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Once I stopped battling anxiety, it lost its power over me

I have written my first post for another site – EveryDay Mindfulness, and I’m feeling so proud to see it on their beautiful site. I hope you like it!


From autopilot to mindfulness – the battle against anxiety is finally over

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This time last year I was battling anxiety. Year after year I’d been keeping my head above water, but paddling frantically to stay afloat. It was exhausting.

For me, anxiety manifested itself (past tense!) as negative thoughts spiralling out of control, constant thoughts that I wasn’t good enough. My anxiety was centred on social situations, primarily the fear of having a panic attack in public and not being able to escape.

Battling panic attacks

Physically my panic attacks took the form of intense heat and nausea, very difficult to cope with when there’s a roomful of people, but invisible to everyone around. Mentally my panic attacks were crippling. I would feel like I was going insane, that I wouldn’t be able to hold down my job, which would lead to being at home all day, which would lead to me being agoraphobic, which would lead to me losing the plot and being locked up in a mental hospital, with no means of escape. All this in a split second, it was terrifying. If only I could battle against these thoughts…

Battling was all I knew. If only I could battle harder. If only I was strong enough to battle through it. I must be a failure for not being strong enough.

I tried self-help books, NHS counselling, hypnosis CDs, online programs and, most of all, willpower. I tried to take small steps towards the things I was afraid of, but I never got past the first step. It became a vicious circle, reinforcing my belief that I wasn’t good enough or strong enough.

Meanwhile, life became pretty small. I would go to work, smile, come home, smile, go to bed, my life on autopilot. I could do this. Anything more and I would “wobble”. I would always have an excuse ready for invites, “I’m too busy”, “It’s too far away”. Meals were the worst – I found it impossible to eat while I was feeling sick, which would just draw attention to me, the last thing I wanted.

The breakdown

Everything came to a head last summer when we moved house. Suddenly “home”, my only safe place, felt alien to me. I had panic attack after panic attack. It felt like my safety net had been pulled from under me, and I was terrified. My autopilot had failed, and I was signed off work.

People were worried and I couldn’t bear to make up yet another lie, so I decided to come clean, on Facebook of all places. The response I got was overwhelming and unexpected. I was shocked by the number of people who sent me private messages to say that they struggled too, people I envied as having good jobs, good social lives, and that certain air of confidence that I felt I lacked.


The moment everything changed

 

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A few days later a book arrived in the post, a gift from an old school friend. It came with a note explaining that mindfulness had helped him more than any of the self-help books and counselling that he had tried over the years. The book (”The art of happiness” by Matthieu Ricard) itself was too in-depth for me to concentrate on while I was off sick, but I looked up the author on YouTube and was transfixed. It all made sense, a form of meditation that didn’t try to stop the constant barrage of thoughts, but rather to notice them, and let them go. And all backed up by scientific evidence. I watched videos about neuroplasticity (thank you Ruby Wax). I learnt that we can physically alter the structure of our brains, and that I was not destined to a life of anxiety. I no longer felt trapped – there was a way out!

I ordered “Mindfulness: A practical guide” (by Prof. Mark Williams), chosen for its amazing reviews. Little did I know it would become the book that changed my life. (This sounds exaggerated but please read on…)

The book is arranged as an 8 week course, with a chapter per week, and comes with a CD of short meditations (ranging from 3 to x minutes). I can’t emphasise enough that I don’t want you to be put off by the word “meditations”.


Mindfulness: the misconceptions

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I have found that a lot of people have been quite sceptical as soon as I mention mindfulness. I am really pleased that mindfulness is becoming mainstream, but the fact that it is the new buzzword adds to the scepticism that mindfulness is yet another passing phase. Yogalates anyone?

