What anxiety has taught me.

I remember the first time I realised that I had anxiety. I was driving to pick my son up from school after a sports fixture, I was on the M1 and it was the middle of winter, the roads were dark and I started to realise I was feeling very anxious and stressed for no obvious reason. I had a feeling of dread and fear, it was almost impossible to breathe. I started to sweat profusely and could feel my heart racing at what felt like an unsustainable rate. It didn’t help when I came off the motorway onto my exit which was even darker and a lot more frightening. I prayed, I trembled but my anxiety seemed to be getting worse.

I made the decision to call a friend (on handsfree) and thankfully she picked up. My plan had been to tell her what was happening to me but luckily for me, we moved quickly into an intense conversation regarding something else and I got completely distracted and was able to complete the drive safely. That was one of the first lessons I later came to learn about my anxiety. It can be eased if I find a way to truly distract myself. This lesson did not come in useful till much later, when I understood my anxiety better.

After that episode, I started to have more similar episodes and eventually I realised my anxiety had been triggered by a series of traumatic events but the anxiety around motorways and driving in the car was as a result of a very traumatic event I had suffered while visiting family in Nigeria.

My then husband and I were returning back home after a night out with friends when we were robbed at gunpoint. It was the most frightening experience of my life. I had a man with a gun resting on my temple on my side of the car, hitting me repeatedly on the head while they demanded everything we had. This had happened on what resembled a motorway, it was very dark with very little lighting on the roads and as a result we did not see the robbers until it was too late.

After we were let go, I was so relieved to be alive that I immediately tried to dismiss this event in my mind as not being that bad, I was just grateful to God that neither of us were killed or sustained any serious injuries and all we had lost was property, I pushed everything else to the back of my mind. The truth I learnt, was that I had never dealt with the trauma of what happened that night and sure enough as trauma does, it showed up in a different way in my behaviour, a form of post traumatic stress.

Fast forward a couple of years later, my mum was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and sadly died a few years later, soon after that I discovered my husband had been unfaithful and that precipitated the disintegration of my marriage.,

So in a few short years, I had suffered a series of serious life events. I later learned that anxiety can also be triggered by (amongst many things) a big traumatic event or a series of smaller stressful life events.

Prior to all of these experiences, I had suffered periods of post natal depression and generally feeling low off and on for years but again never really gave it a name, I now realise like so many other people that end up being diagnosed with depression and or anxiety, I was probably more likely to have these disorders. Research has shown that in addition to biological and environmental factors, there are other factors that can make some people more prone to depression such as a person’s personality, experiences of stress and conflict, genetics, chronic illnesses, etc. to name a few

I suppose my body just could not deal with any more trauma/stress and I suddenly found that myself struggling with high levels of anxiety and depression. My anxiety initially revolved around driving at night, on dark roads, motorways and any thing reminiscent of my first traumatic experience but it gradually extended to other parts of my life and I started to suffer from social anxiety, health anxiety, flying anxiety, intrusive thoughts and many more, of course this also meant I was constantly depressed, struggling to cope with everyday life and to make matters worse started suffering with insomnia, something that is also very common with sufferers of depression and anxiety.

When I finally sought help, I was initially referred for counselling. I would see a counsellor once a week. I found the whole experience very unpleasant, usually ended up leaving the counsellor in a worse state than when I went in. My personal experience with counselling was not a good one and I ended up deciding that counselling was not for me. ( More on this this in a separate blog; why counselling does not work for everyone)

My second referral was for CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). This had some beneficial aspects for me, I was quite a logical thinker before anxiety and I liked the approach of examining what evidence there was of what I was afraid of but after completing my course of CBT, I was shocked to find out that I still was not cured like I had foolishly imagined I would be.

Fast forward, many years later, counselling skills course, hundreds of self help books, research and study later, I finally realised that my anxiety was not something I could be cured of.

I learnt that once you have anxiety, you will always to some extent be an anxious person but what you can do is to learn how to live with, manage and thrive even with anxiety.

