I have been plagued by anxiety for most of my life. It still tries to invade my head and take over. As you know, I nearly gave up this book because I felt like I couldn’t write it. Good opportunity here to let the anxious part of my brain take over, so you can see what it whispers to me:
"Publish the book then! And everyone will say it’s crap. Or they will read this bit and think you’ve put that in there to make sure they say it’s not crap. Stop fishing. They’ll know. They’ll say it’s crap anyway because it is. All the reviews. You’ll be a laughing stock. You can’t help anyone. They know it. They look at you and you KNOW THEY know it. You’re fluking this and everyone is going to find out. They’ll find out you’re a total fraud and that you should be sat back in your bedroom in Stamford doing doodles and listening to Blur. By the way, that pain you have right now? Pancreatic cancer. Definitely. You are…"
WHATEVER, SIR BASTARD OF ANXIETY. WHATEVER. SHUT IT.
So he’s still there. Galloping into my head on his mighty steed of terror when I least want him to. Even writing that made me breathless. But I’ve developed coping mechanisms to stop him taking over completely.
First, here are some of the things I did wrong for YEARS (and when I say years, I mean decades):
I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling.
I also fuelled and fed my anxiety with information it didn’t need.
I poured petrol on it. I used to research specific horrors to worry about, like nuclear war. I can tell you precisely what happens within a 15-mile radius of a one-ton megaton bomb falling. I wasn’t in charge of strategic command for the British army. I didn’t need to know. Likewise, I know the precise incubation period of rabies and all the symptoms that come from eating a death cap mushroom.
I used knowledge to fan, rather than allay, my anxiety and when it all got too much (regularly) I would comfort-eat. I self-harmed, because I felt it could pull me out of the panic. (I will talk more about this later.)
I stayed in my bedroom. I could get to school and back but then I’d disappear upstairs. No socialising. No phone. No contact with anyone but I was safe. Safe in my bedroom where nothing bad could happen. Then in 1988, a plane exploded over Lockerbie, a little town like mine in Scotland, and I realised you weren’t absolutely safe anywhere.
It happened near Christmas. I stayed in bed terrified for a week. My Christmas dinner came up on a tray. I couldn’t move. I was trapped in a spiral of doom. I thought a piece of the glass I was drinking from had chipped off and was ripping my insides. I rushed downstairs in a state and started ranting. My poor mum didn’t know what to do. She shouted at me, then cried. It’s very hard to know how to help someone that ill. I think she made me play a game of Trivial Pursuit and I ate a mince pie, or four.
I was so terrified of both living and dying that my anxiety became a kind of living death. It was an existence, but nothing more than that. I was on something terrible that I couldn’t get off. I felt like I was always hurtling towards disaster.
I wasn’t, of course. It took some time, but I managed to start living. It was small steps at first, but whilst writing this I’ve just removed a lizard from the shed that I’m writing in. I didn’t think I’d be tackling reptiles abroad. Ever. I had trouble getting to Tesco’s.
Here are some of the symptoms of anxiety:
Your heart can race and you can have chest pains that shoot into your jaw and arm. This feels like a heart attack, or a really tight, badly fitting bra.
Your entire body can go tingly and numb. I had a doctor visit me in a holiday cottage in Cornwall once because I was convinced I was having a stroke. I’d read that the nearest hospital accident and emergency unit was in Penzance (20 minutes away). I had it in my head that if I got appendicitis it would burst somewhere on the A30 before I got to hospital. I would die and lots of people in incredible swimwear would have their day at the seaside ruined. I could see them shouting at me in the back of the ambulance as I writhed in pain. With anxiety, your mind creates perfectly imagined horror films constantly. It makes sense to you. It doesn’t necessarily make sense to others but it feels REAL.
Headache. A blinding tense one that you think is a brain tumour or meningitis. In fact, you don’t THINK. You KNOW.
Like every atom in your body is about to explode. It itches. It BURNS. You read about spontaneous combustion. You are worried your body may catch fire.
Sweating. Not a glow. It pours off you like someone is holding a hose over your head. And not a nice garden hose, the high-pressure sort that tackles factory fires.
Nausea, stomach pain, diarrhoea, vomiting. Perhaps all four at once.
Yes. I’ve had all four at once.
With all this going on, it’s no wonder that many anxiety sufferers feel scared or isolated. It’s a very lonely condition. People can be very well-meaning but you can sometimes be dismissed as weak, melodramatic, pathetic, or neurotic.
You’re none of these things. You’re an anxiety sufferer.
Anxiety is a prison that traps you everywhere. A prison that you can’t escape from, and one not many people want to come and visit you in.
If you’re nodding through any of this or you are identifying, I just want to give you a massive hug. It really is utterly shit. I’ve been there and I know. But it can, and it will, get better.
Let’s look more at mechanisms for coping with anxiety.
Mastering these can ease the feeling in the brain that something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Learn to control the physical symptoms.
Breathlessness can be scary BUT it can ALSO be controlled.
Here’s what I do.
