I have recently announced my third pregnancy! I am due in the middle of February next year. From the outside, it looks like we’re just completing our little family, but those who’ve followed my Instagram account and blog, will know that the decision to try for a third child, wouldn’t have been an easy one to make.

Since my announcement, I have had many a request for a blog post on pregnancy after PND. So here’s a blog article for those who’ve experienced post natal depression, and whilst their heart would like another, their head is filled with anxiety about feeling like ‘that’ again. It’s a long one, but it’s jam-packed with tips and insights.

 

My experience

When I first became pregnant, I had a history of depression, and a number of years of therapy and Psychotherapy training under my belt. I guess my medical records were a reflag for risk of postnatal depression as I was automatically allocated a Mental Health Midwife. She was sweet, but pregnancy and the early hazy months passed with little more than a hint of the baby blues and some overtired meltdowns. I coped, I socialised, I drank coffee at softplay and chatted sleep issues with buddies. ‘I’ve got this’, I thought. ‘I was made for this’. I was quickly discharged from the mental health oversight team.

I was pregnant by Oscar’s first birthday. I had an inkling as he blew his candles out on his homemade (slightly wonky) monkey cake, that next year he might be celebrating with a younger sibling. I was right.

My second pregnancy was different, not that it contributed to PND, but it wasn’t an easy start. Acute morning sickness made parenting hard as I warmed retch-inducing wheatabix for Oscar between rushing to the loo to be sick. I also had appendicitis which required emergency surgery and a truck load of drugs into my incubating body (cue the maternal guilt already kicking in).

Charlie came into the world in the very same pool as Oscar. Another long labour with a short and sharp ending. Textbook.

In a nutshell, we experienced undiagnosed silent reflux, tongue tie (twice…it can regrow, who knew?!), chronic sleep deprivation, horrendous feeding issues that I stubbornly battled through despite family begging me to stop (I felt it was the only single thing I could do for Charlie and I couldn’t bear to let it go). Meanwhile we were enduring a long-drawn out house move that wasn’t happening, a smashed up car, and other things I like to forget! All these things formed a perfect foundation upon which PND could thrive.

I rebuffed all offers for help and support, of cooked meals and the opportunity to nap. I’M FINE. I felt like a failure, and people offering innocent help gave me the incorrect impression that they too, thought I was failing. I felt my baby hated me, I hated me. I didn’t deserve him, or anything else good. I could barely string a sentence together, I stopped being able to hide my sore, red-eyes, and the terrified, weeping phone calls to my husband at work became a common occurrence. I went from thinking I could cope, to pretending I could cope, to believing I never could (here’s an article I wrote in my dark days)

On my 31st Birthday, I threw my hands up in surrender. You know what? I haven’t ‘got this’ at all. I went to my GP and wept as he asked about my bond with my baby.

I don’t need to go into vast detail of my post natal depression as this blog article is more about helping the future look a little more hopeful and less about the suffocating debilitation that post natal depression can grip you with. If you’re reading this article, it’s oh so likely you know that feeling, and for that, I give you the warmest and most compassionate hug. You made it. You might have dragged yourself through with faltering steps, but you made it mama.

In time, things changed. The sun slowly came through.

 

What helped me

There were three predominant factors to my recovery from PND:

1 – I forced myself to be open to a select few (namely a couple of close friends, my husband, my mum, my health visitor and my GP) about how I was feeling. ‘Forced’ seems like a strong word. But I really did have to battle against the fibres of my being, in order to open up. I knew something had to change. I was scared. Most of them, who’d seen me slowly unravel, weren’t at all surprised. In fact they seemed more relieved that the dropping of my weak façade meant that they would finally be able to step in, instead of watching helplessly from the sidelines. It wasn’t easy, but once I started talking, the words tumbled out in relief and slowly the shame ebbed away.

2- I started to accept that I am simply not created to do motherhood myself. Nobody is. Nor are you. I seemed to think I was an exception to the rule. I began to believe that seeking and accepting support of any form (be it practical, emotional, mental, physical) was not personal failure, but was in fact VITAL to good mental health. Letting friends be friends and family be family. Letting those who love me, love me in the way that I love them. Taking steps to learn to say ‘yes please’ instead of ‘I’m fine thanks’.

3 – I worked relentlessly at my cruel, bullying internal voice that was keeping me in that dark place like a millstone settling in the bottom of a lake. The voice that told me I was useless, hopeless, worthless. I did what I train others to do as a day-job! I started to challenge this voice with kinder and compassionate words that felt like lies at first, but slowly began to gain volume and power. These words are now stronger for me than my inner critic, and that, well that has changed everything. That has changed my life.

We moved house, Charlie’s reflux was medicated and improving, sleep was more plentiful, life became more do-able. I was in the swing of parenting two and working part-time in a job that I adore. So what next?

