7 Things Anxiety Doesn’t Give a Damn About

1. Whether the perceived danger is real, exaggerated or imagined

Anxiety is anxiety. It doesn’t care about the statistical probability of something happening. A lot of the things you are anxious about might not make sense, but that’s anxiety.

Examining the likelihood of your fears becoming reality might be a helpful technique for dealing with anxiety, but it might not. Sometimes it helps to reassure people with anxiety that their fears are unlikely to come to fruition; sometimes it makes things worse. Listen to the person who has anxiety (especially if it’s yourself) and don’t tell them their fears are unfounded if they tell you it doesn’t help.

 

2. How lucky/talented/beautiful/rich/successful you are

Anyone can have anxiety. I know that is a scary thought for anyone who doesn’t currently suffer from anxiety, but it’s quite reassuring for those of us who do have anxiety. You can come up with a million reasons why any given person should not be anxious, but there is one reason why they might have anxiety which trumps them all: ANYONE can be affected by anxiety.

 

3. How nice people are

I know most people are nice. I know that when I go to certain places, like gym classes, pretty much everyone is nice — well, comsidering my experiences so far! But being around people, especially people I don’t know well, exacerbates my anxiety. It doesn’t matter whether they are polite, kind and considerate (although it definitely helps me cope better if they are): I will still get anxious around people.

 

4. The logics of the situation 

Anxiety isn’t logical. You can be anxious about trivial things and unbothered by things which would scare most people. You can be terrified of a particular situation one day and deal with it relatively easily another day. You can carry out a task without anxiety when you are alone and struggle when you are with other people, or vice versa. Don’t bother trying to make sense of it — anxiety defies logic.

 

5. Convenience 

Anxiety gets in the way of life. It makes things awkward and time-consuming. You can spend hours worrying about something and dissecting it afterwards, even if the task or event itself only lasts five minutes. Yes, life would be easier if things were different, but anxiety is inconvenient. All those of us who have anxiety can do is deal with it as best we can.

 

6. Embarrassing you

Whether you are the person suffering from anxiety, a friend, a relative, a colleague or an innocent bystander, anxiety doesn’t care if you are embarrassed by the symptoms it causes. It doesn’t care if you are uncomfortable with crying in public — or if you are uncomfortable with other people crying in public. It doesn’t care if it makes you shake, shout, collapse or run away.

By the way, if you feel embarrassed by someone else’s anxiety, this is your problem — so please don’t try to make it their problem. Don’t complain or verbally abuse them. Don’t make passive-aggressive comments or give them dirty looks. If it makes you feel better, remind yourself that experiencing anxiety is always worse than witnessing it — and that anyone can experience anxiety, so next time you might be the one in need of compassion and understanding.

 

7. Being told to calm down

I know it’s intuitive, but telling someone with anxiety — especially if they are in the middle of a panic attack — to calm down is one of the worst things you can do. It’s equivalent to telling them that they have no right to be anxious and their behaviour is unacceptable. You might mean well, but the effect is the same.

Besides, if those of us who have anxiety could calm down, don’t you think we would? It’s no fun knowing that your anxiety is actually attracting the attention you hate when you are out and people telling you to calm down feels like a kick in the teeth. Instead, try acknowledging how people with anxiety are feeling and giving them the time and space they need to cope woth their anxiety.

 

What else does anxiety not give a damn about? Make your own list and share!

Getting Thrown Off-Kilter

I can have strong emotional reactions to things — it’s a symptom of borderline personality disorder. It means that if I get some bad news, it’s hard to bounce back and something trivial can send me into a downward spiral if I don’t take steps to intervene. It’s difficult to deal with, but I’m getting better at self-managing. However, sometimes I react to something which I didn’t expect to have such an impact…

For the past week and a half, we have been having the kitchen renovated. It’s a major overhaul which involves knocking down a supporting wall, repositioning the sink and replacing the flooring throughout the downstairs rooms in our home. There is a lot of dust, noise and clutter (most of the kitchen is in boxes on the living room floor), but it’s only for a few weeks so I thought I’d cope well. My parents are taking time off work, so I have minimal contact with the workmen (who are perfectly nice chaps, but my anxiety doesn’t really take that into account) and can carry on with my normal routine.

Except that I can’t carry on with my normal routine.

I am incredibly stressed. I can’t concentrate on anything or relax. My sleep patterns are worse than they have been for almost a year. I’m finding it hard to think straight. It probably doesn’t help that I have caught a cold, which is combining with the dust to make my chest hurt.