If I can, I lie on a bed or in the middle of an empty room. Failing that, I go and sit on a toilet. Then I breathe in for five seconds, hold it for seven seconds and release it for ten seconds. I was taught this method by my school nurse Mrs Kirby. She was terrifying but lovely to me – I think mainly because her dad had suffered with anxiety. She used to let me lie on the camp-bed in her room until I felt better. Those 15-minute breaks helped me to pass multiple exams.
The Kirby Method™ still gets me through. I use it a lot, just because it works. As an aside, Mrs Kirby died before I could thank her for this, so please make sure you tell people they are great before they peg out.
There are now also breathing apps to help you with this. (The presence of these should tell you how many of us lose control of our breathing on a daily basis.) Google a few methods, and find the one that suits you best. Deep breathing actually has a scientific basis behind it, because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps our bodies to relax.
If your stomach is affected by anxiety, peppermint capsules can really help with cramps. And smelling something strong can take the edge off the feeling of nervous nausea. I permanently have a well-known brand of menthol oil from Switzerland on a tissue to sniff.
If you’re going somewhere, know where the toilets are so you don’t have to rush. Putting little safety nets in place helps to take away the anxiety of being caught short or left high and dry.
I don’t think my publishers thought I’d tackle bowel movements, but an increasing amount of research links bowel health and mental health. I told you we were going to be honest in this book. WE ARE TALKING NERVOUS POO.
Make the stuff that makes you anxious seem silly.
Make the scary things in your world absurd. Take your fears and make them small and silly. This works with phobias, too. J.K. Rowling does this in the Harry Potter books when she makes Ron put spiders (which terrify him) on roller skates. It’s a top idea. I made a graphic novel once called Pepe the Rabid French Poodle. Pepe had a mutant form of rabies that transformed him into a super dog who could save people. I realise rabies is not funny, but that little book is not going into print, and it helped me.
Whatever helps YOU (and doesn’t hurt anyone else or yourself) is FINE.
My anxiety train and how I get off at the right station.
When my anxiety starts (usually in my gut) I visualise I’m on a train going down a track. That’s what my anxiety feels like – fast. I can see what the destination is – a station in complete chaos. It’s overcrowded, all the trains are late, the toilets have that "closed for cleaning" sign permanently in front of them and, worst of all, there’s no café. It’s everything terrible (but not too terrible) in one destination.
Then, I imagine myself saying, "I’m not getting off there today."
I pull the emergency cord. The train jolts to a halt. The guard (who is the spitting image of my granddad) looks at me kindly. I explain to him that I need to get off because I’m having a massive panic attack. He says, "No worries love. There’s a lovely field over there with a Starbucks. Why don’t you go and have a decaf latte? We‘ll wait and then we’ll go back the other way. We shan’t bother with the other place."
This is my fantasy. It doesn’t have to make any sense or have any basis in reality.
Obviously you don’t have to use this one. Not many people find trains as relaxing as me. However, what you can do is explore your brain, find the comforting places of your mind, and practise going to them when you feel anxious. They can’t be taken from you. They won’t get torn down. They won’t change unless you want them to. They are yours.
Your head doesn’t have to be the thing that tortures you. It can be the place you go when you need to be happy and relaxed.
Learn from your experience.
You only have to beat anxiety ONCE to know you can do it again and again. If you’ve left your house when you thought you couldn’t ONCE, or have gone to a party you never thought you’d be able to ONCE, or visited the shops and looked a retail worker in the eye ONCE, THAT is a victory. That is a foundation to build on. Let all your little experiences of not being flattened by anxiety build and work for you.
Big statements in life rarely work (‘I will be well and normal by tomorrow and everything will be FINE!’) and often set you up for more anxiety if you don’t manage to achieve them. Saying "I am doing the best I can and I am doing well. I am OK and these feelings will pass" as a substitute can serve to help anxiety pass more quickly. Small steps add up to HUGE things.
My experience has helped me. There is nothing I haven’t been able to come back from – MAJOR passion with someone on a freezing golf course in November and being dumped two days later. Packing in one university after four days because I thought I was dying. Those are just two low points. There are many, many more. I came back from them all.
Not because I’m strong.
Just because I got back up again.
That’s all you have to do.
For a lot of the time I was crawling but I was, at least, moving.
Failure is such a vital part of living well, but my anxiety came from a fear of it. We have to accept that failure will bite us all at some point. Don’t be scared of it. It’s the lion that you think is going to kill you. It looks terrifying. However, when it does catch you it usually turns out to be a kitten that just mauls you a bit. You WILL find a way to wrestle out of its tiny paws.
That’s another image I have in my head. I’m slightly cat-obsessed.
In the end we have to put ourselves out there. You’ve just got to do it.
(Whatever "it" is.) Who cares if it doesn’t work, or it’s rubbish?! At least you’ve tried.
Overcoming your fear of failure is about letting your mind take one step at a time. One word. One outing. One breath. If you break it down, it all seems much more achievable.
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