Fault vs. responsibility

A friend recently said to me that he first started to cope with his anxiety when he realised that how he was feeling wasn’t his fault, but that it was his responsibility to do something about it. This is something that’s really stuck with me. I wholeheartedly agree and I’ve decided to bring this “fault vs. responsibility” idea into my own life, by constantly reminding myself of the following:

What I’m feeling isn’t my fault. But it is up to me – and only me – to change it.

Obviously, this is far easier said than done (like so many mental health solutions!). Blaming myself is pointless, damaging and a waste of time. At the end of the day, it’s all chemical. My anxiety is not my fault, and I need to constantly remind myself of this. I am not to blame, and I have nothing to apologise for. And yet I apologise for it all. the. time. Seriously. It doesn’t matter who it is, I will say sorry over and over again for this thing happening to me that I can’t control, that I have no say over and that I didn’t choose for myself.

My first office job was in client relations, which consequently meant I spent about 80% of my day apologising to unhappy clients. Sometimes the issue was my error, and sometimes it wasn’t. One day I was desperately apologising for something for which I wasn’t even remotely to blame and when I hung up the phone, my manager said to me, “You should never, ever apologise for something that’s not your fault.”

It’s difficult enough to adopt this mentality in a working environment, let alone when it’s a mental health issue – something that’s still a taboo subject and something I freely admit I’m still embarrassed and ashamed of. At the beginning of this year, I had an anxiety attack at work and was sent home by my very understanding boss – but not before I’d apologised about 15 times. Whenever I bail on an event because of anxiety, I apologise for said anxiety over and over again. A few months ago I ended things with a guy because of anxiety and I was shocked that my first instinct was to apologise for the way I was feeling. After a lot of drafting and redrafting, I finally came up with a text that explained honestly why I couldn’t see him anymore, that expressed regret and respect for his feelings – but that didn’t contain a single apology. This probably sounds incredibly insensitive and even rude, but honestly – apologising for feelings you can’t control can be so damaging and detrimental, and can inhibit recovery to a huge extent. Apologising essentially equates to believing you’re in the wrong, and no one is ever “in the wrong” for experiencing mental health difficulties.

I have no doubt I will continue to apologise for my anxiety countless times over the next few weeks/months/years. But I’m trying to be more aware of when I’m doing it, and to stop myself wherever I feel it’s appropriate. If I’m bailing on an event, for example, I will apologise for causing an inconvenience – but I’ll try not to apologise for feeling anxious.

So that’s the “fault” aspect of my new life motto. The responsibility is next, and this is something I’m also finding difficult. Accepting responsibility for my anxiety means conceding that all change needs to come from me. I can talk to amazing counsellors, go to wonderful yoga teachers and rely on great friends for support, but at the end of the day, all anyone else can do is help. The real change needs to come from me. If I don’t research counsellors, if I don’t take the time out of my week to go to yoga, if I don’t look to my friends for support, then nothing will happen. I’m the worst for thinking, “When A/B/C happens, then I’ll be fine”, or “If only I had X/Y/Z in my life, then I’d be fine.” But life doesn’t work like that. In order to actually create a change, I have to take responsibility and examine what’s going on in the present, not constantly rely on the unpredictable future.

It’s also not just about seeking help from others, although this is a big step towards making a change. It’s maintaining that discipline in everyday life which is, again, something that only comes from me. I’ve touched on this before, but in the context of this article – It’s not up to anyone else to tell me not to drink coffee, to think seriously before having a glass of wine or to use the Headspace app every day. My friends are amazing and will always be there to listen, but my daily routine isn’t their problem. Only I know what will affect my anxiety. Only I will know if I can happily go for a few drinks and be totally fine the next day, or if sharing a bottle of wine would be a really stupid idea at that exact moment. It’s up to me to work out all these things, and put them into practice myself.

So to sum up (and this is me giving myself advice here)…

Don’t: blame yourself. It will get you nowhere and will do more harm than good.

Do: accept responsibility for what’s happening to you. Know that change has to stem from you, and that it’s up to you to seek support from the people who love you and the resources that are there to help.

 

LOW OF THE WEEK:  PMS is a bitch. Just going to leave it at that…

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Curious Arts Festival! It’s a literary/arts festival in Hampshire and I went with one of my best friends. Such a happy day of DMCs/books/gin tasting hearing amazing authors talk about their books and feeling far more intellectual than I really am. 10/10.

Putting yourself first

“I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.” – Elinor Dashwood: “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen

Putting myself first is something that often goes against all my deepest instincts. Not because I’m an unselfish person, but because I’m far too obsessed with what people think and usually terrified of offending. And yet self-care is absolutely vital in order to keep those anxiety demons at bay.

I find there’s a fine line between cushioning myself too much and unsuccessfully attempting to “push through”. I know as well as anyone that a.) It’s healthy and often rewarding to force yourself out of your comfort zone, and b.) We all have to do things we don’t want to do from time to time; shit happens, often at a time that’s not convenient to us, and we have to deal with it.

Having said that, I can normally inherently feel the difference between a normal reluctance or nervousness to deal with something I don’t want to acknowledge, and a very real anxiety. I’ve become obsessed with inspirational quotes on Instagram, and I saw one recently that said “If it feels wrong, don’t do it”. I 100% agree, and this is something I’ve tried to consider when debating whether or not to do something because of anxiety. Sometimes, I know deep down I’ll be absolutely fine – in which case I’ll propel myself out of the door and, more often than not, be very glad I did so. Other times I can barely move for anxiety and have an overwhelming feeling of foreboding. In darker times like this, I’ll try to listen to my mind and body, even if that means bailing, cancelling or letting someone down.

I should say: I HATE bailing. With an all-consuming passion. I hate having to send the text that I know will never be able to properly express how I’m really feeling; I hate appearing flaky, unreliable, pathetic, lazy or any of the other numerous adjectives that I have never applied to anyone who bailed on me, but that I unfailingly apply to myself whenever I have to drop out of an event that a friend has kindly invited me to.

Despite my hatred of bailing, so far this year I have cancelled on: two birthday parties, a day at Glyndebourne, a spa day with a friend and a long weekend in Salcombe. With each of those events, I left the actual bailing to the very last minute, sometimes because my anxiety crept up on me without warning and sometimes because I determinedly refused to acknowledge the anxiety I could feel building, until I was forced to admit that I would have to cancel at ridiculously short notice.