 

The ‘Shall we have another?’ question

As time went on, and as Charlie’s first birthday rolled around, the topic of trying for a third child kept cropping up. We’d always dreamed of having three kids. Tarun was one of three, I was one of three. Despite losing my sister to cancer before her seventh birthday, despite the fact I’ve lived through more of my life without her than with her, I still feel like one of three.

But this topic was loaded with abject fear. How would I ever cope? What if we had another reflux baby? What if the baby blues weren’t a fleeting tear filled couple of days, but months of deep dark blackness? I was scared of tipping my very new life balance that was filling me with purpose and contentment. For a long while, both my husband and I agreed that I was still healing from the trauma of that long, dark year, and that I needed more time.

I can’t say I ever got to a point where I proclaimed ‘Right. I’m READYYY. Let’s do this!’. And neither may you.

Charlie was nearing his second birthday, when I realised that the ground I’d covered had changed me. I was much better at seeking and accepting support, stronger at saying ‘yes please’ and ‘no thank you’ without fearing what people thought. I had become more naturally open, and my friendships more two-way streets (rather than me gladly offering support but refusing theirs). I had grown used to the concept of childcare and comfortable with utilising nursery. I realised that self-care habits had become an ingrained part of my life instead of a vicious internal battle. Little realisations like this, that the things I’d tried so hard to instil, had become a comfortable new normal for me, reassured me that whatever might lie ahead, I was more equipped with support than ever before.

So now, I’m pregnant. Nervousness and trepidation are woven through my excitement, but that is okay. That is to be expected.

This time my determination is more ‘I’m ready to do what I need to do to make it through’. Not in terms of expending every single ounce of my waning energy to battle through alone, but to call in the reinforcements, to go out and find the support I need, and to accept the support I have. It takes a village, and I am not a village no matter how capable I feel after a large coffee and a good night’s sleep.

 

My advice to you

So, here is my advice to you as you read these words with your own journey sitting heavily on your chest:

1 – Think about how you are now. How are you coping? How do you feel? Do you have residual or active depression that has not been properly addressed? Perhaps you need to invest in some personal therapy via your GP, or via the Find a Therapist page of the Counselling Directory. If you’re often feeling low, you deserve to address this sooner rather than later. And if you’ve experienced any level of trauma whatsoever, from what you’ve been through, please seek therapy in order to safely address this and enable you some freedom.

2 – Ask yourself how you feel and what you need. It’s likely that this has been a challenge for you. It is a challenge to any mum who’s focus is on the needs and feelings of their children, but if you’re going to be attending more closely to your emotional, practical, mental and physical needs, you need to ask yourself what they are. Get familiar with your needs, wants and feelings so that you can begin to act on them.

3 – Practice asking for and accepting help. Be it the offer of childcare for an hour so you can get some jobs done, or asking for a glass of water at your friend’s house when she’s forgotten to offer. Grow confident in stepping out to get your needs met. This is a hugely vital tool in the armour to fight PND. It’s not a comfortable task, but as your confidence increases and your needs are more likely met, you’ll find it easier I promise. This is so important.

4 – Carefully review your support network. Who’s there on standby, who’s standing in the wings? Who are the friends or family members that offer support? Does your hospital have a mental health midwifery service you can access? What did you struggle most with in your postnatal phase? What support might you have benefitted from had you been in a place to ask for and accept it? Have you found good online support? Is there a nice friendly network of baby groups and classes locally? What is around you already and what might you have to seek out?

5 – Take steps to speak with close friends or family members who you trust (if you aren’t already). Start letting them know how you feel in the little, day-to-day ways. The ups, the downs, the frustrations. If your usual response is to ‘keep calm and carry on’, this isn’t going to serve you well, just as it didn’t last time. Vulnerability is uncomfortable at first but entirely necessary for good mental health. Entirely necessary. Those first faltering words I spoke to a close friend, felt like shards in my throat, but now I speak more freely about my feelings. It gets easier as you get the kind and compassionate response that you’ve been denying yourself.

6 – Address your internal dialogue. If your internal voice is critical and strict, you need to really start trying to introduce a more compassionate dialogue over time. That critical and strict voice is the kind of cruel that will hit a girl when she’s down, and you certainly don’t need that. No matter what you think you deserve, you don’t deserve a little bully on your shoulder berating you and throwing petrol on the embers of mum guilt. You have to speak back to this voice. It might feel like a relentless argument at first, but imagine you were speaking those critical words to someone you loved. They need to be challenged because they are damaging. Retorting with a kind response (in the way you would to someone you love), feels unnatural and a little ridiculous, but never underestimate the power of doing this. In time, with work, the critical voice will be chipped away at and will slowly lose power. You need self-compassion. It’s a very powerful tool in the battle against PND.