In doing that, I have come to realise that anxiety is sort of, a friend. I do not classify it as an enemy because in some misguided way, it is trying to keep me safe from the things it believes will cause me pain or harm by constantly reminding me of the danger it foresees in me doing those things reminiscent of past traumas e.g. driving down a dark lonely road

Unfortunately, the downside to this is that if I listen to my anxiety, I may end up avoiding all of the the good stuff too. E.g. my social anxiety or fear of driving stops me from long distance driving, motorway driving and any type of driving really because my anxiety reminds me of how dangerous it can be (untrue) and convinces me not to do it. If I listen to my anxiety, I end up not going anywhere and missing out on the possibility of seeing friends, going to parties, meeting new people, broadening my horizons, all things that would actually make me happier in the long run. The other problem with listening to anxiety is that the more you let it win, the harder it becomes to shut out the fear and worry. One of the most important steps you can take in confronting your fears is accepting that life comes with risks and there are no guarantees. Flying is risking, driving is risky, falling in love is risky, having children is risky, in fact everyday is a gift and since there are no guarantees, you are better off accepting that to live life fully and happily, you may need to do some things that feel uncomfortable or scary.

Once you accept this, you can start to retrain your anxiety and speak to it in moments of panic or anxiety or when you are doing something that you would normally avoid. Let it know you are safe and there is nothing to worry about. When I started to do this, it became easier to do the things I was afraid of in spite of my fear. My anxiety is not cured by any means but I am constantly learning what helps and what doesn’t help. I am constantly challenging that anxiety each time it pops up and letting it know I am ok and I want to be more daring. It was doing this that allowed me to do more things and even though I still have anxiety around driving, flying and lots of other things, I am able to feel the fear and do it nonetheless.

Of course, it is useful to be more self aware and identify your triggers and work on your mindset. Being more conscious of your thoughts, the people you are around and the things you are exposed to will be extremely helpful in helping you manage anxiety

So what has my anxiety taught me?

Empathy in large doses, I have become a much more empathetic and sympathetic human as a result of having anxiety. I can relate more to people’s inner battle and I am generally kinder and a lot more tolerant towards other especially being aware that disorders like anxiety and depression can be totally invisible. You may see someone and think they are okay while they are battling depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

I have also learnt to be kinder to myself and acknowledge that the same empathy that I am now able to show others is something I should also apply to myself. I used to have quite a lot of self dislike because I just did not understand why I kept being depressed or had intrusive thoughts or grappled with OCD but now I know the causes and the issues around my disorder, I am a lot kinder to myself.

Finally, one thing anxiety and depression has shown me is that I need to appreciate life a lot more. When we are not suffering from any of these disorders, we do not realise how beautiful life can be and all the opportunities we miss out on but having anxiety has really allowed me to appreciate the good days so much more and even though being on the edge and constantly being worried about something happening to me is not pleasant, it also encourages me to live life as fully and as completely as I possibly can.

if you are struggling with any of the issues that I have talked about in this blog, please ask for help. Talking with others has been one of the best things I have ever done but of course reaching out for help also means you will be able to learn strategies to manage and live fully inspite of your anxiety.

Charities such as MIND, The Samaritans, Mental Health UK, SANE all have help lines and have teams of people that you can chat to.

I am always happy to help too. Please message me via any of my socials or by email to tayokutiwrites@gmail.com for an informal chat. I offer 1:1 support and coaching with anxiety and mindset.

Tayo xoxo

Taming the beast that is anxiety.

Anyone who has ever suffered from anxiety will understand why I refer to it as a beast, it’s presence in your life can feel large and looming and impossible to tame but I can assure you that having anxiety does not have to be a life sentence of misery, worry and fear. This article will share with you how to tame the symptoms of anxiety and ways to manage and overcome the effects of anxiety so you can get on with the simple act of living your life.

Anxiety is a simple word but the emotions and challenges that it presents when it is present in full blown range is extremely complex hence why I refer to it as a beast. Indeed, there are many that say you can never fully tame anxiety and perhaps that is true but I know you can certainly find a way to manage and live with it and actually having anxiety can have some advantages such as making you more resilient, more empathetic, more strategic in your thinking and planning.