 

The most common barriers people have:

1. Meditation is not really my thing
People often think of mindfulness as a form of meditation, and then start imagining Buddhist monks or long-haired hippies (nothing wrong with either of these, they are simply the stereotypes people tend to come up with). You can be mindful without meditating, it’s all about noticing what is going on in that moment. Have you ever been so absorbed in a hobby that time has whizzed by? You were probably being mindful without even realising, you were focussed on that moment, on that hobby, not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. (Who knew learning to crochet could be so mindful?!)

Mindfulness can include meditation, but it is a particular type of meditation (and it’s not religious). Rather than meditating to transcend our day to day lives in pursuit of a higher goal, mindfulness is about zoning in on the day to day, noticing all the minutiae of life. And there’s no need to chant, or sit cross-legged.

 

2. I’ve tried meditating but I couldn’t do it.
I had always thought I was hopeless at meditating, because my mind is constantly whirring, and the harder I tried, the more I noticed my head was full of thoughts. In mindful meditation, this is actually a good thing, it shows you are noticing your thoughts. You concentrate on your breathing, acknowledge thoughts as they come and go, and then return to your breathing. It sounds simple and, with regular practice, it is.

 

3. I haven’t got time
The practice meditations in the book I used are really short, some are only 3 minutes long, so this isn’t a huge commitment of time. Once I was back at work I did them on the bus, headphones on, and no-one was any the wiser. Now that I am in the habit, I can spot when I’m going into autopilot and switch my thoughts back to being mindful at any given moment, anywhere.


Mindfulness: the benefits

I have been practicing mindfulness since summer 2013, and it has changed my life. I am no longer the girl with the excuses lined up, I am no longer the girl who fears change and social situations. I am probably still the girl you’ll find in the kitchen at parties, but only because that’s where the food is!

 

The three main benefits that I’ve noticed:

 

1. I can catch my thoughts before they spiral
The negative thoughts are still there, but by being mindful of my thoughts, I now have time to decide how to react. The first negative thought could be “you won’t be able to do that”. The mindful part of my brain spots the thought and steps up to ask whether I want to believe this or not. The spiralling has been stopped in its tracks and is now devoid of the energy it needs to keep going.

Most of the time I can spot that a thought isn’t based on fact, and I let it drift away. Sometimes it feels like it might be based on fact, in which case I tell myself I’ll come back to it later. 9 times out of 10, the thought then gets forgotten. My light bulb moment was realising that my thoughts are just that, they are my brains way of trying out ideas, and they aren’t necessarily helpful or true. Naughty brain, trying to trick me.

 

2. My default thoughts are changing
The book explains that our brains have a negative bias, we are hardwired to think the worst in a situation for our own survival. If you are a caveman confronted with a sabre toothed tiger, you might as well think the worst! However, most of the things I have panicked about were far from life or death situations, even if they felt like it. And by deliberately thinking more positively, we can rewire our brains to have a positive bias. Incredible but true, and scientifically proven. “The neurons that fire together, wire together”.

I am now finding that instead of thinking “what if that goes wrong”, I have started thinking “what if that goes right”, “what if I can do it”, “what if I enjoy it”, “what if….”

 

3. I notice and enjoy the little things in life
On autopilot, I hardly noticed anything. I walked the same route to work, I ate the same things, weeks passed by. But with mindfulness I notice little flowers in the verge, the way the sun catches on leaves, the way someone’s face lights up when they spot a friend. All these thousands of moments, all the time. They were always there, I just never paid them any conscious attention. To help reinforce these moments into positive memories, I write a gratitude diary (via an app on my phone), and invent photo challenges to remind me to snap little things on my cameraphone each day. Suddenly every day is a new and exciting possibility. (I’m well aware this sounds corny, but it’s my corny and makes me smile!)


And now?

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Once I stopped battling anxiety, it lost its power over me. The negative thoughts do still pop up, but what has changed is how I react to them now that they no longer frighten me. On the few occasions that I have had panic attacks since practicing mindfulness, I have consciously switched to mindful breathing and the panic has subsided. The vicious circle has gone, and has been replaced with positive thoughts about everything I have achieved and may yet achieve. I will always have anxious thoughts, I’m only human, but I know they are just that, just thoughts.


