In my last post I shared a little about the fact that I have anxiety. When I wrote that post I was deep a low period, and felt so hopeless. That's the worst thing about anxiety - it makes the bad feelings eternal and all-encompassing. It was truly a shitty time (By the way, thank you to anyone who has reached out since reading that; it's amazing that a) there are people who actually read this blog and b) you were concerned enough to contact me. It means everything).
I've actually been feeling better than I have in a long time since writing that. Last week I was in the middle of making myself breakfast and suddenly realised that I felt happy. There was no one overarching reason for my improvement in mood, but I've found that over the past couple of weeks I've done small things that have all, in their way, contributed to putting my anxiety back into its box, if only temporarily.
I want to share them in case it helps anyone else who might be going through something similar and also, so that I can refer back to this post when I next find myself getting anxious. A message from past Sarah to future Sarah!
1. Talk it out
Speaking to a professional counsellor has made such a difference to how I view my negative thought patterns. I never even know that's what it was until I started seeing a professional - I thought that was just how my brain worked, and there was no way to change it. I now realise that actually, I can train my mind to think differently. It's not quick or easy to do, but it is possible.
Speaking to friends and family has helped hugely too. I'm very lucky in having a partner who understands anxiety and encourages me to talk to him when I start spiralling. I'm getting more comfortable in talking to my friends and family about it too, which helps to dissipate the stigma around it. Wonderfully, it's also brought me closer to people here in Sydney that I might not have forged bonds with, if I had been the Sarah from a couple of years ago and pretended everything was fine all of the time. I'm finding that being frank about the challenges we face opens us up to so much possibility for greater connection with people.
A couple of weeks ago I had a particularly stressful day at work and was feeling overwhelmed with how much work there was to get through. There seems to be a direct link from feelings of overwhelm to critical self-talk in my brain, and we all know where that train eventually leads...Anxiety Town, population: me!
Normally, when I''m feeling this stressed out, I try to distract myself; my particular crutches are social media, Netflix and Youtube. Not a great combination. I can sit for hours while Youtube autoplays videos. It's as though I need something constantly making sounds and pictures in front of me so that I don't have to listen to my anxious thoughts racing in my head. However, in this particular instance, instead of going home and spending the night on the sofa avoiding my thoughts, I put my trainers on and walked the 5.5k home from work. By the time I got home I felt so much better, it was literally as if I'd walked out the stress of the day. This isn't groundbreaking stuff of course; everybody knows that exercise is a great stress reliever. But what makes this a giant leap forward for me is that I recognised I was beginning to feel anxious, and I decided to use exercise as a circuit-breaker. And it bloody well worked!
3. Write it down
Writing acts a crucial bit of breathing space between me and the negative thought. As soon as I've written something down, it takes it out of my head and puts it on a piece of paper instead, which helps to recognise the sheer irrationality of what I'm often thinking.
A while ago, when I felt particularly anxious, I wrote down a list of my worries. There were about 12 things on the list, from huge worries to tiny concerns that were nonetheless niggling away at my brain. When I came back to the list a week later I was shocked to see that so many of those worries had just evaporated. Almost all of them had become irrelevant, or I'd forgotten about them. That was a massive learning experience, it helped me to see that 90% of the time, the thing that I'm worrying about in this moment will likely be forgotten the next week.
4. Acknowledge the accomplishments
This is an important one, but something I'm not very good at doing. So much of my anxiety stems from negative self-talk and beliefs, so I find it really, really hard to congratulate myself on a job well done. I've never felt 'proud' of myself for anything I've done. And I don't say that as a way to fish for compliments or have a 'poor me' moment. It's more that the thought of me saying I'm proud of myself makes me cringe, when my life is so comfortable and I am in such a privileged position. I just don't, at my core, believe that anything I've done is worth feeling proud of, because I haven't overcome any huge obstacles to get to where I am.
I don't know if that makes much sense. It's hard to explain. But I am starting to realise that this maybe isn't the healthiest way of thinking about my life, and actually, I can acknowledge my accomplishments, however small they are. I can feel grateful for the amazing opportunities I have and still congratulate myself for getting to where I am. And I can pat myself on the back for finally admitting that I have a problem with my mental state, seeking help, and putting measures into place to try and get better.
Bleurgh. Still cringe writing that.
5. Be still
I've found this to be the biggest game-chnager in breaking the cycle of anxiety. As I mentioned above, my immeditate reaction when I start to feel anxious is to distract myself with my phone or laptop, and the irony is that the method of distraction only make me more anxious. There's nothing like spending half an hour on instagram to make you feel utterly disatisfied with your life.
So, I've been trying to instead turn off the distractions and do something more constructive that forces my brain to stop racing. Whether thats journalling, walking or meditating, I'm just trying to stop rushing around and instead sit with the feeling and let it pass. I don't try and 'get rid' of the anxiety, I just acknowledge that it's there. I feel calmer as a result and I don't have the added layer of guilt for having spent every evening on my laptop.
These are all small things but doing some combination of them every week has really helped to keep my anxiety at bay. I hope that this is helpful to anyone else going through a low period. And if nothing else works, know that time passes, things change, and you will be a different person tomorrow from who you are today.