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

 

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

The way we eat is often a direct insight into our relationship with ourselves. Woah…that’s heavy Anna! Yup, yup it is.

Tonight I had a healthy dinner planned. A sweet potato and chickpea scenario. However, I had an argument in my mind (or on stories) because I just wanted to grab the emergency pizza out of the freezer and inhale the damn lot (Husband: HANDS OFF). Anyhow, it got me thinking about how self-care comes hand in hand with eating well. Spending the time planning, making and eating good, wholesome food is a statement of care for yourself. It’s saying ‘hey, I’m worth the effort. I value my body’. I’ve totally lost that recently. During the week, my ‘three meals a day’ become caffeine, snacks and toddler leftovers. Basically anything that keeps that hunger pang at bay, shuts it up as if it’s an inconvenience and not a basic bodily need. I’m not trying to loose weight, I simply can’t be bothered. Enough need comes my way from small people, so therefore I refuse to listen to the needs of my own. I make and serve dinner in the evening, but thats when my husband is coming home. I feel challenged. Why do I deem him ‘worth’ the effort to plan, chop and stir, but when it’s just me, it’s grabbed mouthfuls and sugary sustenance.

I know that it’s not this black and white. It’s complex! Food is as complex as we are! I’m saying that it’s worth thinking about a little more. I’ve not been loving myself in the way that I’ve been making food choices recently. Have you?

Eating is a form of loving, its an indulgence, it’s a way to celebrate happiness, and a way to devour down difficult emotion. It can be enjoyed, shared, created. It can be denied, abused. It can be a constant source of anxiety.

For one person, eating a pizza can be a treat. For another, a self destructive binge. For another, a painful battle. Oh do I know all of these angles.

Let’s take some time each day to mindfully prepare and eat something. To tell ourselves that we are worth the time, creativity, effort and enjoyment of sitting down to nourish and fill our bodies.

PS – we’re eating the healthy dinner. Chips due Friday (always)

Needing help is a weakness. Asking for it is shameful. That’s our cultural lesson. Self sufficiency is king. If we can’t fix ourselves, we’ve failed. If we ‘need’ from another, we’ve lost something of ourselves.This is my constant battle. My raging self-sufficiency is both a blessing and a curse. It can make one driven and resourceful, but the pressure on yourself is layered so thick that it can be hard for others to see you struggle, knowing that any offer of support will be rebuffed with a sharp defensive ‘I’m okay thanks’. It’s as if an offer of help is a statement of failure, or evokes a fear that someone has seen a chink in the armour.

And then I look at my kids. So quick to ask for help, and accepting it without hesitation. The simple, childlike acknowledgement that we aren’t made to thrive or survive alone. My three year old doesn’t falter behind layers of shame and fear of failure. What broke? Why did it become so complicated? Why did we become so individualistic? It’s not just sad, it’s not just missing the point of relationship itself…it’s destructive.

We are NOT MADE to do life alone. Vulnerability does NOT equal failure. Fighting against these truths leads to burnout and a loneliness in feelings because nobody else has been involved in your processes.

I challenge clients (and myself) to start to say yes to the offer of help and support that comes their way, whether it be help with a buggy in a tight doorway, some luggage up some stairs, or childcare. No matter how big or how small, how much you feel you do or don’t need it, exercise grateful acceptance. In many countries, people are part of close-knit, enmeshed communities where energies and resources are shared, and the line between friends and families are blurred. Help and support are seen as forms of love to be given and accepted, and not statements of failure and shame.

You’re worth someone’s energy, someone’s time. You’re worth help and support. That is what community, friendship, relationship and love is about.

Self-care isn’t as simple as taking a long bath or booking in a manicure. It’s about value, self-worth and believing you deserve treating yourself with care and respect. It’s about recognising the difference in what one day may be self-care, can be self-destructive procrastination the next. It can be a fine line.
It’s about how putting the to-do list aside one day can be an act of kindness to yourself, whereas the next day it can be an act of self-sabotage. Self-care can be working out, or it can be giving yourself a day off the gym when you actually want to go. Self-care can be a large glass of wine in the sunshine, or it can be forgoing the alcohol altogether. Self-care can be taking a day of solitude away from the world, or it might be encouraging yourself out the door to interact.

Self-care is about knowing what your needs are (this can be a challenge in itself for many), and how it is wisest to fulfil them. We need to know ourself to know the difference, and we need to love ourselves to act. The good thing is that one feeds into the other. Self-care fuels self-love. Self-love fuels self-care. You just need to take some challenging first steps to start a new cycle. A new way.

Today, I’m wearing bight, red lipstick and I’m not even dressed. Self-care for me at the moment is about not hiding from the world, not apologising for myself. It’s about daring to believe that I can use my passions and skills to encourage others to be more open about mental health, and start to engage in some new behaviours that I believe can change their world as they know it. It’s about indulging in the simple things that make me smile and give me joy. Today, it’s a rich, red, eye catching pigment on my lips, to remind myself how far I’ve come from the days I used to hide.

Self-care cultivates self-love. The best investment you can ever make. For the love you have for yourself is the gateway of all other loves.