7 – Consider practicalities and timing. There is rarely a ‘right time’, to try for another child but there can be ‘better times’. For example, Charlie has just turned two and is going to be starting our local nursery with Oscar next month. Therefore, I will be able to climb back into bed with the baby after doing the nursery drop off. I will be able to get cosy in my dressing gown and put on a box set, and recoup some energy. Last time I had a busy 19 month old and never once got to luxuriate on the sofa, but was instead rushing out to playgroups and feeding on plastic chairs in cold halls. What timing might be kind for your family and enable you best to get snippets of rest?

8 – Be kind to yourself. Take the pressure off. If the conversation of having another child fills you with fear, make a decision to leave that conversation on standby for a few months (we left it for six months), and instead, focus on implementing some of these points instead. Regardless of what decision you make and when, you’ll benefit from investing in these things.

8 – Talk this through with your partner. You need to be in this together. You need to be able to lean on them a little, and get used to leaning. Ideally your partner would form part of this support network, and keeping them in the loop about your true feelings and thoughts around another baby, better enables them to do this. 

Final words

I hope this helps you. There is still so much more I could say. I feel a podcast coming on (I’ve never done one before so you’d have to bare with).

Whilst I feel a little anxious about experiencing PND again, I know that having learnt to be more open, both about how I’m feeling, and in accepting support, my next postnatal stage simply cannot be the same as my last one, and that I am confident of.

You’re worth investing in these things. Regardless of whether you believe that to be true.

Anna xx

Ps – Feel free to drop me a line to book a coaching session where we can chat about this in further depth. Or, you might benefit from my Nice Girls course where many of these qualities are worked upon.

 

 

IMG_4277I’m, going to share my top tip for those trying to address their anxiety. As you know, I LOVE a metaphor, so bear with me on this, it will make perfect sense in a moment.

My husband badly hurt his shins running a marathon. He couldn’t walk and had to temporarily re-locate to the creaky third-hand, musky scented sofa bed in our little London flat because it was ten yards closer to the bathroom.

 

He took medication. He saw physiotherapists. Nothing worked.

Soon after, we had a summer holiday booked with my parents and he still couldn’t walk unaided. We arrived at our stair-filled holiday home wondering how on crutches he was going to navigate the cobbles of the sweet Greek streets that surrounded us. My Mum happens to be a physiotherapist, and under her encouragement and guidance (and strict physio schedules…I mean he was gonna do what she said right? Mother in law and all!), he did certain exercises three times a day. It felt fruitless to begin with. These tiny little movements he had to make whilst gripping onto the crumbling wall of our apartment, over and over and over again as Dad and I watched on, sipping Sangria. Dull and relentless.

He carried his crutches home, walking totally independently.

It was the seeming relentlessness that did it. The tiny movements, over and over with tiring commitment. They seemed too small to be irrelevant, but over time, they changed muscle and sinew. Over time, the pain was replaced with strength. Over time, not overnight.

You know, you can try all the techniques and approaches for anxiety you like, you can dip your toe in the water of every single theory going…but what makes the difference is the seemingly relentless, daily application. THAT is what changes things, THAT is what will turn the anxiety from the raging bull into a small yappy dog that nips at your heels.

Let me use an example from my own life. My intrusive thoughts are anxiety driven, they pop into my head like a mini assault on my mind. Some days, I let them pass by, other days I turn the flash of fearful thought (usually someone I love dying) into a whole scenario, adding colour and words and feeling. Before I know it, I’m feeling a small stab of realistic grief as if the death of my child has actually happened, or I’m freaking out about how the hell I’d pay the mortgage if my husband died on the way home as I feared.

What works for me is noticing the thought and imagining it passing through my mind like a silk ribbon rather than a gripping, flesh-tearing fish-hook. It’s there, I’m not going to force myself to deny it, but it passes. I also use breathing to ground me and calm those physical anxious feelings (see this site). I try to practice it even when I’m feeling A-OKAY so that it’s a familiar tool on standby for when I need it. I have to use this imagery every single day. Sometimes a shed load of times. It’s my tool. It helps. I don’t ‘arrive’ at a point where I’m utterly anxiety free and go ‘WAHOOOOO. Seeya breathing techniques and imagery. Bye old friends’. No, I will be using techniques for many years to come, but the more I’ve used them, the easier they are to access at an earlier point (rather then when I’m down some anxiety hole where everyone I love has died and I’m the only one standing…oh I end up there sometimes, but less than I did)

Here are some tools that will be beneficial no matter what your circumstances are:

