I have always suffered from anxiety, but it is only over the past few years that I’ve actually realised it.
When I was a child, I would think about the times I’d been disappointed or had disappointed someone else over and over again before I went to bed. They were tiny things but I will never forget them, like the time I threw the last of my favourite sweet into the crowd at the theatre because the people on the stage were doing the same. And the time I told my mum she couldn’t play on my toy piano. They’re tiny, completely insignificant things but I would think about them every night without fail even when I was younger than ten years old. They haunted me.
I had (and still have) a fear of opening presents in front of the people who bought them for me because I was so afraid that I would disappoint them with my reaction. Now I am still mega anxious about opening presents and I often don’t react at all! Thankfully most of my friends and family are used to my non-reaction and know that I’m excited inside, but Secret Santa is pretty much my worst nightmare.
I suppose that is similar to my anxiety about surprises, which I also struggle to react well to. I just don’t do surprises. I even ruined the biggest surprise ever – my now-Husband’s proposal! And of course that has left a disappointment scar I’m unlikely to forget (although thankfully it carried happy memories that far outweigh it).
When I was about 12 years old, I had my first panic attack. I watched a scary movie that I was way too young to see and I couldn’t concentrate at school at all the next day, I couldn’t breathe and kept wondering if I was dying but I knew it was all because of that movie. When I got home, I worked myself into such a panic threw up all of my dinner. That was the first of many.
Unfortunately, not a lot has changed, but the positive thing is that I do understand it more now and I feel so much less alone than I did then. That’s thanks to so many amazing people who feel similar things, have been through similar experiences and have been brave enough to share them. I would absolutely love to contribute to that movement and open up a space for people to talk about anxiety completely freely here on Ashleigh Online, and hopefully I can start that here today.
Before I continue, I think it is important to note that I am lucky enough to be able to go about pretty much everything in my day-to-day life and manage my anxiety accordingly. I have days when I really struggle, but I get by and I have managed to experience so many incredible things by fighting it and not letting it stop me no matter how hard it tries.
I know that not everyone can do so yet, but I truly believe that talking about it can be the first step to getting to grips with anxiety and beginning to fight back. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and you might be amazed how many other people feel just the way you do. We are in this together.
Recently, I went to an event hosted by Waterstones Piccadilly for the completely awesome Giovanna Fletcher. She is one of the most inspiring people I have ever come across because she is so down-to-earth, so funny, but most importantly so honest. But, I wasted the two minutes I had to chat with her talking about myself. It was absolutely not what I wanted to talk to her about, I had lots of questions to ask her, but in my panic I spluttered out complete and utter nonsense.
That is probably quite normal and not exclusive to people who suffer from anxiety (I think everyone does to some extent, but maybe I will talk about that in another post!), but it’s what happened afterwards that really got me.
As soon as I stepped away from that table, I felt mortified. I was overwhelmed by this feeling of incredible regret and disappointment that I have been haunted by since back then when I was a child. I mean, it really isn’t a big deal, and I’m sure Giovanna probably thinks nothing of it now, but I can’t describe how mortified and regretful it made me feel.
I felt like an absolutely useless person, and blew the situation completely out of proportion in my mind. Even writing this and telling myself that it’s utterly ridiculous and silly won’t stop me thinking about that moment for years to come.
How do I know that? Because I have a whole library of those moments in my mind. Almost every day I add a moment to that library, a moment that I will analyse for far, far longer than necessary. I am continuously fearful about what other people think of me, whether I’ve said something to upset them or something that made me look stupid. I am forever explaining myself to people unnecessarily and emailing or texting people to apologise for something I might have said or done that might have possibly made them feel unhappy in some way. I know it isn’t necessary. I really, really do. But there is something in my brain that just will not let these things go.
This fear makes me panicky and anxious about meetings at work, about recording videos or the podcast at work. I have trouble with phone calls, presentations and interviews (a real problem as a journalist!) and have complete mind blanks regularly during these things. It makes hangovers feel a million times worse because I analyse everything I did when I was intoxicated (I really should just learn not to drink). I almost never remember people’s names because I am so panicky about whether I am going to get the handshake right when I meet them. Anxiety stops me from driving, too.
I don’t yet know how to overcome these things completely, but I’d like to think that if there are others reading this who feel the same way they might find some kind of comfort in knowing that they’re not alone. I feel incredibly lucky to have the life I have, and sometimes I think my anxiety is so bloody ungrateful, but unfortunately it’s just the way my mind works. I have come to terms with that, and now know that anxiety is part of what makes me who I am.
While I know that this is likely to be who I am forever, I try hard to fight it and it works for the most part. I still avoid lots of situations that cause anxiety for me, but I don’t think I could truly succeed at my job if I avoided them all.
And in so many cases, things I have spent hours, days or even weeks feeling incredibly anxious about end up being really enjoyable, and it’s those moments that make me want to help others who suffer from anxiety too. I can’t stand the thought that we are missing out on opportunities and adventures and huge amounts of fun. So if these tips and methods of controlling anxiety that I’ve found work brilliantly for me can help even just one person, I’ll be happy.
1. The Calm App
The first is the Calm app, which I use to help me sleep better at night. It’s something I’ve only recently discovered (I featured it in my April favourites) but it has helped me so much with nightmares, or in fact dreams at all. I used to wake up with so many thoughts racing through my mind about all the things I had experienced in my sleep that night, whether they were frightening or uncomfortable or joyful and fun, and it was actually exhausting. I longed to wake up and feel as though I had slept solidly for eight hours without living through a thousand other lives.