I was prepared for all of the upheaval, but my reaction has surprised me. It has made me realise how valuable it can be to have a stable home life and some kind of regular routine.

It feels like I have been knocked off-kilter and I can’t pinpoint exactly why. After all, I’m still spending most of my day as I usually do (writing, reading and watching television — though not necessarily in that order!) and am alone most of the time, albeit with people in the next room. I’m still wrangling the dogs and answering emails. Not much has changed in terms of myself.

But my environment has changed. Simple tasks like letting the dogs out or grabbing lunch have become more complicated, because I have to check that the garden gate is closed and that neither I nor the pets are getting in the way. I also have to put a lot of effort into finding food, crockery and cutlery. I suppose my stress is down to no longer being able to do the little things I usually take for granted.

The problem is that I cannot change the upheaval and I cannot hide from it. When my anxiety increases, home is usually my sanctuary. I can hide away a little until I feel strong enough to deal with whatever is causing the anxiety. But now my home is causing the stress and anxiety! I can’t avoid it, because going outside causes even more anxiety. I can’t ignore it, because the whole house has been invaded by mess and noise and dust. Lots of dust.

I’m trying to frame this situation as resilience training or some kind of exposure therapy. As uncomfortable as I am, this is not a oermanent state. It will pass.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of my worst episodes of mental illness: I can only wait it out because I am unable to fight against the situation. The main difference is that when my mental health is at its worst, I can’t believe that the situation will pass even when I know it’s true. My mental health is good enough at the moment that I have hope, faith and trust that this is temporary.

Of course, it helps that any renovation is, by nature, temporary. Yet so is illness — even chronic conditions have ebbs and flows. 

So I find myself wondering how my reaction would be different if my mental health were worse. I think I would be more stressed and I would see my reaction as proof that I’m doomed to a terrible life (remember that downward spiral I mentioned at the beginning of this post?) and nothing will ever go smoothly for me. I would ruminate on everything in my life which is less than brilliant, i.e. most of it! I would get lost inside my negative thought patterns and be unable to do anything productive.

Which makes my current stress a good sign, in a funny way. It means I feel well enough to acknowledge the exterior cause without berating myself for my reaction. I also tend towards anxiety when I’m well enough to feel motivated to do things — when I’m at my worst, I tend towards depression and that tends to obliterate everything else.

So facing such a challenging situation has highlighted what is going well in my life. Trouble is, that knowledge doesn’t make me feel less thrown off-kilter!

 

My Biggest Challenge Yet

Today is a big day for me: in precisely 6 months, I will be leaving for Peru, where I will complete a charity trek to Machu Picchu. It’s something I have wanted to do for many years, so when I was feeling frustrated and bored with life back in the summer and received an email from Amnesty International about a planned trip, I enrolled with little hesitation. I consider it a chance to challenge myself, to raise money and awareness for human rights and to show everyone that mental illness needn’t stop you achieving your dreams.

Peru Challenge

The trek is rated “tough” and is challenging for anyone, but there are some factors which make it extremely challenging for me:

1. My mental health problems

I find it difficult to be around people I don’t know, so anxiety will be an issue for me – at first, anyway. In my experience, the anticipation is worse than actually meeting new people and spending time with strangers, so it will probably be more of a challenge during my preparation. I’m not sure whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage! Either way, it’s just something I have to deal with.

Anxiety also makes it difficult to organise fundraising events, especially as it is unpredictable. It means that funding my trip through sponsorship was never going to be an option, since the pressure of a high sponsorship target combined with the need to arrange lots of events to meet that target would be detrimental to my health. As it is, I feel stressed about whether I will be able to raise the modest target I have in mind.

2. I am fat and unfit

When I say fat, I mean obese – not just a few pounds overweight. This means that I will have to lose as much weight as I can before the trip (and to lose it healthily, unlike when I have lost weight in the past), as well as building up my fitness. I’m already making progress: I have lost 25lbs, despite the struggles of coming off antidepressants causing a resurgence in comfort eating. I joined the gym nearly 3 months ago, doing one BodyPump class and two kettlebell classes per week, which is improving my core strength. In addition, I have been walking (a lot) more in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Although it’s hard to stay motivated, especially now that winter is setting in, I can’t wait to feel really fit and strong again. When I consider that 5 years ago when I graduated from university, I was a size 26, it seems unbelievable. I’m now a size 18 and much fitter and healthier – physically and mentally. I’m trying to use this success to spur me on as I lose more weight and get even fitter.