  • Learning to access the parasympathetic nervous system through breathing. This is undoubtedly a physiologically powerful tool that counteracts the stress and anxiety response in the body  – find out more here
  • Not waiting until you ‘feel’ worth it before you introduce acts of self-care. They can be as simple as making sure you’re drinking enough water and eating food that nourishes you. Self-care isn’t all about massages and  manicures. These acts directly oppose the critical and internal voice that often fuels anxiety.
  • Start small. Habits of a lifetime aren’t broken in a day. Small, continuous steps will get you there in a way that is more sustainable than short, sharp change.
  • Get used to asking yourself what you need. Within anxiety there is often a fear, a need and a feeling. Learning to identify them helps you in finding ways to meet them. The more you do this, the more sensitive to your needs and feelings you’ll become, and the easier it will be to acknowledge them. When my feelings are fuzzy and hard to determine, I ‘try on feelings for size’ by listing them until I feel like something clicks – ‘am I feeling, sad, lonely, angry, hurt, scared’
  • Be kind to you! Start challenging the inner critic/abuser/bully. If you’ve got a constant, cruel dialogue going on internally, it will be chipping away at your self worth and value. Start noticing how you talk to yourself in your mind and start thinking about how you’d respond to someone you love if they said those things. Start introducing a more compassionate internal voice. Read this
  • Speak to someone who might understand. Not everyone will, but someone you know to be kind and compassionate may be able to help you talk through some of you anxieties, introducing a kinder voice. Sometimes just verbalising what goes on in our minds
  • If you are finding that your anxiety is taking over to any extent, please seek an appointment with your GP, or a Counsellor/Psychotherapist to chat this through further.

I’m sure you might have a few to add to this list as it’s nowhere near exhaustive, but those are the ones I use the most.

But, my TOP tip for addressing anxiety is..

Start small. And keep going.

Even when it feels silly.

Even when it feels fruitless.

Even when it feels like nothing is ever going to change.

Even when you don’t truly believe it will help.

Keep going.

And if you forget? Or you have an anxiety filled day where things have taken over and not one coping mechanism has been accessed, be kind, DON’T beat yourself up. This is a process and it’s a tough one, and often a long one, but a wholly worthwhile one. Carry on. Carry on.

If you’re someone who likes imagery, find a metaphor that encourages you. I like to think of a motorway that has closed down! No cars are allowed, and they are forced to drive beside it on grass and mud. Wheels get stuck, flicking up mud and requiring pushing out. It’s slow and bumpy and downright annoying. Drivers glance at the empty motorway beside them, it’s so familiar, so easy, so smooth. BUT. Overtime, the wheels carve a new path. The ground impacts, the bumps are smoothed. The journey is getting easier. And as for the motorway? It’s has gradually run to ruin. The tarmac melted in parts by the summer sun and never addressed. Weeds poking through the lanes, tree roots tearing up what was once flat.

Whatever your battle is against and whatever your techniques are (as long as they are good, healthy ones), I want to encourage you to keep utilising them. Use them when you’re feeling okay, use them when you start to wobble. The deeper you are into the hole of anxiety, the more effort required to use the tools that pull you out.

Every time you speak back to that familiar, cruel voice that has you questioning life and future, pick up that tool. No matter how successful it was, pick it up again next time too. Yes, maybe sometimes introduce a new tool or an additional tool, especially as they slowly become second nature and less effort, but make sure you have SOMETHING to hand. I introduced breathing for anxiety, and then once it became almost second nature, I introduced a gratitude journal. And now that’s part of my daily life, I’m trying to drink enough water in order to tell my body it’s worth being hydrated no matter how many times I need to pee. See what I’m saying?

When I speak to coaching clients, I don’t make false statements. I don’t promise them that their worst fear won’t happen, I’m not God, I don’t have the insight. I’m not going to promise them that everything will be okay, because nobody can promise them that. But I DO promise them that if they pursue relentlessly, regardless of feelings, the tools we speak about, then the voice of anxiety WILL get quieter over time.

Sometimes change is about driving in the rain and suddenly realising that this would have made you panic a few months ago. Sometimes it’s about you having a nice long bath and suddenly realising that a few weeks ago, this would have felt like an utter, worthless waste of time because you weren’t of enough value to do something kind like this.

Find the tools that fit you, whether through therapy or apps, research or reading. Value your tools. Use them relentlessly and be kind to yourself when you forget, or they don’t seem to work. Keep keep going and change will come, slowly but surely.

Ax

 

Last year, after a morning of hasty Christmas shopping, we sat down at a hectic, over full Wagamama table. The four of us, dogeared, whining and hangry. In walked a Boden advert. A family of four, with children a similar age to ours, dressed impeccably in Breton stripes and polo shirts. The mum and the oldest boy were even wearing WHITE jeans. WHITE I tell you! We gazed at them in disbelief as their children behaved as neatly as they were dressed. ‘Well, they aren’t even real’ I uttered, and delved into my Katsu, before dropping soy drenched rice on my grubby trousers.

I’ve become increasingly aware of the use of the word ‘real’ and there has been a unease simmering in my tummy. I’ve used it tons of times and have never given it a second thought, but I’ve started seeing it used in contexts that make me think a little bit more about what we actually mean by:

Real mum

Real mum body

You’re real

Usually it alludes to the fact that someone is being open about the messier aspects of life: the tantrum induced rage, the depression, the postnatal stitches and constipation, the vomit, the arguments, the unwashed hair, the softer body bits, the mum guilt, the anxiety, the mundaneness. Perhaps the ‘real mum’ photos that litter social media aren’t all smiles and clean floors, but are punctuated with grey eye bags and pen scrawled on living room walls.