Every time I sent the text saying “I’m so sorry, I’m not going to be able to make it, etc.”, I was so worried the friends in question would be annoyed, frustrated or disappointed in me. None of them were any of those things. They were all incredibly kind, caring and were only concerned with my well-being. Consequently, I’m gradually beginning to realise something that should have been obvious for a long time: it’s ok to bail. It’s ok to not be ok. And it’s ok to look after yourself. My housemate has a saying which I firmly believe everyone should adopt (and which I am only gradually beginning to adopt myself): “You do you”. Not all the time, obviously – sometimes we all have to inconvenience ourselves to get something done, or to help others. But I know if I’m feeling anxious, or if the anxiety is persistently hovering just outside my thoughts, I need to put myself first – and have no guilt about doing so.

There was a great article by Viv Groskop in this month’s issue of Red. The article was called “Wave Goodbye to Mum Guilt” and was about taking time for yourself as a mother (so I’m not entirely sure why I was reading it – but, regardless, I was). I was struck by one of the points she made, in which she referred to the advice they give on a plane: “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” We have to look after ourselves first and foremost, not only for our own well-being but because it is only through self-care that we will be best equipped to help others. She went on to say “You’re more secure, useful and happy as a parent if you value yourself first.” If I substitute “parent” for “daughter”, “sister” or “friend”, this becomes incredibly applicable to my own life and also perfectly sums up why it really is so important to do what you need to do in order to be ok – whether that’s putting an oxygen mask on or cancelling on a party – not only to ensure your own well-being, but also to benefit those around you.

So to sum up, I’ll bring it back to Elinor Dashwood. She wanted to be happy, in her own way. If I’m going to successfully combat anxiety, I need to do it my way. I can’t live for others all the time. If I’m really to be a good daughter/sister/friend, I need to do what I need to do for myself and come back to everyone else ready and equipped to be there for them, in whatever way I can.

LOW OF THE WEEK: Thursday night, when I eventually – after a lot of indecision – decided to send the text bailing on the weekend in Salcombe. I was experiencing a tonne of anxiety, which was my reason for bailing, but I also felt so guilty for dropping out at such late notice and so sad that I’d miss out on such a great weekend. (I should say: the friend hosting the weekend was so kind about the whole thing that I felt a lot better the next day!)

HIGH OF THE WEEK: A day at Osborne House (on the Isle of Wight) with one of my best friends. We had such a great time (we both love wholesome days out), the weather was amazing and it was so good to spend quality time with someone I definitely don’t see enough of!

Excessive worrying

“I…have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened” – Mark Twain

What. If. When placed together, two of the most terrifying words in the English language.

I used to be incredibly impatient with anyone who started a sentence with “But what if…”. I had no time for catastrophizing, predicting the worst or worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet. Depending on the person in question, I’d either be upfront and say something along the lines of “I’m not going to listen to this ridiculous catastrophizing, you’re worrying about things that haven’t happened and that might never happen so pull yourself together”, or I’d keep those unsympathetic thoughts to myself and grow increasingly more irritated with this person/friend/acquaintance who was, I believed, indulging in utterly absurd fears.

Now, I know differently. I have experienced the utter terror that comes with a “what if” thought and I know you can’t just dismiss it. You can’t just pull yourself together, start thinking clearly or adopt any of the numerous ‘tough love’ phrases often used in dialogue accompanying “what if” conversations.

To give you an idea of the worries I often experience, here are a few of my scariest “what if” thoughts:

  • What if my anxiety gets worse and worse, to the point where I can no longer control it, go completely insane and have to be sectioned
  • What if I end up bailing on every social event there is because I’m always anxious, meaning I end up with a reputation for being a “bailer” which means no one will ever invite me to anything ever again
  • What if my closest friends and family decide they can no longer handle it and I end up completely alone with no one to talk to except people who are paid to be there
  • What if I forget everything I know to be true, lose all sense of self and forget who I am

I know these thoughts are absurd and ridiculous. I know that losing your mind doesn’t work like that and I know my friends and family will be hurt that I could ever think that of them. But knowing these things isn’t enough. When I’m in one of my most excruciating periods of anxiety, 1% of my brain is still being rational – but the other 99% completely believes the fear, and is paralysed by it.

A bit of background: I’m currently reading “The Worry Book” by Will van der Hart and Rob Waller. It’s a beautiful book (though a tough read at times), and full of really helpful explanations for why the brain behaves the way it does. They provide a very useful analysis of why we get “what if” thoughts, and why these thoughts are so much worse for those prone to excessive worry (like me). I’ll use my own words here, but essentially: everyone’s brain has a limbic system, which is our safety mechanism; it alerts us to danger. It’s obviously an essential part of our wiring and if, for example, you were to find a poisonous snake in your bathroom, it would be your limbic system that would tell you to get the hell out of there.

However, those prone to excessive worry have a very sensitive limbic system, “part of which (the amygdala) tends to fire out threats that are either disproportionate or completely unrealistic” (Will van der Hart and Rob Waller, “The Worry Book”). Reading this sentence for the first time was like someone flicking on a light in my brain (I’ve always wanted to say that, but it is genuinely true here). I realised I wasn’t going mad. The terrifying “what if” thoughts that burrow into my consciousness and make me doubt my very existence are generated by my overactive amygdala. That’s all it is.

If I had to guess (and I’m moving on to my own theories now), I’d say my threat avoidance system may have become overstimulated by being on that tube at Parsons Green last September. My (very tentative) theory is that my limbic system has therefore become oversensitive and my amygdala has started generating more scary, unrealistic thoughts. Furthermore, because my strategy has always been to instantly distract myself (in other words, running away from the fear like I would a poisonous snake, or like I actually did from a bomb), my brain has interpreted the fears as real – fears to be taken seriously, and to be terrified of. Thus, my threat avoidance system continues to be overactive, my amygdala continues to generate the scariest thoughts it can come up with and I continue to experience periods of crippling anxiety.

So how do I move on from here?

