want it any more, then I need to accept and listen to that. Some days I feel ‘brave enough’ to have a piece, but most of the time I feel no temptation to have chocolate whatsoever. People can develop allergies and intolerances over the years, or have more severe migraine reactions, and they avoid the discomfort by changing their behaviour. This is much the same – one day I might go back to ‘what once was’, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a bad thing to avoid! Getting irritated with my perceived sense of ‘weakness’ doesn’t help – accepting it, and enjoying a fruity dessert instead, is a far better reaction.
It’s a crazy world out there, and having moments of hopelessness, feeling like you can’t cope, prove that you are human and not oblivious to life around you. Just try to keep it in perspective. But be kind to yourself. Don’t dwell too much on the bad – I’ve found this great site https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/ which only shares the inspiring and enlightening news that doesn’t get into the mainstream media. Remain informed, but remember there’s a huge amount of good in the world.
Which leads on to…
This is twofold – be kind to yourself, and to other people. The feelings of anxiety and panic are your brain’s way of trying to protect you. By kicking in the fight or flight mechanism – (I’m definitely flight… so much so sometimes I’m convinced I’ll actually sprout wings) – your brain is telling you that there’s danger and you need to act. This is a good thing, particularly when you’re faced with a sabre-toothed tiger… oh, right. So here’s a tip my counsellor gave me which I find incredibly helpful – when you have that spark of panic, ask yourself ‘Is this appropriate?’. If you’re faced with a tiger, then I’d say yes, it is, trust that instinct and evacuate. If it’s just because you’ve been invited to dinner, perhaps not. Asking yourself this question makes you more objective – you step back from the situation and analyse. Even just the act of a change of perspective will help to calm you. It’s not a failsafe, but it’s a good start.
The second point under ‘be kind’ is about being kind to other people. I recently went to a talk by Dr David R Hamilton on How the Mind Can Heal the Body (look him up, he’s amazing). There are studies that show that acts of kindness* – whether real or imagined (stay with me!) – release Oxycontin and nitric oxide. These are heart helpers, which keep your arteries healthy and can reduce the risk of heart disease. That fuzzy feeling your chest could be your arteries chilling out (probably not) … What’s even more remarkable, is it’s not just physical acts of kindness, but just daydreaming about loved ones or a happy memory that stirs that fuzzy feeling can have the same effect. It also just makes you feel wonderful – and if you’re feeling wonderful, you’re not panicking. That’s all the justification I need to keep daydreaming about my upcoming wedding.
Everyone is different
Another cliché, but there’s a reason it’s bandied around – because it’s true. There are so many different tips and tricks out there for managing anxiety, and they won’t all work for you. That doesn’t mean you’re more broken, or messed up, than the next person. It just means you haven’t found the right key.
I’ve tried a bit of self-guided meditation, but I struggle to keep focused – which I appreciate is part of the practice – it just doesn’t quite work for me. Instead, I swim. And while I’m in the water, I go through all the panic phases from ‘definitely going to die’ to ‘I think I’ll probably be okay’, but the difference is if you stop breathing you drown. Whilst that’s true in the physical sense when in the pool, it’s true mentally too. If you stop breathing, if you don’t give yourself the space, you’ll drown in your own dark thoughts. So my practice, therapy, and recovery is all done whilst swimming lengths – the exercise also releases endorphins which (in theory) will help with those happy feelings. It doesn’t always work, but at the very least I’ve done my body good. Find what works for you – knitting, hiking, humming – no-one can judge if it’s right or wrong apart from you.
As mentioned, this is as much to keep myself on the right track as it is to help anyone else who may be reading. Ultimately, recognise that you are a wonderful human being, the way you approach life is neither right or wrong, but be kind to yourself and remember to breathe.
*Check out David’s book The Five Side Effects of Kindness for more informed sciencey research.