Sometimes, people are unsure as to whether they have anxiety or are simply just overthinkers so here are some of the symptoms of anxiety. They can include but are not restricted to worrying obsessively, panic attacks, feeling nauseous and sweaty, feeling overwhelmed, procrastination, uncontrollable overthinking, depression, racing thoughts which may include feelings of dread, inability to concentrate, irritation, lack of appetite, inability to enjoy anything, feeling that something bad is about to happen all the time, feeling disconnected from or disassociation from yourself. These are just some common symptoms, there are many other symptoms which may point to anxiety. If unsure, please consult your doctor

One of the most common questions I get asked is where does anxiety come from or what causes it?. This can be a difficult question to answer as the causes are varied and it can also be caused by a multitude of factors. However, in general, anxiety is usually caused by some sort of trauma or negative experience that we are not able to get past.

Anxiety will usually be triggered by a big event such as a bereavement or a series of small events such as financial difficulties which get worse over time. It is important to recognise that what causes anxiety in one person may not cause anxiety in another as individuals have different levels of tolerance and resilience and also experience things in different ways. This is why it is very important to not compare your symptoms or the way you feel to someone else just because they have experienced a similar life event to yours. We all deal with trauma differently.

It is also worth noting that there are different types of anxiety e.g. social anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic attacks and many more. I will be speaking in general within the context of this article about generalised anxiety disorder also known as GAD.

Feeling anxious, worried or scared is a normal feeling we get when we are facing something that we are worried about or is new to us such as going for a job interview, meeting new people, walking down a dark alley etc. When we are anxious, our bodies experience a physiological response commonly known as fight or flight. This response was very important for prehistoric man and for humans in general as it helps us to determine whether a situation requires us to flee or to fight and this is supported within the body by the production of a number of hormones primarily adrenaline and cortisol.

It is these hormones that are responsible for the physical symptoms of anxiety such as nausea, feeling faint, heartbeat getting faster, mood elevation, increased blood pressure and many other symptoms. This response is usually self-limiting and once the perceived threat is gone, the body adjusts itself. However, in a person with GAD or other forms of anxiety, their perception of what is dangerous may have become altered through a number of negative experiences and the body may interpret situations that are not dangerous or fearful as such therefore initiating the fight and fight response which will result in the physiological response and production of hormones. Continuous exposure to stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) damages the body and can cause a lot of illness, disease and malfunction.

In addition the fight and flight response in itself is only useful when there is a real threat, when there isn’t one you end up experiencing the quickened heartbeat, nausea, feeling faint and other physical symptoms which then make you feel unwell.

So what can you do to manage these symptoms?

Well the first and most important point to note is that if you notice that you start feeling unsafe in situations that are actually safe, it is because your brain has been rewired to think so (due to your experience of stress or trauma). Your first step is to work on changing how your brain reacts to situations and this comes from changing your thoughts.

Acknowledging you have anxiety is a good starting point, once you have done that, you may want to start writing down your experiences of your anxiety episodes and trying to identify the triggers and where possible avoid them. (E.g. watching news/consuming media can be a trigger, this can be easily avoided). In some cases, it will not be possible to avoid every trigger so you need to retrain your brain to see that the situation is safe by repeating safety mantras for example or reminding yourself of times when the said situation has occurred without any danger. (E.g. fear of driving in a car, remind yourself how often you have done this without any danger or the number of people who do this daily without danger, acknowledging that there are risks but they are minimal and more so, being trapped at home is not a way to live your life and you will find more happiness if you learn to overcome this and other fears is a line of thought that may be useful)

It is very important to remember that, your thoughts affects and creates your emotions and your emotions will determine what sort of behaviour you display. So if you can change the way you think then you can alter your emotions and hence your behaviour.

