Anxiety sneaks up on all of us at some time or another, it can be a niggling irritation or it can be utterly debilitating, and anything in between. It doesn’t feel good and persistent feelings of anxiety can have many detrimental effects, such as exhaustion, panic attacks, phobias, feeling paralysed, lack of sleep, feeling out of control and feelings of helplessness.
The most simple way I can explain how anxiety feels is ‘I’m not OK, this situation is not OK and it’s not going to be OK’. Even if we can rationalise how those statements are not really true, it doesn’t necessarily change the feeling.
Anxiety made itself known to me in my late teens and early twenties, for a number of years I didn’t understand why I was terrified of public speaking, why I hated being the centre of attention in a conversation and why I crossed the road when I unexpectedly spotted someone I knew out and about. I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was innately lacking and was unable to function in these ways, the ways I saw other people being completely comfortable with and thriving in. It wasn’t until it was so unbearable that I took myself to my University GP and blurted it all out in a jumble of words and tears. Thankfully he was very supportive and explained it sounded like social anxiety, and perhaps general anxiety disorder too. I was so relieved to have a name for what I was feeling! To know that I wasn’t alone and that there were ways to improve my situation.
Although I ran from my feelings for another year or two…I travelled around the world and when I got to the other side I realised in one profound moment in Australia, looking out to sea, that I had gone as far away as I could and I had brought every part of myself with me. There was no escaping my feelings, there was no escaping anxiety and, more to the point, there was no escaping myself. I had become very good at escaping my feelings since my early teenage years…I learnt to smoke weed, and later to drink alcohol, to numb out the sensations.
Once I had the realisation that anxiety was in me and changing what was outside of me had no impact… I took the first few fumbling steps on my path of facing myself, being honest about my feelings and healing. It was messy, it was painful and it was scary. At that time asking for help with mental health issues was much more stigmatised than it is now (thank goodness we have come so far!), but I stood strong and found myself a psychologist who helped me with a programme of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). By this time the anxiety was so crippling I was taking beta blockers on a daily basis (a very strong medication which stops the physiological response to anxiety inducing stimuli). The therapy was very helpful, but there were numerous other factors that played just as big, if not bigger, role in my healing from anxiety at that time.
In addition to CBT I started doing yoga regularly which was made a huge impact, I was also drawn to Eastern spirituality and psychology, it was a whole new world for me and it resonated strongly. I decided to quit my job and go to India for a month to do a yoga teacher training course. In the week before I left I was drinking and smoking, I had got drunk in the pub one night and my bag got stolen, I had to get the locksmith to let me into my house in the middle of the night, I felt so ashamed and awful that I had let this happen. I was running around like a headless chicken, anxiety raging, trying to get myself together for my trip.
The training was held at an ashram and there was strictly no substances and a full on schedule of learning, spiritual practice and yogic food (only two meals a day!). The first two weeks were like the detox from hell! And after that I started to feel pretty good, actually pretty great! I stopped taking my beta blockers and started to feel at ease and at peace much more of the time. At the end of the month I felt better than I could ever remember feeling – I had so much energy, I had no desire to alter my state in any way because my natural state felt so damn good! I stopped smoking and I didn’t drink at all for months, as well as totally overhauling my diet.
Since that trip I have not experienced anxiety in the same way again, don’t get me wrong I have had anxiety in different ways for different reasons, but that particular flavour of anxiety felt healed. My life, and more importantly my experience of my life, was utterly changed. There were still challenges, good days and bad, emotions etc. but I felt ‘I am OK and I am going to be OK’ deep down, which meant I approached each day from a positive perspective.
You do not need to go to India, or do a yoga teacher training, to heal the parts of yourself that are crying out for love and understanding (which is often what is underlying our feelings of anxiety in the first place). I have worked with many flavours of anxiety in my very normal life of work, home, friends etc. The major elements which were so crucial in my story can be brought into your life whatever you are doing right now. Those elements are: therapy/ coaching/ support for your internal experience, mindful and/or spiritual practices, gut health (this is huge!), gently removing the unhelpful habits you have picked up to manage the anxiety (e.g. drinking too much) and prioritising yourself and your experience.
Take the first small step, don’t try to do it all at once, start where you are and it might be messy, it might be painful, but I shit you not, it is worth it!
I am sending you so much love your journey, it is these vulnerable parts of ourselves that connect us in the deepest ways, that allows to see that we are all one in the end, and as the legend Ram Dass taught ‘We are all just walking each other home’.