when you feel anxious about being anxious

I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.

Mark Twain

My husband and I recently travelled to Athens. He went to see some sites he is studying in his Ancient Greece PhD. I went to eat nice food and have a week off from work (referring to work in the home and out). It was a pleasant week in which I prioritised self-care rather than creating a pressure to see and do as much as possible. Where does that pressure even come from? I suppose it amounts to some sort of achievement. My perfectionism-recovery-programme told me to enjoy, rest, connect. So I did.

The only downside in all this was the fact that I had to take a flight. There, and back. I wouldn’t categorise myself as having a flying phobia. I felt mild twinges of anxiety as I watched the safety presentation before the flight on the way out and this didn’t feel abnormal. However, I hadn’t actually flown for a year and a half – not since before I became unwell with anxiety. So unexpectedly, when the plane underwent some minor turbulence, I felt the familiar symptoms of a panic attack wash over me.

I had cold tingles travel up my chest and neck. My heart started pounding. My stomach was churning and I felt sick with fear. There was nothing I could do about the situation. I couldn’t leave via the nearest exit (which were ‘here’ and ‘here).

This is what I did:

  • Square breathing, read about this very effective technique here
  • I arrested my thoughts and imagination that were starting to play out the scenario of when the plane goes down and what I would do, as if I was Liam Neeson in an action film.
  • I had a playlist of helpful thoughts that I put on repeat:
    • Maybe, but probably not (in response to imagining the plane crashing)
    • Minor turbulence is normal, not dangerous, and inevitable on a flight
    • No one else is worried
    • Flying is statistically very safe
  • I played music and started reading as a distraction

I wasn’t sitting next to my husband (cheers, Ryanair) and so I gave myself a big high-five when I managed to calm myself down and even fall asleep, which anyone who has had an adrenaline rush knows, it’s not so easy to relax immediately after.

An important element of mental health is to celebrate when you manage an attack or a situation that involves triggers. Too often we can fixate on the times it overwhelms and feel an acute sense of disappointment and even failure.

I got through the flight with extreme sweat patches and a sense of elation. Not half bad. As we were travelling to our hotel an unnerving thought snuck into my mind:

I am going to have to do that again in six day’s time.

I told myself it will be fine and I refused to think about it again. Thankfully, that worked and I had no anxiety about it during the week. Until we were at the airport again and I was terribly anxious, worse than during the flight over.

It’s amazing how quickly your mind can associate a place/activity with certain feelings. In the end, I was essentially feeling anxious about being made to feel anxious again. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but it’s not a nice feeling. If we then listen too hard to that anxiety we will avoid the experience and before we know it a phobia has developed. At face value, the flights were perfectly fine. As Mark Twain alludes to, we have an incredible capacity to create and often what we create are terrifying experiences that never actually occur.

I was dreading four hours of potential torture but it was much better than expected. I told myself, who cares? They’re just feelings and I’ll manage. I slept for a large part of the flight thanks to my serenity (!). I looked out of the window and marvelled at what I could see. I chose to feel grateful for the experience and what it afforded me.

Now I am feeling confident I will be fine for my next flight in the summer holidays. Also, that each time it will be better and better. That belief in itself is an antidote to anxiety. I am noticing that just as anxiety can spiral out of control very quickly, it can also work in the opposite way. As you gain more confidence in your ability to handle it and more awareness that they are feelings you can overcome, things keep getting better.

What are some of your mental health triumphs?

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Me and my husband on the island of Aegina
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thoughts on loneliness and how to handle it

Ever since reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I have been pondering the subject of loneliness. In part due to the frequency with which pangs of loneliness have struck me in the last six months since we left our hometown and moved to the big smoke.

What does loneliness actually feel like?

I’m aware of my inability to fully grasp the depths of it having never been isolated to the extreme. Yet we all experience loneliness at some point in our lives and the simplest way I can sum up what it feels like is with the following statements:

I wish somebody knew about this. 

I wish somebody knew what I was feeling… What I did today… What I’m hoping for… How misunderstood I’ve been… How ill I feel… How much I despise my life… The cute thing my child/pet just did… The movie that just moved me to tears… The mistake I made that’s eating me up.

Loneliness is an inevitable acquaintance of suffering. Not just because people can avoid you because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, or because they won’t bring up your pain or loss because they think you’ve momentarily forgotten it and would be put out to be reminded of it. It is simply because no one else has gone through it in the exact same way that you have. You are isolated by your own uniqueness of circumstance and personhood.

This is why I believe empathy is so essential and drives connection. To have your truth and perspective heard and acknowledged without judgment is a hand lifting you our of your isolation and shame. Shame and isolation have a Catch 22 thing going on. They fuel each other and it can be so challenging to break free from the shame of isolation or the isolation of shame.

What helps deal with loneliness?

Well, as all mental or emotional issues, it’s not a simple answer. But here’s my genuine response:

  1. Self-pity – it’s only natural right? (Smile and nod.) But as soon as I realise how unproductive that is…
  2. I contacted people and made plans – this can take real willpower when I don’t know people very well. Loneliness is a natural response to not having that connection with others that humans naturally crave. To an extent it can propel us in a positive direction towards others, but those deeper connections take time to forge. So I guess putting myself out there is no quick fix but is part of playing the long-game of trust and friendship. This is where my word for the year comes in ‘do’ – just do it. Just text, just ask, just invite.
  3. I tried to think outside of myself – now this doesn’t come natural as I feel things deeply and so tend to get a bit entrenched by what I’m feeling. But on this rare occasion I reflected on who might be lonelier than myself and so I volunteered to help at a social drop-in for the elderly, run by my church on Friday mornings.

anne l gratitude and service

It’s potent when you choose to reflect on who you could reach out to instead of simply hoping to be reached.

