There’s anxiety and there’s severe anxiety. Anxiety is perfectly normal, it’s part of your brain’s evolved safety mechanism to keep you safe in the face of external threats (lions, bears etc.), these days we experience it before more modern perceived threats; a trip to the dentist or when presenting to a client or boss etc. Most of the time we get over it quickly.
When a high profile celebrity says publicly that they suffer from anxiety, they really mean ‘severe anxiety’ and I think it’s very important to make that distinction; if you’ve never suffered from a severe episode of anxiety your instinct may well be to think “Anxiety? Get over it, we all get anxiety you big wet lettuce!” We do indeed all experience anxiety but severe anxiety is quite something else entirely and needs some understanding if we are going to empathise with a sufferer (or perhaps understand what is happening to ourselves).
If I’d been told 3 years ago “You’ll suffer from severe anxiety one day” I would have laughed. Debilitating anxiety is something that happens to other people isn’t it? People who are weak minded or mentally ill? I’ve always been mentally strong; running my own company, presenting to clients, being a husband and father – I’m practically a machine and have dealt with normal anxiety for years! It’s certainly a position I think many non-sufferers would share, but they’d be wrong to think that severe anxiety cannot just creep up on them out of the blue, or that it’s not lurking somewhere in the depths of their mind. It’s happened twice to me in the past two years, my most recent ‘episode’ lasted 4 months from January to April 2016 and it caused no end of inconvenience to me, my family and business clients.
‘Inconvenience’ may seem like an odd choice of words with which to describe anxiety but when you’re unable to gather your own thoughts to sleep, work or socialise, or even have the sound up on the TV – that’s very inconvenient, especially if you’re typically a busy person with people to see and places to be. The list of things that need doing gets longer and longer and that only serves to keep the anxiety alive doesn’t it?
When you’re suffering from anxiety you don’t want to be feeling that way, but after a while the world outside your home (or sometimes bed) can seem a million miles away and unreachable. When will the anxiety end? How do you switch it off? Why has this happened to you? Don’t be too surprised if you start to feel depressed as a result of the anxiety – that’s to be expected, severe anxiety is an illness and illnesses don’t generally make us feel on top of the world.
The good news is that severe anxiety is curable and that most people who suffer from severe anxiety are of above average intelligence and highly creative. So that’s the first thing to feel good about if you have anxiety ‘you’re smarter than the rest’ and the over-analysing of threats (or perhaps your health) is down to your gift for imagining future scenarios. Take that positive thought and bank it – you’re not weak, you’re actually a super brain.
If you’re so smart why can’t you ‘unthink your anxiety’? Put simply your anxiety is controlled by your subconscious – you can consciously try and will your anxiety away but it’s your subconscious that needs dealing with to bring the anxiety to an end.
Picture in your mind an ‘anxiety meter’ (it might look like a car speedometer), the needle rises and falls with our anxiety levels. If you have severe anxiety we know that the anxiety meter needle is stuck on to maximum. It’s the result of a lot of events that have occurred in your life – some small recent stressful events, some potentially bigger events in the past. What we need to do is bring that meter needle down because that will stop you feeling like you’re cracking up and give you your life back.
There are a number of techniques I have found that work well when treating severe anxiety:
- Accept that it will take time to fully overcome your anxiety. Not an hour, or a day, possibly a few weeks or months but each day will be better than the last. Forget all the things and people that you ordinarily perceive to be ‘important’ and focus on yourself – is anything more important than you? No of course not. It’s possibly ignoring ‘you’ that caused this in the first place.
- Sleep is VITAL for dealing with anxiety, you need your wits about you – the free 10 sessions of meditation with the Headspace app are great. If you normally share a bed take yourself off to a separate room to sleep for a week (if possible), go to bed as late as possible (around midnight) and listen to one Headspace session a night. By the fourth night you’ll be asleep before the session finishes. By the 10th session you’ll be ready to sleep normally again.
