Ellen's blog: You, me and anxiety
I had an amazing experience last week at the WorkLife Central event “Living with Anxiety” with Nick Elston. When I walked into the room, I felt (as I do again now) an overwhelming urge to cry; so many people had come to listen to a talk about anxiety. It felt like a quiet, reassuring affirmation that it is ‘a thing’ and plenty of sane, well-dressed fellow city professionals had taken an interest, and taken the time to hear about it. It doesn’t have to be a terrible secret, there are enough people talking about it now for me to feel confident to share my own experience of anxiety, in the hope that it might help someone else.
So, inspired by Nick and channeling his practical approach to his story, I’m not going to recount the entire history of my life (I’m saving that for the book deal), but I’ll try to structure the blog in a practical way, giving you a few snippets of my experience, some useful facts, and some practical tips on things I have found help me with my own situation.
Very quick life-history summary:
I have always been anxious about something; after becoming hysterical at my 7th birthday party, I decided the best thing I could do was to try my hardest to stop another episode like that from happening, and so began a lifetime of concealing of my feelings, fighting with my thoughts and developing coping rituals (for example I had routines I needed to follow precisely, believing that doing so would stop anything bad from happening…but failure to follow the routines would result in terrifyingly bad things happening, such as the death of family members).
The focus of my anxiety has changed over the years, and I’m happy to say that rituals are much less important to me now, but I currently struggle with health anxiety, and worry about death every day.
Fast facts: useful information for non-sufferers (if you have anxiety, you know these already):
- The anxious brain loves to catastrophise. Mine quickly turns a headache into a brain tumour, then moves on to intrusive thoughts of my demise and death, culminating in sadness at the thought of the grieving children I’ll leave behind. It also loves extrapolating simple little things into big negative ones. A bit like a voice in your head saying, “Bob didn’t like what you said at that meeting today. Bob hates you. Because Bob hates you, so will everyone else at work. How can you have any friends when so many people hate you? They can’t all be wrong. Your friends will soon realise this and stop speaking to you. They are already thinking it - they just don’t know how to tell you.”
- The anxious brain is completely illogical, and has the most incredible confirmation bias. It latches on to the most unlikely things and regards them as absolutely INEVITABLE. I had a panic attack 15 years ago. It lasted 5 minutes (or 0.00002% of my life) but every single day since then my anxious brain has worried that it will happen again. I know perfectly well this is illogical - that just makes it more frustrating.
- The anxious brain works at lightning speed - which can be useful. Mine can think very quickly of something funny to say (which other people love) but equally it can think very quickly of something unkind to say (which they hate).
- Anxiety is exhausting. Utterly, completely, life-draining bone-shudderingly exhausting. Mine sucks the soul out of me.
- You know someone with anxiety, I guarantee it. It’s the person you least expected to have it - they are absolutely expert at hiding it.
Benefit from my experience: here are some things I have found useful
Talking therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is invaluable (although for some people it will take longer than others to see the benefits). I go once a week.
Visit the Adam Shaw Mind Foundation website and consider his PTT (Pull The Trigger) approach. Once you confront your anxiety, invite it into your life and pull the trigger you can start to challenge it, rather than spend all your time trying to keep it at bay. Again - this will be easier for some people than for others.
I use an app called Calm which I listen to daily for guided meditations (where they talk to you to stop you getting bored or going mad). I also like their library of sleep stories, read sleepily by (among others) Stephen Fry.
There are some really good podcasts about many aspects of mental health, including anxiety. I love All in The Mind (radio 4) because the host Claudia Hammond is just so good. And the fact that it’s on Radio 4 makes me feel like mental health is an acceptable grown-up topic to talk about. I love Radio 4. Similarly Fern Cotton has a podcast called Happy Place, where she interviews celebrities and ordinary people whose mental health stories are interesting / reassuring / inspiring for the listener. It has a lovely catchy little theme tune which, coupled with Fern’s lovely voice, makes me feel happier and calmer as I listen to it on my headphones on the walk to work through London.
Do not read any articles in the Daily Mail with headlines such as “healthy woman drops dead / has only weeks to live after GP repeatedly missed / mis-diagnosed her stroke / heart disease / MS as a pulled muscle / harness allergy.”
Thanks to Nick for talking about anxiety and coming across as completely normal. I hope I have done the same. For my next blog I’d like to go back to being funny, because I can be more than just anxious.
Ellen has worked in the City for 18 years, mainly in banking, and currently for an inter-dealer broker. She has two children aged 7 and 4, with an au pair at home to help out.