A couple of months ago, I decided to begin what I would call my “Anxiety Diary”, in which I would document my thoughts, feelings and experiences of the condition. Well, this will be the second and last ever entry into the diary.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought it would help me get things off my chest and to relieve tension and stress. Writing your thoughts down is a pretty common part of treatment for anxiety and other psychological conditions. However, since I had my first panic attack in January, I’ve done a lot of thinking. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about panic attacks and anxiety disorders. I would probably have to confess that my ignorance left me unsympathetic – as if people needed to ‘snap out of it’. But here we are in the month of May, and I can now say that I am well versed in the subject, both through personal struggle and my own research, and I can say that it certainly isn’t that simple. The one thing I now want to avoid is giving anxiety too much respect. It’s not a heavy load I have to haul around. It’s not an inevitable part of my character that I have to be proud of. It’s not a part of me at all. And it certainly isn’t me. I started this blog because I felt I’d found a subject – travel – on which I had something to say (feel free to disagree with me on that one!) and which I would enjoy thinking about and writing about. So why inject more anxiety into my life by making the condition a part of that? Why spend hours or days coming up with blog posts about something that doesn’t matter? If you blog about anxiety and panic, I’m not saying that you too should stop. Anxiety is an extremely subjective and personal journey and we all handle it in different ways. What helps one person may not help the other. But I thought, to draw a line under the issue for me (at least as far as blogging goes), I’d share some things I’ve learned as a result of the condition, whether it’s about what helps me to feel better, what anxiety is really about or just what I’ve found out about myself, and then leave it at that. All of this is based on personal experience rather than expertise or study, but if it helps even one person feel better, that would make it all worthwhile. It would even make my own suffering seem worthwhile.
Anyway, in no particular order…
A) I’ve been doing this to myself: Nobody asks to have panic attacks. Why on Earth would they? Nobody asks to feel ill all the time, to feel anxious, to wrestle with unpleasant thoughts. So when I say that I have done this to myself, I don’t mean that I have made a conscious choice to suffer, or that you have. However, anxiety is not an external force or a nasty infection about which I can do little other than to wait out. I’ve not been randomly chosen to suffer. I have, however, created my own anxiety through years of unnecessary worry and fear, of unhelpful thought patterns and too much concern for things that may never happen. Of course, there are genetic and environmental factors about which we have no control, but neither of these things mean we have to suffer. I can now see how everything in my life has been leading to this moment. And being able to see this is extremely powerful, because it allows me to begin to change it.
B) The right information is crucial: For such a common condition, it is astonishing how many people receive that wrong information and go on to fall into a cycle they don’t even know they’re in or cannot break free from. I’m still waiting for a medical professional to give me a proper explanation of the condition. Doctors seem to want to throw pills at you and call it good. Of course, what works for one person out there won’t necessarily work for another for all sorts of reasons, but at its heart, anxiety and panic is easily understandable, can be treated, and would hold far less fear for sufferers if they could truly see what is going on. There is so much self-help information out there, some of it excellent, some absolutely useless. I’m of the opinion that you don’t need shelves full of anxiety literature. The last thing I want is to come home from work and see bookshelves full to the brim with the subject. For me, the work of Dr Claire Weekes and Paul David is all I needed. All the information that would allow me to begin to recover is in their books.
C) I can have the life I want right now: Anyone who’s read Paul David’s books and follows his blog might recognise a lot of what I say, so for the record, I’m not looking to pass off other people’s ideas as my own. However, I cannot escape the fact that this man’s advice has proved invaluable. If you can truly understand his message, you will begin to recover. His central message is that, despite the awfulness of anxiety, you don’t need to stop. Claire Weekes was saying much the same as early as the 1960s. So many people put their lives on hold because of how they feel. The problem with this is that it can make things worse. If you take to your bed because you feel unwell, you’ll create behaviour patterns and safety methods that mean it will get harder and harder to get out of that bed. I was headed that way before I picked up ‘At Last A Life’, the first book by Paul David. His simple message that I didn’t need to wait to feel better to do things got me back on my feet almost immediately. I know it’s done the same for others. I’m not saying it made me feel instantly better. I had to go through some hard times, and I still feel rubbish occasionally. But it showed me that none of what I felt was actually a barrier to me getting out of bed and living. This in turn helped me to create the right kinds of behaviours.
D) Anxiety isn’t actually that bad: Anxiety is a massive lie our minds and bodies tell us. If you’re healthy, feelings of anxiety are an accurate reflection of how you feel and the feelings associated with it make sense. But if you’re like me, it pops up in the wrong situations and dominates your entire day. It’s a great big lie! I’ve felt an absolute array of symptoms, from loss of sensation in my limbs and face, dizziness, feelings of inhibited consciousness, depersonalisation, derealisation, a total and complete loss of my ability to feel emotions, nausea, muscle pain and spasms, perceived (but not actual) loss of bladder control, jelly legs, headaches, eye floaters, insomnia, hot spells, cold spells, crippling but unspecified fear, stomach pains, choking sensations, palpitations, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, upsetting thoughts, low mood and more. So I’m not going to say that anxiety isn’t horrible. It is. But when I rationalise the situation properly and truly, from the very pit of my being, accept and believe that it is all being caused by anxiety rather than anything more sinister, it loses its power. I’m not saying it goes away, but you stop fearing it. Without fear, it has so much less to feed on, and recovery begins. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve suffered for a short time or if you’ve been struggling for years, recovery is possible for anybody. But you have to lose that fear and allow yourself to feel rough at times. Anxiety and panic can’t and won’t hurt you. See through the lie and you’ll begin to beat it.
