The problem with anxiety is that you never know when it will pop up. This is why, two weeks ago, I opened my notebook and wrote this to you.
I was fine, then felt the signs of anxiety
I’ll level with you. I’m feeling anxious.
Right now as I write this.
I was fine and then all of a sudden I was aware of the tell-tale signs of anxiety.
The increase in temperature, the noise of my heart beating, my stomach bubbling.
My anxiety manifests itself as illness
Or maybe I should say, it provokes the same symptoms as illness.
I feel ‘not quite right’, ‘not myself’.
I feel I am slowly moving away from my body, like a camera panning out.
Dangerously aware, I know the ticks and whirrs of my body, of the minute moment-to-moment fluctuations.
My anxiety manifests itself physically, but it is being controlled by my brain.
This I know to be true.
My brain tells me I’m in danger
The control centre is sending information to my body, to my stomach and lungs and heart, that I am in danger. It is telling me to be aware, to be on the look out, to be vigilant.
I am an old hand at this game now, and have learned to quickly identify and acknowledge what is going on.
I know I am not ill – although my body may tell a different story, I am anxious.
Today I can even tell you the causes
I was awake between 3:23 am and 5:00 am.
When I woke my brain was skitting about all over the place, unable to be still.
I have had a too-busy week and my head is too full of plans and lists and ideas. All good, but too many of them.
Just before I left the house this morning, I had a fight with my twelve-year-old. Actually, she had a fight with me.
This unique blend of tiredness, an over-full mind and conflict was enough to light the touch-paper, and to start me spiralling.
The problem with anxiety is this
With all my knowledge and awareness, with all the learning I have done, I am trying to tell my head I am okay.
It is my brain that is ill, and my brain that has been given the job of healing.
My brain is both patient and physical, which is why it is so hard
This is why ‘snapping out of it’ is not straightforward, even when you have recognised and diagnosed the situation clearly. Why it is often impossible to think your way out of anxiety, even though you know you are not in danger and do not need to have activated your fight or flight response. Why getting into a heated debate with yourself about the ‘reality’ of the situation is almost always futile.
I am not ill
This is why today, I am sat on the train on the way to visit my best friend in London telling myself and writing to myself, ‘I am not ill. This must also be why so many tips for dealing with anxiety start outside of the brain, with fresh air, exercise, breath, and singing. This is action not thought.’
That was all I wrote. A half-finished musing.
By the time I had finished writing I was again calm, and sleepy (trains always make me sleepy). I had a snooze.
But in these scrawled words were some observations about mental illness. As I wrote my way to calm, I was reminded of these truths.
I need reminding often – maybe you do too
I need to be reminded that physical action can alleviate mental stress. When you are at the point of falling down the rabbit hole into panic and anxiety and are able to catch yourself in the moment, go outside, or run up and down the stairs. Sing or dance like a loon, distract yourself.
Sometimes I find something as small as running my hands under cold water is enough to bring me back to the present moment. In this instance, I was on a train and none of these things were available to me, so I wrote. The sensation of the pen scratching out some truth on paper, of the ache in my hand from writing fast, calmed me and brought me back to myself.
I recently wrote a post about ways to turn down the volume on your anxiety, you can read it here.
It is hard, and it’s not your fault
Yes there are things I could have done to make my week quieter, but I couldn’t make myself sleep better, or preempt my lovely daughter’s emotional outburst. Life is complicated and often unfurls in unexpected ways.
If you find yourself feeling anxious, or having a panic attack, it is not your fault. You don’t need to beat yourself up for it, or explain it away, pretending it is not a big deal. It is a hard place to be, and, I’ll say it again, it is not your fault.
This will pass. You are still alive. Even if the anxiety in this moment will not respond to your attempt to subdue it, you will not die. You have a 100% track record in surviving panic attacks and you will survive again. On this day, before I had finished writing, I was feeling calm. I had a fantastic day chatting, walking and eating cake with my friend in London.
This photo was taken a couple of hours later.