Anxiety is something I have, not something I am.
I’ve had anxiety (generalised anxiety disorder or GAD) on and off for about 10 years. It was originally triggered by work. There was always too much to do and not enough confidence when I was younger to question that, or speak up.
It comes and goes in episodes that last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. They used to come once every 12 months, but now they’re down to once every couple of years. The episodes are shorter and they’re lighter. It's taken a lot of hard work to get here though. A lot.
Back in, say 2010, on an average morning during one of my episodes I would wake at 4am, unable to breathe, soaked through with sweat, and feeling like my blood was freezing cold and fizzy. Then I’d lie in bed for 2 hours obsessing over everything I had to do that day, and the infinite (!) number of ways in which each of those things could go wrong. Around 6am I’d give up and get up.
Then I’d cry in the shower, get out of the shower and throw up at the thought of going into work. Put make-up on while crying. Put the make-up back on. Commute to work. Maybe throw up again in the office loos once more for good measure.
Finally, I’d sit down at my desk, smile at everyone, tell them I had an OK evening, and then deliver 10 to 12 hours of work.
I was convinced that people around me must be noticing I wasn't quite right, that I was bleary eyed, that I couldn't focus, that I talked a million miles an hour, that I worked late even when I didn't need to ... but only once did a manager ever proactively pull me aside to ask if I was OK.
People just didn't notice.
But as soon as I told my managers I was struggling – which every single time I eventually had to do – they were all supportive. They listened, they offered me time off, a reduced workload and a shoulder to cry on.
That was one of the most surprising things about anxiety for me: while it feels like you’re literally about to fall to pieces, other people have their own lives going on. Talking about my anxiety was how I eventually began to get support.
I told friends, my GP, my family and colleagues. From the start, 10 years ago, I have been given the same list of ideas repeatedly, which for some reason I didn't grab on to all at once!
Sometimes I’d ignore them because I just didn't appreciate what the anxiety was doing to me. When I was younger, I genuinely believed that my behaviour was simply a normal expression of being ‘slightly stressed in work’. I wish I’d listened more.
I now do all of the ideas I’ve been given:
I drink less (caffeine and alcohol).
I move more: yoga, walking and running work for me.
I remember to eat when I’m feeling anxious, even if it's one piece of toast a day. Anxiety speeds up on an empty stomach.
I take time to breathe – meditation is good – and I take time to talk. Pretending to be OK took more energy out of me that I ever realised, and I never gave any of the amazing people around me a chance to even try to help.
I also read a lot and the first book that really cut through for me was Learned Optimism by American positive psychologist Martin Seligman. I’ve since read more of his work and it has been useful for me.
I’d also say that finding the right counsellor makes a huge difference. You should not underestimate the power of the relationship and so it may be that it takes meeting more than one or two people to find the best fit for you.
Sometimes I use a lot of my tools, sometimes not so much, but through practice and trial, knowing what works for me means that I have things on the side should I need them. I keep an eye on my anxiety levels and adjust accordingly.
Managing anxiety means managing my lifestyle, not just the anxiety. It means relying more on other people to support me. It’s an ongoing journey, but you really, truly, don’t have to go it alone.