Anxiety had been my constant companion for as long as I could remember.
As a schoolgirl, my anxiety meant that I was unable to play the piano in front of anyone, meaning the house had to be empty before I could practice. Playing in front of an examiner was excruciating.
Aural exams were a nightmare, wild-eyed, bathed in sweat, and flushed beetroot it remains a mystery to me how I got through my final medical exams.
As an aspiring public speaker, I once travelled from Perth to Sydney for a private mentoring session with one of Australia’s top speakers and on arrival was struck dumb, unable to articulate anything other than to shake my head, overwhelmed with shame and frustration.
Managing my anxiety was something I lived with, which meant it was normal to wake up with that knot in my stomach, to always worry I would make a mistake or overlook something important, and I struggled to ever relax.
Massage therapists would remark on the tightness of my muscles and sports instructors would shout “Relax! You’re stiff as a board!”
Even during panic attacks, I dissociated from the racing motorbike heart, the waves of nausea and difficulty breathing to tell myself, “This isn’t going to kill you,” rather than asking what I needed to do to stop them from happening and why they were happening in the first place.
The lightbulb moment happened during a conversation with a psychologist.
(Yes, doctors do seek help for themselves occasionally, when under duress or threat from our beloveds.)
She asked me when the last time had been when I had been totally relaxed and happy.
I was instantly taken back to a particular holiday and described what we had done and how good it had felt.
She then asked, “So why can’t you feel like that more often when you’re not on holiday?”
The penny dropped.
What I had been living with for all that time wasn’t the same as for other people. Sure, we all get anxious and to varying degrees, but it had never occurred to me that I was fighting a much larger monster of my own making.
It was time to tame the beast.
Today when I wake up, I am grateful to no longer have that knot in my stomach.
Naturally, I still experience anxiety from time to time and remind myself, this is normal and allow it to quieten down.
When it is occasional, anxiety is a normal part of life, functioning as a signal and alerting you to the fact that something in your environment has changed.
This can be helpful, so you can step up to a challenge like standing up to deliver a presentation in front of your boss.
It prepares you for dealing with an unknown. Levels of adrenaline rise along with your blood pressure as the fight-or-flight response gets you ready to respond in the best way to a potential threat.
But it’s designed as a short-term response, not a long-term strategy for survival in our modern crazy busy and complex world.
Anxiety becomes an issue when it is a constant, disturbing sleep, affecting your appetite, and causing you to miss out on enjoying life, to feel happy.
I was told I had high-functioning anxiety, meaning I was pretty successful at battling my inner demons to achieve my goals.
But at what cost?
I tried to imagine how life would have been without so much anxiety gnawing at my innards.
Different for sure.
Happier? Without a doubt.
More outwards focused? Yes. It’s hard to look out for others when you’re waiting to be bowled over by a freight train at any moment.
There are several different anxiety disorders including generalised anxiety disorder, specific phobias, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and social anxiety.
Anxiety is very common and is the most common mental health problem in Australia affecting 17% of the population.
My concerns lie with our younger generations who appear to be struggling a lot with anxiety.
I’ve had many conversations with worried parents and teachers about the level of anxiety manifesting in school children. It interferes with their ability to learn, socialise and enjoy their childhood and anxious children can grow onto anxious adults.
We need to be doing things differently and happily, a lot of great work is being done to assist adults, teenagers and children learn to manage their anxiety.
While every person’s experience of anxiety is unique there are several guiding principles that can help everyone.
1. Build self-awareness.
It’s hard to change anything if you don’t know it’s a problem. Be honest, is this level of anxiety something that’s interfering with your life? Are you telling yourself “porkies”? By this I mean those unhelpful self-talk conversations where you’re telling yourself that you’re hopeless, stupid, or unworthy, that there’s no point in trying because it’s all going to be terrible.
Hmmm. Your Oscar-worthy performance of self-depreciation and catastrophising thoughts is unhelpful at best, limiting at worst.
Try reframing that story you’ve been telling yourself.
“I got through this last time I can do it again.”
“I’m doing my best and it will have to do.”
“I know I’m worried by this, but the outcome won’t define who I am as a person.”
Fear is what holds us back.
Fear of being judged.
Fear of failure and even fear of success.
By reframing that fear into seeing it as an opportunity or challenge to learn, and to grow over time helps you to take that first step towards taking back control of your fears and anxiety.
2. Keep things in perspective.
Yes, this can be hard, especially when you’ve trained yourself to see obstacles and setbacks as massive problems that will stop you in your tracks, or worse still lead down into that spiral of negative ruminative thoughts.
Ask, what is the worst thing that can happen?
You fail the exam.
You miss out on the promotion you’ve been hanging out for.
You don’t get the job.
If that’s the worst, then what?
What can you do in that situation? What do you have control over?
What is the likelihood of that worst situation happening?
Is it possible?
We’re very good at filling in the gaps of knowing what will happen with our own narratives. Lacking certainty is uncomfortable.
But if you’re not planning a career writing episodes for ‘Home and Away’, what if you were to start thinking about what you could do if things don’t go as planned?
3. Get in tune with your body.
Those symptoms of anxiety are telling you your body is getting ready to respond. If stress is making it hard to tamper those signals this is where setting the intention to calm down your nervous system can work wonders.
Have you noticed how when you’re stressed or anxious your breathing becomes shallower and faster? Some people even hold their breath.
By deliberately slowing down your rate of breathing you activate the parasympathetic part of your nervous system. It calms you down.
Taking several slow deep breaths is often all that is needed.
Breathwork teachers use this with their clients with great effect.
Find your quiet space of serenity.
Anxious folk are often found running around like headless chooks. They can’t sit still. Their minds are running at a million miles hour full of what-ifs, what’s next and how can I squeeze all what needs to be done in too small a space of time.
The alternative here is to stop running (and that includes running on the spot – I can see you!)
If the thought of taking a breather or a lie down is adding to your anxiety, meditation might not be the solution at this stage, but practicing slowing down and giving yourself permission to be, can be life-changing.
You might not be a candidate for lying on a sun bed around a hotel pool sipping cocktails, but what about a walk at sunset, a trip to your favourite bushland or park or going for a hike, either alone or with some close companions?
My greatest solace comes from spending time walking in a green place.
As soon as I am surrounded by trees I start to relax, shedding stress and tension like an overcoat and welcoming the smells, sounds and vision of nature around me.
I love the quiet where there is no interference by humans, where I can tune in to the different birdsong, the buzz of insects, the rustle of leaves in the wind and the crackle of twigs snapping underfoot as I walk.
That is my bliss and even imagining it is calming.
4. Connect with likeminded others.
As a people person, I love connecting with others, especially those I see as like me. Some of my friends are massive extroverts. They are lovely but I have to limit my exposure to avoid getting swallowed up by their exuberance and volume. I’ve learned it’s OK to quietly disappear, to rest and recharge, and to interact in different ways. This is where WhatsApp and SMS are so helpful in providing connection without the side-serve of hustle and need to speak.
5. Talk with a professional.
If you’re worried about seeing a professional for your anxiety, I was too. But it provided a route to release from my prison. CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy works and practising those new ways of thinking is liberating. Whether you see a counsellor, a psychologist, your GP or a psychiatrist, it’s about finding the right person you feel most comfortable speaking with.
Anxiety is manageable and treatable.
If your little monster has outgrown its box, you can tame that beast too.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health consultant, trainer, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her latest book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.