By Kath Mae
Prior to my own experiences I knew very little about anxiety and was shocked to discover first hand the impact it can have when going through the shift from being busy and worrying about the normal day to day to moving into a world of anxiety. My aim was to find strategies that would help me throughout my journey. Some may seem a little fluffy, but they worked for me and I'm glad to say they've helped me get back to being a worry wart with the odd bout of anxiety.
This is me, a 'worry wart' who went from having laugh it off incidents to a cycle of ‘what ifs’, worrying about things out of my control. I found it to be a gradual process and only on reflection have I discovered many signs, symptoms and traits that could have possibly predicted part of my journey or at least were alarm bells I should have taken note of. The other element for me was a negative shift in my work life balance, life becoming all work and no play. In other words stress, which was something I naively didn't believe in, or certainly didn't understand the impact of, until I myself was in a spiral of anxiety.
Having worked long and hard for many years I began to find it more and more difficult to switch off, worrying about things I had or hadn't done or that had or hadn't been said. Relatively normal in a busy world. However this progressed to the ‘what ifs’, not being able to focus on anyone or anything until it was resolved. But there usually wasn't anything to actually resolve as my 'what if' never came into fruition, it was just my mind running away with itself. This resulted, initially, in me losing the odd evening or weekend to worry. But it gradually picked up, more and more often I was lost in the land of worry.Running alongside this were the physical symptoms of anxiety, increased heart rate, shaky or sweaty hands, head rush, knot in the stomach and at times a feeling of dread. I couldn't eat or sleep and sometimes found it difficult to concentrate and remain focused on the job in hand. If I knew then what I know now I would have made sure I put key tools in place to help me but I just carried on with my day to day, ignoring the signs and burying my head in the sand, simply putting it all down to being busy.
I didn't know anything about Generalised Anxiety Disorder before I went through it myself, and I soon discovered it can be crippling!
It's very difficult to explain to someone who hasn't been through it you can't just stop worrying, and although those around you are trying to be helpful when giving advice, 'don't worry about it' still doesn't stop the worrying. So as a result I didn't really talk about it to many people, after all, I didn't want people thinking I was going 'mad'. Eventually I was consumed with anxiety, worrying about anything and everything, initially just at work but soon in my home life too. My family began to lose me, I was there in body but definitely not in mind. I was permanently reliving everything I'd said and done, I'd hook on to one thing and that was it, I was stuck in a cycle of worry.
I decided I couldn't sort this on my own, I went to the doctors and I'm glad to say it was a positive experience. My main concern was opening up and saying aloud to someone other than my husband or mom something was wrong. He was very reassuring in terms of his perception of mental health and I returned for a meeting where I found everything I was experiencing being described with a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. This actually made me feel better, it wasn’t just me, there was a reason for me reacting to things the ways I was. During my journey, I did lots of research into self-help strategies. This included, among other things, meditation and mindfulness.
This is something I still embrace today, making sure it's part of my daily routine. It's something that took practice but the benefits were immense for me. Taking as little as ten minutes a day, focusing on the breath sounds so simple but when the mind is so busy it's difficult to be still. Training the mind to take this break is very calming, it doesn't stop anxiety altogether but it certainly helps retrain the mind. There are many apps (free and purchased) that can be downloaded to support meditation, I choose to use guided meditations as I sometimes need a gentle reminder to come back to the breath and remain focused. Once this skill is learnt you can use it anywhere, two minutes in a quiet space at work or home especially if you're starting to feel your anxiety build up. Running alongside this are the principals of mindfulness I developed, being aware but not caught up or hooked on the thought. This took more training for me and I did have support with it, as it was a lifestyle change rather than a one off thing I could dip into. It wasn’t an instant cure but once mastered it really helped me in the way I responded to thoughts. Taking note and accepting the thought or 'what if' rather than being completely caught up in it. Don't get me wrong I still have moments when the worrying kicks in but I move on from it much quicker than I did when I was in the height of anxiety.
Other things that helped me included keeping a worry log, especially in the early days before I developed some of the above skills. It helped to get the thoughts out of my head and on paper. I could then focus on it clearly, deciding if there was anything that needed to be done there and then, if not putting it to one side and returning to it at an appropriate time, when my mind would give me the space to walk away from it which wasn't always the case, but for some reason it helped all the same. The other advantage was I could often see how silly it was, especially if it was a train of 'what ifs'. It gave me a chance to evaluate the train of thought and rationalise the reality of the worst case scenario actually happening, giving me a chance to reframe my thoughts. Alongside this I kept a gratitude diary. As you will know if you've suffered with anxiety it's easy to focus on the negative and feeling like one thought, conversation or event can ruin your whole day. But to make yourself reflect on the good every day, no matter how bad your day has been reminds you there is always something to be grateful for, even something as simple as the sun shining or the train arriving on time.
Exercise is always talked about as a tool to keep the mind healthy, but it really does have a positive impact. For me this was probably one of the hardest to put in place as exercise isn’t my first passion! But when I looked at one of my anxiety habits I could see how exercise could help me. When I’m worrying I pace, a lot! This is because when you're anxious you go into the fight or flight mode and you have lots of adrenaline pumping round your body, hence the pacing, it was my way of using up the excess adrenaline. So I returned to running and not only did it help me use up all that adrenaline, it gave me head space, away from home, work and worries. Me time!
And this is my final tool. I put things in place just for me. Not something that I naturally do alone like shopping, but specific activities just for me. I read as often as I can, I’ve rekindled my love with running and go for reflexology once a month, this gives me peaceful time away from the world. It sounds so obvious but previously I’d sacrificed all my time, giving most of it to work and what was left to anyone else who needed it, ignoring myself.
I don't necessarily use all of these all of the time, they are part of my tool box. I use the right tool for a particular worry or feeling.
It wasn't a quick journey but it was one that made me reflect on my life and the way I was living it. Anxiety isn’t something I'd choose to go through as at times it was a living hell but I'd like to think it's made me realise what's important in life.
When talking about perceptions towards mental health, I was once given the analogy of someone pulling a muscle in their leg, we wouldn't think twice about it. In the same way if someone 'pulls a muscle' in the mind we shouldn't react to it any differently. However before we do any physical exercise we warm up, this I believe is the gap for many adults. We expect a huge amount of our body and mind, often putting lots of time and money into our bodies but never into the mind!
Remember your mind needs as much attention as your body when it comes to health and fitness. Don’t wait for an ‘injury’ before you give your mind some TLC.