Living with Anxiety
Can I you tell you something?
Sitting down to write this blog is making me feel slightly anxious. There’s so much I want to say and I’m unsure if I’ll articulate it all ‘properly’. I’ve decided to write it and then only edit it once so it’s as real and raw as possible. Forgive me if there’s errors or things that don’t make a great deal of sense along the way! The reason I’m choosing to open up about my experience of living with anxiety is because I want to start conversations, help to break down the stigma associated with mental illnesses and support others going through similar things.
When I look back now, I can see that I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. The thing is- for the majority of that time, I didn’t know it was anxiety. I was always the one who had high expectations of myself, was a perfectionist and always had the word ‘conscientious’ in my school reports. I was a worrier, didn’t like the idea of not doing well, worried about what people thought of me and cared deeply for others (hello fellow empaths!). It wasn’t until my late twenties when I was in the thick of a really challenging and life changing health crisis, that I was told I had Generalised Anxiety Disorder by my GP. This meant many things, but often that I’d worry most of the time about big things, small things and everything in-between. I’d worry about things in all areas of my life and often worry that really bad things would happen. At times I felt like a burden which led to lots of guilt and shame. It was overwhelming, exhausting, confusing, frustrating and dare I say it- worrying.
It all worsened when I was unwell. I was so worried about what was happening, what I couldn’t do, what my future was looking like, what was actually wrong and how I’d get back to ‘normality’. I went through stages of not being able to get out of bed or leave to the house, having extended leave from my teaching career, having tests and scans for everything from brain tumours to MS and feeling horribly misunderstood by so many people. This part about feeling misunderstood was for lots of reasons but one of those is that I used to hide it really well. I didn’t want people to know that I was struggling so I hid behind a façade. I let on that I was coping and created the illusion that I was fine. This was even more exhausting and meant that I internalised a lot of what was happening. This wasn’t helpful and while I had loving support around me, it felt really isolating.
At the time, my pride, ego whatever you’d like to call it, didn’t want to hear about it. How could I be taken seriously, seen as competent and still be valued for who I am when I had mental health issues?
I thought people would think I was weak. I chose not to take medication (do what’s right for YOU!- this was just my choice) and I held off on going to a psychologist for a long time due to pride. I thought I could manage on my own. The first time I managed to see a psychologist, I didn’t want to be there. Every part of me told me to get out of there and I left feeling misunderstood and unsupported. A few months later, with my GP saying that very few people in my position do it without professional support, I tried again. After all, I didn’t want this to be my reality forever so I had to do something else about it. That’s when I found my amazing psychologist at a warm, fun and welcoming practice in Collingwood. She challenged me, listened like that really good friend who wants to know more, told me when I was being unrealistic, chatted to me about patterns I’d been living over and over again, helped me celebrate how far I’ve come and spoke to me about how the things I wanted for myself for the most part, weren’t out of reach. I made really good progress, and more often than not left my sessions feeling lighter, understood and like I was moving forward. If you’ve been considering seeing a psychologist, I highly recommend trying it. In my opinion, every single one of us could benefit from their support. We exercise our bodies and happily (mostly!) go to the gym but how many of us are taking the same type of care for our brains? Nowhere near as many!
Anyway, let’s go back a little bit. Before I knew about my anxiety I had frightening episodes, days where I’d be flat and irritable, nights where I couldn’t wait to fall asleep and escape it and mornings where I’d wake up and my heart would be racing just like I’d been for a run. Trying to write about this is hard because there are so many times when I’ve experienced anxiety. There have been times where I’ve been so overwhelmed and overstimulated that I barely remember the day or experience. There have been times when I’ve been keeled over considering calling an ambulance thinking I was having a heart attack. There have been times where I’ve just been out for a meal with Glenn and broken down and wanted to run for no apparent reason. There have been times where I’ve been too anxious to walk past a group of people or haven’t been able to look up as I cross the traffic lights because I’ve feared people are judging me. There have been times where I’ve wanted to do everything, and nothing all at once and my brain has started having an argument with itself. There have been times where I’ve laid on the floor bawling because my anxiety had gone so far and the only way I could settle it was to ride it out. There have been times when I’ve had so much inner dialogue that it’s felt deafening. I could go on and on.
As a side note, writing this has brought tears to my eyes because of the pain I know it’s caused. My hands have trembled, my heart has raced, my stomach has become rock hard and I’ve been clammy with anxiety. I’ve worried about thousands of things that’ve never happened. I’ve feared judgement. I’ve been self-conscious that people would know. I’ve missed out on things because my anxiety took over. I’ve judged myself, wondered if it would ever get easier and wished it would go away. It’s been a huge battle.
Now, from that you might think that I’ve kissed goodbye to my anxiety.