4. Talk about it – Brendan Cox (the husband of the late MP, Jo Cox) was on All in the Mind’s show about loneliness and he spoke of the loneliness you feel from the absence of a specific person and that relationship. There is loneliness in grief when you can be surrounded by others and feel very supported and connected, but be desperately lonely without that significant other and the role they played in your life. There’s certainly no fix for that, but being able to talk about it and have someone hear, understand and acknowledge that pain is hugely comforting.

BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind show are conducting The Loneliness Experiment where they are gathering responses to a questionnaire from people across the nation to get a picture of the prevalence of loneliness and to try and discern how to tackle it. Read about it and take part here.

What’s your experience of loneliness? Do you inwardly cringe at the thought of admitting to it?

a late new year mantra post

Apparently new year’s resolutions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Ok, I’m exaggerating so you’ll read my post. Though it is a commonly held belief and there is probably some research out there to confirm that if you create a list of ‘will do’s’ then the likely scenario is that you won’t do – any of them. Sometimes the problem can be that we set ourselves improvement goals that are unattainable. Another problem can be that we start the year believing that we are fat and full of problems and simply that mindset sets us up for failure.

Research has recently concluded that you will see the most health benefits from physical activity if you believe you are active enough (Radio 4, All in the Mind). Participants did the same amount of activity but those who believed they were doing enough had better outcomes than those who still believed they were lazy buggers who would die early. I reckons (pushes glasses up nose) it comes back to our penchant to believe that we’re ‘not enough’, which is life-stripping in so many ways. See, scarcity culture is bad for our health. Literally.

Obviously, if you sit around on your butt eating creme eggs, no matter how much you muster up the belief that you exercise regularly, you will still have health problems. Yet I find it fascinating to hear of another example of your mindset impacting your physical health.

Even more so, your mindset impacts your mental health, it’s not just a coincidental syntactical similarity. Back to the new years resolution thing, perhaps to decide on a mindset for the year would be better? It’s not a straightforward measurable like ‘lose 10 pounds’ so less demoralising and I’m proactively attempting to improve the way I think and approach life in all areas.

Ali Edwards has created the One Little Word movement, which involves selecting one word for the year that you live and breath and make daily choices out of its influence.

Here’s my word for 2018 (it’s little, you could miss it):

do

It’s small, but powerful. It’s about movement, progress, action. But it could also be about staying where you are. It’s about making choices.

This is what it means for me and how I hope it will influence my 2018, though I anticipate it will change and grow…

  • Do more, think less

I love thinking. It’s a big part of my personality and I don’t want to disparage or negate that. It has its benefits. For example, arguments with me tend to involve a lot of silence as I formulate answers, as opposed to angry, thoughtless words that would hurt you and I will regret later. Helpful on the one hand, infuriating on the other.

Where it tends to cause problems is when it comes to creativity. I’m too busy trying to think of the perfect outcome that I don’t actually put a lot down on paper, if anything. At the heart of creativity is risk and so I can’t map out the perfect story or creative project entirely in my head first. I’ve got to get out the rubbish first draft. I’ve got to write 5000 words of crap before landing on that thing that it’s all about.

When approaching my writing, crochet, anything creative, ‘just do it’ willbe my mantra. Crack on.

do.png

  • Do more, fear failure less

I don’t like getting things wrong. Who does? Perfectionism is a creativity killer. If I want to be innovative and also make the most of my time I need to hesitate less and accept the inevitable slip ups… and big fat falls-on-my-face. I can’t tell you how much I can struggle with this. It’s so easy to hear ‘please do this next time’ as ‘how could you have not got that right first time around, you cretin’. Yes I may have never done it before, but still, I should know and perform perfectly, 24/7, in all areas of life, right?

It sounds ridiculous but yet that’s my daily life soundtrack. It’s tinkering away in the background making me hesitate and cry over being human and making errors.

  • Do more to connect

With life having upped a few gears in recent months, I am realising how much more intentional I need to be to connect with my husband and kids. Being in the same room doesn’t equal connection. I have to make a conscious effort to do that baking time… Do that help with homework… Do that board game (even though it is so boring and it’s usually destroyed in a fit of rage before we can finish it anyway)… Do that snuggle time… Do that extra story at bed time.

And then there’s the kids…

  • Do and then don’t

This needs as much of my commitment as does the pushing past fear and cracking on with creative tasks and work. To accept that no matter how many hours I put in, I can’t ever achieve all that needs to be achieved because there will always be another email that comes in, another issue that arises, another change that needs a response, and so when it comes to the end of my working day, whatever is left undone, I need to let it go – mentally and physically. I have to accept the discomfort I may feel and just do it. Close the laptop, accept my limitations, and rest.

How’s your 2018 going so far? Do you have a mantra/word/theme? Perhaps you’ve gone with tradition and it’s working well for you? I’d love to hear in the comments.