I suffer from anxiety. Sometimes its crippling, but mostly its manageable.
I’ve always been a worrier. Even as a child, I’d fret about homework and house points and even Santa. I worried about my friends, my brothers friends, and whether my teachers liked me. I was the child at a sleepover who cried because they wanted to go home. The perfection I strived for in my art coursework had my parents despairing, as I tore page after page of my work to pieces, and started again. I wasn’t necessarily shy. I enjoyed performing in assemblies, reading in church and even appeared on stage at my local theatre. But that was all practiced and perfected. I struggled with the unknown and the uncontrollable.
Throughout adulthood my anxiety has waxed and waned. Mostly it is an undercurrent, managed with the tools I’ve gathered along the way. Occasionally, it’s caused me real problems – time off work, unable to go out alone, medicated and in therapy. Thankfully, I can count those episodes on one hand.
After giving birth to Baby Bee my anxiety reared its ugly head. She was 3 days old, it was the middle of the night and I had a panic attack. My mind told me I was having a break down, that I’d be taken away, and little Bee would be all alone. I couldn’t see how she could possibly survive without me and the pressure of that was overwhelming. I could barely sleep or eat for the next four days, as I forced down mouthfuls that my instinct told me I needed, to nourish my post-birth, breastfeeding body. Visitors came and went and I smiled through it all. This was supposed to be the most amazing couple of weeks of my life after all.
I saw the doctor, anxious about my anxiety, but she told me it was just the baby blues. That it would pass in a few weeks. Well, it did ease off eventually, but it didn’t disappear with the hormones.
Slowly, as the weeks morphed into months, I was able to reach into my bag of tools again and manage the anxiety I was feeling. The post-birth shock, dehydration, lack of sleep and baby blues had made it impossible before.
The anxiety I experience since becoming a mother has changed. Its focus has shifted. It’s still about the unknown and the uncontrollable. But now, everything I worry about is compounded with the thought of Bee.
My fear of being separated from her.
My fear of dying and leaving her. No longer being there for her. Not being able to comfort her. Missing out on the rest of her life.
It’s even hard writing about it now, as I usually go to great lengths to avoid my triggers. For many months I couldn’t watch or read anything that had someone dying in it. I even struggled spending time with Bee’s grandparents, and avoiding them wasn’t really an option. Thankfully, I’ve learned to find a way through, and I even (albeit by accident) watched a film this week in which a mother died of cancer – and I coped with it.
I practise mindfulness, to live in the present. It doesn’t always work, but nine times out of ten I head my anxiety off before it can take hold.
Be kind to yourself. Don’t add to your anxiety by throwing in negative thoughts about yourself. You are beautiful, you are enough, and you are worth it. Find time to treat yourself. Create space to just be you. Practice relaxation. Or, if like me, you actually find relaxation/meditation anxiety-inducing, then do whatever helps you calm down and slow down. I like to listen to music, take a candle-lit bath or snuggle up on the sofa with a fluffy blanket and a cup of tea. If you practise at being relaxed, it should be easier to call upon the same tools when anxiety strikes.
Sometimes we all need to be looked after. And when the world gets scary, finding sanctuary in the arms of someone who cares is a brilliant medicine. Touch releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin. It makes us feel safe. Anxious thoughts are so often fuelled by feeling alone. Sometimes, being in the company of people who care is enough to get you through.
Anxiety is a physiological response to an imagined threat. It’s our fight or flight response. Sometimes a particular thought, object (think phobias) or situation mistakenly triggers our fight or flight response, making us feel anxious. The next time we encounter that thought, object or situation, our body remembers, and prepares us for action. In anticipation of fight or flight, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline into our system. In turn, they raise blood pressure, increase the heart rate and breathing, slow digestion, and can induce shaking and tunnel vision. The body is getting ready to fight or to run. Breaking the false connection, and teaching the body that your trigger does not warrant the fight or flight response, is a major step in overcoming anxiety.
If anxiety wins out and you find yourself ruminating on worrying thoughts and scenarios, then I find distraction is often I good strategy. Sometimes I can’t reason my way out of a thought, or I’m too wired to calm myself using relaxation. Find what distraction works for you. It depends how your mind works. Watch TV, read a book, exercise. For middle of the night distraction I keep a puzzle book by the side of the bed. It keeps my mind engaged enough that there’s no room for the thoughts I’m trying to avoid.
One of the best ways to combat anxiety is to reconnect with nature. Research has found that being in nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, but reduces heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure and the production of stress hormones. Nature soothes us, it absorbs us and distracts us. It connects us to the bigger picture and grounds us to the here and now. Spend time outside on a regular basis. Walk on the beach, take up gardening, hike on the moors. And in times of high anxiety don’t forget it as a useful tool. I spent many an evening during Bee’s early months, deep breathing at the bottom of the garden.
For support with anxiety, talk to your doctor, friends and family. There are also many organisations that can help, including: