As promised, here is Sam’s journey with anxiety. She has one cute cat that clearly loves cleaning!
Well thank you Neanderthal man, for the very unhelpful ‘fight-or-flight’ response that triggers my anxiety constantly! The split-second response you developed to help you either fight or flee from some man-eating predator, by pumping your body full of adrenalin, is often not a very helpful response to the challenges of modern life (although if a sabre-tooth tiger sneaks up on me, I’ll probably be very grateful for it!).
My earliest memory of feeling anxiety is when I was about three and not wanting to be separated from my mum. My mum was my nurturer, she kept me alive and safe. Did I feel okay about being dropped off at kindy or with dodgy relatives … umm … NO!! Cue separation anxiety!!
As a child I began to develop the traits of perfectionism … I tried very hard to do my best and make people happy. Conflict within my family made me very nervous … my heart would race, whilst my mind searched for a solution as to what I should do to ‘fix’ things. Often I would feel so ill-equipped and overwhelmed I did and said nothing.
In primary school, as we lined up to take our turn at high jump, I began to seriously freak out, based on the fact my anxiety constantly reminded me that I was hopeless at most things, especially sport and that everyone would probably laugh at me. “I can’t do this!!” I thought. I asked to go to the toilet, where I stayed for a good 10 minutes hatching a plan. I went back to the teacher and told her that I’d just been sick. The school called my mum who came and picked me up. Crisis averted! Anxiety: one, conquering my fears: zero
In high school, I worried excessively. I worried about how I looked, how I walked, how I dressed, how I did academically, what people thought of me. By the end of high school I had developed a secret eating disorder that I told no one about. The relationship between my anxiety and self-esteem, my mind and body, my desire for perfection and my overwhelming fear of stepping outside my comfort zone was rock-solid. My anxiety led me to give away my power to those who seemed more self-assured and this often left me vulnerable to being hurt or treated badly.
In my twenties I suffered several, debilitating panic attacks as well as a few unique phobias (please do not mention the word ‘button’ to me, it makes me feel sick and I had trouble just typing it!!). I put myself under an enormous amount of pressure and was extremely judgemental of myself: how I looked, how I performed at school, work, university. I can add in social phobia too – not a big fan of parties and meeting new people. Of course I married someone who is extremely social and extroverted, I think deep down I knew he would be someone who could gently challenge me out of my comfort zone.
In my thirties I began to learn more about the link between mental and physical health. I saw counsellors and indeed trained as a counsellor, as I was very motivated to help other people. It turns out there are some underlying medical reasons that contribute to my anxious state, so taking appropriate supplements and undergoing regular medical assessment is one way of managing my anxiety.
Just as important are the emotional and psychological strategies I use. I have learnt from experience how to identify my increasing anxiety. I experience tightness in my chest, start feeling a bit hyper and confused and my mind starts racing with problems, solutions and a lot of negative self-talk. In these moments I have learned that I can calm myself down by:
- Recognising that my anxiety is starting to increase
- Taking a time out to focus on what I need right now in the present moment
- Slowing down my breathing (pretend I am deeply inhaling the scent of a flower and then blowing out a candle on a birthday cake, repeat this at least 3 times)
- Analysing my thinking & challenging my irrational thoughts: how likely is it really that the plane will crash or my pants will fall down mid speech?
I also regularly practise gratitude. I have a very loving family and a roof over my head. My health is quite good. Being grateful for what I have helps me feel calmer and less critical of myself. Anxiety is sometimes seen as the difference between who you are and who you think you should be. I am just me and I am very lucky to be here. All of us are perfectly imperfect and we need to take back our power by acknowledging that we have just as much right to be here and be happy as the next person.
I realise now that anxiety is a normal part of being human. That it is often driven by the human desire for survival which is, in other words, the fear of dying, especially before one has led a long, rich and fulfilling life. It is the fear of pain and of those who you love suffering in any way. However, fearing mortality doesn’t keep us alive any longer; it merely prevents us from fully enjoying life while we are here.
So I accept and appreciate my anxiety for helping me to be aware and alert and to stay safe, for warning me when there might be a sabre-tooth tiger lurking outside the cave. But I am also thankful that with time I have learnt to take a breath and not jump to conclusions and that when I start panicking I can pause before choosing how to react. Take some calming breaths and assess the situation – that sabre-tooth tiger shadow might be cast by a little kitten that just needs a cuddle.
My name is Sam and I am a 39-year-old mum of two and a counsellor. I support carers who care for a loved one with a mental illness or developmental disorder. I have a special interest in supporting parents and carers of children with autism and Aspergers. I am also experienced in counselling and supporting clients who have suffered sexual assault, complex trauma, PTSD, grief, depression and anxiety.