Nope, it’s still here but so much has changed. I no longer have panic attacks (touch wood!). For the most part, I no longer feel ashamed to talk about it and know that being vulnerable allows others to open up and chat about what’s happening for them. It takes more strength to chat about it than bury it and strengthen its roots. There’ll be people who will be there to support you. Sometimes they won’t always know what to say, they might jump straight into ‘fix-it’ mode or say things like “don’t worry about it”, “who cares what they think” or “it’s not a big deal” but perhaps they’ve never experienced it. There’ll be people who seek to understand and support you without making it the topic of every conversation. I still remember a beautiful friend of mine who used to say “No, how are you really doing?” when I’d say I was fine. Often then I’d get mid-sentence and start crying because I was given the outlet to speak my truth without the fear of judgement.
To save all the chopping and changing, I’m going to break it down some more of my experience into dot points so it’s easier to follow. Before I do, I must mention all the support people out there. Glenn and I have been together for 12 years and he’s seen me at my absolute worst and has still chosen me. He’s beared the brunt of my anxiety, been expected to understand how I’ve felt, wrapped me up in huge hugs when I haven’t known what to do with myself, helped bring me back to Earth and believed in me when I’ve struggled to believe in myself. He’s supported my healing every step of the way and is one in a million. My family, close friends and even strangers that I’ve met at events and workshops, have all supported me in some way and I’ve noticed that by sharing my story, they’ve felt comfortable to do the same. Thank you to each and every one of you.
I look back and I’m so grateful that constant anxiety is no longer my reality. I still worry, get stressed and overwhelmed and slip up. I have flat and sluggish days and days where my head is in a fog. I’m human and we all have average days! I love this quote by Yung Pueblo and I can relate to it as this has been happening a lot for me.
“I knew I was on the right path when I started feeling peace in situations where I would normally feel tension.”
So, back to those dot points I was talking about!
Some physical and non-physical symptoms I’ve experienced:
Racing heartbeat and faster breathing
Having a lot of fear
Ruminating and catastrophising (going over and over the same things or seeing the worst in situations)
Sweating and feeling clammy
Heightened fatigue (not fun with CFS!)
Loss of appetite and poor digestion
Having almost obsessive thoughts and behaviours (I link this to my perfectionism and high expectations as well)
Sore and tense muscles
Trouble getting to sleep
Being short, irritable and restless
Some of my triggers:
Stress and an overwhelming workload/schedule
Being tired or not getting enough sleep
Alcohol and caffeine
Processed foods and eating foods I don’t normally have much of (sugar, dairy and gluten)
Not taking time out for myself
Things that help me:
Trusting myself and listening to my body
Challenging myself and showing that I can do things
Laughing. I realised I didn’t laugh properly for a while when I was unwell. I belly laugh a lot now!
Spending time with people who ‘get it’
Not cramming my days and having some flexibility. I usually loosely map out my week so I know if I’ve over-committed. I still sometimes do too much!
Asking for help (this is still a big work in progress)
Being out in nature
Positive affirmations (you can read my list of ‘101 Positive Affirmations’ here)
Getting clear on my values and priorities and living in alignment with these
Moving my body in ways I enjoy
Having a morning and night-time routine
Not hiding behind a façade. Being me! It’s amazing the difference it makes even though it takes a lot of work.
Yoga (Restorative and Nidra are amazing!)
Appreciating the little things and practicing gratitude
Spending time on my own just ‘being’ or doing things I love to do
Meditating (I use Insight Timer)
Eating nourishing foods that I know my body thrives on (yes, I slip up!)
Minimising screen time. I wrote a blog with tips on how to do this that you can read here.
Practicing mindfulness and more mindful living- being more present, going on sensory walks, appreciating what’s right in front of me etc.
Reflecting on how far I’ve come
Going to bed and waking up at the same time
Noticing my breath and if it’s getting stuck
Being honest about how I’m feeling with myself and others (sometimes easier said than done!)
Seeking support from others. I’m currently seeing a chiropractor, a herbalist and acupuncturist (she is SO nurturing!) and a nutritionist. Sometimes I have a massage. I just go based on what I feel my body and mind needs and don’t have set timeframes for appointments anymore.
Some questions you could ask, and things you could say if people open up to you about their anxiety:
What does it feel like?
How are you really feeling?
What are you finding helpful? Don’t always tell them things to do or try- especially if you wouldn’t do it yourself!
How long has it been like this?
I know I don’t really understand (be honest if you don’t!) but I’m here for you.
Is there something we can do together?
There’s so much I could say and I would love to run a workshop around this sometime in the future. Please reach out and let me know if this resonates with you, if there’s anything that you’ve experienced, learnt along the way or found helpful. Also, share it with people who you know could benefit from reading it, and don’t be afraid of asking someone how they’re truly going.
If you struggle with anxiety, remember you are someone with anxiety who is SO much more than it. It doesn’t define you or make you any less of a person.
I’m right here with you.
If you’d like to read more:
Beyond Blue have lots of factual information that you can read here.
Clinical Nutritionist, Katherine Hay chats about the gut-brain connection and mental health issues here.
Sarah Holloway will be chatting all about her experience with anxiety in the coming weeks. Subscribe to my mailing list here to get her interview sent straight to your inbox.