I have had a constant companion for almost two years. Sometimes it was so oppressive I couldn’t leave home, often so mild I could almost forget it. Always present. But for a long time, I didn’t know what to call this thing, this shadow which followed me everywhere.
It was my psychologist who formally introduced us about six months ago. By that time, this shadow had followed me for more than a year. I knew things weren’t right and I desperately wanted to fix it but didn’t know how to do it. My GP referred me to Cathy, my psychologist, who has been amazing.
After patiently listening to my story, Cathy named my unwanted companion: Anxiety. And suddenly I understood. By giving my shadow a name, by defining it, I knew I could then work towards conquering it. This is still a work in progress, but I’m managing so much better than before. I don’t always win every day, but the good days now far outweigh the bad.
Many things can trigger anxiety. In the case of my anxiety, it’s a long and complicated story, unfortunately, which I may tell in detail another time. But the essence is that I have been harassed online by an anonymous person, mercilessly, for almost two years. This person has found me on social media, but also somehow got my mobile number and hassled me that way, too.
It is invasive and it is relentless. I shut down my social accounts and opened new ones, and this person still found me. At times I felt I couldn’t breathe. There were a few rare days where I couldn’t leave home because I was crying uncontrollably. I’ve always felt things strongly, but never before have I been a sobbing mess.
My manager was incredibly supportive and made sure I took the necessary time off work when I needed it. I’m an incredibly private person, so none of my colleagues knew this was happening at the time. My manager found out when she innocently asked how I was doing, the day after I was first contacted by this harasser, and I basically broke down in tears in front of her. I was mortified, obviously, but she was just wonderful in the way she supported me through it.
I’m happy to say I’m in a much better place now. It hasn’t disappeared completely, but I can confidently say I’m on top of it now. But it’s been a long road to get to this point. I’m also aware that whilst I had some acute episodes, overall my anxiety has been mild. I’m thankful for that. I have not needed medication and have been able to manage my anxiety using techniques I learned from Cathy plus some of my own research.
At this point, I need to say I am no expert. These are the things worked for me and I would encourage you to explore them if you feel any of them are right for you. But, above all else, if you have an anxiety disorder then see your doctor or psychologist for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
- Acknowledge it. I know I have anxiety and I’m learning how to manage it. I can’t think of how much worse I would be if I hadn’t sought treatment.
- When I feel an attack coming on, or if I’m in the middle of one, I pause and take at least three deep breaths. This is incredibly helpful in helping me calm down. And there’s science behind this too: In short, deep breaths allows more carbon dioxide to enter your system. This soothes some parts of the brain, like the amygdala, which handle how we respond to anxiety. The amygdala is a tiny part of the brain which helps with processing emotions.
- I slightly begrudge that meditation is super cool now, because I’m really not a bandwagon person. Tell me something is cool and I’ll do the opposite. However, meditation is incredibly beneficial for everyone, particularly if you’re struggling with mental health. Regular meditation can change your brain and how your body responds to stress. That’s why it’s so great for people with anxiety, depression or PTSD. I meditate daily, either before bed or once I get home from an intense workout at the gym.
I did a meditation class years ago, before anxiety officially entered my life. The most important thing I took from that class is that it’s OK to fail, that it’s OK to sit still and for my mind to be busy when it’s supposed to be quiet. But to persist. I meditate for 10-15 minutes every day. I like to use guided meditations, to help my concentration. Apps like Calm or Insight Timer are amazing.
As with exercise, the key to making your meditation impactful is to do it consistently. If you can’t do it daily, then aim for 3-4 times a week.
- Floatation therapy. I’ve been floating weekly for about a month now. I love it. It’s an indulgence, but I am very happy to make this investment. I’ve not been able to find a lot of scientific research on why this helps; I just know it works for me. Going for a float involves, well, floating in a tank of water that has super high levels of magnesium and Epsom salt. The minerals make the water dense, meaning your body is supported in the water. The minerals also have benefits for your skin and muscles. You’re in a dark room or pod, and the theory is that the sensory deprivation and the mineral content help calm the mind and relax the body and brain.
