Given how much I’ve written about anxiety, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m finally done with the subject. Surely I’ve got nothing left to say about this adrenaline- seeking junkie of a disorder? I’ve listed its symptoms, shared details of its bizarre side effects and spent hours navel gazing; sentence after sentence, line after line. Even I’ve had to admit that writing about it makes me feel like a broken record; like your dear Grandma that keeps repeating the same story. Indeed, there was no-one more determined than I was to never write about anxiety again. Until, that is, I had an anxiety relapse.
It’s not the first time that anxiety has unexpectedly turned up at my front door; knocking cheerfully as though it were back from a long vacation. Putting its bags down and hanging up its sombrero, it’s clapped its hands together and asked: “Now, where were we?” It’s something that first happened in 2010 and again in 2014, so perhaps it wasn’t a surprise when I heard the doorbell go last summer; the grey shape of anxiety hovering behind the frosted glass.
Yet, although it might have been expected, it was still an event I found frustrating, difficult and frightening to manage. Anxiety relapses are normal, but that doesn’t make them any less scary.
So, what do you do when your anxiety comes back? When your quiet, peaceful household is filled with the sound of a ringing bell?
Last August, I posted an Instagram post and shared that I’d been battling to stay afloat in the midst of something of an anxiety tsunami. When I’d first spotted the body of water (probably around May time), it was still out on the horizon; remote and shallow. I didn’t worry too much – just a bit of anxiety; a little wave in the ocean of Laura’s mind. Yet, the wave kept coming; getting stronger and stronger, faster and faster. It was only when the water began to sweep my feet out from underneath me – my ability to walk around the supermarket now suspended – that I realised I was in the midst of another mental health relapse.
Anxiety was back from its hiatus.
Previously, these anxiety relapses have lasted a few months; each one de-railing me for weeks on end. This time, however, I was determined not to let it wash me away; to completely erase all the solid foundations that I’d carefully repaired last time. This time, I would grab my fluorescent dinghy and sail on out of there as quickly as possible.
I had a plan.
Of course, anxiety – as with all mental health conditions – comes in an array of shapes and sizes, costumes and disguises. As such, there is no ‘one size fits all’ remedy when it comes a’knocking. However, there are techniques considered to be universally helpful – methods that have certainly helped me. So, if the rising tide of anxiety does begin to return, please don’t panic – don’t grab your lifebelt and whistle just yet.
Instead, have a read of the below, and see if you can help to gently guide anxiety out the door.
When Tesco suddenly becomes a terrifying new underworld – a dark, fear-filled place that’s come straight from a Stranger Things episode – it can feel exhausting and irrelevant to have to analyse just why anxiety has managed to doorstep you, again. You’ve got a Demogorgon to fight, after all.
But, an anxiety relapse rarely ‘just happens’. Your brain doesn’t simply decide one day that you’ve been calm and content for long enough, and therefore deserve a splash of cortisone to spice things up. There would have been an event, an issue, a thought – or even an illness – that would have beckoned anxiety back (the link between illness, inflammation and anxiety is fascinating).
When I experienced my anxiety relapse in August, I spent a few weeks initially denying what was going on. I had no interest in assessing the chinks in my mental-health armour, or scanning the landscape for any underlying issues.
This was evidently the wrong course to take.
If you had a cough for a few weeks, or a bad back, you’d eventually visit the GP to see what’s going on. Perhaps you’ve got a virus or need some antibiotics, or maybe you need a trip to the physiotherapist. But it would be unlikely that you’d simply let your ailment drag on – you’d want to know what is causing it.
The same is true for mental health – perhaps even more so. When you’re ready to acknowledge that anxiety has now resumed its place at your kitchen table, take an hour to sit down with a notepad and list any reasons or unresolved issues that might have caused its return.
Even getting these things down – making the problem clearer – is hugely helpful. Indeed, if you identify the problem, you can start to consider solutions. For example, a lot of my anxiety simply stemmed from spending too much time alone, without valuable structure or company. I was working at home constantly – rarely taking the time to work in a café, at Claire’s, or to work in-house at my various client’s offices. As a result, my days blurred into a long summer sat alone at my kitchen table. For someone who is uplifted and buoyed by the company of friends and colleagues, this was a big mistake.
Of course, that I was a bit lonely wasn’t the only reason for my anxiety relapse, but it certainly gave me food for thought. I started working remotely and getting out the house whenever I could, spending time with clients and making use of my gym’s brilliant café and work space. It was a small change to make, but one that made a world of difference.
You might wish to bang your head against the wall when reading this point. However – and despite the fact it’s become something of a mental health cliché – the exercise card is an important one to play.