I think having a great sleep helps set me up for the day ahead, which is perfect for me because I tend to take things a day at a time – sleep is like a reset for me – I can tell myself that I will have a great day and if I try hard enough that will always come true. But after a bad night I find it so difficult to believe that the day will be great and that leaves space for anxiety to creep in.
2. Happy Journal
When I’m in anxious periods that are verging on depression, I start writing a Happy Journal (I’ve written about this in a blog post previously). I should probably do it all of the time but it’s surprisingly hard to keep up. When I’m keeping the journal, I write down five positive and happy things that happened to me in that day. It may sound a bit silly, but what it actually does is make you keep your eye out for the happy things and they quickly begin to outshine the bad. Just try it.
On nice days, go for walks or find a quiet outdoor space nearby to sit and think. Don’t use technology while you’re walking or sitting. If it’s rainy or too cold, have a bath or a long shower instead. Use that time to think about your day, about the next day, about what’s troubling you and what isn’t.
I personally love going outside on a clear night and watching the sky. It will help open up your mind completely, as it’s one of those freeing things that reminds you how enormous the universe is and how small you are within it. To some people I imagine that’s a frightening thought, but I find it strangely comforting.
The best nights are those when the International Space Station is visible. Use the GoISSWatch app to help you spot it soar overhead. I often make a point of going to watch it with a flask of hot chocolate to keep me company, and it always makes my anxiety disappear for a while.
Lots of the time, anxiety gets worse when I am feeling overwhelmed with other things in life. So often, these things are actually really easy to resolve, and I find writing lists to be one of the most therapeutic things.
I’ll write a long list of all of the things I need to get done, however big or small, and right there and then I’ll pick out two or three things that I know I can tick off within 15 minutes. It’s often sending an email or replying to a text, but when there are lots of bigger things at the front of your mind those smaller things pile up and get forgotten, but will still be troubling you in the background.
I also write lists of all of the things that are making me stressed or anxious and see if there’s one or two I can fix quickly and easily. Sometimes it’ll be that my skin isn’t looking great, so I’ll spend some extra time cleansing that evening. Other times it’s that I’m anxious about what to wear for a party or event, so I’ll try on options and set that outfit aside ready. Quite often it’s not until I write the list that I realise what’s making me anxious in the first place, so this can be hugely useful.
If I’m at home alone on a weekend and find myself stewing over something from the past or something in the future that’s worrying me, I’ll pick a drawer or cupboard to sort. I find this a strange mixture of distraction and time to organise your thoughts, and you’ll also have a nice organised part of the home that will reduce stress in the long term too.
6. Rescue Remedy
I haven’t got a clue if this does anything, but the placebo effect sure does if not! Rescue Remedy is designed to help you stay calm in anxiety-inducing situations, and I’ve found it so comforting to have in my bag just in case. There are also Kalms tablets that are designed to help you get a restful sleep.
7. Watch a movie
If I am in a state of panic that none of the above methods is going to resolve (this is usually the case if there is something coming up that I am anxious about within the next day or two), I watch a movie I’ve never seen before. I try not to watch films I already love (or have been looking forward to watching for ages) because I’ve found that the next time I watch it I’ll associate it with the anxious feelings, so I go for films I find randomly on Netflix or something that’s on TV.
8. Talk to someone
My final tip is a simple one that can be surprisingly difficult to do. Even sharing this today, which could be just me talking into the void, has been tricky because mental health is still so often misunderstood and not talked about enough.
If you can, find someone to talk to about how you’re feeling. You can talk to me right here on Ashleigh Online if you want to! But you might be surprised by who else suffers from similar issues, and will be more than willing to help. Just getting things off your chest can reduce your anxiety levels greatly, so I’d highly recommend trying it with someone you trust.
Phew. That was long and potentially waffly. But I am so glad I’m finally sharing this (thank you Charlotte for inspiring me to do so after months of it sitting in my drafts). Please, please reach out if you’re suffering from anxiety and want to talk about it, whether that’s privately (you can find me on email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter, on Facebook or on Instagram) or in the comments below. I’d love to read your blog posts about anxiety, hear your tips and methods to keep it under control, and discover more about the different types of anxiety that affect others.
One quick note I’d like to add before I really do stop talking. I really hope that there are some people reading this that don’t suffer from anxiety, and that this might have helped them understand our minds a little better. I know how frustrating it can be when you can’t get through to someone suffering from anxiety (I’ve seen that frustration first hand from my amazing husband) but just listening and being there for us is more helpful than you’ll ever know.
Thank you so much for reading.
EDIT: Since posting this I’ve had the most amazing response from both people who suffer from anxiety and people who don’t. I am so happy to hear that it has helped lots of you and so grateful that you’ve reached out to let me know too.
Of course, I’ve been anxious about the post itself and what people will be thinking about it, but I guess that’s part of the reason it’s not talked about as much as it probably should be and I’m just going to use the methods I’ve described above to stay as calm as I can about it!
Something I have found really interesting, though, is some of the comments I’ve had along the lines of “I’d never have guessed,” or “you always seem so bubbly and confident.”
It got me thinking a bit more about the type of anxiety I have and how it differs from some other types of anxiety, and in doing some more research I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s known as “high-functioning anxiety.”
I was reading a brilliant piece about it from Headspace that describes exactly the way my brain works. It explains that people with so-called high-functioning anxiety have so much nervous energy that it appears to be confidence on the outside. But equally, I don’t think I’m ever hiding who I am, I still think it would be fair to describe me as bubbly and a lot of the time it’s anxiety that encourages me to strive to be better and achieve more so I have it to thank for some things! I’d really recommend reading it if you think you or a loved one might have high-functioning anxiety too.