On discovering a surprising habit which calms my anxiety.

In my battle against the anxiety I have amassed an arsenal of weapons.

I moderate my alcohol and caffeine consumption, try to eat and sleep well, practise mindfulness, exercise regularly, use 7/11 breathing techniques and try to schedule in time to rest.

But recently I noticed a new habit that is also having a big impact on the pull of anxious thoughts.

I am fairly well at the moment. The past six months have been some of the most stable and relaxed I have known in a while. I have managed to do many things that, even a year ago, would have seemed impossible for me to contemplate.

Take this week as an example. We have been staying in Wimbledon, house-sitting and enjoying a change of scenery. Yesterday we took a long tube journey to meet up with some friends in hot and busy central London, to eat at a place I had not suggested and did not know, after which we took another tube to spend the afternoon in Hyde Park.

And I was fine. In fact, it was fun.

This is major.


Matt Haig took to twitter this week to write:

I think anxiety is best understood as a condition you have to manage, like diabetes. You don’t get rid of it, but you can get on top of it.

He is right. Even though I am doing well, I have a tendency towards anxiety. Maybe when I am older and wiser I will reach a zen-like state and anxiety will have no hold on me, but for the time being it occasionally still does. I have a predisposition.

Feeling anxious is horrific. From this place of relative calm I can see just how ill I have been and how debilitating it has been, for me and my family.

Even now on days when I am doing something new, or in a situation I can’t control (especially when I am physically trapped for example on a boat, or on the underground), I need a few tricks, a few habits, to stop me spiralling, to keep the intrusive thoughts at bay.

And I have a new trick which has become unexpectedly useful, distracting and calming me: photography.

Earlier this year I decided to start to improve my photography skills. I have a good camera. I knew (I still know) I was not getting the best out of it.

I read a few tutorials and they all said the same thing: if you want to get better at taking photos, you have to take more photos, preferably every day. So I signed up to a daily photography challenge on instagram (#thebethadillychallenge). At first I took snaps on my phone, one every day which related to the given prompt, and posted them on instagram. Some early ones:

prompt: joy


prompt: today


I quickly became was frustrated at the quality and variety my iPhone could achieve and I started to use my ‘proper’ camera. The photos got better. I started to learn how to shoot in manual mode. I learnt how to manipulate the field of focus and read articles about composition.

But as I took my camera out and about with me I realised something else was happening. I wasn’t just improving my photography skills. The act of picking up my camera and looking through the view finder also relaxed me.

By looking through the small window on the back of the camera I put a space between me and the never ending barrage of stimulation the day presented. It gave me a moment to pause, to separate myself from the action, to re-frame it.

Taking a photo takes my brain down another pathway, one that has nothing to do with my health or anxious thoughts. Instead of scanning the horizon for catastrophe, I have become a beauty-hunter. I am looking for good. Even on a miserable day, when the kids are ill or doing-my-head-in, I am looking for a way to capture the moment that is pleasing to the eye. It doesn’t change the reality of the situation but gives me a different way to see it.

It is also a reminder of the impermanence of everything, a way to time travel. A way to leave this anxious moment and fast forward into the future. I am taking this photo now, later I will be looking at it on my computer, the moment will be over and I will be looking back on it. It remind me that everything passes, the good and the bad.

Like this week when, while on holiday, my ten year old was sick and I took this photo.


As I did, I separated myself from the anxiety crouching at the door whispering that we would all now be ill, and instead I enjoyed the blue of her eyes and her nail varnish against the pink of the blanket. I remembered again what a privilege it is to be able to care for while she is poorly, to have the time and space to stay home and stroke her hair. I remembered she would soon be well again.

The other week we were in Anglesey and decided to go on a boat trip. Matt had been suggesting this as a potentially fun activity for as many years as we have been going to Anglesey (about seven). This year I ran out of excuses and agreed. Although due to the aforementioned improvement in my mental health it didn’t stress me out as it would have, it was still a bit of an ordeal. I had to have a few straight conversations with myself.

As we pulled away from the harbour on our way to ‘puffin island’ I could feel the familiar tide of anxiety rising within me. I started to feel trapped and hot. My stomach started swirling. But instead of panicking, instead of feeling unable to escape my thoughts, I picked up my camera. As I looked through the lens I felt I relief. I felt in control. I realised again I could choose how to see the world around me.

