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 firstname.lastname@example.org for an informal chat. I offer 1:1 support and coaching with anxiety and mindset.