3. I have no money

As I already mentioned, funding my trip entirely through sponsorship wasn’t an option because of my anxiety, so that means I have to find the remaining £2,000 left to pay after the deposit. Plus spending money. And I will have to buy some clothing and equipment, despite those items constituting the majority of my Xmas presents this year. It’s expensive and I earn very little. I also have existing debt.

I might be mad, but this is the challenge of a lifetime and it feels important for me to do it now, when I have no ties and as I’m facing a pivotal point in my life, managing my mental health without medication for the first time in years. Even if I end up putting extra money on my credit card, I believe the trip will be worth it: I need to prove to myself that I am capable of doing something amazing.

So why I am putting myself through all this?

In all honesty, I don’t know. It’s just something I have to do. My intuition tells me that I need to complete this challenge.

I’m sorry if that sounds vague and odd, but it’s the truth. I can give you lots of other good reasons for participating in this trek, but none of them is my core reason. Here they are anyway:

  • To raise money and awareness for human rights issues. I have supported Amnesty International for years and was saddened to have to give up my monthly donation when my finances took a nosedive a few years ago. I’m especially passionate about freedom of speech and gender equality, but there are many more issues which are important to me. Human rights often get misrepresented in the media, but it is essential to protect them. I’m lucky to live in a country where I can access education and medical care – this isn’t the case for a lot of people in the world, especially girls and women. Completing this challenge is my way of speaking out for those who do not have a voice.
  • To show everyone that mental illness need not obliterate your life. I despaired of ever being able to do anything valuable, meaningful or fun for years because I couldn’t imagine a life where mental illness didn’t control me. The balance is shifting and I have been able to achieve some of my goals as my mental health becomes more manageable, so I want to give hope to people who are in situations similar to the ones I have been in. I want to encourage others with mental health issues to pursue their goals.
  • To motivate myself to become fitter and healthier. Having a specific reason to exercise and eat healthily makes it easier to go to the gym when I would rather stay inside and watch television. It’s helping me transition to a healthier lifestyle. It might seem extreme, but experience has taught me that I perform better when I’m aiming for a massive goal, otherwise it’s difficult to stay motivated and I tend to give up. Giving up is definitely out of the question when I have invested so much effort already and there are people sponsoring me – I would sooner die trying!
  • To see Machu Picchu and Peru. I have wanted to visit Machu Picchu since I learnt of its existence. I have no idea why, but I feel a connection to it that I don’t feel for other world heritage sites. I’m interested in history and other cultures in general, so relish the opportunity to see Peru. It looks beautiful and will be an entirely new terrain for me. I have never left Western Europe, so it will also be my first long haul flight and I’m secretly hoping to meet some of Paddington Bear’s relatives.
  • To inspire confidence in myself. Trekking to Machu Picchu is the trip of a lifetime, but there are many other things I would like to do with my life. I’m hoping that this challenge will help me prove to myself that I can achieve my goals.

The countdown begins…

I will probably mention this challenge a lot over the coming months, since it will take over a large chunk of my time and will hopefully turn out to be a pivotal point in my life. I’m very nervous and excited. Sometimes it doesn’t feel “real” because it’s not the kind of thing that people like me do, according to popular opinion – except that popular opinion is wrong, because I am doing it! I will do my damnedest to ensure that I am well-prepared, raise a substantial amount for charity and complete the challenge successfully.

 

If you would like to sponsor me, I will be very grateful for every penny you can spare – all of which goes straight to charity, since I am self-funding. Here is my JustGiving page so that you can donate with the utmost convenience and security: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones

You can read all the details (and see what I’m getting myself into) here: https://www.charitychallenge.com/expedition/itinerary/2468/Amnesty-International-trek-to-Machu-Picchu

If you would like to find out more about Amnesty International and the amazing work they do, please visit the website: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

Getting my Mojo Back

The past month or so has been difficult. In addition to the stress of coming off antidepressants, which I didn’t expect to be so stressful, several minor events threw me off course. I couldn’t even turn to exercise, which I have been using to manage my mental health, because I injured my hip. My mood was affected and at times, it felt like the world was conspiring against me.

However, this week is a lot better. My hip has recovered enough for me to return to gym classes, so that has boosted my mood and put me back on track working towards my fitness goals. I think using the SAD lamp has helped a lot, too. It’s the kind of thing I don’t notice doing good until I do less of it and experience a corresponding drop in mood. My fiction writing is also going well and I’m doing some volunteer work again, both of which help me feel more purposeful.

I have realised that getting my mojo back isn’t about a dramatic change or a magical transformation. It is simply the accumulation of small actions.