 

Something old, something new…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how things come to a natural end, and how this isn’t necessarily a bad or sad thing as it inevitably makes way for something new.

I spend a good deal of time standing at the bus stop, under a canopy of trees. This gives me the time to stop and really notice the trees, how they’re changing througout the year, regardless of what is happening in our lives or the world around them. Winter comes, they shed their leaves, safe in the knowledge that spring will follow soon.

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These trees got me to thinking about how I don’t need to worry about what might or might not be around the corner. I need to enjoy the here and now, safe in the knowledge that what will happen will happen. When I was at my most anxious, I feared every coming second, but it passed, as it always does. I need to remember this for next time, it will pass.

And who knows, change might bring something better. If I hadn’t had such a terrible summer, I wouldn’t have started Silver Linings and met so many amazing people. I wouldn’t have realised I’m not alone, that there is a whole world out there that I am finding the courage to explore, that I have friends who “get” me, that I hardly knew before.

Talking of change – today Mr Silver Linings’ niece is in labour with her first child. We are all so excited for her, and this marks a new era in the family, the first of a new generation. While I was thinking about this, and checking for messages on the bus, a funeral car went past. Someone else is experiencing a loss today. As one life ends a new one begins. There will be tears of sorrow and joy today, but tomorrow will carry on regardless, and I find some comfort in that, in the bigger picture.

Which brings me on to fate, and chance encounters. I was browsing the Mindfulness books in Waterstones yesterday (other good bookshops are available…), and noticed a guy who was clearly browsing a little aimlessly. After a while I plucked up the courage to ask him if was new to Mindfulness, and if I could recommened him a book. Now, some of you will know that my favourite book in the world is Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, so I had to recommend it to him as a starting point. He said a big thank you, and I left feeling ever so slightly embarrassed. But I couldn’t help wondering if he bought the book, and if it will change his life like it has mine. Why was he looking at minfulness? Was it a chance encounter that we met, or fate? Was I meant to be there to help him? Who knows….

Image from www.pinterest.com

Me, social anxiety, and a little night out (in context)

To put this in context – I don’t go out much.

I go out with my boyfriend, and occasionally my best friend (she lives in another county), and very occasionally with my boyfriend’s family (my family live in Scotland). This is really hard to write as I know that people I have kept this from will be reading this, but here goes.

I avoid going out because I get really nervous. I get nervous to the point of feeling physically sick about it every day until the event, and then bottling it at the last moment because it’s all too much. The more important the event, the harder I try, the bigger the hurdle becomes. This has included every work’s Christmas meal for the last decade, my best friend’s wedding, well, everything really. The more I avoid, the harder it gets to go out, and the smaller the things that become insurmountable. It’s the classic vicious circle, and all my own doing. I am so ashamed at the excuses I have made up over the years. To everyone I have made excuses to, I am so so sorry.

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The background

It all seems to stem from a meal out with friends where I panicked, out of the blue. I became unbearably hot, and I couldn’t eat a thing. The more I tried to eat, the more I couldn’t do it, and the more obvious it became that my plate was still full. I felt so embarrassed. That night I had an enormous migraine, the worst in a very long time. Now, in hindsight, perhaps that is why I couldn’t eat, and I should have explained that I didn’t feel well instead of failing miserably at covering up, but I really didn’t know what was going on.

To cut a long story short, from then on I avoided meals out (in case the same thing happened), which in turn became any kind of going out, particularly anything with food involved. To make matters worse, I LOVE food, but I physically can’t eat when I’m anxious. I worry so much about what people think of me, what I look like, what I’ve said, it just makes a night in on the sofa look so much more appealing, and so the vicious circle goes on.

The revelation

But, and this was a recent revelation to me, I actually enjoy going out and being with people. For years I’ve been telling myself that I prefer my own company, that I choose to stay in, which is much easier than facing the reality that to be happy I have to conquer this.