E) Worry is a waste of time: Again, Paul David is my guru here. It’s human to worry, of course. It’s all part of our make up. But how often do the things we worry about come true? And when they do, how often is it as devastating as we anticipate it to be? I’ve always been a worrier. I can’t always put my finger on what my worries really are, but I’ve always lived with one eye on what could go wrong. You can’t live your entire life on guard like that and not expect your in-built defences against threats to ignore it forever. That is what has happened to me. I’ve triggered that ancient part of us that prepares us to fight or to run away, and it won’t go away unless I allow it to. The way to allow it to do that is to stop living as if there’s a threat around every corner. I’m not going to start bungee jumping and I do still plan to look when I cross the street, but I don’t plan on seeing distant life events or minor issues as something to spend hours trying to figure out.
F) Trying to chase anxiety away only makes it worse: I absolutely believe in seeking help when you need it, and there are plenty of treatments for anxiety, from various forms of therapy to medications. I take anti-depressants and beta blockers and have been having a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I have found the pills useful in so much as they have given me the space to see so much of what I’m explaining in this post. The therapy has helped me to see how thought triggers emotions that trigger behaviours that trigger physical sensations. However, I have no interest in chasing around hundreds of therapists trying to find the one who’ll say the things that make it all go away. Nor do I find the constant burden of carrying pills around, trying to remember to take them, especially helpful. Ultimately, I can see how this creates behaviours that actually teach your mind that something is wrong, which only sustains anxiety. And that is why this is my last post on the subject (unless I feel very strongly I have more to say on the matter).
G) What people think about you is not the be all and end all: I’ve had to wait until 31 years of age to finally realise this. No matter who you are, you’ll never suit one hundred percent of the people you meet. If you get over fifty percent you’re doing quite well. Obviously, if you’re going for a job interview, you should be trying to give your prospective employer a good impression and you won’t win many friends if you’re not a half-decent person (is that true? Some of the most popular people I’ve known have been absolute shits).But the point is, stop worrying about what people think. This is especially important if you have anxiety, because it means you’ll stop fighting to keep control and you can drop the veneer of calmness and allow however you feel to just be. I’ve always hated situations in which you have to make a first impression. I never feel comfortable and this makes me feel awkward and brings unpleasant sensations. It makes it hard to concentrate on what someone is saying to you if your focus is entirely on yourself. I find that it triggers a real slowing down of my cognitive functions, to the point where I’ll slur my words and suddenly struggle to think of a single interesting thing to say. I guess you could call it Chandler Bing Syndrome. All of this is caused by nothing more than worrying too much what people think.
H) Just because you think something doesn’t make it true: This is a really important realisation that everyone with anxiety needs to have. Anxious people tend to make everything into a catastrophe. We over-analyse and worry what certain thoughts could mean about us. We sometimes feel a loss of control in our thinking that makes us worry we are experiencing something more serious such as psychosis or Schizophrenia. Or it could just be that you turn every sensation or blemish or symptom into its most dire possibility. A freckle you’ve never noticed before (or even one you have) becomes melanoma or your churning digestive system means cancer. This is one of the ways in which anxiety bullies us, and if you don’t break the cycle that begins with these unhealthy thought patterns, you’ll do yourself no favours. I was heading in this direction until I saw through the anxiety lie. Too many people – even those without anxiety – give their thoughts too much credibility. And by doing this, you can make things worse. If I have a worry or a thought I don’t much like, I examine it for what it is and now I just let it go. Instead of worrying about every little feeling, convincing myself I have a brain tumour and letting Dr Google ‘confirm’ it, I accept that almost everything you’ll ever feel will be benign and that, if one day I do have to receive bad news, I’ll find out the old-fashioned way – through a doctor. In the meantime, my mind is allowed to create whatever fictions it wants because I’m no longer listening.
The key to my progress has clearly been the message of understanding and acceptance. This is not some kind of newfangled method I’ve hit upon that is going to change the world. Dr Claire Weekes, who passed away in 1990, was writing about it for decades before her death and her work continues to help people to this day. Paul David, a former anxiety sufferer who spent ten years in the absolute mire, follows up on that message. I don’t believe sufferers need much more than the work of these two people and then to truly buy into what they have to say. That’s what I’ve done, and it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that what I’ve said here proves helpful to someone and I can go back to writing about my holidays. No, I am not anxiety, and neither is anybody else.