As anxiety features heavily in my past and often rears its ugly head in my present, I thought I should have a page dedicated to my experiences and the coping mechanisms I have developed over the years.
I hope the following posts will be of some comfort to others.
Agoraphobia: the misunderstood mental health condition
If you think agoraphobia is simply a fear of open spaces, prepare to think again.
My attention was caught by an article in the Jan/Feb edition of Women’s Health magazine in which Sarah Wood, a mental health blogger from Essex, openly discusses her experience of agoraphobia and, in doing so, educates the reader on the complexity of the commonly misunderstood condition.
Sarah explains that she developed intense anxiety after the birth of her daughter, believing that the outside world was ‘dangerous’ and that she, as a mother, would be ‘outed as incompetent’. These fears (unrelated to open spaces), imprisoned Sarah in her own home. Thankfully, through a combination of CBT, including exposure therapy, and medication, Sarah regained control of her life and says that her agoraphobia made her realise how ‘strong’ she is.
On the same page as the article is a separate section which asks, ‘What is Agoraphobia?’ Psychiatrist, author and wellbeing blogger Dr Sarah Vohra states that it is ‘a fear of not being able to escape from a certain situation or space’. This resonated with me. I have suffered with anxiety and OCD traits for over 10 years, but have never once considered the possibility that I might be experiencing agoraphobia. Even now, I base my actions on whether or not I can easily ‘escape’ from a situation, and the idea that I may have to spend a long period of time somewhere that makes me feel uncomfortable is enough to trigger a panic attack. As a teenager, I panicked in lessons, the cinema; anywhere I felt I couldn’t get out quickly. Although I’ve developed my own coping strategies as an adult, I still find myself planning ahead to make sure I never feel ‘trapped’ in a situation.
Further research into the condition led me to the NHS website, where agoraphobia is described as ‘a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.’ This reference to ‘help’ really hit home with me. As a teenager, I developed an unhealthy attachment to my mum, as I felt that she was the only one who understood me and could get me through a panic attack. Now that I live with my boyfriend, he shoulders part of the burden; receiving frantic texts or phone calls from me when I’m feeling overwhelmed and needing reassurance; a common symptom of anxiety and OCD.
Reading Sarah’s article and researching agoraphobia myself made me realise not just how complex agoraphobia is, but how complex all mental health conditions are. Symptoms can overlap, with an anxiety sufferer also struggling with traits of OCD and agoraphobia, for example. As such, no two people will have exactly the same experience, just as there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ treatment for mental health conditions.
As a nation, we have come to accept that OCD is so much more than excessive hand-washing, but we’re not as clued-up when it comes to other mental health conditions, such as agoraphobia.
So let’s make an effort to educate ourselves. Let’s improve our understanding of mental illness so that we might better support those who are struggling.
Sadly, there are quite a lot of us.
News just in!
The lovely Kel at Anxious Lass has written a fantastic ebook for sufferers of social anxiety.
Have a read through my review and if you think you would benefit from Kel’s words of wisdom, grab yourself a copy!
Social Anxiety to Social Success, Kelly Jean
This is a must-read for anyone who struggles with social situations.
Kel writes with honesty and humour, as if talking to a friend, and her language is conversational and uncensored, which is incredibly refreshing!
Kel encourages the reader to take their time with their recovery and provides fantastic worksheets for them to work through:
The Anxiety Ladder is a simple yet incredibly useful tool which asks the reader to really think about the situations they find difficult. Kel’s honesty extends to her listing her own struggles and how she overcame them, which is something readers are sure to appreciate.
The Weekly and Monthly Anxiety Rating Worksheets end positively, asking the reader to list ‘Things you’ve done despite your anxiety this month’. In this way, Kel encourages sufferers of social anxiety to feel proud of their achievements, even if anxiety gets in the way a little bit; which is hugely important for well-being.
The Exposure Worksheet is an effective way of monitoring progress and discovering ways to improve.
