We all feel fear. We all get nervous. We all worry. I do.
But these natural, necessary feelings, if not managed or resolved, can become a trend. A way of being.
This is my version of anxiety (and there are many). I get stuck in a progressively more unpleasant feeling of constant dread.
I shake when I wake up. I worry more. I become pessimistic. I drop things. Sleep weird. Reach for the booze. Eat too much. Stop exercising.
It all happens because there’s too much on my emotional plate. Too much stress. Thus, too much cortisol.
Anxiety is a chemical thing. Releasing cortisol is an evolved biological response to stresses, that we need. But constant stress leaves the tap open.
Anxiety nearly killed me in 2017
Two years of low grade, ratcheting to very high grade stress, without looking after myself, caused me to wake each morning shaking. That went on for a very long time. I told nobody.
I felt I was stronger than this. That I should push through. No weakness, only strength. Push on.
Then, my anxiety ramped up. Amongst the intensity of losing my business, telling my staff they’d lost their jobs, getting trolled and losing our income. A domino effect of shit, that pushed me from anxiety into a state of such deep depression I was suicidal.
When I saw my GP, it was anxiety that was treated. The release of cortisol. The drugs I was given had an immediate effect on my rolling suicidal thoughts and I slept soundly. I began the road to recovery.
My anxiety didn’t disappear. It took 6-9 months to reach ‘normality’. For those months I learnt to look after myself far better.
This February, whilst raising investment, against a background of bad international news, I started recognising the symptoms of anxiety again. The hands shaking, irritability, worrying about silly things, reaching for the bigger glass on rum, the extra slice of cake, the exhaustion, etc.
So, I began applying what I’d learnt in 2017.
Here’s what I did, bit by bit:
- Stopped looking at the news
- Got context
- Rode my bike
- Did pilates
- Got outside
- Ate better food
- Gave up coffee
- Watched less telly
- Read & listened to podcasts
- Gave up drinking
- Got that ADHD diagnosis
I didn’t do all of these at once. My self discipline & motivation was low. But each step begat another. Each new bit of brain space allowed a new thing in. Each new increment of calm created calm. Momentum.
Let me explain why I did each of those, for context:
Stopped looking at the news:
The war in Ukraine was, like many of us, another kick when we were down. I does often feel like the world is a tsunami of shit. I noticed i was looking at the news constantly, from the moment I woke up (and i noticed instantly got shakier) right until the last thing I looked at at night.
What was I looking for? How could this help? It doesn’t. My looking at news just feeds a human instinct. It doesn’t help any Ukrainians.
“Do something about the things you can control and ignore what you can’t”
So I made myself stop looking. It makes a huge difference. The world still turns. My world turns. Then my world, my presence, my brain, was in Hussey Space, not Media Space. My kids. My work. Looking after myself. Mostly nice things. Nobody harmed.
It is often hard, but it is vital to get a context for gratitude. I tell myself I am love. I have a house. I have a business. I live in the UK. I am not in pain. I live near the countryside. Whatever things I am grateful for.
A thing I like doing is getting a wider context. I like learning. I want to feel connected to the world. So I read history. I find history great, because it reminds us how lucky we (often, not always) are. Boy am I glad I’m not a serf from the 10th century, guarding my 17 year old (I am too, and we probably won’t live much longer) wife from vikings. That context, of how far we’ve come, gives me comfort. That’s personal to me.
Rode my bike:
I love cycling. Freedom. Quiet. Countryside. Movement. Travel. Using my body. Hearing myself breathe. So, I asked Emmalou if I could ride to work more, and did, rain or shine.
The NHS recommends exercise to treat anxiety. “Exercise” sounds so dull and worthy. A chore. It’s hard to get going, but anything, even just a walk, creates momentum. I’d rank it highest of all the benefits against anxiety.
Yea, I know, I’m sounding like a right goody-two-shoes now. But once I’d told Emmalou I needed to get back off the anxiety track, she kicked my arse to do the things I SHOULD do but never BOTHERED to do.