The only way to convince my brain that these thoughts shouldn’t be taken seriously is to sit with them. Rather than going into instant panic mode and instantly rushing to distract myself with anything I’ve got to hand, I need to practise sitting with the fear, observing it and ultimately helping my brain to understand that it’s really not that scary. I don’t need to run from it; it’s just a thought, and thoughts are insubstantial; they can’t hurt me.

Obviously, this is far easier said than done. When I’m shaking all over and overwhelmed by wave after wave of crushing anxiety, I’d probably lose my shit with anyone who told me to “just sit with the fear”. It will take practise and patience, and it won’t happen overnight. But in the immortal words of Joey: “Face your fear. If you have a fear of heights, you go to the top of the building. If you’re afraid of bugs…get a bug!”. Don’t confront it head on, don’t run from it – just be with it.

There is a way to gradually prevent these thoughts from appearing at all, and that’s to practise being present and being in the moment. But I’ve already written a far longer article than I originally intended so I will save that for a future post!

As always, any questions/observations/corrections (especially on my cautious neurological musings), please do get in touch!

LOW OF THE WEEK: To be honest, there hasn’t been a particular low – but I’ve been feeling horribly anxious for about seven days now. It comes in waves and some days are better than others, but for some reason it’s been more continually present than ever before. But having said that:

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Seeing my little brother graduate on Monday was just the best. He’s come so far (see previous post) and was very nervous about the ceremony, but he pushed through and ended up having the best day. Seeing him so happy and confident was so great for all of us.

Q&A: Louis Price

This week’s post is a Q&A with my younger brother Louis, who went through a period of intense anxiety about three years ago. This is just a short chat we had about Louis’ experiences and we weren’t able to cover everything (it’s already a longer post than usual!). However, Louis is always very happy to talk about his experience of anxiety and answer any questions, etc., so please do get in touch with me if you’d like to ask him about any of the below!

When did you first start experiencing anxiety?

Probably around October/November 2014? I was in my final year at boarding school.

Do you remember the exact point it started?

Yes. It happened on a Saturday, and it had been building during that week, during the morning chapel services at school. Each morning, for reasons I still don’t really know, I’d start feeling nauseous during the chapel services. Through deep breathing and perseverance I could sit it out and it would just disappear…but then on this Saturday morning, I felt more unwell than usual, had to leave the (completely full) chapel, walk out down the middle of the aisle and was sick in one of the bathrooms. From that point on, I couldn’t really go into chapel without feeling ill. I went to the medical centre, said “I feel nauseous”, they couldn’t really work out what it was – and, after a while, after trying loads of different solutions – and I don’t know if it’s something I worked out myself, or if someone said to me “this is the case” – I realised it was anxiety.

After a family trip to the theatre during the Christmas holidays that year, when I had to get up and leave the auditorium just as the show was starting, this nauseous/anxious feeling spread to other areas of my life (before it had just been chapel). Lessons at school, stuff I’d done thousands of times, I just couldn’t really do any more, for fear of being sick in front of everyone. I remember the point when I knew it was bad: I was standing in a queue in a shop in Cranbrook (our then nearest town) and I started having a major panic attack. At this point, I wasn’t clear about what I was actually scared of. Towards the end, it became “fear of fear” but I guess initially it was a fear of being sick in public, of having to hurry away but not being able to escape. Either way, at that point I knew it was something very real.

I started to skip meals, my logic being: if you don’t have anything in your stomach, you can’t be sick. I would typically just pick at meals – at school it was compulsory to go to every meal – but I didn’t really eat the meals that were there.

After a while, I started to work out coping mechanisms and began going to lessons again. I’d take plastic bags with me, for instance, in case I was ill, and I’d sit close to the door. I’d try to arrive early so I could make my teacher aware. Bit by bit, it started to filter away so it didn’t affect my lessons too much. I still couldn’t go to chapel, but I think that was because I’d just built up too much of a stigma about it.

So would you say the anxiety was generalised, or more of a social anxiety? 

Depends on the social event. I think the reason chapel was so bad was because it was just boring. I had nothing to do except just sit in my own head, and then my thoughts could just run wild. With lessons, it wasn’t so bad after a while because you can just get stuck into taking down notes, or whatever. With parties, etc. – the anxiety didn’t make those kinds of events unbearable, I just often had to step outside a few times. When I felt the anxiety coming on, being inside just wasn’t really an option, and I had to take a break.

So – this was all a good three years ago, if not longer. You haven’t really suffered from anxiety since; what do you think made it go away?

I’ve accumulated a lot of different coping mechanisms, for example breathing exercises. So if I’m sitting idly in a situation and I start to panic, I find it helpful to do “7/11s” – when you breathe in and count to seven, and breathe out counting to eleven. When I went to uni, I tried to work out the worst case scenario for a given situation. If you work this out, you can plan. If I’ve planned for the worst case scenario, then I don’t really have a problem. Being prepared for the worst before I got to that point sort of mentally prepared me, and often all I’d actually have to do, in this hypothetical worst-case scenario, would be to just calmly stand up and walk out of the room.

Did you say this out loud to anyone, or did you work it out for yourself?

I started sort of subconsciously working it out by myself, but then at uni I was helping out a couple of friends who were going through similar issues. The more I talked about it out loud, the more I realised it just didn’t make sense to be worrying about the things I was worrying about. Talking out loud put things in perspective, and after a while my fears just stopped being so scary. It helps to know that other people are going through the same thing you’re going through, because it makes you think: if other people have gone through this and have come out the other side, then I can too. Now, I can’t remember the last time I had a severe panic attack.

So how did you find going to uni?

Home was the safe spot – but I knew that the more I could endure leaving the safe spot, the easier it would become. That was sort of my reasoning for going to uni – I decided to just go for it, give it a go, etc. I still had anxiety when I went to uni and it was bad on the first day – but I was lucky in that I had quite a small flat, only about seven people, so it wasn’t too overwhelming.

Lectures were tricky at first. I’d try to sit at the back of the room, close to the door, on the end of aisles, etc. There were times when I didn’t want to talk about this to anyone…I thought asking to sit on the end of a row would be seen as a bit of a weird request, and sometimes I’d walk in to the lecture hall with someone, they’d say “shall we sit there” and I’d think “Oh god that’s the middle of the row”…but then I’d just say to myself: in the worst-case scenario I can ask to leave if I really have to, but in the meantime I’m just going to focus on the lecture. And that really worked. The moment my mind can think about something else, I’m absolutely fine.