So maybe I AM real because I talk about mum rage and share my cry-face.

But maybe I’m NOT real because I’m usually wearing makeup and I love the gym.

But maybe I AM real because I talk about my anxiety and PND.

But maybe I’m NOT real because I didn’t have stretch-marks and could fit into my pre babe wardrobe (why do I actually feel embarrassed to write this?).

But maybe I AM real because my life is just a series of me falling from one awkward scenario and utterance to the next.

But maybe I’m NOT real because my house is always tidy (read this)

(Don’t start me on ‘real mum body’ because that just makes me mad sad. If you’re a mum, and you have a body, you have a real mum body. Whether you’re a gym-honed size 8 or a curvy size 32, whether you’re enhanced with silicon or go makeup-free. Whether you are decorated head to toe with tattoos or have a story of scars, you have a real mum bod. End. Of. Story)

When we glorify and cheer-lead only the ‘real mum’s, what category are we putting everyone else into?

Real vs Not Real. Of course, it’s NEVER that black and white. But words are powerful.

You see a size 6, toned mum pushing an immaculate baby through the street? Or the mum of newborn twins smiling and proclaiming that they sleep brilliantly and she just ‘adores motherhood’. What about the mum who’s kids have never consumed plates of beige 3 days in a row, or the mum who’s freezer doesn’t boast a bounty of fish fingers like mine. What about those who’s kids are screen-free, homework-completing and toddler yoga-ing all whilst feasting on quinoa bites?

Well, that’s not real is it? If it’s not real, what is it? And why do we feel the need to grade something as real or not just by looking at a snapshot of their day, or a small part of their whole?

Yes, those ARE real bits, they just aren’t ALL of the real bits

It is another form of comparison against something that is different to me. Different parenting, different resources, different life experience, different hidden things, different coping mechanisms, different insecurities. It’s a fixation on one part of a bigger picture that we will never see, used to either invalidate or validate our experience of motherhood and how we are doing. It creates distance between people. Between mothers. 

‘I’m not like her, I’m rougher around the edges. My kids tantrum and I feed them freezer food a little too much. I never do ‘crafts’ and I HATE glitter’. We write people off as different because in the light of what we see, we see ourselves as lacking. However, we are being inadvertently judgemental by creating this ‘real mum’ divide.

Let me tell you. Being ‘real’ in the sense of showing my rough edges has taken me years. And, it’s still not always comfortable (I say things that sometimes make me feel somewhat sick and scared as to how it will be received…like this post!) To able to be open about some of the tougher, uglier, harder to hear, complex to say, less palatable stuff has been a hard and valuable journey of vulnerability. Years of therapy, years of repeating to myself the message that I’m still loveable regardless of who I am, what I look like, what I’ve been through, what people have told me, and what people think. I’ve spent years challenging the relentless perfectionist desire to portray something that hides my mess because my entrenched message to myself is that what people think of me is exactly what I’m worth – their opinions of me are truths. You might as well have walked up to me and stuck a price label on my arm.

I remember walking down the street, getting used to life as a mum of two. I would have looked in control, happy kids, well-dressed, lippy on, huge sunglasses. Was I fake?

If I’d have taken off my sunnies, you’d have seen red, swollen, bloodshot eyes of all the tears I’d cried that morning, and the wet rims of the ocean of tears that threatened. Would that have made me real if you’d have seen?

To have the confidence to put your shit out there, you need to have a level of internal self-assuredness that says ‘if people don’t like/agree/want my mess, then I’m okay. I’m still okay. I still have value. I’m still worth something. Vulnerability is risky. As soon as you speak out the harder stuff, which of it’s very nature is tinged with personal intimacy, you put yourself out there for people to ‘think things’ about you.

Some people choose not to take this risk. Some people can’t. Some people have had their vulnerability abused or misunderstood and thus their confidence to share, kicked in the nuts. Some people hide inevitable mess as a coping mechanism – the lynch pin that stops it from all falling apart (like my lipstick! It sounds stupid but during my horrible times, makeup was the one of those needed things that kept people relating to me like I wasn’t a ticking time bomb of tears). Some people choose to share this stuff in the intimacy of close friendships and relationships and not in instagram squares or toddler groups.

They are still real.

I’m not denying that when people share the sparkly bits it can feed the insecurities of others and can idealise and glorify certain elements of life, which of course, can cast shadow onto our own truthfully messy existence.

But..

It’s our responsibility  to recognise that we NEVER see the full picture no matter how much we see. We don’t need to be victim to how other people choose to portray their lives. I share ALOT with you guys, but never everything.