I’ve lost count of how many times my GP has asked if I’m exercising. Not (I hope) because I’m looking a bit out of shape, but because I’ve told him that I’m struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression.
In the past, as soon as he’d open his mouth to make this point, I’d immediately stop listening. It was like hearing your Mum ask you to tidy your room for the hundredth time, or to finish your plate (“Think of the children in Africa, Laura”). How could exercise even begin to help? I can’t even make it from my car to the local Boots store without panicking; let alone run freely around a forest, or enter a room of sweating strangers.
Plus, with my metabolism working at an almost super-human speed, I had never been leaner.
However, since 2010, I’ve learned that when it comes to anxiety, exercise really is a silver bullet – anxiety’s death squad. As soon as my anxiety even hears the word ‘exercise’ it starts to worry; persuading me that it’s best to stay on the sofa with a packet of biscuits.
There are many persuasive biological, chemical and neurological reasons as to why exercise is so effective in managing anxiety, not least because you are utilising the excess adrenaline that so often fuels the disorder. From reducing inflammation, promoting positive neural-growth; releasing happy-go-lucky endorphins; and providing focus, distraction and a form of ‘moving meditation’, exercise is now prescribed by the NHS to help combat poor mental health.
Since 2010, I’ve made exercise a regular part of my routine. Yet, over the summer – as apathy and anxiety crept in – I stopped exercising altogether. On reflection, that my mental health deteriorated hugely over this time is not surprising. I should have been more vigilant of my inertia and recognised just how much it was impacting my mood.
However (and having employed the above tactic), I soon realised that I needed to kick-start things again – and quickly. I therefore rejoined the excellent David Lloyd gyms, with one handily located just around the corner from me. This gym has been my sanctuary for the last 9 years; offering a refuge from break-ups, fall-outs and life changes. Even walking back through its doors – the familiar scent of chlorine and – well, sweat – mingling in the air – made me feel immediately happier.
Falling back into an exercise routine, mixing high intensity classes with Yoga, had an immediate (and almost unbelievable) effect on my anxiety. It reduced hugely – almost overnight. It is undeniable that the mix of familiarity, routine and depression-busting hormones found in exercise, helped me to overcome my anxiety relapse.
The recent book ‘Jog On‘, by the fantastic Bella Mackie, details her experience of managing anxiety through running. For anyone in need of (any more) inspiration to seek peace of mind in exercise, look no further than this book.
There’s something a little contrary about adding ‘acceptance’ to a blog post that promises solutions to your anxiety relapse. Indeed, it might feel the equivalent of opening up a Word document and simply writing: ‘deal with it’.
Yet, there is a very real difference between simply suffering through an anxiety relapse, and accepting it in order to move forward.
Nearly everyone I know who suffers with anxiety (and, that’s a lot of people), tend to pedal ‘perfectionist’ ideals. As they’ll tell you, all they want is for life to go smoothly: to get that job, to secure that credit score, to maintain that loving relationship and to be liked, loved and admired. Perfectionists don’t want bumps in the road, or ‘learning curves’. They just want to be able to fulfil their roles as girlfriends, friends, colleagues, sisters and mothers. Albeit perfectly.
I don’t mind admitting that I’m a particular sucker for perfectionism. Consequently, and when I began to suspect that my anxiety was returning, I found that my fears didn’t concern my own health or happiness, but how my anxiety relapse would affect the lives of others: colleagues, family and friends.
Indeed, I obsessed over how this ‘blip’ would stop things from being perfect. Instead they would be difficult and challenging; testing my relationships and ensuring my immediate downfall from any rose-covered pedestal. In fact – and on reflection – it’s often these thoughts that haunt me the most when in the clutches of anxiety.
But, and as every perfectionist must learn, life is not smooth, and nor is it bump-free. Instead, it is difficult, hard and testing. People get sick, mess up and do questionable things. People fail exams, get B- in essays and turn up late for work. These things happen.
Over one phone call with a friend last summer – my anxiety relapse now firing on all cylinders – she shouted down the line: “You’re not perfect, Laura. And you never will be. Just stop trying”. It was jarring to hear. Perfectionist Laura felt as though she’d been shot.
Yet, slapped (metaphorically) with reality, I stopped both trying to cover up my anxiety and apologising for it. I stopped worrying how it would impact my relationships or my reputation. Instead, I just accepted it for what it was. I was anxious.
Of course, I found this very difficult. Telling friends that I couldn’t meet them for brunch, or asking Mike to do the weekly shop, made me feel like a burden; as though I was ruining their lives. I could feel my crown slipping and the sensation made me panic. Yet on reflection, this acceptance was exactly what I needed to find. Yes, a few weeks were a bit odd – perhaps a little subdued – but nobody’s life was ruined; no relationships ended.