Once, I actually heard someone in a lecture voicing the exact thoughts that were going through my head. They were asking to sit on the end of a row because they had anxiety, and I just thought: “Wow, that’s a complete stranger who’s going through the exact same thing I am”. This helped me realise that I didn’t have some rare condition that was entirely unique to me.

So to sum up: what do you think helped the most, when your anxiety was at its worst?

Overall – talking about it helped. The more people that knew, the better I felt. The breathing tactic was always very useful, and trying to rationalise the situation, preparing for the worst, was always really helpful.

Then: when Louis was revising for his A-Levels, he didn’t think he’d even be able to leave the house. He was struggling to bring himself to attend school lessons and at the lowest point he couldn’t see a way out of the never-ending cycle of panic attacks.

Now: Louis’ life is no longer controlled by anxiety. He has just graduated with a 2:1 in Ancient History from The University of Royal Holloway, where he held down a uni job for two years. He has a wonderful girlfriend, a close circle of friends, and is incredibly excited to begin the next stage of his life.

Dissociation

Imagine for a second that you’re going about daily life and then suddenly, out of nowhere, feeling as though your body is no longer your own. It’s as though you’re simultaneously completely disconnected from your body and from everything around you. You’re not really there, but equally the world surrounding you isn’t real. There’s still a part of you that knows this is ridiculous, that thinks “of course I’m here, of course this is all real” – but somehow that part is overshadowed and silenced by the overwhelming fear that either you, or the world (I can never decide which) doesn’t really exist.

That’s what dissociation is like for me. It’s one of the scariest aspects of my anxiety, although ironically is one of the body’s defence mechanisms (more on this below). I’ve spoken a fair bit about it in previous posts, so thought it was about time I dedicated a post to explaining what exactly what this means for me, and how I cope with it.

I normally only experience dissociation in flashes, and then it’s often when I’m on my own (for example on the tube, on the way to work) or when I’ve actually stopped to think about my anxiety, and so allowed the thought to take up room in my brain. I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint what causes these flashes, although I’m hoping this will become clearer with counselling.

I’ve only really experienced two episodes (I don’t like using that word, but can’t really think of a better one in this context) of dissociation that have lasted more than a few minutes. The first was in a play rehearsal earlier this year. We were rehearsing my death scene (which is interesting in itself – I’ll talk more about this in a bit) and for nearly the whole three hours I felt so removed from everything that was going on, and as though it was all totally artificial. It was very scary, but I didn’t know how to even begin articulating what I was feeling to the others (although I know they all would have been incredibly understanding regardless) so I just carried on. That’s one of the most unnerving things about it; despite having these terrifying thoughts whirling around in my brain, I can still function and carry on as normal, and so no one would ever guess.

The other time I’ve experienced an extended period of dissociation was a few months ago at my parents’ house. It was late at night and I was talking about my anxiety in general with my mum. I remember saying “I just feel so trapped in my own head”, and suddenly realised I felt like I was floating apart from everything around me.

When I’m experiencing a longer period of dissociation I also find it very difficult to process thoughts. My thought processes feel clouded and I find it much harder to establish “links” between thoughts. This is usually much easier to ignore when I’m immersed a conversation with someone, but not always.

I believe there were clear reasons why I experienced these longer periods of dissociating. The first time, I was having to pretend I was in fear of my life, and then actually had to pretend to die. A few months previously, I’d gone through a near death experience when I genuinely believed I was going to die (see my previous post) so it’s not surprising that my mind reacted violently to being sent back to that place again.

When I was at home, talking to my mum, I was expecting my period. Again, not surprising; my dissociation is always worse during PMS. All those hormones rushing around in my brain no doubt contribute to unwanted, scary thoughts.

When I feel a brief flash of dissociation – or, to describe it more accurately, a flicker of the terrifying feeling that I’m not real – I need to distract myself. If I’m on the tube, I’ll check my phone. This is unlike me, as I normally try very hard not to be glued to my phone – but when I feel that feeling hovering above me, I need to establish a connection with someone. This is a distraction and also to some degree validates my existence, thus banishing the disturbing thoughts that do their best to convince me I’m not really here.

Another thing that helps is gentle mindfulness. I focus hard on my senses – the feeling of my feet on the floor, what I can smell, what I can hear around me – and force myself to focus only on those sensory feelings. This is actually very effective and normally brings me back down to earth.

Dissociation is a symptom of PTSD, and so I suspect that’s where it stems from for me. Ironically, dissociation is actually one of the body’s greatest defence mechanisms. My counsellor described it very well; she told me to imagine my mind as a thermometer, with the temperature rising steadily upwards (the parallel here being rising anxiety). In order to avoid reaching the top, the mind naturally distances itself from the trauma and this distance manifests itself in a feeling of separation from the body and/or the world. If I think back to that rehearsal when I was trying to feel a genuine fear of death: my mind distanced itself from the traumatic feelings I have associated with a real near-death experience, thus making me feel wholly removed from everything going on around me. I didn’t experience any other disturbing feelings at all which means that my mind protected me from major anxiety and panic connected with a fear of death through removing itself completely from the situation. The lesser of two evils…?! The fear that comes with dissociation must, on some level, be easier for my mind to handle than the anxiety brought on by relieving traumatic thoughts and/or experiences.

To sum up: dissociation is often the mind’s way of protecting itself from disturbing thoughts and feelings, which I believe is usually the case for me. So, to some degree I’m grateful that it has such capacity for self-preservation, and such a sophisticated way of protecting itself. That’s not to say it isn’t incredibly frightening when it happens, and so I really have to try to distract myself or focus on my senses when I feel it coming on. It is manageable; I just have to stay calm and disciplined in order to manage those annoyingly persistent unwanted thoughts.

LOW OF THE WEEK: For the first few days of last week, I had a general overwhelming cloud of anxiety hovering over me. I couldn’t relax, couldn’t settle into activities I usually enjoy and I found it very difficult to distract myself. Deep down, I knew I’d been lazy with my coping mechanisms (mainly yoga and the Headspace app) so have resolved to be much more disciplined!