Like Austin Powers, I had my mojo all along. I just need to access it through concentrating on self-care. I have to keep doing the things which help me manage my mental health, even when — no, especially when — I don’t feel like doing them. These actions may be small, but they still take a lot of effort when depression and anxiety set in. They may be small, but they are significant.

My self-care actions, in addition to the ones already mentioned, include:

• Getting outside, especially in woodland

• Spending time with my dog and cat

• Eating reguarly and as healthily as I can

• Reading novels and short stories

• Watching The Big Bang Theory

• Mindfulness meditation

• Scribbling down my feelings

• Watching tennis (and Andy Murray reaching number 1 helps!)

• Texting friends/seeing friends

The result of getting my mojo back is that I feel more motivated and have more energy. There is room for improvement, but compared to how I felt recently, it’s brilliant! 

Again, this experience demonstrates the power of small actions when they accumulate. I find that very encouraging — not just in terms of mental health, but also how the principle can be applied to other aspects of life. You might not feel like you can do much to change things, but you can do something small. Keep taking small actions and you could change the world.

Learning to Be Well

Here are the 5 most important lessons I have learnt in the 6 weeks since I stopped taking antidepressants. I hope they might help people in similar situations, or help their families and friends to understand what they are experiencing.

1. There is no sudden shift from “mentally ill” to “mentally well.”

It’s easy to assume that being well enough to come off medication means you should be able to make other changes quickly and effectively, but you will probably find that life doesn’t look very different when you stop taking antidepressants. There will still be struggles and changes take time.

You can continue to take steps in the right direction, but bear in mind that these need to be steps — not giant leaps. Managing your expectations and being realistic helps you move forward while being compassionate towards yourself. Placing yourself under pressure to transform your life in a short period is neither practical nor fair.

2. A change in mood is not a relapse.

Life is full of ups and downs: we all know this, yet there is a tendency when you have mental health problems to think that normal fluctuations in mood signify a relapse. I have discovered that this intensifies when you stop taking medication. You wonder whether a natural reaction to an event, such as disappointment, is actually a symptom of your mental health deteriorating.

Be prepared for this reaction. Find a more accurate way of monitoring your mental health than listening to the stream of your thoughts. Simply recording your mood and other symptoms at regular times can establish a more objective picture. If you genuinely feel your symptoms are getting worse, discuss it with your doctor and/or other mental health professionals.

3. Self-care is more important when you feel all right.

Self-care is about prevention as well as treatment; I am learning that the former is essential. It’s tricky to keep up self-care routines when you feel well. You start thinking your time might be better spent doing other things. Unfortunately, you might not realise that this is a fallacy until your mental health suffers.

You need to be strict with yourself and do what you need to do every day. This varies from person to person, but for me they include mindfulness meditation, some form of exercise and using a SAD lamp during darker months. Prioritise your mental health, even when it’s tempting to do something else.

4. Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by setbacks.

There will be very difficult times and you will face challenges you didn’t anticipate. For example, I have injured my hip and have been taking a break from exercise, which is difficult because being active is an integral part of my mental health management. The only option is to work around setbacks. In my case, I am focusing on using other strategies to boost my mood until I can return to exercise.

Setbacks are frustrating, for sure, but don’t let them become excuses for not looking after yourself. If you are struggling a lot, remember that there is no shame in taking medication again. Try to show yourself compassion and think of alternative solutions for your problems. Don’t let setbacks dictate your life — figure out how to deal with them and move on.

5. Find other things to focus on.

Rather than obsessing about your health, focus on other things — your relationships, work, passions. Get back to an old interest or try out some new hobbies. Learn something new. Set some goals which aren’t directly related to your mental health.

Activities which induce a sense of flow are ideal — your mind is focused on what you are doing, so there is no opportunity for negative thoughts to arise. Different activities work for different people, but most involve using a skill which challenges you without being so challenging that it causes negative feelings. For me, writing and drawing are most likely to induce flow.

However, activities which don’t necessarily induce flow can also provide a healthy distraction. I love film and literature, for example, so I get lost inside the stories. I also enjoy modern jive, although my skill level is too poor to induce flow — even when I get frustrated at my lack of coordination, rhythm and balance, it’s a break from my usual anxieties. Walking the dog involves little skill, but provides me with a lot of pleasure. Seek pleasures in your life — as long as it’s not self-destructive or damaging to others, these pleasures can help you get more out of life.

I want to manage my mental health so that I can live a full, satisfying life and this can only happen through paying attention to the things with which I want to fill my life. Filling your life with small pleasures can help you through the challenging times. Finding and fuelling your passions can help you learn to be well.