Every day is another journey for the old emotional health in this environment and luckily for you, the Capsule team is well-versed in dealing with anxiety. Here, we talk about how we live with it and manage it when times are tough
I have found, whenever I’m going through a difficult mental health period, that the knowledge that I’m not alone is deeply, deeply comforting. It was only a couple of weeks ago, once I started having regular panic attacks when I got behind the wheel of a car that I realised I wasn’t coping and started to take my mental health seriously.
Because the entire world is suffering right now, for a multitude of reasons, there is a real instinct to keep calm and carry on, while also counting our blessings: ‘at least I’m not sick’, ‘at least I still have a job,’ ‘at least I still have a house.’ And these are good things to remember – and gratitude can be an incredibly important part of looking after your mental health. However… I think it’s also equally crucial to remember this key little detail:
2020 IS A REALLY OVERWHELMING YEAR AND IT IS OKAY TO BE OVERWHELMED
I’m sorry to yell. But we are now on month five of a global catastrophe and we are in a year where we, perhaps for the first time in our lives, cannot plan more than a week or two in advance because we have no idea what the future holds.
The privileged ideals that our lives were on a constant upwards trajectory and that we were in control of them have been dashed completely. It is hard, overwhelming and relentless and (I’m going to yell again) YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE HANDLING IT WELL. There is no prize for handling a global pandemic in a calm and reasonable fashion. We are all just trying to make it out of this year alive.
My worst mental health year was 2018, for a variety of reasons that I’m sure I’ll write about at some stage, and one of the ways I got through it then was with this oddly graphic but effective mantra:
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
It got me through every hour that was hard, and then every day that was hard, until the easy patches got longer and the hard patches got smaller. The practical tools I learnt then were go to bed early, exercise every second day, write in a journal when I need to, use a meditation app regularly and see a therapist.
These are tools I have kept with me ever since and they provide enough structure for days or weeks when I start floundering again. If I start feeling consistently low, it’s often because one of these tools has started slipping through the cracks. So if you are struggling at the moment, find some tools that work for you (take mine! They’re very good) and know that a) this too shall pass and b) He Waka Eke Noa. We’re all in this together.
Low level (and sometimes high level) anxiety has travelled alongside me for most of life’s journey. If something good happens to me, the rush of happiness and excitement is usually followed by a sense of impending doom. If something bad happens, I’ll see it as absolute confirmation of my gravest fears. Sometimes even when precisely nothing has occurred, I’ll still take the opportunity to disappear down the rabbit hole of negative thinking.
While no sensible person would recommend this as an effective strategy for living well, I think the reason I have persisted with this approach is that it provides me with a comforting (yet delusional) feeling of control. How safe I must be, now that I am galvanised and ready for every worst case scenario to eventuate. Never mind all the pleasure I will have missed out on in the here and now.
One of the best strategies I have learned for keeping a lid on this constant catastrophising is to get better at recognising it for what it is and for what it isn’t.
What it is: my brain trying to help protect me from harm or danger.
What it isn’t: an accurate assessment of the situation at hand.
The recognising process involves taking note of both the mental and physical signs that you’re spiralling into anxiety. Mentally it helps to know what kind of things set you off (in psychology parlance: your triggers). Don’t judge yourself for what they are.
There will be a perfectly good reason for why this particular thing upsets you – a therapist can be very helpful in uncovering that. (Spoiler alert: it’s to do with your childhood).
Then you notice the physical sensations, rapid heartbeat, tightening in the chest, the desire to run away or explode in rage, or both. Those are simply more helpful clues that your mind is doing a number on you.
Now, here’s what I recommend to do next: nothing.
I know, isn’t that insane? The best way to stop these feelings from overpowering you is to not give them any more oxygen than they deserve. When anxiety rises up, you may well feel the impulse to try and stop it, fix it, or furiously squash it down, but if it’s already there, then maybe it’s time to make peace with it.
Acknowledge it for what it is: Our most vulnerable self responding to a weird and wonderful and confusing world. Be kind to your mind in that moment and let those feelings roll on through to the other side. If we can still find moments of joy in the midst of a global pandemic, then that’s proof that our anxiety doesn’t get to have the last laugh.
Alice and I have a saying for when anxiety strikes.
“Time to spin the wheel.”
You know the feeling. When you’re stressed about one – one – thing, but your brain decides it’s time to obsess over absolutely everything else that’s ever gone wrong in your life. “Sure, you might just have anxiety over that thing that happened with your boyfriend today,” your brain tells you, “But while you’re here, why don’t we freak about that thing your boss said three days ago too? And how you forgot to BCC all of those people on an email last week? And maybe how you embarrassed yourself at school assembly when you were six?”