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Not sure if you could tell from my Insta but I had an all right time seeing Taylor Swift on Friday…jk that’s probably the understatement of the century. Such a fun night seeing one of my heroes (no shame) with one of my favourite people!

The “Why” Question: the (possible) root cause of my anxiety

I’m in two minds about how useful the “why” question really is, for me personally. When I say I have anxiety, or when I’m feeling particularly anxious, most people’s first question – family, friends, colleagues, counsellors – is “why do you think that is?”. That’s a perfectly natural and obvious question to ask, but I can very rarely answer it. Sometimes the answer is clear – when I’ve had coffee, for example – but most of the time I just don’t know, and I have to come up with several theories which may or may not be correct.

Don’t get me wrong; of course, it’s useful to diagnose a problem. It’s only by diagnosing a problem that you can start treating it. Personally, though, I find it easier to narrow possible causes down to one or two and then think about and discuss them with others, rather than rushing to identify any one single cause. For me, there is rarely one overarching reason; it tends to be a culmination of factors. But these are often only obvious in hindsight, and so my “policy” (for want of a better word) tends to be to just accept my anxiety when it comes and, in that moment, to just focus on a coping strategy, whether that’s heading home to be with family, going to a yoga class or colouring. With family, close friends and a counsellor I’ll discuss what might have brought it on this time, but I won’t pressure myself into identifying a single overarching cause, as this can lead to me just clutching at straws. My reasons will usually make themselves clear through gentle discussion and hindsight and, in the meantime, I prefer just to acknowledge the anxiety is there and then immediately engage in something that will help me deal with it.

That said – I believe there is a possible (dare I say obvious) cause that has in all likeliness contributed to my anxiety. I’ve deliberated for quite a few weeks now about whether to include this incident in the blog or not. It’s highly sensitive, very difficult for me to talk about and I’m unsure as to what extent it’s affected my general anxiety, particularly as I was experiencing flashes of anxiety before it happened.  However – I don’t think I can ignore something of this magnitude and I’m certainly not naïve enough to assume it hasn’t affected me at all.

For those who don’t know – I was on the tube with the bomb that partially exploded at Parson’s Green tube station last September. I saw the flash, felt the heat and have an image imprinted on my memory of a mass of people screaming and running backwards, away from the tube. I was very lucky in that I didn’t suffer any physical injury, either from the bomb or the stampede in the initial aftermath. I ran in the opposite direction down the tube track with around 10 other people and we waited some distance away from the platform until it seemed to be safe enough to go back and exit the station.

I have counted my blessings many times since that day. For the bomb not exploding properly, for the fact that it didn’t explode while the train was moving or in a tunnel – I can’t even imagine what that would have been like. I was very lucky.

I’m certain this experience has affected me (as is only to be expected), but I don’t yet know exactly how. I suspect it *may* be the cause of my disassociation – a particularly scary aspect of my anxiety. I’m going to go into more detail on this in my next post, but essentially it’s the fear that either I, or the world around me, isn’t real. From the reading I’ve done, disassociation can be a symptom of PTSD and so it’s something worth considering. To me, this makes sense. This is pure conjecture, but having a near death experience could cause my subconscious to doubt whether I’m really here.

I also have a new obsession with “making a difference in the world”, and this sometimes brings on a lot of anxiety. I think that’s largely to do with the fact that I don’t have a permanent job at the moment, so am lacking a purpose, but I also (and I’m completely guessing here) imagine that to some extent I feel guilty that I was a victim of a terror attack and I survived, unlike so many other victims of similar attacks. I wonder a lot these days whether my need to make a difference in the world, to feel like I’m changing people’s lives for the better, stems from a form of survival guilt. I survived, so I need to earn the right to my survival.

So now that I’ve outlined a potential cause, how do I now move forward? I honestly don’t know how much this experience has affected my anxiety, especially as I did experience flashes of anxiety for up to a year before it happened. However, if I am going to treat it as a potential cause (and I think I probably should), then I think processing and coping with it will come from counselling and from gradual acceptance.

LOW OF THE WEEK: Saturday morning. I had the worst anxiety attack I’ve had in a very long time and ultimately I had to cancel on one of my best friends and bail on what would have been the evening of a lifetime (literally) at Glyndebourne.

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Probably arriving into the Isle of Wight on the ferry and feeling the enormous sense of relief I feel when I’m arriving home after a really bad bout of anxiety. The Isle of Wight is probably my favourite place in the world (specifically my parent’s house) and it always makes me feel better, without fail!

How social media affects my anxiety

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose…Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.” – Sherlock Holmes: “A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle

I am by no means anti-social media. I have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and I post often on all of them. I also frequently check all of them; I love knowing what my friends are up to, I love keeping up to date with potential industry opportunities, I love being inspired by the many wonderful like-minded people out there and I love using social media platforms to help further campaigns I am passionate about. And let’s be honest: without social media, barely anyone would be reading this blog.

But, as we all know, social media is not remotely all positive. I’m not going to talk about the general negative aspects of social media here – I’d only be repeating what’s been said many times before by far more qualified and knowledgeable people than myself (and it wouldn’t be particularly relevant). This post is to outline the ways in which social media can actually help my anxiety, and also the ways in which it makes it ten times worse.

Pros:

  • It brings me back down to earth

When I’m in a dissociative panic or just generally feeling those all too familiar feelings of rising anxiety, social media can actually help. At times like this the two best things for me are a.) to distract myself completely and b.) to interact with other people in any way I can. Social media ticks both boxes. If I focus completely on (for example) replying to my unread Whatsapp messages, I can’t give 100% of my attention to my anxiety. Equally, engaging with other people brings me out of my head and so if for some reason it’s not possible for me to see people in person, I can still engage with them through social media platforms and therefore bring myself out of my panic and into the world around me.

  • It inspires me to plan for the future

Planning for the future, both immediate and far distant, always helps my anxiety. I don’t know why – possibly because I’m quite a proactive person by nature and also maybe because making plans helps me feel more certain that things will get better, whether that’s tomorrow or this time next year.