However, I know this in itself is not easy and can take time to master particularly if you have had anxiety for long periods, so here are some practical tips to help you manage your anxiety

  • Talk to someone. It is so important to speak to someone and express how you are feeling, this can make such a difference. If you don’t have close family or friends, speak to your GP or you can consider contacting any one of the hundreds of charities that support people with this. Alternatively, you may want to speak to a life coach or therapist.
  • Exercise has been shown from many studies to impact anxiety and depression positively, it will make you feel better about yourself and the feel good hormones that are produced when you exercise can negate your negative moods
  • Be careful what you eat and drink. Food is very powerful and what many people fail to realise is that the types of food you eat can harm you or heal you. Limit your intake of sugars, caffeine and alcohol as they can make your symptoms worse. At the other end, a Mediterranean diet which emphasises more healthy fats and comprises a good variety of fruits and vegetables, fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, wholegrain and legumes has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety
  • Spend time in nature, go for walks in the park or any green area or natural spaces.
  • Make time to do things that you love. Even if its for 30mins a day, always make time for yourself and choose to spend the time doing something that makes you happy
  • Try mindfulness meditation or yoga. Mindfulness is learning how to live in the moment, focusing on the moment and enjoying each moment as opposed to worrying about the future. Mindfulness practice has been very successful in treating anxiety
  • Try to improve your sleep as poor sleep has been linked to anxiety and depression. The body rests when you are sleeping and if you are not getting enough sleep this can lead to elevated levels of stress.
  • Practice Gratitude. Find things to be grateful for. When we practice gratitude, it can shift our perspective of things and give us a more positive mindset
  • Deep breathing can be important especially when you are feeling stressed, when we are anxious, we tend to have more shallow breaths which means oxygen is not distributed as well to the body and this can result in us feeling like we are out of breath or cannot breathe properly which causes more panic and elevated levels of anxiety. Deep and slow breathing, inhaling for 4 and exhaling for 4 can be helpful. Try to do this for a count of 10 times.
  • Finally, they say laughter is the best medicine. Find something or someone that makes you laugh. I usually turn to a comedy series that is guaranteed to make me laugh that I enjoy such as “friends”. It never fails to cheer me up. Find your own source of laughter.

I hope you find this helpful, feel free to add any tips that you find particularly useful in the comments as it may help someone else.

If you need someone to talk to, I am happy to chat, please contact me by email or direct message.

Tayo xoxo

Applying grounding techniques for anxiety.

The mind of an anxious person can be very complex. When we begin to experience anxiety about something, it can be very difficult for us to see or hear anything else. We get into our own heads and a loop of “what ifs” which can take us down a path of negative thinking and catastrophising (the act of constantly imagining or expecting the worst case scenario).

With anxiety, the brain becomes used to a negative pattern of thinking and rumination and breaking this habit can be very difficult. When you are anxious or worried, you immediately imagine the worst case scenario and it can be difficult to believe that what you are thinking is not going to become a reality. This unfortunately, can be reinforced when something you dreaded does actually happen. Instead of chalking it down to life, you convince yourself that you were right all along and the world is truly a bad place and worse still you fear the reason this happened to you was because you spent too much time thinking about it and you determine to stop thinking about it but unfortunately for us, the minute we tell our brain not to think about something, the more it holds on to this thought. Rest assured, its not your thoughts that create events, if that was the case, I would long ago have won the lottery!.

However our thoughts have a powerful role to play in how we feel and what we think and ultimately in the way we behave so it is important that we learn a variety of techniques to help us cope with repetitive anxious thoughts.

There are several techniques that you can use for breaking this cycle and the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, which is used by psychotherapists, counsellors and coaches has been found to be particularly useful. There are many different types of grounding techniques and they all work as coping strategies to reconnect you to the present moment and disconnect you from your negative and repetitive thoughts.

When we get stuck into our negative and anxious thinking, we are in effect not living in the moment as we are thinking either about something in the past that is making us afraid and therefore increasing our anxiety or we are worried about something in the future that hasn’t yet happened but in our heads, we are already imagining all the things that can go wrong. Using a grounding technique brings us back to the present time and can disconnect us from the anxious thoughts long enough for us to get out of our own heads and try to change our thoughts.

Before you begin a grounding exercise, think about how you are breathing, Our breath plays such an important part in how we feel. Try to slow down your breathing by taking slow deep breaths. Inhaling for 4 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds up to 10 times should help calm you down and then you can start the grounding exercise.

5-4-3-2-1 are the steps you go through in each stage as explained here;

5: Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. It could be a picture, toys, curtains , a stain on the wall, anything in your surroundings.

4: Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. It could be your jewelry, a cushion, or the ground under your feet. 

