Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Anxiety & Me : How I Got My Life Back

The last few weeks have been tough in the UK, just as the last couple of years have been tough throughout Europe.

We're facing terror attacks on home soil more often than I've ever known before in my lifetime and it's difficult not to be afraid. Especially so as a parent, when the decisions you make don't only affect you but your little people too.

It's normal to be afraid at times like these. I find it hard to believe anybody who says that hearing about these attacks doesn't frighten them.

They are attacks on our freedom, our way of life - and it's almost impossible not to start second guessing every move you make as a result.

It's difficult for the majority of people right now to face these fears and go about their daily lives as normal. But if you're an anxiety sufferer already, it can be harder still to know how to handle it - how to keep on living your life without becoming completely consumed by panic and fear.

A year ago, I was in a very bad place with my anxiety. I spent a lot of time trying various supplements and products to help (you can read more about these in this article).

The frequent attacks in France left me feeling completely and utterly terrified and for a number of weeks I was so afraid of the potential horrors that may lurk outside my door that I didn't even leave the house. 

Everytime I tried to I would spiral into a panic attack.

I changed our travel plans in a bid to somehow feel as though I had control over our safety as a family.

I turned down amazing opportunities that I earned through this blog, including an all expenses paid trip to Paris to represent the UK with a group of amazing bloggers that I know I would have just loved.

I refused to go anywhere that I thought might be a potential target - crowded shopping centres, cities, our local air show - All because of fear, panic and anxiety.

I remember sitting on the sofa, sobbing as I talked to Jon about how much I longed to take the kids to Disneyland Paris...telling him that I knew I would simply never be able to overcome my fear and anxiety enough to actually be able to do it.

I felt completely helpless and unable to control my fear.

The thought of booking a trip there made me hyperventilate with fear, I would imagine all sorts of awful scenarios in my head about what might happen.

Infact, during a discussion about this very thing, I even ended up falling out with a friend - someone who had first hand experience of terrorist attacks, when she said those words that triggered my panic every time - "We can't allow them to win" - because to me at that time those words were like a red flag to a bull.

At the time, I didn't feel like changing our plans or limiting what we did as a family was "letting them win" - it wasn't about "them" at all. It was about me feeling some level of control over my safety and  the safety of my children, and anything I could do to feel that I was limiting the risk of anything bad happening to them was worth it.

But the thing with thoughts like that, is they have a way of consuming you - of taking away more and more of your freedom. Until eventually, you find yourself second guessing every single step you take. At least that's what happened to me.

It got to a point where I was petrified to even take the kids to the park - I'd spend the whole time standing there, looking around me for any signs of danger, scoping out potential hiding places, safe places we could run to if something awful were to happen.

That's when I realised it had gone too far - I don't think there's anything wrong with feeling afraid or even with being cautious in the current climate, but when you can't step outside your front door without fear of attack so strong that it makes you want to run back inside - it's time to get help.

Because what's the point of even having a life at all if you're too afraid to enjoy it?

A year on, and I've just booked a Christmas trip to Disneyland. It will be our third trip to the resort in the space of a year.

So what's changed?

It certainly isn't the world we live in - if anything terrorist attacks have only become more frequent and closer to home than they were a year ago. 

Instead what has changed is my ability to control my anxiety - to look at things more rationally, to stand back and take in the whole picture without responding immediately in panic. 

I've learnt to regulate what I expose myself to, to modify the self-damaging behaviours I was indulging in previously and as a result of all of those things I feel as though I have my life and my free will back.

I'm not saying that these attacks don't still affect me - of course they do, of course it's a frightening time - but I don't feel so governed by my fear anymore.

Last year, when my 4 year old asked me if we could go to London - my answer was no. It was simply too dangerous.

This year, when he happened to ask again - a few days after the terrorist attacks. My answer was a little bit different. No I don't feel comfortable taking him there right this minute, but yes...I will make plans to take him at some point. We'll stay somewhere I feel a little bit removed from the city, we probably won't use public transport and we'll most certainly stay clear of the bridges - but we'll go. In a way that I feel is safe for us.

It may not seem like much of an achievement to those who swear by "Going on as normal" and "Not letting them win"...but it's a HUGE achievement for me.

And so I wanted to share how I've reached this point, to talk about all of the things that I feel have helped me so that if you are suffering in the same way - you too might be able to find some relief.


I cannot advocate enough the importance of seeking professional help for anxiety and panic disorder. I don't think I would be doing as well as I am today without it, in fact I think I'd most likely be in exactly the same place as I was last year - too afraid to truly live.

I was referred to the NHS Depression & Anxiety service by my health visitor, but you can ask for a referral from your GP too - after an initial assessment, I was placed with a therapist who I saw for an hour every week from May 2016 until February 2017.

The most commonly used technique is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy but this wasn't what was found to work best for me - instead my therapist used a mix of talking therapies, and exposure therapy to combat my fears.

The sessions were incredibly helpful - they helped me not only to gain a better understanding of my anxiety issues and why I suffer with them, but also taught me some practical techniques on how to control the feelings of anxiety and how to recognise the damaging behaviours I was indulging in and modify them,

Limiting Damaging Behaviour

After a number of sessions with my therapist, it became apparent that I was worsening my own anxiety by regularly seeking out things that triggered it.

One of my biggest triggers is terror attacks, yet whenever one occurred I would spend hours reading about it - having to know every detail, having to pour over obituaries for the victims, having to play it all out in my mind as though I was there myself. I would obsess over the news, I would constantly seek out new information.