Social media helps me to plan. If I search for job opportunities or short courses on LinkedIn, I feel excited about all the potential routes my life could take from here on in. If I have a look at what inspirational people are up to on Twitter, both friends and celebrities alike, it inspires me to crack on with life and get moving. It doesn’t matter if I never actually follow through with the opportunity, I just nearly always feel a surge of excitement and positivity after using social media to have a look at what options are out there. Even something as simple as making weekend plans with friends helps so much. Essentially, I need to be brought out of myself when I’m in the clutches of an anxiety attack and so whether that’s researching jobs, applying for short courses or arranging a Saturday brunch, social media can help me feel both more grounded and uplifted.

Cons:

  • It stops me being present

Present awareness is such an important coping mechanism for me, but it’s hard. In this world of constant distraction and stimulation, it’s very difficult – actually, impossible – to be 100% present all the time. And yet present awareness is one of the best ways for me to ground myself and keep those anxiety demons at bay. While social media is great for engaging with the world and making positive plans, it’s still important for me to stay rooted in myself and to remain aware of what’s real. Getting carried away and spending too much time on social media can be detrimental to my anxiety as it means I can spend far too long looking to the future (or worse, other people’s lives) and not enough time remaining rooted and grounded in who I actually am and what I’m actually doing. Making plans is great and can be hugely beneficial – but it’s important to keep checking in with the here and now, as my mind puts up its best defences when it’s stable and present.

  • It clutters my mind

And now I’m finally going to refer back to the above Sherlock Holmes quote!

In order for me to successfully manage my anxiety, I need to have a clear head and an uncluttered mind. As I’ve previously mentioned, that’s incredibly difficult in our society today so I need to help myself wherever I can. Aimlessly scrolling through Instagram for no reason whatsoever is not helping myself. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent” – how true. My mind can only absorb so much before it starts retaliating and creating unwanted thoughts (the bane of my anxious life). As stated above, social media is great – but for me, there needs to be a purpose. If I’m hunting for a job, I’ll look on social media. If I want to check in with some friends who live far away, I’ll use social media to do it. That’s all fine. What’s not fine is cluttering up my mind with all those hundreds of thousands of images from Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Tinder, therefore giving my mind far too much unnecessary information to process and thus attempting to stretch those elastic walls that Sherlock so articulately describes. That never ends well.

To sum up, then: social media can be brilliant – I wouldn’t be able to share this blog without it – but you can always have too much of a good thing. I just need to remember to be sensible where my anxiety is concerned and avoid the “one step forward, two steps back” conundrum through avoiding aimless scrolling for the sake of it, and always remaining as present as possible.

LOW OF THE WEEK: There wasn’t really one obvious low last week but there is a general cloud of uncertainty while I wait to hear whether or not I’ve got a place on an MA starting in September (it’s been 4.5 months and counting…!). Being stuck in a stagnant phase of waiting is never great for my anxiety!

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Seeing “The Book of Mormon” with my housemate (who is also one of my best and oldest friends). We both love musicals and have been planning to see this one for ages – and it definitely didn’t disappoint! Such a fun evening with one of my favourite people.

Mind over Matter: the physical symptoms of anxiety

In this post, I’m going to talk about the physical symptoms of anxiety, and the power the brain has over the body. For me, the physical aspects are one of the scariest things about my anxiety, and actually one of the most unpleasant things to talk about. But it’s such a significant area that I thought it should be addressed sooner rather than later.

[Quick disclaimer: of course the symptoms I’ve listed below won’t always be experienced by those who suffer from anxiety, nor are they always caused by anxiety. This post is just some of my musings on physical sensations I often experience in connection with my mental health.]

Personally, the physical symptoms and the anxiety itself are all just part of one big vicious circle. I’m a hypochondriac by nature, so experiencing scary physical symptoms which are themselves caused by my anxiety only go on to make me more anxious, and so the symptoms get worse and the cycle continues.

When I’m in one of my really bad phases, which often verge on a panic attack, I can understand the symptoms that come with it. Palpitations, shakiness and shortness of breath, while unpleasant and frightening, are only to be expected at times like this. This is the body’s “fight or flight” response and, even when my brain is overrun with the anxiety demons, I do know deep down that the physical sensations I’m experiencing are caused by what’s going on in my mind, not by any bodily condition.

The really frightening physical symptoms are those that catch me completely unawares. Because I suffer from general anxiety, the following symptoms can catch me out at any time, even when I’m feeling perfectly ok:

  • Heart palpitations

These can be absolutely terrifying, as anyone who has experienced them will know. For me, they’re harmless (so I’ve been repeatedly assured by professionals) but there are few things more unnerving than feeling your heart suddenly giving a ridiculously strong double beat. Because I’m a generally anxious person, they’re just a part of my everyday life (especially when I’m on my period or when I’ve eaten very spicy food…who knew?!), but that doesn’t make them any less scary!

  • Shaking hands

This, again, is something I’ve come to expect as part of my everyday life. My hands shake on and off, not just in the middle of a panic attack but also when I’m going through days at a time of feeling generally anxious. I can also get a shaking in my wrists when they’re tensed and my fingers sometimes twitch, which is a more recent symptom. All the reading I’ve done pretty much confirms this is all down to anxiety, but it can be alarming, especially when there’s no obvious cause.

  • Tightening of the throat

This is another recent symptom. Often, I’ll get a feeling in my throat and can’t really decide exactly what it feels like – it’s a cross between my throat closing up and my tongue being glued to the roof of my mouth. Whatever it is, it makes me start to panic that I won’t be able to breathe through my mouth – but I always can (*touches wood obsessively*), which again suggests this is a symptom of anxiety.

As always, this list isn’t exhaustive and I have exactly zero medical training so please feel free to correct me on any of the above. But I hope the symptoms mentioned above give a little insight into the physical aspects of anxiety that I often experience.

This is a tricky area, because there’s a fine line between reading far too much into the tiniest physical sensations to the point when your brain actually starts to invent symptoms that aren’t actually there, and ignoring something that could actually be something serious and just dismissing it as anxiety. I try to view my physical symptoms as objectively as I can, and think about them rationally to the best of my ability. For my heart palpitations, I was referred for an ECG which confirmed I’m absolutely fine (*again touches wood obsessively*), so that’s a weight off my mind. Now, when I experience a palpitation I’m able to take a step back and view it as the anxious symptom that it really is. I’m keeping an eye on the other symptoms but I always try to view them in light of my current state of mind.