Although she has extensive experience and knowledge of her subject matter, Kel never falls into the trap of preaching to the reader, but asks relevant questions to get them thinking about the possibility of an anxiety-free future. She also offers techniques to help with panic attacks and provides an extensive list of ‘self-care’ suggestions. Her tips for engaging with others are fantastic for those who tend to focus on themselves rather than the other person.
The section on ‘safety behaviours’ is eye-opening and thought-provoking and Kel uses her own experiences to explain to the reader how these are more harmful than helpful.
Kel is realistic and unpatronising. She knows that recovery takes time and that there will be setbacks, and she shares this knowledge with the reader. The tasks she sets are simple and manageable; for example, putting in the effort to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.
The book is well-laid out and easy to read, and the white, pink and blue colour theme is very easy on the eye!
The fact that Kel also provides readers with her email address, lists helpful resources and includes a Conversation Mini Guide says a lot about her caring character and desire to help others.
This is a gorgeous, informative book created by a writer who is both knowledgeable and empathetic. Buy it here!
Be proud of yourself!
(As featured on Anxious Lass)
I answered the door to the postman this morning wearing tracksuit bottoms that are too short for me, my boyfriend’s enormous fleece and no make-up.
And it made me realise how far I’ve come.
As a child and teenager, I was so self-conscious and socially anxious that the things other people were doing on a daily basis were too difficult for me.
To give you a few examples…
I wouldn’t go to the hairdressers
My hair is naturally curly, so it gets quite knotty, especially when wet. Every time I went to get it cut as a child, the hairdresser would comment on how knotty it was and make such a performance of detangling it that I eventually stopped going altogether.
In the end, my lovely aunt had to cut my hair for me.
I wouldn’t order my own food in restaurants
Even as a teenager, I just refused. My mum, dad or sister had to ask me what I wanted before the waiter or waitress came to the table and then speak for me.
I wouldn’t talk in lessons
My reports said the same thing every year:
‘Megan is a very conscientious student but doesn’t contribute to class discussions’.
I wouldn’t answer the phone or make calls
Even if I knew who was calling, I’d pass the phone to someone else. As for calling someone myself? No chance.
I wouldn’t let anyone see me without a full face of make-up
As a teenager, I had such low self-esteem that I refused to be seen without make-up by anyone other than my immediate family.
My first boyfriend never saw me without make-up.
We were together nearly two years.
But here’s the good bit!
Thanks to a combination of forcing myself to be brave, having an amazing support network around me and the simple act of growing older and wiser, I’ve improved so much in my twenties! A few examples…
- Not only do I go to the hairdressers semi-regularly, but I draw attention to the fact that my hair is crazy knotty and make a joke of it.
- I order my own food in restaurants and even have the confidence to request the dressing on the side, no olives, five scoops of ice-cream etc.
- At a tutorial for my Open University degree, I forced myself to contribute to the discussion. My heart was pounding and I had to clear my throat ten million times before I spoke, but I did it.
- I was a receptionist for 20 months, so I kind of had to get over my phone phobia…
- I’m far more relaxed in terms of make-up. In fact, my boyfriend has the joy of seeing me fresh-faced on a daily basis and hasn’t vomited yet (and neither did the postman…)
- I recently became the newest (and youngest!) member of a local Writers’ Workshop and managed to read my work aloud. A few years ago, I wouldn’t even have entered the room.
The point is, I think we can be a bit hard on ourselves sometimes when really we should be celebrating how far we’ve come!
My achievements will seem tiny to everyone else, but to me they’re huge, and that’s what matters.
Living for the moment
My dad recently had our home videos from the early 90s put onto dvds, which I spent an evening watching.
I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced so many emotions in such quick succession.
I laughed at the two-year-old me, with the crazy auburn hair, high-pitched London accent and inability to blow out candles on a Birthday cake, and my sister, aged four, pretending she was reading from a book when she was actually inventing a story as she went along.
I cringed at mine and my sister’s song and dance routines, my passion for parading around in my knickers and my parents’ 90s haircuts and attire.
I cooed over my baby cousins (who, by the way, are both taller than me now) and our first dog, Honey, when she looked more like a fluffy teddy than a dog.