It’s spinning the wheel – you never quite know where you’ll land, even though your anxiety journey started with something so trivial you end up reliving your darkest, most cringe-worthy moments.
And like a kid at the Easter Show, I can never resist it. Every. Damn. Time. Anxiety and me are old pals. So too are me and overthinking and me and catastrophising.
I mean, we’re not as close as we once were, thank God, but they still drop in unannounced sometimes without calling or even bringing over some muffins, which is the height of rudeness, really.
I think sometimes it’s good to have a little anxiety – there are things that happen in life, big things, that are healthy to feel nervous about. But my anxiety always seems to hit with the little things that I know don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but will haunt me for days, weeks, months on end.
So, how do I deal with it?
I am no expert. Sometimes I don’t deal with it well at all – that’s usually when a glass of red makes an appearance, which every single authority on the subject will tell you is the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. My first port of call is always – always – by picking up the phone. Talking through what’s bugging me with someone else almost always makes it better – an outsider can empathise, sympathise and talk you through stepping away from the wheel before you get to the ‘school assembly’ phase.
I’ll go for a walk – you know, one of those furiously fast ones where you’re almost trying to outstrip your anxiety, with each determined step a personal F-you to your feelings. But mostly, I’ve learned to accept the anxiety, to sometimes even welcome it. Because weirdly, it’s a nice reminder right now that I’m not alone.
There’s a rule I like to live by during the nighttime hours: no problem is ever as big as it seems at 4am.
It’s a magical and terrifying time of day when molehills become mountains and anxiety often likes to breed anxiety.
As Kelly said, every now and then I’d come to work dead tired and tell her I’d been up early playing Spin the Wheel. She totally got it. I’d wake up at 4am to worry about something, but instead my brain would gleefully interrupt and say, “Oh wonderful, you’re awake! Now that you’re stressing out, let’s see what else is in here that we can worry about. Let’s Spiiiiin the Wheel of Worries!”
And suddenly, while I was already busy feeling anxious about one thing, the wheel would turn and land on the ‘Finances’ tile, or ‘Goals You Haven’t Yet Achieved’ tile, or maybe – my most dreaded – the ‘From the Archives’ category, where it might randomly offer up a bad work situation from months back to stew over, or a comment made by an ex-boyfriend. It’s basically the most grotesque game show you can play – there are no winners and zero chances of getting back into a great sleep.
For me, a turning point happened when I went to see an acupuncturist/PRRT specialist (it’s a very strange physical therapy that is AMAZING and I’ll tell you all about it one day) and out of the blue he asked, “Do you grind and clench your teeth?” I immediately said no, to which he went, “Hmm… yeah, okay, I think you’ll find you do.” And he was right.
I always thought I held all my tension in my shoulders, letting them creep up to my ears during stressful times, but suddenly I became aware that I’d also clench my teeth. Hard. Turns out I was doing it in my sleep too.
So, I started a new thing when I’d find myself awake somewhere in the vicinity of 4am. I immediately open up my jaw and get some good space between my teeth, then I roll my shoulders back so they’re not all knotted up by my ears, I take a few deep breaths slowly in through my nose and start telling myself, whatever this is I’m worrying about, it’ll seem insignificant in the light of day. Nowadays I rarely manage to finish my pep talk to myself because I’m already back to sleep.
Of course, there are always the rogue times when the game show still gets away from me, no matter what I do – sometimes it even starts to try to start the show during daylight hours. In those situations, if the sun’s not up I’ll write down what I’m worrying about and promise myself that Future Alice will take a look at those concerns and deal to them – she just asks that, in return, Current Alice get a good night’s sleep so she’s up to the job.
The real work happens in the daylight hours though, to make sure the mind is calm come sleep time. If I feel a surge of worry or anxiety during the day, I take it easy and ride the wave, rather than trying to swim against the current. I let myself worry it out until the thoughts are exhausted, and then think, ‘Okay, is that it? That’s all you’ve got? It’s really not that bad. I’m going to be just fine.’
I’m a big fan of keeping on top of my mental health by being kind to myself, watching what I’m telling myself (would I ever say these things to a friend? Hell no! Then why am I saying them to myself?!?), looking after my general health and wellbeing, seeing a therapist when the going gets tough, and above all, remembering that it can NEVER be as bad as it looks at 4am.