3: Acknowledge THREE things you hear. This could be any external sound. If you can hear your belly rumbling that counts! Focus on things you can hear outside of your body.

2: Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. If you are at home, you may be able to smell something that was cooked earlier or perhaps the scent of your perfume. If you need to move around to get a smell then do so.

1: Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. What does the inside of your mouth taste like— your lunch, the soft drink you had or toothpaste from brushing your teeth?

By the time you have got to 1, you will find that whatever thoughts were making you anxious have been replaced by having to do this exercise.

This is one of many techniques that you can use to defuse anxiety. I also suggest writing things down in a journal especially when you get these anxious thoughts or panic attacks. If you write down things you were previously worried about and whether or not they actually happened, this can remind you that most of what we worry about actually never happens.

Of course, this is not to say sometimes bad things will not happen to you, the reality is that life is not always smooth sailing and there are going to be good days and bad days. However, remembering that most of the negative scenarios in your head actually do not come to pass can give you some measure of comfort.

In addition, it is also useful to combat your negative “what ifs” with positive ones. So, for example, say you are preparing for a job interview and you have anxious thoughts and are having thoughts such as “what if I do badly, what if I mess up, what if I do not get the job” and so on. You can change this narrative to “what if I do really well, what if I do not mess this up, what if I get the job”? The more often you do this, the easier it will becomes to not default to a negative thought pattern. As with all the techniques mentioned here, the more often you do this, the easier it becomes.

If your anxiety is something that you struggle with and it is affecting your quality of life, please speak to someone about it or contact your GP about getting support.

Are you a pleasure junkie?

Since the beginning of time, human beings have been in search for happiness or the closest to happiness that they are able to find. There have been countless studies, loads of research and continuing investigations into what happiness truly is and how we can achieve it. What all of these have so far discovered and are in agreement with is that Happiness is a state of mind. There are many different definitions and descriptions for happiness and perhaps that may be because we sometimes find it hard to put into words what it means to be happy.

In my book “Screaming helps” I describe happiness as an experience of joy and positive well being and of course there are other descriptions. In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

We know that happiness is widely coveted but yet is actually very difficult to achieve and it is even more difficult to pinpoint how to get to a state of happiness. What has become more apparent is that the pursuit of happiness is one that requires some emotional and mental work, we are learning now that to be happy we need to be more mindful of how we think, the things we focus on, the people we are around and the type of experiences we immerse ourselves in.

Happiness we learn is not something that we can buy or achieve by gaining external things such as money, cars, houses, clothes and so on. In fact, what makes happiness so elusive is that to be truly happy we must learn how to be happy even with the simple things and this means cultivating happiness that comes from within. This is a challenge for many who in the belief that happiness can be purchased spend their lives on acquiring. Whether it is the pursuit of sex, drugs, drinks, a high flying career, possessions and so on or risk taking and taking part in daring activities such as sky diving, bungee jumping, mountain climbing etc., humans are constantly looking for happiness but what they end up with when they do all of the above is a short burst of pleasure which fades as quickly as it came.

This can lead us to confuse pleasure and happiness as being one and the same thing, but they are definitely not. Pleasure in and of itself can be a good thing and in fact pleasure in the right form is a beautiful thing. You can get pleasure from the smallest of things, like a cold drink on a hot day, a kiss with a loved one, an unexpected compliment, reading a good book etc. However, pleasure is extremely short lived and by its very nature doesn’t satisfy for long. So what happens with a lot of us is that we replace the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of pleasure. Pleasure gives us a quick hit of joy, we feel good for a short while but it soon dissipates and we find that we need to find more of the same things to get that pleasure or find something new to give us more pleasure.

This is where, if we are not careful we start to chase the quick thrill of pleasure and we can then end up as pleasure junkies. We start to thrive from the thrill we get from a repeated behaviour or activity and when it wears off we need something else to replace it. It is how we get addicted to certain behaviours like buying things we don’t need, overeating, drinking or drugs. We have a bit, it makes us feel good, we have a bit more, it makes us feel better but after a while we will need to take twice as much to feel as good as we did in the beginning. It is this process that kickstarts the vicious process of us a constant need for a pleasure hit which has the danger in some cases of leading to extremely destructive and in some cases life threatening behaviour.

