I lived with anxiety most of my life, mostly I masked it, but sometimes it would completely overwhelm me. Even when doing okay and masking it well the anxiety controlled a lot of my choices. I rarely feel anxious now and certainly not to a degree that has an impact on my life. I hope sharing a little of my story may resonate with some of you and help you explore your own relationship with anxiety.
I can’t remember when I first felt anxious, but I can remember being a small child 5/6 and feeling what I would now describe as anxiety- feeling fear of the unknown, a sense of unease.
I thought everyone else understood life and could do it and somehow I had missed that lesson.
It wasn’t seen as anxiety, not even by me for many years. If you can only remember that feeling why would you label it as anxiety it was just me. I can remember my parents saying she is shy, or quiet but never anxious.
I am not sure if I was shy, or whether that is also a self perpetuating label. I liked quiet, I still do, I didn’t like big groups, I still don’t. I didn’t like small talk, I still don’t. I didn’t feel there was anything “wrong” with me, I still don’t but maybe something is wrong with a society that tries to pigeonhole us into boxes where I just wanted to be me. That in part impacted my self esteem and fed the anxiety.
So back to my anxiety, when I reflect now I can remember having palpitations, shallow breathing, stomach pains etc in Junior school, if I was asked to speak up in class, or be seen in any way I felt physically sick. I struggled with friendships and experienced bullying. I tried to make myself so small that I would be able to get through without being noticed.
We are all complex beings
Like everyone, I am a complex human being and that anxious child was only one part of me. Although I was trying to be small there was a huge part of me that didn’t want to fit in, I had strong opinions about feminism, social justice, and the planet at a young age- even before I knew what any of that meant. I have no idea where this came from, just another part of me.
My teens and young adulthood were challenging, I didn't feel that I fitted anywhere and I felt no one understood. I struggled to articulate the pain, I flitted from one job to another, one town to another- interestingly starting new things wasn’t difficult for me, but sustaining anything was. As though I felt I would be found out for being a “fraud” if I stayed too long.
I won’t focus on my whole life other than to say the patterns repeated themselves time and again. I would stop socialising or going to activities that made me feel anxious, so my world got smaller and I felt isolated and often more anxious.
I had a very bad period in my forties when the panic attacks were so bad, I couldn’t work and mostly could not get out of the house. I believe this period was the catalyst to start to change my relationship with myself.
I had previously had counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, both of which helped me understand triggers, challenge my negative thinking and see patterns. But although I would again be “ok” it never completely changed how I felt, the anxiety and self doubt were always lurking underneath, waiting to reappear.
I feel these work well for many people, I had counselling again after my husband died so I am not saying they don’t work. For me and I think for many people they may be part of the solution but there is so much more required.
To protect myself as a small child for whatever reason I had started a war within. There was no external threat or danger so my mind would create one and turn on the flight or flight response, leading to the physical symptoms of anxiety. I would get caught in negative spirals and believe there was a threat. I would remove myself from a situation reinforcing the fear and so the cycle would continue. I needed to change this cycle and my relationship with fear.
Two essential lessons
The first two actions I needed to learn were how to self soothe and calm my nervous system and how to be kinder to myself - actually love me.
Being calm, still and present is important when our minds are always racing and life can run at lightning speed. It tells our bodies and our minds we are safe, it is Ok. This gives us the space to build a different relationship with ourselves, get to know who we are and what we want from life rather than focusing on what we feel we “should” be or where we “lack”.
Some activities that helped me change:
Mindfulness- slowing down, calming my parasympathetic nervous system and learning how to self soothe by focusing on breathing and for me touch.
Noticing my thoughts, but not getting lost in them and building awareness of my triggers and my inner voice.
Knowing and liking myself for who I am, I’m not perfect and that is ok.
Practising gratitude and noticing the small positives in my life every day.
Being in nature, connecting with the earth and knowing I am part of it, part of something bigger. Focusing on all my senses to immerse myself and notice the constant changing of seasons.
Walking, moving my body and noticing the world around me as I do.
Self compassion, showing myself the same kindness I show others.
Gardening, I found I slowed, I noticed, I nurtured and I realised it doesn’t always go to plan whatever you do and that is how we learn and evolve.
Trying new things, feeling some anxiety and knowing that is ok.
Journalling, expressing my thoughts, helping to process challenges and see patterns.
Nurturing supportive, two way relationships and building new ones.
Managing my boundaries so I do not people please constantly to gain validation (this is a work in progress!)
Finding my voice, sharing my opinions and knowing not everyone will agree and that is ok. This leads to a life of meaning and purpose and I need to be authentic to achieve this.
You may have different activities, creative pursuits, hobbies, or sports are important to many. Ask yourself what is it you truly need for your mind, body and soul.
These are not actions I did to “get better” they are now part of my life. These are how I live to find joy, meaning and calm and not to be in that constant space of fear, not good enough and anxiety.
My story is not that unusual unfortunately, I feel sad it took me so many years to change, but my life is very different now, I feel authentic and blessed to do work that gives me meaning. That does not mean life is without challenges, but I can ride those waves and know they are just part of life without it fueling anxiety.
I hope sharing my story helps some of you feel less alone and believe life can change, we can rewrite our stories.
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