Magnesium is known to help you sleep because it produces a sense of calm, so I always try to float in the late afternoon or early evening. Every float for me is different, depending on my state of mind, but I always emerge with an incredible sense of peace and calm. I’ve even managed to fall asleep a few times during a float, too.
- Lock it away. This is a brain trick that Cathy taught me. A major contributor to my anxiety was thinking about the online harassment – when I’d next be contacted, why it wouldn’t stop and so on. Now, when those thoughts enter my head, I conjure up the mental image of putting those thoughts into a chest and locking them away, so they don’t return. This has taken quite some practice, but I think my meditation practice and floatation has helped to make this work.
- Get into nature. Being outdoors is incredibly grounding for me, and I believe for most people. I try to get outdoors for a walk at least 3-4 times a week. I’m fortunate to live near a beach, so just walking near that for about an hour settles my mind. I’m also a big fan of hiking, although the logistics and local bushfires have scuppered my plans for any major adventures lately. The simplicity of just putting one foot in front of the other and of camping in unspoilt nature really makes my soul sing.
- The connection between physical health and exercise is well understood. But it’s also good for your mental health. Exercise releases brain chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. Regular exercise can have a profound impact on a person’s mental health, and it has certainly helped with mine. I’ve always believed in the connection between mind and body but really haven’t had a regular exercise routine until the start of this year. I’ve felt so many benefits: lower anxiety, physical strength, the joy of bettering my performance and the social interactions at the gym.
- Eat well. I’m not saying that having five serves of vegetables every day will cure my anxiety. But, a good, balanced diet makes me feel better. I’ve recently adopted a mostly vegan diet which is working for me, but that’s a personal decision which wasn’t connected to my mental health. A balanced diet has at least five serves of vegetables, two serves of fruit and a variety of lean proteins. A balanced diet does NOT include processed or fried food, large volumes of refined grains (eg baked goods, cereals) or anything that can constitute ‘empty calories’, ie food with minimal nutritional value.
I’ve also recently learned about the connection between gut health and mental health. It’s long been known our gut contains good and bad bacteria, both of which are needed to keep everything in balance. But, if there is too much of the bad bacteria in your belly, then that can also impact the brain via the ‘gut-brain axis’, which is how the brain and stomach communicate. Again, I’m not a doctor but this makes sense to me. So, I make sure I include fermented food in my diet to feed my good gut bacteria. That includes things like kefir, tempeh and kimchi.
It would be remiss to not mention alcohol here. I’m not a big drinker anymore and would have maybe three glasses of wine in a typical week. This is mainly because my hangovers are absolutely dire these days but also because alcohol, especially wine, is full of empty calories. Booze is a depressant, so if I’m not in a good place emotionally then I’ll avoid it.
- Our bodies need sleep to recover, restore and rebuild from our day’s exertions. If I don’t have enough of it, I’m not a good person. I’m grumpy, irritable and less able to manage if my anxiety flares up. So I make sure I get enough, and if that means busting out a nana nap then I’m all for it. Research shows most people need 7-9 hours of sleep a night so I’m very careful to make sure I get enough, and if I’m in deficit I’ll make it up with a nap.
- Essential oils are another trend at the moment, and this is one bandwagon I’m happy to have joined. Science doesn’t back this up, yet. But I know there are certain smells that make me happy. I usually have a diffuser going at home and have replaced my perfumes with fragrances made from essential oils. My favourite fragrances are wild orange, basil, lemongrass, grapefruit and anything alpine.
All of these things have contributed to minimising my anxiety. It still flares up, but I’m better equipped to acknowledge and manage it when that does happen. These things may not work for everyone, but if you haven’t tried any of them then why not try a few and see what happens? But above all else, speak to your therapist. That’s the most important and impactful way to help your mental health.
And remember, this is a journey. My anxiety has been acute due to the harassment, but I also acknowledge it has been with me in a far milder form for many, many years and will likely be with me for many more. It’s a part of me and my role now is to acknowledge it and proactively manage it as best I can.