To a certain extent, anxiety is a completely logical reaction to being alive and being a human being among other people.
When I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in my 20s, this thought would have been helpful. Knowing that the way I reacted to some ideas and opportunities was extreme, but it was not unusual or illogical. However, that was not how I saw things. I decided I was a dog, my anxiety was fireworks, and every night was bonfire night.
“Sorry, I can not, I have anxiety,” was an ingenious apology. At the time, I meant it. My anxiety felt overwhelming and disabling. The thoughts in my head were hard to control, but my panic was physical before it was mental. The shortness of breath, the beating heart and the nausea would come without warning and stimulate pure fear. Hit the ground, my body said. Leave the building. I did not leave myself room to assess the situation. I did not have the tools to look beyond the darkness and realize that the danger had been magnified by my imagination.
Everyone who struggles with anxiety will react to a different set of circumstances. The violent bullying and abuse I experienced when I was a child made me feel worthless, with very little confidence in my abilities. I suppose many of us are afraid of the same things – being rejected, making a mistake, feeling failure. I also suspect that many of us are high-functioning anxiety sufferers. Doing as many things as we can, as perfectly as possible, is a way to boost tremendous self-esteem and create a sense of security.
Perfectionism is the evil twin of my anxiety. One voice whispers, “Stay indoors and hide away forever,” the other says, “Performance will keep the bullies at bay! Just do twice as much as you did yesterday, and four times as much tomorrow.” Almost 15 years after I was diagnosed, I have managed to introduce a third little voice. Someone who just says, “Come on, is that actually true?” It’s quiet, but loud enough to drain the drama of any situation I’ve invented.
Anxiety is something I have gradually learned to live with. For a long time, I hated it to make me unhappy, sick, and scared. I pushed it away, tensing up against the panic and avoiding any situation that could aggravate it. Something changed when I started trying to embrace it. Instead of running from the horror, I started allowing it, sitting with it and asking myself what it was, not why it was. I thought of it as a kind of emotional food poisoning. It may have been undercooked chicken, it may have been stale hummus, but tracing the source is an arbitrary exercise when you spend the night on your bathroom floor. And like food poisoning, you believe that misery will last forever, but it passes away, and the end of an anxious spell brings extreme relief, bordering on bliss.
If life with anxiety feels like a struggle, I realize that it may sound impossible to get better. Because anxiety lies before us. It tells us that we can not be helped. It tricks us and makes us feel too sharp, too thready and too sensitive when it dulls so many of our senses and tells us to believe that we are not strong enough or resourceful enough to cope with it. I promise that what seems impossible today will not feel like that in a week, or a day, or even an hour.
Here’s what I wish I had known when I started experiencing anxiety – and what I’m so glad I learned.
Trust your instinct to try medicine
If you are anxious, it is quite understandable to have some anxiety about introducing a new drug to your body. My personal experience is that medication gave me the energy to try some significant emotional heavy lifting. After a few years, I came out of it very gradually, under medical supervision, to see if I felt okay without it. I do – but I would not hesitate to use it again if it felt right.
This may not be your experience. Do some research, ask a lot of questions, prepare for side effects, and listen to your body and your doctors. Do not listen to anyone who has strong, unsolicited opinions about why you should not take it. You can trust that you know what feels right. And if you try something and it does not work for you, it’s OK. There are always other options.
Therapy only works if you are ready to work
It’s easy to assume that we’re all terribly blown away by therapy now – here’s what I wish I had known. First, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be excellent if you want to work with a counselor to solve a specific problem. It did not help me because I needed a more holistic approach, but it did not mean that the system or I was broken. Therapists are smart but not psychic, and to get the most out of a session, you need to prepare. A therapist can only work if you are ready to work with them. Therapy is expensive and should be easier and cheaper available, but then we could say the same about dental care.
It is thanks to therapy that I was able to develop my inner “are you sure?” voice and find compelling evidence that I did not have to feel anxious all the time. Some of us experience that a course of therapy restores us. Some of us find it helpful to stay in therapy indefinitely. Many of us return to it in challenging times. Therapy can be an extremely effective tool for dealing with anxiety. But it is not the only tool.
Give yourself time for positive habits when you are not nervous
During spells where I have been in the cave of despair, friendly people have made all sorts of well-meaning suggestions that have made me want to hit them. I love baths and long walks, but when life itself brings you to your knees, it probably will not give you the relief you need to sit in warm water. Cultivating a practice with small, manageable hobbies can be a very effective way to build emotional core strength. I have found that if I get time for these positive routines when I am not feeling bad, the anxiety periods become easier to navigate.
I try to move my body as much as I can. Sometimes it means running around the park, sometimes it means walking to the end of the road and back. I try to read from a book every day. If I’m too eager to concentrate after a few pages, it’s fine I can try again tomorrow. But making it a regular exercise has improved my concentration and made me calmer. I am one of the many people who fell in love with baking over lockdown. I find it restorative to follow a simple recipe and make something edible in the end.
I do not think it matters what you do, as long as you do it often. You can start by spending two minutes a day skipping or teaching yourself to juggle. Any strange new skill – especially anything that brings you back to your body, engages another part of your brain, and keeps you away from your phone – will bring benefits. I still have days where I feel anxious and useless, but then the little voice says, “It’s not quite right. You are a reader, a runner and a baker! ”
I have experienced that alcohol worsens my anxiety so I cut down. Now that I’m pampering and the anxious feelings are returning, I’m able to remind myself that the world is not about to end, it’s just the effects of an extra glass of wine, and it will pass.
Spending too much time online can aggravate anxiety
My longest and most painful period of anxiety coincided with a time when I used social media to a great extent. I do not think it’s a coincidence. But it’s complicated. For many of us, saying “do not go online” or “Instagram is bad” is not practical or realistic. We go online to search for information, connection and community. We get inconsistent positive feedback, which reinforces our bad habits. Nine out of 10 times if I take my phone and check Twitter, I will see something that will make me feel worse. But knowing that there is a small chance of a compliment or a kind message, I will send myself to the app in search of validation. It’s a bit like gambling. The odds are never in my favor, but sometimes I can not help but play the game.
But when I’m online, I’re constantly consuming information, and I’m what I eat. There is so much to worry about right now: opinions are coming out as news, and every piece of information comes with instructions that tell us how worried we should be about it. Anxiety loves company, and the people we hope to come in contact with may strike out at us or emit gloom. Anxiety loves these conditions and it spreads like mildew. That is not to say that we should never go online. It’s just important to be aware that the internet is a space filled with emotional risks, as well as rewards.
In the past, I have blamed myself for the way social media has made me feel. Now I am aware that being online for too long will aggravate my anxiety, just as it will aggravate my hay fever to roll in a hedge. My body responds and I learn to listen to it. Anxiety exists, but it is no longer the part of me that shouts the loudest.
Careering by Daisy Buchanan is published by Sphere (£ 14.99), order your copy at guardianbookshop.com.