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I struggle to tell the difference between events I want to attend, and events I don’t want to attend. I am so used to telling myself that I don’t want to attend anything that I’ve managed to convincingly fool myself. Apparently I need to go with my initial reaction – a quick flutter of excitement means I should go.

The invite

One of my dearest friends invited me to her leaving do, at a pub I hadn’t been to, with people I only knew a little bit, with FOOD. My initial reaction – I’d love to. I love this friend to pieces, and I wanted to do this to show her how much I care, and to show myself that I can do it.

A HUGE tick in the motivation box.

This is going to be a long post, so please bear with me while I write the next bit…

Me, social anxiety, and a little night out (self-help books)

Over the years I have tried so many self-help books that I’ve lost count, I don’t even want to know how many there have been.

I’ve tried Claire Weeks and her “Pass through Panic” CD, the “Linden Method”, Paul McKenna books and CDs, online CBT courses, you name them – I’ve probably tried them. I’m not knocking them, I know these have worked for many people, just not me. Perhaps it wasn’t the right time.

Most of the programmes I’ve tried have been along the lines of starting with something which only brings moderate discomfort (e.g. for me, tea and cakes), and, as that situation becomes more comfortable, trying the next step up the ladder until that too becomes comfortable. This was ok on the first rung of the ladder, but I never got past the first rung because I didn’t have the confidence or skills to move on. I struggled because:

• It was too big a step – how do you move on from a café to a restaurant? Or from a cup of tea at someone’s house to a full meal? It was too daunting.

• The steps were too far apart in terms of timings. I needed to be able to build on these steps every day, or I’d be back to square one again. But how do you invite someone out for a cup of tea one day, then tea and cake the next day, then a meal the next day, without them thinking you are totally crazy? (for me the answer has been several things – by admitting I struggle, by blogging about it and receiving so much wonderful support, by building my confidence with my counsellor, and practicing mindfulness – learning to switch off the panic button).

• Authors would say I needed to drop my safety behaviours, such as having mints to stop me feeling sick, a valium in my bag in case of emergency, taking Mr Silver Linings with me, having an escape plan. The thought of this meant I couldn’t face it, I need these things. (However, my counsellor says that these are all fine, they’re not unhealthy, the important thing is that I get out there and try things).

• Claire Weeks (who has helped a lot of people), asks that you don’t escape anxious situations, that you stay and wait until the anxiety subsides. Escaping and avoiding are two things I am very, very good at.

My problem is that I’ve been BATTLING anxiety for over a decade. I’ve gritted my teeth and made myself attend things I haven’t wanted to attend. And none of this battling has worked – I figured I lacked the willpower and courage needed, and so I beat myself up even more!

The next post will look at the counselling I’ve had, and how it turned out I was doing it all wrong. No more battling, no more teeth gritting!

 

Me, social anxiety, and a little night out (the counselling)

 

As some of you will know, in the summer of 2013 I spent 3 long weeks in my bedroom, racked with anxiety, knowing that something had to change. And that I have managed a big step recently, a little night out. This is the latest instalment in how I managed it….

I contacted a counsellor (recommended by my doctor), who specialises in person centred therapy. I expected that I was about to face the biggest battle of all, that I would be given weekly homework to conquer my fears, when all I wanted to do was hide!

It turned out that this wasn’t going to be the case at all. My counsellor is very gentle (which I need), there’s never any scary homework – instead we discuss things I want to do, how I feel about them, and how I might go about them. The main thing is she prompts me to rethink some of my assumptions, like… everyone thinks I’m boring because I’m quiet, that I have nothing to say, that people only invite me out or politeness, that I’m not “normal”, that I’m weak, I could go on….

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Anyway, 12 sessions with my counsellor and I can now see that:

• Quiet people can be just as interesting, a room needs a mixture of quiet and loud people otherwise it would be hellish.