If you know that you are vulnerable to being pulled into the belief that people’s lives are actually how you see them to be, and yours is rubbish in comparison, then limit your exposure. Limit who you follow, what you watch and what you read until you’ve built some more of the internal self-confidence that says you’re doing just fine regardless of who’s next to you in a coffee queue or above you on an insta-feed.

So, my love.

Whoever you are. Whatever you do. However you do it. However tidy your home is. However your kids behave. However your freezer is stocked. However you find it to talk about the messy stuff. Whatever you’ve been through. Whatever you hide. Whatever you look like. Whatever you believe. Whatever you weight. Whatever you wear. Whatever you choose to share. Whatever you choose not to share. For whatever reasons…

You are REAL.

 

 

IMG_2522.jpgWhite knuckled fingers gripping, heart pounding, body braced. Death feels a hairs breadth away, a possible reality at any second.

No, this isn’t me seated on a rollercoaster, this was how I felt when behind the wheel of a car until very recently.

I can’t remember when driving became the focus of so much of my anxiety, or when the flashes of intrusive thoughts began to flicker across my mind –  ‘If I turn the wheel now, I’d cause a pileup’. I’d have shockingly clear visions of cars skidding across all three lanes, smashing into the reservation barriers and bursting into flames. I’d make any excuse not to drive, walking miles with a double buggy, turning down invitations that required a car trip, or loosing sleep visualising that the next days 2.5 hour drive to my parents would result in certain death. There were times my hands shook so much that I had to pull over to  free from from the wheel, and times where my driving was  unsafe because of the rash decisions I’d make at perceived threat.

Now? Well, now I drive every day with the kids. I’m sometimes in and out of the car more times than I can keep count of. Today alone I’ve driven on two motorways, back country roads and scaled huge multi-lane roundabouts. I’d be lying if I said that these thoughts were all a distant memory, or that I didn’t have to yoga-breathe my way past a lorry. It’s freeing and exhilarating and sometimes scary, but I’m doing it and I’m continuously proud of myself.

What changed?

Well let’s go back to the beginning first. Bear with me.

I passed my test at 19, first time after a huge number of lessons with an instructor aptly named ‘Vicky Passmore’. She used to drill into me the idea of the ‘blind spot’ telling me that most accidents were caused because of people not looking. I cannot remember shaky hands or shallow breaths, just enjoyment of the freedom I had to be able to drive the 15 miles to college in an ancient Rover instead of having to freeze at the bus stop. I rolled a car at 19 in a back country road, as my wheel caught the crumbling edge of the road concealed by inches of wet leaves. My then boyfriend took my wheel and turned it sharply, sending us up (and down) a bank. It was terrifying, but I got a new (cheaper and older) car, a black Fiat Panda with neon pink interior – my ‘skip on wheels’. We’d just got the internet and I remember googling the car to find that there was one instance in which the flat bonnet had flipped up to hit a windscreen whilst in motion. I don’t know if it was that, or my fear of ‘blind spots’ that sparked these intrusive, visual assaults on my mind, but the nerves began to kick in and I began to envision being squashed by lorries, and my bonnet flipping up. Conveniently for me, I then packed myself off to a campus University and didn’t need to drive for 4 years…before moving to London and not driving for another six. I avoided my fear (I mean, I was a terrible passenger when the opportunity arose, often grabbing the seatbelt or sharply intaking breath as we overtook traffic on busy motorways).

The longer I didn’t drive, the more fearful I became. It crept into my nightmares and I became sure that people I loved would die on the roads. Every goodbye to my family as they left our home, I was convinced would be the last. I’d wave them off with a lump in my throat, holding back tears, as was the intensity of my belief.

Avoiding your fear quickly turns it into something larger in your mind. It’s like falling off a horse or a bike and not getting back on. Your last memory is one connoting an unpleasant experience, so you’ll add power to the belief that it’s ‘bad and scary’. This is especially true after a traumatic event has occurred, and is utterly understandable.

We moved out of London and bought a car, and I decided that my fears wouldn’t rule me. Firstly I gave myself the challenge of driving every day, even though my thoughts tried to find my way out. I made journeys to the corner shop, to the gym. Yes, not the best for the environment but surely better for everyone’s safety.

The issue is that nobody can promise you 100% that everything will be fine when you drive. Nobody can say with certainty that nothing will happen. They can state facts and ratios and likelihoods, but you can’t promise against a rational fear. But the same stands with every fear. It’s an existential dilemma of knowing the risks of life whilst having to live it.

I called the AA, not for ‘hey, I’m 18 and I want to learn to drive’ but for driving lessons. I asked for someone used to and experienced in sitting with anxious drivers. I met a lovely guy who took me on and off the motorway (my worst fear). The more often we did it, the more the anxiety was slowly replaced with the mundane boredom that comes with feeling less bothered by what you are doing over and over and over again. That was the best gift I gave myself. I wasn’t fixed, I’m still not fixed….but I’m in a place where I can feel the fear, ride the waves of anxiety and do it anyway.