It was only later on, as I transferred the photos from my camera to my computer I realised it was picking up my camera that enabled me to divert my brain from the deluge of thoughts threatening to swamp me. I recognised it was this action that gave me a moment to pause. It was this action that distracted me, that reoriented me.

And, amongst a load of fairly ordinary pictures (because, honestly, editing out the crap shots is the joy of digital photography), I also took these photos:


In the battle with the unknown terror that is anxiety, new habits or practises give me back control.  And as I compose a new photo I am reminded, there is always good waiting to be found.

Are you suffering with anxiety or depression at the moment? I’ve been there. I know what it is like.


I have created a series of 7 daily thoughts to inspire you and encourage you. If you need some help to get through the day, then this free gift is for you. Just fill out the boxes beneath this post and you will receive Seven days of Hope direct to your inbox.


  • Hannah
    Posted at 20:46h, 05 August Reply

    Listening to music for me is helpful. Sometimes to connect with an emotion other than the anxious one. This one may make you laugh, but sometimes if I am not physically able to get out for a walk, or ‘do’ something to calm me, I look at beautiful things online. I plan an imaginary holiday, or design a new room in an imaginary house. I have even just looked on a website and bought an entire wardrobe, then deleted the basket at the end. Takes me to a different place mentally, sometimes just that break in my mind is all that is needed.
    Listening to music while drawing is perhaps my fav thing to do to calm me, but sometimes I’ll feel too stressed to do that, to relax enough, so watching some type of mindless comedy show also helps.

  • thehippochronicles
    Posted at 20:51h, 05 August Reply

    Thanks Hannah, yes I find music can be helpful too. And I know what you mean about feeling too stressed to draw – you have to have a certain level of wellness to be able to benefit from some habits (definitely true of photography). At my worst if someone had told me photography could be helpful I would have laughed in their face! But now it proves remarkably beneficial. X

    • Hannah
      Posted at 21:29h, 05 August Reply

      It’s difficult though, that when things are very crap, lots of these things don’t work very well. I have never suffered with bad anxiety, so I know that the coping mechanisms I use to manage it, are prob not really relevant as much for people who seem to have more of it to cope with. I find it really tough not being able to exercise, until I had CfS I never really had much anxiety, but was quite highly strung, think the exercise kept me on the straight and narrow, so now, in the absence of exercise, I find Prozac fills that gap !
      I also find trees have a very calming affect on me….. When I’m not near trees or large expanses of water, life already feels more stressful.
      Pleased you have found photography to be helpful at the moment, and you take some really beautiful photos too. Nice one x

  • thehippochronicles
    Posted at 22:03h, 05 August Reply

    Thanks Hannah x

  • cbowers270
    Posted at 10:35h, 06 August Reply

    I know you and I have spoken about this before but for me it’s being outside … especially on the waterfront. I feel myself able to take a deep breath and calm myself down. I’ll sit in the garden for a bit, go for a walk or – most helpful – a run. I’m finding this, having a nasty injury, especially difficult at present and the thought of a 3 – 6 month post surgery recovery period is pretty overwhelming. I need to find other ways to manage my anxiety before it takes contol again. Nothing in particular has worked yet so I’ll be interested to follow this post and see what people suggest.

    • thehippochronicles
      Posted at 17:34h, 06 August Reply

      Yes – Im all about the big open spaces. Something about being able to see a long distance – without buildings getting in the way – is very therapeutic. Are there any other high energy sports you can do with your injury?

  • Heather Waller
    Posted at 14:15h, 06 August Reply

    Thanks for this Ellie! I’m trying to think of what might help my son who finds going to new places to see unfamiliar people and do unfamiliar things totally debilitating, even if it’s exactly the sort of thing he absolutely loves (like a print-making worskshop I took him to this morning). He clings onto things in the car, I physically have to peel him off and drag him out (after using all the preferable tactics obvs!), he sits in the car park refusing to budge, I have to physically guide him there, it’s a massive battle, he’s yelling at me and it causes a big scene as though he’s being tortured or something, then once he’s there and feels like he knows what’s going on he loves it and laughs about how anxious he was beforehand. I wonder what people found helpful as children, or what parents do/can do for their children. I don’t want to traumatise him but I want him to be open to new experiences that he will really enjoy and find therapeutic in themselves. He was like a new child coming out of this morning’s workshop! Sorry, no ideas given here!