On that note, I suspect my brain/mind/subconscious plays tricks on me. I was worried about the heart palpitations for nearly a year and I noticed that it was only when that worry was removed that the tightening in my throat started. Of course, that could be a coincidence so I am monitoring it, but it could also be that my brain is now so attuned to having something to fixate over that it’s created a new problem. The brain really can have an amazingly strong power over the body; my brother, Louis, used to suffer from a form of social anxiety which manifested in a fear of being sick in social situations. This fear got so bad that he often actually was sick even at the thought of a social event and so the phrase “it’s all in your head” obviously wasn’t applicable for him, and isn’t for a lot of people.

(Louis has very kindly agreed to share his experiences of anxiety in a future post. Stay tuned!)

To sum up: unnatural sensations in the body aren’t something to mess around with and I try to take mine seriously. At the same time, though, I have found it comforting to know that at least some of my scary physical experiences stem from my anxiety, and not from an underlying physical condition. This doesn’t make them any less unpleasant, but it’s always reassuring to be able to take a step back and view an uncomfortable physical sensation objectively through identifying the root cause as the mind, rather than the body.

I hope my symptoms have given an insight into how anxiety manifests itself physically for me. If anyone out there would like to discuss the effects of anxiety on the body, I would love to chat about it. And, as always, any thoughts on the above are hugely welcome!

LOW OF THE WEEK: Friday afternoon. I had a really bad bout of the disassociation panic that I often experience (when I feel so anxious that I start feeling like either I, or the world around me, isn’t real) and it was especially bad while I was on the tube. Luckily I was on my way to see some good friends which always helps, as being around other people always pulls me out of myself, but it was a particularly unpleasant feeling. (Disassociation is something I’m going to address in the future.)

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Being surprised with a totally unexpected card and present from an unbelievably kind and generous friend. The message in the card was so warm and supportive that it genuinely almost made me cry and the present was a beautiful notebook which was just such a thoughtful gesture. Unsolicited acts of kindness really can be one of the most moving things in this world and can make such an unbelievable difference to someone’s mood/wellbeing.

Highs and Lows: what makes my anxiety worse, and what makes it better

As I said in my first post, I don’t know why I have anxiety. The “why” question is a big one and, after a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to bypass it altogether (for now).  Here, I’m just going to focus on my personal “highs and lows”. By this, I mean the things that can make my anxiety worse and those that make it better.

I am deliberately focusing here on my experiences and the things that help me personally. I do not presume to know what will bring on or help someone else’s anxiety and so it’s important that this post isn’t misinterpreted as direct advice. However, to anyone reading this who also suffers from anxious thoughts: if this post helps you understand your own anxiety better or inspires you to try a new coping mechanism, then that’s great! And if anyone ever wants to discuss ways of managing anxiety, I would LOVE to chat about it! So without further ado…

LOWS:

1.) PMS

Let’s just get this one out there straight away. Those flipping hormones. All those who go through it know what PMS does to the mood and for me, it’s one of my biggest anxiety demons. Everything is ramped up while I’m waiting for my period to just start already. It’s so much harder to control my thoughts and to stay rational when all those hormones are racing round my brain and helping my mind to play tricks on itself.

2.) Boredom

This is a big one – possibly even the main one. Rumination is one of my biggest enemies, and rumination is brought on by boredom. My brain has been used to being busy my whole life and so now, whenever I’m bored, it needs something to do. It needs to be challenged and stimulated on a daily basis otherwise, in the absence of anything substantial, it feeds on those unwanted thoughts just to stay active.

(This is a major theme, which I’m going to revisit in a future post.)

3.) Coffee and alcohol

I’ve paired these two together because the effect is the same; these two play havoc with those pesky thoughts. I’ve almost cut coffee out of my life completely (I say almost because today I actually had my first coffee in a very long time and instantly regretted it), which breaks my heart because I absolutely love it. But it’s necessary – nothing is worth the shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat and shaky hands that coffee now induces in me.

I still drink alcohol – I’ve toyed with giving it up completely but I nearly always cave (I’m a people-pleaser and extremely susceptible to persuasion, plus I just love a good glass of chilled white wine when catching up with friends). To be fair, unlike coffee alcohol doesn’t always bring on my anxiety, so long as I’m sensible. But the sense of rising panic and near-hysteria I usually feel when experiencing a hangover is enough for me to have a strict word with myself and swear never to go over my limit again.

4.) Netflix

Yep, you did read that right! This is a weird one, but I’m fairly certain it deserves a place on this list.

I love a good Netflix session as much as the next person and it’s always a great way to wind down after a long day. But I’ve come to realise that I’m often a lot more clear-headed and “together” when I haven’t watched anything for a long time (so to be fair, I shouldn’t really be blaming Netflix for this one – what I’m saying here really goes for all TV/films/moving images). I’m not really sure why this is; it could be something to do with my brain having to process all those moving images when it’s already under stress, or the fact that screens/TV interrupt sleep. Either way, I did an experiment a while ago and didn’t watch anything at all for a week. I slept so much better (I didn’t remember any of my dreams and didn’t wake up in the night at all), and I felt a lot more clear-headed in the days – whether because of better sleep or a clearer mind, I don’t know.

This list isn’t exhaustive; the above are just some of the main culprits. But now to the GOOD…

HIGHS:

1.) Talking

I’m in between counsellors at the moment, but having a counsellor has really helped me. Just talking to someone who doesn’t judge, who won’t interrupt and who is giving me their undivided attention helps so much. Plus, once my terrifying, horrifying thoughts have been shared with another human being, they often don’t seem so bad.

Equally, writing thoughts down helps my mind to organise and process them. Rather than whirling round my head in a chaotic maelstrom of hysteria, they’re on paper in front of me and I can start to build links and decipher patterns in my thinking.

2.) Mindfulness

Yep, I know. It’s one of the things we’re all constantly hearing about, whether it’s yet another MBSR course at work or any one of the several mindfulness-related bestsellers in the front window of Waterstone’s.

But I don’t mean embarking on a 12-week course – I mean using the Headspace app. I don’t really have the space here to go into too much detail on this (I’m aware I’ve already been writing for quite a while…) but I just want to say: the Headspace app is brilliant and has helped me immensely. For anyone who wants to hear more, I’m going to revisit this in a future post.

