If you’ve not watched Nadia Hussein, ‘Anxiety and Me’ on BBC iPlayer then I totally recommend that you do. Watch it if you suffer from anxiety yourself, if you have a partner, a child, a parent or a friend who suffers from anxiety. It provided the best explanation of anxiety I have ever seen or heard and put it into a real life context.
I spent the whole programme shouting at the TV, ‘That’s me, that’s what I do’. It clarified a lot of things for me and enabled me to discuss some of the issues that arose with my husband.
Apparently, it’s not normal to have a voice in your head all day, every day, replaying every minute detail of the day that went wrong and how you might otherwise have managed it. Apparently, it’s not normal to have a voice in your head anticipating every last event on the horizon, creating worst case scenarios and how you are going to manage them, in such intense detail. Apparently, it’s not normal to fill every moment of your time doing something, anything, just to try to keep that voice at bay – even for just a little while. Apparently, it’s not normal to miss amazing moments in your life as you create ways in which it might go wrong or why you shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Apparently, it’s not normal to go from a slight problem to impending death in one step!
It also helped me understand why some of the steps I’ve taken to manage my anxiety have not worked. At all. Take flying – those of you who have had the misfortune to be on a plane with me know that I hate every minute of it. I have a very swift reaction to turbulence. Turbulence = death, I am going to die and it will happen shortly. In a way, it was reassuring to learn that it’s not just me that has this instant stress reaction from a minor event to death in half a second!
However, what I have always done about it is one of two things. Firstly, I try to breath into it. Apparently, your body can only do one thing at a time and if it is breathing it can’t panic. What I didn’t realise is this can actually exacerbate the problem – especially as I was breathing into the exact part of the body where I feel anxiety – my stomach and my chest. So breathing into that space makes the situation worse creating a greater sense of panic – so death was a racing certainty!
I have also tried a mindful approach to turbulence. Close your eyes. Feel the contact between your bottom and your seat. Feel the contact between your feet and the ground – but there is no ground – the nearest ground is 37,000 below my feet which are currently shaking because the tin can I am travelling in is bouncing around through turbulence = death. I’ve learned to just cope, and I have got better over the years and I won’t let my anxiety stop me flying – but it’s not a pleasant experience – for me or the people who have the misfortune to be sitting with me!
This week we flew from Bristol to Faro and I tried the technique that I briefly saw Nadia using in her programme – which was to face the panic and not run away from it. Being realistic and logical about this – what actually was happening and what actually was likely to happen – and I guess, what is panicking going to achieve? We were flying through turbulence, the plane was bouncing a bit, the wings were doing their job (I won’t explain the 12 foot flap – just in case you’re a nervous flyer) and we were moving forward. What was likely to happen was that the plane would fly through it, bouncing through the pockets of air, just as a boat bounces over the waves, back into smoother air and then we were going to land. Death wasn’t realistic or logical. I reminded myself that the anxiety is a feeling – it’s not who I am, and to recognise it as the feeling that it is. Giving into the panic was only going to make how I felt worse, both physically and mentally. No the situation wasn’t nice, but I felt I was more able to manage it – only slightly, but a slight improvement is better than nothing at all.
It’s not just flying. OFSTED inspections were a fast track to being sacked, a bad observation = being sacked. Good inspections weren’t an option – under what possible circumstances could I possibly be judged good or outstanding. No, the only outcome from any OFSTED inspection was that I was going to get sacked before the week was out. There is no logic to how anxiety manifests itself in the head and it is always, always negative. Like Nadia I can find a reason to be anxious in pretty much every situation that presents itself. I’ve read several times in the past that if you really want to get a job you should apply the technique of imagining yourself there, what it will be like to work there. I did always wonder why that was a recommendation – I was there, I knew which cup I’d be taking in, everything – little did I realise that this isn’t normal!!!!
Flying aside, one thing that Nadia’s Anxiety did show me was the progress that I have made in the last 18 months. The CBT therapist on the programme goes to lengths to explain that there isn’t a quick fix that you need to work on managing your anxiety every day. It can improve, it can get better, but you have to put the work in yourself, every day to reap the benefits. I realised that I have become better at stopping the voice and bringing myself back to the present – although many times it does get very carried away. I also realised how fortunate I have been in my ability to stand up to it and still do things anyway – I went to live in America at the age of 21, I did an MA although I was too stupid to pass, I went into teaching even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to control a class, I learned to swim so I could do a triathlon (and yes, swimming in open water = death).
I have two things I’d like to work on.
- Believing people when they compliment me and not let the negative voice in my head tell me all the reasons why that’s not true and how people are saying nice things because they have to and they don’t really mean it.
- I’d like to finish a cup of tea. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a cup of tea – even as a child my mother despaired at how many half drunk cups of tea she threw away! Another aspect of anxiety that came out of the programme was that you can’t sit still, you always have to be doing something. I can’t sit still, I can’t just read a book, I can’t just watch a film, I have to be doing something all the time as that keeps my head slightly quieter. So I’m going to set myself the target of having one cup of tea a day – and doing nothing else other than have the cup of tea. Not read, not look at social media, not crochet, nor knitting, or cleaning – just the cup of tea! I might even try meditating again, now I understand a little bit more about the nature of the voice in my head.