Anxiety comes in waves. And when the wave reaches its peak, it can only subside. The thing is that in that moment, we fear that the anxiety will build and build into something utterly unbearable, but breathing myself through those waves (download the Headspace app, or learn to Yoga breathe), has been insanely helpful. Once these waves reach their peak, they begin to subside and your physiological fear response starts to lose effect….all the while you’re still exposed to your trigger. THIS moment makes the breakthrough. The more that you can ride and breathe through the waves of anxiety WHILST you’re driving, the less power those fears will begin to have. You’re literally starving the fear by doing the thing (this is relevant to other phobias too).

Here are my tips:

  • Recognise what you’re loosing to this fear: What is your fear of driving robbing from you? Seeing family and friends? Being involved in things that matter to you?Have you got a licence? If not, why not? What has been holding you hostage?
  • Have a lesson with someone used to anxiety-  This was brilliant for me. I voiced my fears and the instructor helped me face them and find that they weren’t as scary as my mind had made them to be.
  • Get some CBT – Therapy can absolutely help. Often it’s fear of possibility and power that affects us in driving fear. CBT can help you find a way to talk back to these thought patterns and find another argument that makes more sense. Speak to your GP as you may be entitled to a referral.
  • Drive with someone who can reassure you –  If you have a license, find a confident and kind driver friend and ask them to come and sit with you. Talk openly about your intrusive thoughts and your fears and let them argue back to them and support you as you are doing what makes you anxious. Hopefully you’ll be able to ride these waves with them and slowly see the anxiety drop.
  • Embody a confident person – I know a good few confident drivers, so when I’m feeling anxious, I like to ‘pretend’ to be them! It might sound silly, but it helps me. My Dad used to be in the police force so he’s used to racing a flashing car through busy streets and motorways. I try and draw from his confidence and it makes a difference.
  • Breathing – I cannot tell you how much of a difference that breathing can make to the physiological affects of anxiety. Research it and learn some techniques. I’m often doing breathing exercises so determinedly that my toddler asks what I’m doing. It calms the adrenaline and lessens the stress hormone which it turn, slows your mind.
  • Find your mantra – If you find mantras helpful, find one that helps and say it repeatedly when anxious. I do this all the time. Mine is ‘everyone wants to keep their car undented’. I know it sounds funny but it reminds me that people are out for their own safety and will generally do what they can to keep them and me safe too.
  • Drive Slowly – Stay in the slow lane until you WANT to pass, keep to the speed limit or below. It’s better to be slow and safe than people-pleasingly fast and uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure that I often drive at Grandad pace, annoying those around me. I also tell myself that I can drive behind a lorry on the motorway for the entire duration if I want to! I no longer care if I drive slowly or stall on a roundabout (this has happened many times). If I make someone annoyed, they will get over it. The worst I will endure is a hand gesture or knowledge that they’ve taken home some dinner-table fodder but so be it! What does that say about me? That I’m still learning at 32? Pah. Aren’t we all in some way??
  • Thoughts aren’t facts – What I think and imagine aren’t certainties. Just because I fear death in the car, doesn’t mean it will happen. I’d rather see friends and family and take the minor, minor risk, growing in confidence (and therefore taking even less risk), than be missing out on the life that happens outside a mile radius of my home. I tell myself when I’m seeing visions and going at 69mph on the motorway that these are games my mind plays.
  • The more you do it, the more you disprove your fear – and the more confident you’ll be. I’ve in no way conquered my fear. I’m in acceptance that intrusive thoughts and anxiety will be a part of my life to some degree but I refuse to let them have the power over me to stop me from doing the things I want to. The more I’ve driven, the more these voices have been shown who’s boss and have started to shrivel into nagging little troublemakers. I see them for what they are and that’s where change happens.
  • Set yourself little challenges – Find challenges to set yourself. Drive every day even if for a few minutes. Increase those challenges as time goes on and ask loved ones to support you. Get driving lessons even if you have a licence. Reach out in knowledge that this fear is SO COMMON! It doesn’t have to rule you if you don’t want it to.

You are not alone. You can do this lovely. I’m doing it with you xx

 

 

IMG_2233Vicious cycles are just that, vicious.

You get used to the rhythms of your life and mental health. You know the things you do to make yourself feel better and give you a spring back into your step be it momentary, and you know the things that take you down or set you off into a spiral. Or maybe you don’t even know what they are, but you know that sometimes life just feels like an exhausting rollercoaster. Even if it does have the ups amidst the downs, you know that what you’d really like is a little more consistency and a little less stomach churning variety.

Yes, I’d quite like to get off now.

