No, I don’t know if that title is grammatically correct either, but I quite like the way it sounds, so I’m sticking with it…
Late last year I took some time out; partly because it’s a good idea to do that every now and again – never more so than in winter when the world reminds us over and over again to turn inwards and spend more time resting.
But also because, for the first time in possibly my whole life, I realised how much anxiety was affecting me and decided it was time to do something about that.
That’s not something I say lightly. As a counsellor there’s this idea you should be on top mental form every minute of every day, so to admit otherwise is quite a scary thing to do.
But that mindset is not only damaging to those of us who do this job and others like us, it’s damaging to all of us, because it suggests that a lull in our mental wellbeing is a weakness.
Tell me, do you consider yourself weak if you get a headache or a cold?
I’m guessing not. Although I’m hoping you take those symptoms as a reminder to rest, get stacks of fluids and take medication if you need it.
Mental health is no different from physical, and as a society we really need to stop suggesting that’s the case.
We need to remember that it’s just as important to look after our own mental health as our physical, to remember that we will have up and down days and be susceptible to some things more than others, and to stop thinking that being anything other than 100% mentally happy, stress-free, balanced and healthy means we are some how weak or incapable.
For me anxiety has been there for a long time, and it’s not always a bad thing; my anxious monkey mind has kept me going at times when I might otherwise have curled up in a ball and hid from reality (and not in a good way), and I firmly believe that my past experiences of stress, anxiety and depression and of learning to live with as well as triumph over those things are a big part of what makes me such a bloody good counsellor (I’m not even sorry for writing that).
But it came right into the forefront of my mind recently when I stopped paying attention to those little signs and nudges, and realised in doing so just how much anxiety I’d allowed to build up under my calm, swan-like surface over the past few years.
Anxiety is something many of us suffer – maybe not to the extent of the middle of the night panic attacks I experienced in early December, but that feeling of pumping adrenaline, helplessness and underlying panic is so common nowadays that it’s almost become a way of life.
There’s that constant stream of beeps, lights and numbers on a phone screen that tells us someone wants our attention.
There’s the culture of busy in which we’ve long convinced ourselves we’re not doing it (i.e. life) right unless we tell people we’re “so tired”, we “have no time” or that “work is just chaos at the moment”.
There’s the way we’re all encouraged to not only juggle a million different things but be kicking ass at each and every one of those things at any given moment.
And there’s the pressure of expectation that comes with each of those things and with living life in a 24/7 high performance culture.
Honestly, I can feel my anxiety levels rising just by writing those sentences.
And that affects all of us differently; from those panic attacks I mentioned earlier, to the brain fog which leaves us feeling like we can do nothing but stare blankly at the TV as we try our damnedest to relax to the knot of tension in our stomachs our shoulders and a million other things around that.
So what do we do? And how do we deal with all of those things, without having to take the best part of a month out of the world to slow down our minds and get back in touch with who we are and what’s really important (because although I cannot stress how many blessings I found in doing just that, I do understand it’s not a viable option for everyone)?
Personally I’ve found that five key things have helped more than anything. They’re simple, they’re kind of obvious (in retrospect) and undoubtedly I’ve said them a hundred times before. But they’re also important and valuable, and if I have to I will say them a million times more.
Connect with and listen to your brain: Try some meditation, some journalling, or anything else that helps you switch off from the day to day and give your mind some space to roam free. And when you give your brain the space to speak, pay attention to what it has to say... you never know what gems and important information it has to share.
Look after your body: It sounds so simplistic, but taking care of the physical is an important step towards taking care of the mental and emotional too. I know that when you're feeling anxious, or struggling to focus your mind, the last thing you want is to head to the gym or go out for a game of tennis. But honestly, finding a way to reconnect with and take care of your body will help more than you know.
Put boundaries in place: Whether it's the hours of the days you're on your phone, the days of the week you'll be in the office, or something else entirely, don't be afraid to set the boundaries that help to make you feel more more in control of your life. Setting boundaries can be scary, but I can't stress enough how important they are in your quest to manage anxiety.
Know there are very few “musts” in life: You must go out with friends on Friday, must complete that project in two days time, must go and visit family... really? No. In truth the only things you must do are sleep, eat, breathe and look after any dependents who are relying on you to stay alive. Everything else you may want to do, feel guilty if you don't do, or even be expected to do, but it can always be rescheduled or rain checked if you really need to.
Remember that it’s OK to acknowledge that you’re not OK, and to ask for help when you need it, whether that be from a friend or family member, or from a professional.
Most of all remember that your mental wellbeing doesn’t have to define you – we can be anxious without a medical diagnosis, and suffer from low mood without needing to declare ourselves depressed just as we can have diagnoses, take medication and seek out professional support without needing to carry those things as a label now or ever.
Because whatever is going on in your mind, it is no more of a weakness than anything else in your body, heart or soul. And is with any challenge you face, the fact that you recognise, accept and decide to tackle it is way more of a strength that anything else.
And remember, if you're looking for someone to work with you on your own anxiety story, or on anything else you have going on, then it's worth checking out my Soul-Centered Counselling.