For life’s perfectionists, this is an important lesson to learn.
Sometimes, when I hug my therapist, I feel as though she’s trying to peel me off her; like a celebrity delicately removing a hysterical fan.
Having met in 2010, this wonderful woman has patiently sat through my existential crises, my depressive bouts and my anxious questioning. More than once, she’s told me that I don’t need her anymore; that she has no more advice to impart. Indeed, if I was to take an exam in CBT or self-care, I’d get full marks. Heck, I’d win a trophy.
Yet, cling to her I do – and I’m all the more happier for it.
For many, attending therapy is a secretive and covert affair. With the very word apparently suggesting you’re a raving alcoholic, a deeply disturbed individual or – at best – an all-out maniac, sharing news of your latest therapy session is not widely advised.
Yet, over the last few years, I’ve repeatedly banged the drum for therapy – reiterating that if there is one thing you must do when experiencing an anxiety relapse; it’s to find someone to talk to. A therapist, a shrink, a counsellor – it doesn’t matter. Just make the time to sit down with a veritable stranger to discuss, assess and rationalise your thoughts and feelings.
Therapists (particularly if you’re attending a course of CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) will fundamentally provide you with the tools and tactics to manage your anxiety relapse. Helping you to change those patterns of unhelpful thinking, a therapist can open up a whole new world of thought. One that feels like the difference between day and night. Indeed, who knew that your thoughts weren’t facts? That there are different ways of viewing the world? That your best friend doesn’t think you’re a useless turd of a human being?
But more than that, a therapist simply offers a supportive and objective ear. Too often, burdened by our problems and embarrassed by our irrational thoughts, we dare not tell those closest to us what we’re thinking. The fear of social banishment is real. Because of this, we tend to instead ruminate in isolation; allowing our irrational thoughts to multiply.
By seeking out a therapist, however, you can regain objectivity and rationalise these thoughts much faster – allowing you to pull yourself from anxiety’s quick sand.
There is a reason that I’ve left this part of the blog until the very end.
For many, talking about medication – specifically in relation to mental health – remains taboo. Whilst you’ll happily tell the queue in Lloyds Pharmacy that you need Imodium for your loose bowels, or Canesten for your latest episode of Thrush, admitting that you take mind-altering medication remains a hushed affair.
I understand this.
However, and without regurgitating the old adage: ‘taking an anti-depressant for your depression is no different to taking insulin for your diabetes’, I’m a firm believer that the use of anti-depressants must be more normalised.
In a podcast recorded last year, Claire and I talk honestly about how medication has, over the years, helped us enormously with managing anxiety. Like giving someone a little lift over a towering wall, anti-depressants have helped us to find the mental space, quiet and rational to begin to deal with anxiety at its root.
I often liken taking this medication to having a loud radio or TV station turned down. In the midst of anxiety, the irrational thoughts, worries and fears are all consuming. They don’t stop talking: each attempting to be heard over the other; muttering and shouting. As such, it can be difficult to see a way forward: to write down your strategy whilst anxiety scribbles hastily all over your page.
Although referred to as ‘happy pills’, anti-depressants have never made me feel euphoric. I’ve not woken up and skipped into the neighbouring field; singing to birds or embracing strangers. Instead, I’ve simply noticed that as they take effect, the noise in my head quietens; anxiety’s dial turned down. Although undoubtedly there, I’m able to better compartmentalise anxiety’s thoughts and feelings, focusing instead on how I’m going to get better.
It’s a little like wrapping anxiety in Clingfilm: you can still see it, feel it and hear it. But it’s muffled and distorted, it’s scope for damage restricted. It’s no more than a squashed, angry sandwich.
Of course, for many, medication is a last resort; something I’m in full agreement with. Each time I’ve decided to take a course of anti-depressants, it’s because I’ve got to a stage in which my life has become significantly restricted. I’m no longer leaving the house, my weight is dropping and the prospect of eating turns my stomach.
I don’t arrive at the doctor’s surgery the moment an anxiety relapse occurs, and nonchalantly ask for a course of SSRIs. It’s instead something I often agonise over; a decision that is weeks in the making.
Yet, do I regret taking anti-depressants to manage my anxiety? No, not at all. Each course has given me the headspace and energy to face anxiety head-on, allowing me to get back behind the steering wheel of my mind. The medication has not transformed me into some euphoric caricature of myself, but has simply allowed me to get back to myself.
And for this, I’ll be forever grateful to those little pills.