I have a couple of these cycles in my life. I’ve grown to know them, to predict them, to see the affect that they have on those I love around me. But that isn’t always enough to do the things required to enable me to hop off the bloody rollercoaster because those things often require energy and effort, whereas on the rollercoaster, you’re a little more passive I guess. I don’t mean to speak in riddles, but metaphors are the way my mind works.

Here are my cycles –

Drivenness and perfectionism….

Get inspired. Work. Get enjoyment from what I do. Work harder. Lose balance. Feel like I’m spread too thinly. Half heartedly try to find balance. Instilling logistics required for balance is time consuming. Carry on regardless. Fall into an emotional, confused, highly-strung heap. Get sick or run down because I’ve ignored the warnings to slow down. Be forced to stop. Take step back. Gain perspective. Rest…………Get inspired. Work…..(and thus the cycle begins again)

Self sufficiency…

Cope well. Feel like I have all the resources. Get tired. Feel like I should be coping. Feel like I should have the resources. Judge myself for not coping and not having all of the resources. Get tireder and worse at telling myself to reach out. Get a little rude and defensive to the voice that says I’m not made to do it alone. Continue to try to do it alone. Feel like a failure for not being able to. Fall into an emotional, confused, highly strung heap of supposed failure. Reach out for help. Tell people how I feel. Feel better and normalised. Wish I had spoken about it earlier……Cope well. Feel like have all the resources (and thus the cycle begins again).

I bet you have cycles too. Your own little rollercoasters that you know the ups and downs of, they are familiar and sometimes, even in a dysfunctional way, that’s what keeps us on them. We know what it feels like, the drop in the stomach, the same old same old internal battles. The world is an unfamiliar place, and even if the feelings are hard and we hate the predictability, that in itself can be a comforting certainty. They work for us whilst also working against us. I mean, I’m pretty damn great when I’m inspired and feeling like I have all the resources…but that’s not a sustainable feeling, and it’s not okay just to plough everything into what feels like your truth at that time. You’re not a machine. You’re a human being with needs and feelings and resources that run out – all of which need to be attended to with care! Not rinsed for their benefits and hung out to dry.

BUT……

We are worth more than these consistent cycles that keep you swimming in the same spot of stagnant water. Like being on a treadmill, you feel like you’re going somewhere when actually you’re not experiencing anything new, just the same old walls and windows. You’re really just getting knackered and going nowhere.

Yesterday I messaged a friend and said ‘I just feel like I should be feeling more content. I feel unbalanced and highly strung and I’m sick of it’. I mean, there are many problems with that phrase. Who ‘should’ be feeling anything in particular? We feel what we feel and as soon as we start to tell ourselves that it’s not acceptable, we cause problems. And as for contentment, that’s often something we feel in special snapshots rather than a continued state. But…what I was saying really, if I think about it, is that I’m tired. I’m tired of this rollercoaster. I’m tired of the familiar dysfunction. I’m tired of doing the same thing over and over and getting the same damned result.

And then, a lightbulb moment. I wouldn’t say it was a rock bottom, but that one was perhaps in sight, and that I’d hit a few mini ones in quick succession. I guess I was at the end of both of my destructive cycles at exactly the same time – feeling a bit worthless and a lotta bit highly strung. I decided that I was just going to do something different. I suddenly experienced some wind in my sails as I lit a candle, dug out a journal, unrolled my yoga mat for the next morning and planned in some exercise.  I’m going to carve some new habits. All of these things work to increase seretonin (happy hormone) and re-anchor and re-engage. I’m going to do things that break these cycles rather than feed them. I’m going to dare to believe that i’m worth more than just treading the same old same old paths. Because I am. And you are too.

I’ve been resistant to the concept of new years resolutions. A little scathing about them perhaps. I think it’s because I wasn’t ready to make changes, I wanted to move away from all of the buzz, the forgoing and the fresh starts. It sounded like a lot of hard work and I didn’t have the energy to even consider it. But now I am up for it – because I have even less energy, but that’s the point. These things make us tired, and we don’t like change when we are tired. And on it goes, until one day you’re sick enough of it all to be too impatient to wait until you have energy to make changes. I’m a few days late, but it’s not really about the date. It’s really just a collective ‘hey, let’s make changes that stop the cycles that suck the life out of us. Let’s drink less, move more, be kinder to ourselves and others, do more of the things that re-invest, re-engage, re-ground’

So, what you going to do? Are you going to wait until you get to some messy sort of rock bottom, or until all your cycles come to their tricky end at some sort of incredibly uncomfortable but heaven-sent, change-inspiring moment? Or are you just going to take the risk in starting to act like you’re worth stepping off the treadmill, even if you don’t believe you are…yet. Because trust me, make some tweaks and some changes, and then, in time, you’ll believe that you’re worth all the positive, life affirming changes you can ever make.

This feels like a brain dump really. But I’m hoping that some of my words might resound for others. Here goes…

Ax