The problem with pleasure is that it can never satisfy us in the long run and all it does is make us more likely to become pain avoiders. We become so desperate to feel good, we will go to any lengths to avoid the lows as that is where the pain is. So we are constantly on the look out for more ways to find pleasure but the catch with pleasure seeking is that the goal post is always moving so we find that we are never happy. Unfortunately, the growth is in the pain and by avoiding this, we avoid becoming a better version of ourselves. The moment you change this narrative and start to look inside of yourself and instead of trying to be happy, learn how to be authentic, how to be mindful and grateful, how to choose good people to surround yourself with, how to be content, how to give to others and learning to love yourself, that is where you start to experience happiness in a different way.

Being a pleasure junkie usually means that you are incapable of committing to any actions that may cause you discomfort. For this reason, most pleasure addicts find it difficult to achieve things like weight loss, exercise or fitness goals, career change goals and even behaviour change. You will find that as a pleasure addict you lack the drive or motivation to make changes to your life even when you realise you are in a situation you don’t want to be in because making that change will usually will be accompanied by some discomfort or pain. Pleasure addicts tend to be less resilient and unemotionally intelligent. This is because they fail to see the connection between their thoughts and their feelings.

Being a pleasure junkie is not all bad news and there is a midway point between a pleasure junkie and a pain avoider that is ideal for most of us to be. Of course, sometimes we may veer more to one side than the other but as with everything else in life this is a continuous process of learning and reflection for us to find out where we meet our true equilibrium. Pleasure junkies are already good at knowing what pleases them, they just need to learn not to overdo it and to keep the pleasure seeking to experiences that are meaningful, mindful and ultimately useful for their long term growth.

Anxiety and the pandemic

Anxiety and worry can be extremely draining and debilitating and the worldwide pandemic hasn’t helped matters. A recent survey by the WHO (World Health Organisation) shows that Covid 19 has severely impacted the demand for mental health services.

If you are feeling anxious then here are 5 tips that may help you.

1. Remember; your thoughts = your feelings = your actions and behaviour. If you feel yourself getting anxious, then try to identify what thoughts you are or were having before you started to get anxious. Capturing those thoughts and stopping them can act as a pause button for your anxiety. If you can stop or change the direction of the thoughts then you can impact the way you are feeling which can then affect how you behave.

2. Once you are aware of your thoughts, remind yourself that your anxiety in and of itself is not useful and will not change the outcome of what you are worrying or anxious about. Anxiety at a particular time about a particular thing is usually quite narrowly focused but if we can try to look at the bigger picture, we’ll see that the eventual outcome of what we are worried about is not going to be changed by our anxiety.

3. Take action – Anxiety can be useful if it prompts us to take action or make a plan where this is possible. Ask yourself is there anything I can do to help this situation? If there is, sit down and write down a plan of what you can do and how you think you can do it. If need be, discuss with friends and family who can support you. However, sometimes, we are anxious about things we cannot control e.g. the pandemic or being in lockdown. In this case, we need to accept that this is outside of our control, our worrying or anxiety will not change anything but just make us feel unwell and instead we can try to change the narrative in our head by identifying a positive or an alternative to worry that may make us feel better. So with lockdown, accepting we are limited in what we can do but we could look at a new hobby, read more, go walking, take up yoga, painting, spend more time with loved ones, learn a new language etc.

4. Journaling can be a powerful tool in helping us to get rid of unwanted emotions. Writing down how we feel and what makes us anxious allows us to express with more clarity how we are feeling. Looking back on past writings can remind you how past anxiety on certain issues did not help which can stop you from ruminating on the same things again. Writing down how you feel can be a way of expressing difficult emotions such as anger and rage without the risk of conflict

5. It’s good to talk. Bottling up your emotions will only make you feel worse. Find someone that you can talk to about how you are feeling. It is normal for us to worry about being vulnerable and telling people how we feel but it is only through being vulnerable and honest that we can truly live an authentic life.

Finally, remember you are more than your anxiety, Anxiety is how you feel not who you are. #MentalWellnessSupport #mentalhealthblogger