• I’m not boring, I have interesting things to say, I just tend to think about them before I say them, and only say things that I really believe in. (I feel a post about being an introvert coming on…)

• People may have a different perception of me to the one I believe to be true, and they might be right and I might be wrong (see Johari’s window)

• People invite me because they like me, people really aren’t that polite!

• People don’t judge nearly as much as I think they do, they’re busy in their own worlds, with their own thoughts.

• I need to be kinder to myself, and stop being so self-critical.

• I need to learn that just because I think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.

• I need to learn to look at the evidence for my beliefs a bit harder. I tend to think in terms of things “always” happening, which isn’t really true.

• I need to stop seeing everything as black and white, pass or fail.

• My perception of everyone else being “normal” is apparently skewed. In my head, everyone is “normal” except me, everyone else is capable of doing “normal” things without a second thought. I’m now figuring out that there is no such thing as “normal”, everyone is different, and everyone (or nearly everyone?) has something they struggle with. I’m still getting my head round this one – all my life I’ve wanted to be “normal”.

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“Normal” people go out with friends, they stay over with friends, they see a band, they catch a flight. You know, “normal”, your average Joe? I am learning that the above quote is true, that we often only see the façade that people are happy to show the world – the “perfect” marriage that ends, the “perfect” colleague who hides their own struggles. But I still want to be NORMAL!

Some quotes I found on Pinterest about being normal:

(What are your thoughts around the word “normal”? How have you learnt to accept yourself – good and bad – and stop comparing? I am still struggling with this one…)

Back to the counselling. Through these sessions I have started to build up my belief in myself, to trust myself a little bit more. Previously, only staying out for an hour or so would mean I’d failed – I’d failed to stay out all night like “normal people” (to be honest, knowing I might only cope with an hour would mean I wouldn’t go out at all). Now I see the positives – just going out at all is a huge improvement, an improvement that can be built on gradually, in my own time. I try and give myself the encouragement that I would give a friend, instead of letting my harsh inner critic take over (that bloomin’ anxiety monster).

I still want to be “normal”, and I still have a HUGE fear of panicking, but I’m chipping away at that one.  – more in the next post (on mindfulness)

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 All images from www.pinterest.com

Post-it notes and positive prompts

When my friend was learning Italian, post-it notes sprung up around the house in the strangest of places. I soon knew the Italian word for a myriad of kitchen appliances. I couldn’t help it, the words were all around me.

Now imagine if you replaced the Italian words with the words of positive emotions that you want to increase or work on. Before you know it, the fridge reminds you that you’re a great parent, the telephone reminds you that you’re a great listener, the front door reminds you that you’re beautiful, just as you step out into the world. (These are a bit random, but you can make them your own).

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Even better, get someone else to write out positive post-it notes about you so that you get a regular reminder of all the wonderful things that they see in you!

My post-it notes include:

  • You’re strong
  • You’re beautiful
  • You’re loved
  • You’re courageous
  • You’re awesome!

What would yours include?

Act yourself confident aka a week in the life of Amy Pond

How many times have I looked at people and wished I could be that confident? And it isn’t just the confidence, it’s everything that comes with it, mainly, the opportunities. Whenever I see an opportunity, I automatically run through all the things that could go wrong before it even becomes a possibility. By the time the opportunity may eventually arise, I’m long gone.

But here’s the thing. Apparently you can act yourself confident, i.e. the more confident you act (however tiny you feel inside), the more confident you become.

So this week’s challenge is to act confident. I am going to imagine myself into the shoes of my confident alter ego, Amy Pond (Dr Who’s former assistant), and for one week I’m going to act as Amy Pond would act.

Source: BBC
Source: BBC

Here’s how to fake it ‘til you make it:

  • Walk tall, shoulders down, arms uncrossed
  • Smile, lots
  • Say yes to great stuff
  • Say no to not so great stuff
  • Go wherever the action is (this may or may not include time travel)

 Move over Miss Silver Linings, say hi to Amy Pond!