The problem with anxiety.

Two weeks ago I opened my notebook and wrote this to you:

“I’ll level with you. I’m feeling anxious.

Right now as I write this.

I was fine and then all of a sudden I was aware of the tell-tale signs: the increase in temperature, the noise of my heart beating, my stomach bubbling.

My anxiety manifests itself as illness.

Or maybe I should say, it provokes the same symptoms as illness.

I feel ‘not quite right’, ‘not myself’.

I feel I am slowly moving away from my body, like a camera panning out.

I am dangerously aware of the ticks and whirrs of my body, of the minute moment-to-moment fluctuations.

My anxiety manifests itself physically, but it is being controlled by my brain. 

This I know to be true.

The control centre is sending information to my body, to my stomach and lungs and heart, that I am in danger. It is telling me to be aware, to be on the look out, to be vigilant.

I am an old hand at this game now. I have learnt to quickly identify and acknowledge what is going on.

I know I am not ill – although my body may tell a different story – I am anxious.

And today, I can even tell you the causes:

  1. I was awake between 3:23 am and 5:00 am. When I woke my brain was skitting about all over the place – unable to be still.
  2. I have had a too-busy week and my head is too full of plans and lists and ideas. All good, but too many of them.  
  3. Also, just before I left the house this morning I had a fight with my twelve year old, well – she had a fight with me.

This unique blend of tiredness, an over-full mind and conflict was enough to light the touch paper, to start me spiralling.

But the problem with anxiety is this: with all my knowledge and awareness, with all the learning I have done, it is still my head trying to tell my head I am okay.

It is my brain that is ill and my brain that has been given the job of healing.

My brain is both patient and physician.

This is why it is so hard.

This is why ‘snapping out of it’ is not straight forward, even when you have recognised and diagnosed the situation clearly. Why it is often impossible to think your way out of anxiety even though you know you are not in danger and do not need to have activated your fight or flight response. Why getting into a heated debate with yourself about the ‘reality’ of the situation is almost always futile.

This is why today I am sat on the train on the way to visit my best friend in London telling myself, writing to myself,

I am not ill.

This must also be why so many tips for dealing with anxiety start outside of the brain, with fresh air, or exercise, or the breath, or singing, with action not thought.”

That was all I wrote. A half-finished musing.

By the time I had finished writing I was again calm, and sleepy (trains always make me sleepy). I had a snooze.

But in these scrawled words were some observations about mental illness. As I wrote my way to calm I was reminded of these truths. I need reminding of often (maybe you do too):

  1. Physical action can alleviate mental stress.When you are at the point of falling down the rabbit hole into panic and anxiety, if you are able to catch yourself in the moment, go outside, or run up and down the stairs. Sing or dance like a loon – distract yourself. Sometimes I find something as small as running my hands under cold water is enough to bring me back to the present moment. In this instance I was on a train and none of these things were available to me – so I wrote. The sensation of the pen scratching out some truth on paper, of the ache in my hand from writing fast, calmed me and brought me back to myself. I recently wrote a post about ways to turn down the volume on your anxiety, you can read it here.
  2. It is hard and it is not your fault. Yes there are things I could have done to make my week quieter but I couldn’t make myself sleep better, or pre-empt my lovely daughter’s emotional outburst. Life is complicated and often unfurls in unexpected ways, if you find yourself feeling anxious or having a panic attack, it is not your fault. You don’t need to beat yourself up for it, or explain it away, pretending it is not a big deal. It is a hard place to be, and, I’ll say it again, it is not your fault.
  3. This will pass. You are still alive. Even if the anxiety in this moment will not respond to your attempt to subdue it. you will not die. You have a 100% track record in surviving panic attacks – you will survive again. On this day, before I had finished writing I was feeling calm and had a fantastic day chatting, walking and eating cake with my friend in London. This photo was taken a couple of hours later.

Do you ever find it hard to retain these truths? Leave me a comment below and let me know it’s not just me!

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