I told myself that it was important to do this for two reasons - to honour the memory of the dead, and to find information that would help me to protect myself and my family in the future. 

My therapist pointed out that this was in fact a form of self-harm - I knew that reading these articles and looking at this information would upset me to the point of a panic attack, but I kept doing it anyway.

She taught me to recognise what I was doing as damaging and harmful, and how to redirect my behaviour - everytime I found myself looking at things likely to upset me, I would have to go and wash the dishes. By physically removing myself from the room and the situation, I was training my mind to come away from what was damaging me. I found this technique very useful.

Since then, I have also stopped reading/watching the news altogether. People often to react to this with shock - a lot of people like to tell me that I'm burying my head in the sand, but I disagree. I don't need to hear about every atrocity that occurs in the world to know its a damaged place - believe me I have read enough through the years to know that. I know that watching the news is not going to do anything other than fill me with even more fear - and that is not going to achieve anything good.

The most important role in my life is to be a strong and stable mother to my children, and so my mental health has to be my main priority - keeping up with the horrors of the world is not good for that. And so, I have to let it go.

I deleted the news app from my phone, I turn the radio off when it comes on in the car and we never turn the news channels on TV - and do you know what? I feel a million times lighter for it!

Keeping Hold Of The Facts

It's easy to become consumed by the scare-mongering headlines in the media that would have us all believe we are in imminent danger of being killed everytime we dare to step outside, but the facts tell us otherwise.

Yes its scary, yes its easy to believe that we are all doomed - but when you stop to look at the statistics, they can actually be surprising.

Terrorists carry out the attacks that they do with the goal of making us feel besieged, as though we are in imminent danger - so it's important to remember that you are still statistically more likely to be killed by a bee sting than you are to be caught up in a terrorist attack.

 That, despite what the newspaper headlines would have us believe about radicalisation, it is simply NOT as commonplace as you might think - there are far fewer extremists out there than there are normal, decent, good people.

And there is a reason that the number of terrorist attacks and the number of people killed is relatively low in the grand scheme of things (of course ANY amount of people killed is still too high, I am not trying to trivialise the attacks that have occurred...) but if ISIS and its followers were able to kill more of us, they WOULD be - but they are not. Because they can't. There are not enough of them, they do not have the finances - they are already doing as much damage as they can. And while that is still frightening and still too much - it's simply not true that there is a terrorist lurking around every corner waiting to strike.

I also find it helpful to keep in mind the number of planned attacks that are foiled every week by our intelligence agencies - yes it is terrible that even one or two slip through the net, but the fact is that the majority of planned attacks are stopped.

Taking Action

A battle with anxiety is never something that is won overnight, and there are still aspects of my life that I don't feel completely in control of. For example, I'm still SO scared of flying.

But the difference is that I no longer feel comfortable allowing those fears to rule me or control my life - for years I have chosen not to take holidays abroad because I have been too afraid to set foot on a plane, but I no longer feel comfortable living that way.

Instead I am choosing to take active steps to conquer these remaining fears. This year I have booked onto a fear of flying course - because I don't want to allow my anxiety to keep that hold over me, I want to be proactive in beating it.

Whatever fears I face in the future, I want to be sure never to allow them to get a grip of me again - and I believe that being proactive in addressing and managing those fears is the best way to beat them.

Keeping An Anxiety Diary 

This was a technique that my therapist used and one which I found really useful - throughout the day I make a note of the things that have left me feeling anxious, no matter how big or small they seem. I score them based on how anxious they made me feel, and at the end of the week I look back over my diaries to see if I can identify any particular patterns. 

Whenever one particular thing is causing me a lot of anxiety, I analyse it in more detail - I ask myself what in particular is making me feel anxious, what is the worst thing that could happen as a result of it and what is the best possible outcome. I then look at possible ways I can alleviate some of the anxiety - for example, if I'm nervous about visiting a busy place - can I find a more direct route, can I avoid public transport, can I rearrange for a less busy time?

 I find that breaking things down into smaller details helps me to understand what is causing me to feel anxious, and that in itself helps to remove some of the anxiety.

Happiness Triggers

Just as there are certain things in life that trigger feelings of panic and anxiety, there are things we can use to trigger feelings of happiness and contentment.

These things will of course be different for every person, for me personally the things that brings me comfort are simple things like favourite movies - happy musicals such as La La Land or Grease are ideal for taking my mind away from negative thoughts and making me uplifted again, funny books or blogs can also be great for distracting me away from negativity and making me feel light again.  I also find meditation apps such as Headspace or very useful when I can feel myself starting to panic.

I think it's really important to have a go-to Happiness/Calm Trigger whatever it may be for you.

Square Breathing

Sometimes, despite my best efforts, panic will still take over. I think that will probably always be the case...but that doesn't mean there aren't steps I can take to get my control back quickly.

For me, the best response to feelings of panic is the square breathing exercise - this involves sitting up straight, preferably with my back against a wall if possible, and focusing my attention on something that is square in shape such as a window or wall.

I then trace the edges of the square with my eyes - breathing in as I slowly trace along one edge, holding that breath as I trace along the next edge, breathing out slowly as I trace along the next and then holding again for the next.

I repeat this pattern until my breath feels controlled and the anxiety has passed - it may sound silly but it's incredible how much this exercise helps and  how fast it calms me!

I hope that some of these techniques will be useful for other anxiety sufferers too, and I hope that if you're suffering you're able to reach out for help - nobody should have to live their life in the clutches of anxiety.

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