- Routine – get out of bed, get dressed, do something fun. Being home alone with your thoughts does only really allow you to continually analyse your anxious thoughts – which keeps them alive and stops you recovering. Your brain is bored. You’re of above average intelligence and your brain is craving creativity and stimulation so much that it’s inventing anxious thoughts in order to keep itself occupied. You need to replace those thoughts with fun activities. Get some paper and a pen and make a list of all the things you’ve enjoyed doing in your life – reading a favourite book, watching a film, fishing, gardening, holidays, a romantic weekend etc. (yes this task can be quite hard if you’re feeling depressed as well as anxious but give it a good go). Write a detailed list and put it on your fridge door or on a pin board where you can see it each day. Pick one or two of the activities and make a plan to do them each week. Start with small home based tasks like a book or film, painting or gardening. Social scenarios can be hard to dive straight into!
- Eat properly and don’t diet – dieting can influence anxious thoughts so eat regular meals including fresh fruit and vegetables. Blueberries are especially good for lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety. I now eat a punnet a day – not cheap but well worth the investment. Buy some friendly bacteria pills from a health shop to improve your gut’s bacteria balance, there is much evidence suggesting a link between anxiety, depression and your intestinal health.
- Don’t drink alcohol – you need a clear mind, alcohol is a depressant and won’t do you any favours on the road to anxiety recovery.
- Keep away from Dr Google – the worry of bodily pains often accompanies severe anxiety, especially if you’re at home alone with your thoughts. Your brain may pick up on a stomach pain and focus on it to create an anxiety worry, before you know it you’re Googling and you’ve got cancer. The anxious brain is very good at inventing phantom pains (especially around the ribs if you have anxious breathing). You’re physically fine, but if you keep looking up symptoms on forums you will convince yourself that you’ll be dead next Tuesday! You have to stop Googling – it only feeds the anxiety.
- Seek help from your GP and trust their advice. There are short term medicinal options for dealing with anxiety – beta blockers may help slow your heart rate (I personally didn’t get along with them). I started a free Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) course – one to one time with a trained professional. At first it all seemed quite silly describing my worries and charting my emotional state each week with a stranger. As it transpired we ended up dealing with some health anxiety issues formulated when I lost by grandparents to cancer as a small boy (one was misdiagnosed) and those were underpinning the health anxiety that had developed. A recent event with my wife that almost saw her die of a misdiagnosed Ectopic Rupture had brought all that to the fore. It was a lengthy process re-establishing my trust in GPs but I now see that there really was no need to see eight of them for my own anxiety related worries…. There are often waiting lists for CBT which can be frustrating as the anxiety symptoms may have eased by the time you start the therapy and by that time you may not wish to revisit the thoughts but do, if you’re that worried you’re probably still anxious and need to talk it through.
- Get a horticultural project such as an allotment. An allotment gives your anxious mind something new to focus on, a new peaceful space for you away from the stresses of work and/or home. Digging, as well as being excellent exercise, is very therapeutic for the mind – you’ll find that after a good two or three hour digging session all you can see when you close your eyes are roots and worms and there’ll be a genuine reason that you have a back pain. You spend a lot of time living ‘in the moment’ on an allotment, appreciating nature and the magic of seeds, it’s hard to stay stressed or anxious and the fruit and veg output will taste so much better than anything you ever bought at a supermarket. There are also well documented scientific studies showing the benefits of soil bacteria (Mycobacterium Vaccae) in stress reduction through the boosting of serotonin – the body’s natural happy hormone.
I hope this advice may help you or others with anxiety concerns, I know when you’re in the midst of a severe anxiety episode it can seem like such a challenge to get ‘normal’ life back on track but it CAN be done by following all of the above steps. Do not be afraid to get started or too embarrassed to seek help, severe anxiety can and does happen to anybody. Mental health needn’t be shameful, we’ve all got a brain and like a car it can often need a repair after a long journey or a few unexpected bumps in the road.