If you know me well, you’ll know that I struggle with anxiety. I’m not ashamed of it, and I find one of my most powerful coping mechanisms is to talk about it. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, drowning in a mental to-do list and certain that if I don’t close all the tabs in my head something terrible will happen, it helps to talk.
My husband, love him, is fantastic, but he doesn’t live with anxiety, and so he finds it hard to understand why I’m standing in my underwear on a Monday morning, crying my eyes out because deciding now whether to go for lunch with friends in 5 days time is just. too. hard. So I thought about how to describe it.
On my worst days I am all wrong.
I’m fat. I’m stupid, I’m ugly. I’m ineloquent and everyone is talking about me. I’m never going to get everything done at work. I’m never going to get everything done at home. I’m a terrible mother. I’m an even worse wife. I’m lucky I even have any friends. This cycle of self-contempt is unending and on the very worst days, breaking it feels like Atreyu dragging Artax through the Swamp of Sadness (it’s a Neverending Story reference, kids – look it up).
If I was asked, I’d describe my aspirational mental state as a tranquil lake. There are ripples and breezes, and sometimes huge rainstorms; but it all passes in the end and the lake is placid and beautiful again. Each time the frantic, heart-pounding, self-doubting, tearfulness bubbles up inside, I know that I’ll eventually get to that place again. I just need to take care of myself in the meantime.
It’s become such a buzz-phrase hasn’t it? Self-care has come to mean treating yourself to that handbag you wanted, or having that extra glass of wine; when at its core, self-care just means being kind to yourself.
How you take care of your own needs is different for everyone, but here’s what I need:
- Time away from my phone and social media. I’m still learning this one – I’m an addict
- Sobriety. I don’t have an issue with alcohol, but when I’m anxious it exaggerates my feelings tenfold.
- Time away from social events. This isn’t personal. I’ve had friends who claim to understand then make snidey comments – please don’t. I’m not being antisocial or picking you out. I just can’t ‘people’ right now.
- Exercise. In the past this has been my absolute saviour. And since I’m a notorious lazybones with a penchant for Galaxy chocolate, the universe clearly finds itself funny.
- Permission to be by myself. I need to let myself off for for wanting to read my book instead of chatting with my husband; for arranging visitors on my day off around watching an episode of my favourite programme on my own while my daughter naps.
- Podcasts. This is a recent discovery but, particularly in the car on the way to and from work, I find a good podcast a great way to get ready for the day or decompress and get ready to go home. I’d recommend Fearne Cotton’s ‘Happy Place’ and the classic Radio4 Desert Island Discs.
- Time. Despite the odd good day amongst the bad, it is too simplistic to assume an episode has passed because of a better 24 hours. Once I take ownership and action some of the above, I still need time to let my brain adjust.
For transparency, I should add that I’ve only reached the point where I can identify and try to manage my anxious behaviour because of a short period on medication a few years ago and some cognitive behavioural therapy. Both of which I’m proud of – I wouldn’t be able to cope when anxiety hits these days if I hadn’t had medical and therapeutic support. And I’m realistic enough to know I might one day need them again. That’s fine.
If this is all ringing true for you – I’m sorry. It’s shit feeling panicky, frantic, manic and illogical when that small voice at the back of your mind is yelling for you to snap out of it. I won’t say hang in there, because you shouldn’t. Find your coping stuff – talk to a professional if you need to (GP, therapist, counsellor), sign up for some exercise classes, eat more healthily, get outdoors, take some time away / off work.
This is surmountable. Your true self is in there, chomping through this anxiety like Pacman and just needs a power-up to beat the little sucker. Do not define yourself by this and do not be ashamed to talk about it – it’s an illness, not a character flaw. You are an utter legend just for getting up, getting dressed and going out into the world. Celebrate the glorious mundanity of living.