3.) Yoga and Pilates

I used to be one of the biggest yoga sceptics (and didn’t even know what Pilates was until about two years ago). I knew thousands of people swear by it and I understood how it helps the body, but I just couldn’t see how it could help the mind.

I’m now fully converted. Yoga keeps me balanced and on track and it helps keep the anxiety at bay. I still don’t really understand how, but I’m not one to argue!

Pilates does the same. When I was living in Florence last year, I went to a Pilates class nearly every day and I barely experienced any anxiety at all. I’m fairly sure there was a correlation.

4.) Colouring

But seriously though. I have an adult colouring book and a box of felt tip pens and this is genuinely one of my main saviours. I colour every time I’m in a bad phase and even when I’m not, and it’s just the best. It’s a form of mindfulness in itself, in that it demands concentration and present awareness, and it’s just so soothing.

This is also not an exhaustive list; there are many other things that help me (exercise, chamomile tea, reading books and surrounding myself with people, to name a few) – but I’m aware that I’m now on four pages on Word and didn’t plan to go over three…

So I will close here but, as always, please let me know any thoughts you have and feel free to comment below.

PS: On the theme of giving equal attention to the highs and the lows of life, I’ve decided to introduce a “Low of the Week” and a “High of the Week” as an accompaniment to all my posts:

LOW OF THE WEEK: Saturday morning, after a rare cup of coffee. I was in the Isle of Wight, with my family (i.e. one of my happiest and safest environments) – but the coffee just brought on so much panic, self-doubt and general feelings of foreboding.

HIGH OF THE WEEK: Thursday afternoon: tea, flapjacks and a much needed catch up with one of my best friends (you know who you are!) whom I hadn’t seen in WAY too long. So much laughter and all of the deep meaningful chats – two of life’s greatest joys!

Introduction to my anxiety

I decided to write this blog for two main reasons: 1.) I know how much I’ve been comforted and encouraged whenever I’ve read about someone else’s anxiety and so if this blog can help even one person in the same way, then it will have been worth it; 2.) I’ve been sharing articles about #TimeToTalk and other campaigns, I’ve been advocating that mental health is an issue that needs talking about – and yet I’m not talking. I care hugely about mental health, and have so much to say about it – so why am I not joining the many brave people out there who are sharing their own experiences for the benefit of others?

This blog is not the first or last of its kind, and rightly so. It’s written for the sole purpose of sharing my experiences of debilitating anxiety, and some effective everyday solutions I have found to be hugely helpful, just in case anyone out there will take comfort and encouragement from it.

I think I’ve put it off for long enough now, so here goes…

For the first 21 years of my life, I never suffered from anxiety. I always considered myself a very grounded, stable person – obviously, I had moments of anger, fear, jealousy, worry, self-doubt and many more – but I never, at any point, thought of my mental health as being anything other than perfectly OK. I made it through GCSEs, A-Levels, university exams and the “university to London” transition with no problems whatsoever (no serious problems, anyway).

Then, about 18 months ago, everything changed. I now have severe anxiety that goes through phases of being manageable and phases of being completely debilitating. I have no idea what brought about this sudden change (although I have several theories which I won’t list here, firstly because they may or may not be true and secondly because I don’t want this blog to turn into some kind of Izzie Price autobiography). Either way: I didn’t have anxiety before, and now I do. It’s something I never thought I’d have to live with and now I have to manage it on a daily basis – and it’s hard.

To anyone reading this who feels like they’re alone or that no one else since the dawn of time has ever experienced these feelings and that if you try to talk about it no one will be able to understand – I get it. I know how it feels when you think your head will explode from all the terrifying thoughts racing through it. I know how it feels to worry that the feeling will never go away or that it will only get worse. I know how it feels to be shaking uncontrollably all over and to sit there wondering what the hell is happening to your body. I know how it feels to experience thousands more terrifying feelings, to panic about what’s going on in your mind and body and worry that no one on earth could possibly understand.

I’m just going to share one example of my experiences in this first post, just in case it can give even the smallest insight. Picture this scenario: I feel like my head is going to implode from all the thoughts racing around it, I feel completely trapped in my head and in my body to the point when I suddenly panic that either I or the world around me (I can’t decide which) doesn’t exist, that one or both is completely artificial, and even though I can keep talking and functioning and behaving like a normal human while all this is going on, inside I’ve got all these fears racing around and I feel like I can’t articulate it to anyone and I worry that it will never go away and that I’m on a fast train to losing my identity and being completely and utterly out of control.

If the above sounds ridiculously complicated – good. That’s a tiny snapshot of a minuscule example of what it’s like to be in my head during one of the really bad bouts of anxiety.

I haven’t shared that example to simply get all my worries down on paper or to dramatize my experiences – I’m well aware that, in the grand scheme of things, many people go through far worse. To be completely honest, I really don’t want to tell people about the above. I’m still embarrassed and ashamed and terrified that people will treat me differently after having read this. I actually hate talking about it for those reasons (so please don’t feel bad if you’re reading this as a close friend, and thinking I’ve never said any of this to you – I’ve never said it to ANYONE).

The point of sharing this one example is to reassure anyone who might have felt something similar and who might feel even slightly boosted upon finding out that someone else has experienced it, just like I have in the past. At the end of the day, there’s strength in numbers and it can be unbelievably comforting to know that you’re not alone.

This first post was meant to be an introduction, but it’s become more of a stream of consciousness. I have a lot more to say, and if I write any more posts they’ll most likely be written on different themes, e.g. useful everyday tips (Headspace app, yoga, diet, etc.), different forms of anxiety, the pros and cons of social media (can’t avoid talking about that one) and many more.

I am really not a writer and this is something I’m actually incredibly nervous about doing please let me know what you think! Not being a writer, I’m not sure how to conclude so will close with a quote from the brilliant Ruby Wax (whose book I just finished and can’t recommend enough):

“What you are is much bigger than your thoughts. In fact, thoughts make up only about 1 per cent of what’s going on in your brain…You are so much bigger than your narrative.” – Ruby Wax, How To Be Human: A Manual

 

“You are so much bigger than your narrative” – Ruby Wax