This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Not one to miss a newshook (that’s 14 years in PR for you) and with anxiety struggles front of mind, it felt only right to post something new.
I’m aware that some people might find what I share to be self-indulgent. I suppose on some level it is — I find it therapeutic to go over my own experiences and write them down. But I also know that I have read other people’s stories (in fact, a wonderful friend shared a great book with me just this week — How Not to Be Good) and when I find a glimmer of how I’ve felt or am feeling, it helps reassure me. So maybe this will help the odd person who reads this. That’s why I’m doing it.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share what I have created as my own personal ‘toolkit’ for dealing with the type of anxiety and depression that affects me, in the hope that there might be some helpful advice, or even just reassurance, for others.
Clearly an important part of everyone’s toolkit — otherwise, I’d have concerns. But by this I mean paying attention to your breathing rate and depth, and learning exercises that can be preventative and restorative. For instance, I find the box method (drawing the outline of a box with four seconds per inhale / exhale) has proved invaluable in helping me calm myself down from a panic attack. I also find the body scan method (focusing on your breathing, then mentally scanning yourself, noticing — but not necessarily fixing — where there might be tension) helps me sleep when my mind is racing. To reiterate, ‘breathing’ in of itself = relatively necessary, but ‘breathing exercises’ = pretty helpful.
I am really fortunate to be in a position where I can make regular therapy sessions viable. There is a whole other conversation to be had around why counselling should be more readily available to everyone, but that’s for another time. If you are in a position where you can access it, it can be a gamechanger. There are lots of caveats — I can’t speak from every single person’s perspective, and opening up your vulnerabilities to a total stranger is (shocker) not easy, but the reward for me has been huge and I’ll write separately on this.
3. Giving myself a break
People who know me know I am a big fan of Uber. I can’t say sometimes (…many times) this isn’t down to laziness and / or impatience, but one thing I have found it hugely useful for is removing one layer of angst from a day or event that is causing my anxiety levels to kick up a notch. A previous therapist once suggested I consider getting an Uber into work ahead of a morning where I knew I was going to be feeling particularly anxious. The thought of it felt extravagant and wasteful, and I felt guilty (although TBF, when do I not…), but I did it and actually the relief was palpable. It helped me get through the day. So, if it’s something that takes that stress level away when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable, do it — and don’t feel bad about it.
4. Knowing the signs / triggers
I have found it so helpful to understand what might set my anxiety off, even if I know I won’t be able to prevent it. This is about taking some time when you’re in a good headspace to think, “What is it that triggers me?” and “What are the signs I / others can look out for?”. It’s okay if the answer to that first question is “Sometimes, nothing” — that’s the same for me. But I can also recognise scenarios that will make things feel worse. For instance, if I’m going through an anxious spell, spending time around a lot of people (even if I know them) can leave me feeling very vulnerable, sad and on edge. I at least know that I decide to put myself in that scenario, X is how I might feel, Y is how I might react and that’s okay — I can let it wash over me. I also know I can decide not to put myself in that scenario, which leads me to…
5. Saying no
One of the most empowering skills you can learn — whether or not it’s related to anxiety — is to say no. There will always be the ominous voice of guilt telling you how you’ll let people down, you’ll miss out, people will think badly of you. Maybe some people will — but that’s fine. I was petrified when I started to do this, and I still do have times when I force myself into a situation that wasn’t being kind to myself. I’d read it was the “right” thing to do and always thought the people who were handing that advice out were so lucky to be surrounded by people who were so accepting — but of course, so was I. Not everyone will get it, but the people who do are the ones who are good for you.
I wanted to put a note in on medication because it’s something I have grappled with for some years. I’ve lost count of the different types of anti-depressant / anti-anxiety medications I have been on since I was first diagnosed with depression / anxiety around 15 years ago, but I would say they largely played a positive role. I do feel that role should always be part of a wider picture. Personally, medication has been a much-needed crutch at times — although the best I have felt has always been down to a combination of support methods. My main point here though is there’s no shame in taking them. It’s not admitting defeat. If anything, it’s the opposite. You’re taking action against a horrible condition that is gripping you, and that’s a strong move to make.
7. Exercise / movement
This one seems like the biggest cliché of them all. If I had a penny for every time I read / heard “Go for a walk, it’ll help” I’d be off out on my regular walk around my private island in the Maldives. But it is true — movement helps. It’s just really bloody hard when you’re so freaked out by the thought of even standing on your front doorstep because you feel so exposed to the world. I’ve been amazingly lucky in finding trainer who has reintroduced me to the gym at my own pace (with incredible patience…) and I have gradually built up my confidence over the past year of doing this. There are still days when I can’t face it, but when I can (even if there’s just a glimmer of hope that I can) it doesn’t matter if I’m up for doing a session that pushes me or just 30 minutes where I’m moving in some way or another, I know I will feel better afterwards.
My final tip is Stacey. I’d forgotten about her a little bit recently — which is actually another one of her power moves. I’ve recently been having another more challenging time with my anxiety, and the other night when I had been trying to get to sleep for three hours, thanks to the constant vivid screenplay in my head of every awful thing that could conceivably happen in my life, I remembered… the director is Stacey. More about her here, but in a nutshell, when I realised that (and what a right twat she is), it helped me to detach from the angst a little.