    • Ruth
      Posted at 09:09h, 07 August Reply

      Hi , just read your post about your son after reading Ellie’s about her photography as a distraction . Firstly , it must be so very hard to be in that situation and what a fantastic mother you are to keep trying new things with your son .
      You may have already tried but I wondered if , like Ellie behind the camera , wether some kind of music iPod would be a distraction for your son in crisis moments . Also ( maybe a bit stupid ) but some sunglasses !
      I’m just thinking I can feel a bit ” hidden ” behind sunglasses , in a public place .
      Just silly ideas , you may have already tried
      But most of all to wish you luck , patience and A flood of strategies in your momentous task X

  • thehippochronicles
    Posted at 17:36h, 06 August Reply

    Anxiety in children is a big deal isn’t it? And so exhausting. I know little about it, but headspace have just launched headspace for kids – have you seen it? I haven’t really investigated it yet but plan to as I think the mindfulness/ meditation stuff is good for all kids under stress, but probably ones who are very anxious more than most.

  • Chasing Dragonflies
    Posted at 09:55h, 07 August Reply

    We are a family steeped in anxiety and it’s so exhausting. This post is fantastic! I too get much pleasure and calmness from photography and love my ig account. I just started a bullet journal to log thoughts as well as practical stuff. My mind is feels like the entire internet some days!

    • thehippochronicles
      Posted at 10:02h, 07 August Reply

      I know what you mean. I edited out a few lines that said something about having a hundred new ideas and a thousand thoughts a minute and how exhausting it is! What’s your ig account?- I’ll follow you. I’m @ellijohnson . I also find writing very therapeutic. X

      • Chasing Dragonflies
        Posted at 10:07h, 07 August Reply

        Thanks for replying. It’s so good to not feel so alone in the anxiety fog. It’s true that it’s something to be managed, I’m still learning… it’s managing my children’s and husband’s anxiety too which adds another drain. I’m @mummypics look forward to linking up! x

  • ssuire
    Posted at 15:35h, 07 August Reply

    It took me a long time to acknowledge and accept my anxiety, but I have dealt with it for years. Writing, yoga, breathing exercises all help but I love your outlet of photography. When I feel the anxiety rising, I also ask myself a few questions. Why am I anxious, what is the worst outcome, what can I do differently right now, is this really worth ruining this moment (especially good when I am with family). Loved your post, thanks for sharing.

    • thehippochronicles
      Posted at 15:47h, 07 August Reply

      Thanks. There yoga is one thing I know lots of people find beneficial but I haven’t found a way of working it into my schedule yet- I want to! X

  • Jackie
    Posted at 19:48h, 08 August Reply

    I find walking the dog calming, especially on the waterfront where we live. It is also a responsibility, which makes me go out even when I don’t feel like getting out of bed. I also find mindfulness helpful, the guided meditations on my iPad from one of the books are good, the man has a calming voice!
    thanks for your blogs, I have found them helpful.

  • itsamumslife2016
    Posted at 22:56h, 29 August Reply

    I’ve tried many things to sort my anxiety out. But I like your idea to compare it to being a diabetic. You still have it, you just learn to be in top of it. meditation; I know the benefits but can’t get my head to be in that space.
    I love reading and immersing myself in a good book. I managed to read 3 books on our family holiday this year!!
    I am a horticultural therapist so try to practice what I preach and use gardening as a therapy. There’s something about the quietness and stillness of nature accepting you into its own space and you can sit or work within
    it. Enjoying the silence. As a mum I don’t have much silence in my life but when I do I can switch off. Great blog post. I love taking photos too.

  • Wayne Caffery
    Posted at 14:54h, 11 October Reply

    I enjoyed reading your inspiring article, Elli. I’m also a chronic anxiety sufferer, and I’ve recently decided to start photography to help me cope better with my anxiety. Best wishes, Wayne.

  • maximous.net
    Posted at 14:40h, 12 October Reply

    Nice read, I jusat passed this onto a colleague who was doing
    a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I fouynd it for him smile Therefore let
    me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

    • ElliJohnson
      Posted at 11:32h, 13 October Reply

      It’s my pleasure! Hope it was tasty!

  • http://astonpublicitygroup.com/page/8/
    Posted at 18:18h, 13 October Reply

    Keep on working, great job!

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