This past week hasn’t been one of the best. Equally, it hasn’t been one of the worst. But as the week wore on, it became more and more apparent that the only way things were really ending was with a bit of an anxiety induced meltdown.
In the end it turned out to be a really positive experience, as the wealth of support and knowledge that was directed my way was amazing. So many friends reached out to offer support and to share their experiences. Which I suppose is why I am so honest about my experiences – it my help someone else along the way to understand that whilst they might feel completely lost and alone, the reality is somewhat different, there are so many people who are willing and able to help.
I posted about my experience initially on Instagram and Facebook. Almost immediately I received a message from a friend with a link to the NHS mental health website which offered a range of techniques to help manage anxiety. Some I’d tried before, some I hadn’t, some just didn’t do it for me. One I had tried during the week was breathing. Constantly breathing, follow the breath, in out, from the heart, radiate good feelings, find the good feelings, why can’t I find the good feelings, back to the breathing. At which point the technique designed to combat the anxiety was creating its own form of anxiety.
There is an 8 minute Yoga Nidra practice on the NHS ‘Every Mind Matters‘ website which I decided to give a whirl. I’ve tried Yoga Nidra before but only in the yoga studio, so I admit I was a bit sceptical. I didn’t actually realise the 8 minutes was up, as I was so busy concentrating on relaxing the various parts of my body, so in the end I’d probably been lying on the floor for nearer 20 minutes. So, I interpreted that as a positive result. Unfortunately, the Yoga Nidra was followed by the breakdown. I’m not sure if the relaxation had just released all the pent up emotions, or the kindness of a friend or why it happened then, but the meltdown I had worked so hard to avoid all week eventually came. By the bucket load. But I didn’t want the meltdown. I didn’t want to be anxious, I wanted to fix it without reaching that point. It turns out that, as ever, the meltdown was required for me to move forward.
Another technique recommended on the NHS website was to keep an anxiety diary. Sort of ‘What Angelica did today’. I’m not generally a fan of this as I feel I just end up with a really negative journal, a list of everything that is going wrong. I can see the rationale behind it, but I don’t think it’s really for me. Increasingly though, I think it needs to be for me and I need to try to find a way to make it happen. One of the first books I read about mental health was Ruby Wax’s ‘Frazzled’ and in that she recommends naming the different beasts that invade your brain – hence Angelica Anxiety – but to go further than that and give them a persona. What do they look like? How are they dressed? In my head Anglica has wild curly, untamed hair, with the look of someone caught like a rabbit in the headlights. That slightly startled, terrified look of someone who doesn’t know which way to run. The idea is that you start to spot the arrival of this beast, Angelica, and so you can start to smooth her down before things get out of hand. This is where the diary comes in to play.
I started to think about where this particular bout of anxiety had originated. In the moment, I blamed the fact I was doing Sober October for MacMillan Cancer and I didn’t have the alcohol to mask the symptoms. But it dawned on me that this wasn’t really true. I don’t drink all that much alcohol – so whilst I might occasionally use it as a distraction it’s not that much of an influence. As I looked back over the past month or so I could see patterns – that if I’d kept a diary I would recognise by now.
We came back to Albufeira in late August and since then it has been pretty full on. I would say every week people have been visiting the town on their holidays. Some we knew about, some were pleasant surprises. We are incredibly fortunate to have a wide variety of friends that we enjoy spending time with and quite frequently they are only visiting Albufeira for a short period of time and so we like to catch up with them as much as we can. None of them stay with us and appreciate that we live here and so make very few demands on our time. The problem is that I feel we should do all we can to meet up with them and I do have very bad FOMO! Unfortunately, it reached the point where I was struggling to cope with the number of times each week we were going out with other people and the cracks started to show – but at that time I didn’t realise it – or if I did chose to ignore the signs.
When I was a teacher, I worked in a school with two deputy heads who had two totally different approaches to work / life balance. The first appreciated that on a week to week basis he had very little control over the direction his week would take and so the last thing he wanted was additional commitments outside school. He wanted to be able to go home and enjoy that time with his family. The other was determined that school would not get in the way of their out of school activities. So, she could be found at the swimming pool at 9:30 at night, because she liked to swim every day. Or would carry on going to a weekly evening class, even though she was shattered, because school was not going to stop her enjoying her beloved past-times. I tend to fall into this camp. So, whilst all of our friends have been coming to visit I have done very little to alter my life to make allowances. I have continued to meet with other ex-pats for lunch, I’ve taken up bowls, I’ve continued to walk a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, I’ve started to do online fitness classes and even dabbled with swimming in the sea – I’ve even tried to set up a Nordic Walking Group, alongside starting another Open University module. It doesn’t take a genius to work out this was going to end badly.
I know, more than anything, that I need to exercise and eat well to feel good about myself and that it is a major contributor to maintaining my mental health. So that is non-negotiable. The exercise is happening. Thereafter I needed to start to say no. I needed to start to prioritise my own health and to be more selective about how often I went out and which other activities I carried out. Had I kept a diary about my anxiety I would have noticed at this point that I was starting to get ‘fraught’ and a little bit panicky about how I was going to fit everything in. But I brushed it under the carpet. I don’t want to be that ‘anxious’ person who can’t keep up – but the thing is I am and the best way to handle that is to learn to say no. To learn to spot the signs of impending meltdown and put my health and the sanity of my husband before other people. I’m not very good at that – so say yes to everything – then end up bailing on arrangements we’ve made anyway because I am just too exhausted.
In an attempt to tackle the increasing anxiety, I decided to take part in Sober October. In my head, I decided that this was going to solve the problem. But it didn’t. I was still going out just as much as I had been previously, probably 4 to 5 days a week. The only difference was I wasn’t having a glass or two of wine. So, I’d actually gained nothing and still wasn’t addressing the primary issue of over committing myself. I was just doing too much and placing the needs of others before my spiralling anxiety. By this point Angelica was getting a bit more shambolic in appearance and definitely needed a good hair wash to tame those frazzled curls.
One of the tell-tale signs for me that my anxiety is out of control is playing Candy Crush. The time I was spending doing activities that are both productive and calming reduced. The time spent on the games increased. I know this because husband was asking ‘Are you still on that game?’ I know that once he’s started noticing that I’m on the games the situation has got out of hand. And I was spending hours at a time on the games – playing them up until bedtime, which then disrupted my sleep, which then meant I was tired and anxious the next day. Eventually I spotted that I was doing that and deleted them off my tablet. This is a recurring situation. The anxiety increases, I download the games, the amount of time I spend on the game increases, I delete the games as a means to control the anxiety that I’d wanted to control in the first place!
So, as I look back, I can see the triggers were there and I can also see the mechanisms I use to avoid admitting it were there. Had I kept a diary I might have been able to address the arrival of Angelica sooner, more effectively and avoided the meltdown situation. If I’d just written down ‘Downloaded Candy Crush’ I might have recognised that the situation was starting to get out of hand and the other techniques recommended on the NHS website might have worked. Breathing might have worked. Going for a walk on the beach might have worked. Talking to husband might have worked. I’m going to give keeping a journal another try – I just need to find a way to jazz it up a bit and avoid it being too morose.