And I cried when the camera panned to my wonderful late grandparents; healthy and happy and bringing so much joy to mine and my sister’s childhoods.
The videos took me back to a time when I was happy and carefree. To a time before the pain and worries of growing up and everything that comes with it.
As I turned off the TV, I suddenly decided that the tiny, innocent Megan I saw in the videos deserves to be that happy and carefree again.
And so, I’ve decided to do my best to live for the moment, keep the negative thoughts at bay and take life a little less seriously.
I owe that to my squeaky, ginger self.
Tips for the anxious mind
Living with an anxiety disorder is tough, and I’m not going to pretend that the following tips will work for everyone, every time, as they don’t work for me every time! Panic attacks leave me crying and exhausted, and sometimes I just have to take a day or two to myself in order to get the anxiety under control.
However, these are the things that make my life just that little bit easier…
- Getting enough sleep
If I haven’t slept well, my anxiety is worse and I’m much more likely to end up panicking in the morning. Going to bed early gives me the best chance of a decent night’s sleep, which is vital if I’m going to achieve anything when I wake up.
- Eating (and drinking) healthily
Although it’s tempting to reach for the chocolate when I’m feeling rubbish, too much sugar sends my heart rate soaring, which is not helpful when it’s already raised due to anxiety!
- Giving myself extra time in the morning
My anxiety is always worse in the mornings. Setting my alarm half an hour early gives me the opportunity to wake up slowly and take my time getting ready; hence giving me one less thing to stress about!
- Reading books
As you know, I’m a massive geek and take great pleasure from reading. Absorbing myself in a gripping plot is a great distraction from my anxious thoughts. I tend to gravitate towards fiction rather than self-help books when it comes to coping with my anxiety, but if you find the latter helpful, I would recommend Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, which is both an autobiography and self-help manual. This is an incredibly honest and inspiring account of a young man’s battle with anxiety and depression, and really resonated with me.
- Going for a run
Essentially, it’s quite difficult to obsess over your worries when you’re trying not to collapse from exhaustion! Plus the fresh air doesn’t hurt 🙂
- Having a hot, bubbly bath
I tend to opt for showers, but more recently I’ve been allowing myself to indulge in a bath in the evening. Stepping into the hot water is a signal to myself that I’m done for the day, and that I can switch off and relax.
- Listening to an audio book in the car
After a recent spell of panicking before work and in the car on the way, a doctor suggested I try listening to an audio book during my commute. The first one I tried was a massive no-no, as the speaker’s voice was seriously irritating, but the second one was soothing and kept my anxious thoughts in check.
- Setting motivational quotes as my phone background or screensaver
The internet is full of these, and I find them really helpful when I’m struggling, as they remind me to keep going.
- Making people aware
Now I’m not saying I shout about my anxiety from the rooftops, but telling certain people has really helped. I’ve been upfront with my last two employers, and they’ve been understanding and sympathetic. Trying to pretend you don’t suffer from a mental health problem in the workplace is only going to make things harder. I also told S quite early on, because many of the things that make me anxious (spontaneous activities, sudden changes of plan, meeting new people unexpectedly and so on) happen at the start of a new relationship.
- Trying to stay in the moment
I attended a mindfulness course last year, and whilst I discovered I’m incapable of sitting still long enough to meditate, I learned the importance of focusing on the present, and try to do this whenever possible.
If you have a little more patience than I do, it’s definitely worth looking into mindfulness. The book below was recommended to me by my course teacher, and might help you decide if it’s for you or not.
- Reminding myself what I’ve achieved
When I was fifteen, my panic attacks were so bad I either didn’t make it to school in the mornings, or somehow forced myself to go, but ended up panicking so much my mum had to come and collect me. I didn’t go to university because my anxiety wouldn’t allow me to be away from the family home for that length of time, and I couldn’t hold down a full-time job. Now I have a degree, share a house with a lovely man who hasn’t run away (yet) and am attempting to make a living out of doing what I love; writing!
I have become stronger than my anxiety, and hope others can, too.