My back was getting tight from the stress, and I was working long hours. This was giving me some nasty back spasms, so off to the curly blue mats I went…
I actually like (but not love) pilates. It is very effective and the concentration required is a de-stressor. Frankly, not being in pain is worth anything. I’ve carried on. My tummy is flatter, I stand taller and I feel a million dollars afterwards. I couldn’t do that cycling without it.
Cycling. Walking Lily. Hanging out with the kids. You know the deal - green is good. Get in it.
Ate better food:
At the very strong danger of becoming the Dullest Man on Earth, you ARE what you eat, and I was a LOT of flapjacks.
The reason I could end up doing (and still doing) all these things is good encourages more good.
If I exercise, I feel calmer, happier and healthier, so I eat less shit. If I eat less shit, I sleep better, so I’m happier, calmer and healthier. If I cut out booze, I’m happier, calmer … Etc etc.
One good deed for yourself creates another. Looking after yourself makes you look after yourself more, makes you…
END OF INTERLUDE
Gave up coffee:
Look, I know you love coffee. I am lucky that I only ever use it as a tool to stay alert. I’m not a fanboy. Coffee gave me up/down dips all day. It made me shaky and less calm. Calm is good.
So I softened my ups and downs by taking out the stimulants. I slept better, worked better and…you get the idea.
Watched less telly:
Yep, getting puritanical now. TV for me, a lot of the time, is just something to fill the sad space in my head. A distraction. Easy shite to forget the day. That’s ok. But what I was watching wasn’t nourishment. I didn’t feel any benefit. Just avoidance.
Read more & listen to podcasts:
Somehow these seem like less intensive, more nourishing, quiet, ‘me’ things to do. They give me personal space. Time out of my own head, without the chemical taste of TV.
I’m currently reading a biography of Churchill (more of that context) and listening to stuff from kind, funny folk like Adam Buxton, Joe Marler & Shaun Keaveny. I laugh, learn and relax.
Gave up drinking:
OK OK!!! I’ve definitely lost you now. But hear me out.
I’ve being toying with going teetotal for the last 5 years. Whenever I’ve stopped drinking, I’ve felt fucking amazing. My fat timber falls off. I sleep waaaay better. I am waaaay calmer and more settled. My eye bags disappear. I don’t wake up for a wee twice a night. I stop snacking loads in the evening, so I lose weight without trying. I don’t get annoyed by the kids in the morning, because I’m calm and awake.
This, along with exercise, is life-changing stuff. Scary stuff.
The key for me is ONE drink is back to square one. Not because I am an alcoholic, but because my body hates me when I do. All the benefits reset. For me - you may be different.
I’ve stoped drinking for a couple of months now, because I’m just a much much happier person for it. Much. MUCH.
Got that ADHD diagnosis:
As my mind started freeing up space again as my hands stoped shaking and the good night’s sleep returned, I realised there was something missing. Serendipity saw Emmalou tell me to test for autism (I’m not) and I ended up finding out I’m ADHD.
My brain is an engine. Now I know even better how it runs. What oil to put in. When it needs a service. My ADHD diagnosis was the final piece on the puzzle (for now) in feeling shockingly better than I did 6-8 weeks ago.
My journey back to wellness was incremental. A bit better, a bit better. I know myself well and I wasn’t in a serious stare, so the process was smooth.
This is not the case for many of us. Anxiety can be crippling. Horrific. It kills. I’m not saying it’s easy.
But don’t ignore it. You’re probably underestimating its effects. They are far-reaching. Get your doctor’s help. Don’t be ashamed.
Help yourself, respect yourself, treat your body and mind well. Treat it to the good stuff. Your good stuff may be different from mine. You don’t have to pile in and do it all and more.
A walk each day. Cutting down the booze. Talking more. Getting more sleep. Finding ways to find space for quiet.
I hope that my experiences and what I have learnt can be helpful to others, but I'm no expert. If you are struggling with your own mental health, our charity partner CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer free, practical advice for all of life's problems - whether that's anxiety, relationship concerns, health worries, money worries or suicidal thoughts. You can also grab them on their live chat here.
And remember, all these things shall pass.