You rock up to your new therapist’s office, settle into your new regular perch for weekly outpourings of angst and believe that this time, THIS TIME, you’ll kick anxiety’s butt once and for all…
Then your therapist says…
“We’re not going to try to get rid of your anxiety completely…that’s a tall order”
“You’ll probably always have some anxious thoughts….”
What the fuck am I even doing here…!?
“We need to change how you feel about things…”
This started to make sense….after all, anxiety is an illness that is created in our brains. And whilst some of what goes on in our noggins is out of our control, some of it is within our control.
If you break a leg, and it heals, it may still have some weakness in it. You need to build the muscles up around it to support it. Same with the head I guess. I will always have that vulnerability. But there are certain things I can practice to build my mental muscles.
And that starts with perception. I can either stamp my feet and say it’s not fair that I got lumbered with this stupid bloody disorder, or look at it differently.
One of my previous therapists described my anxiety as being like a meerkat. Because I’m always on high alert,. always looking out for danger.
I’d much rather trundle through life with a cute little meerkat on my back than a dark demon of doom which is how I often viewed anxiety. That dark demon does make a reappearance from time to time, but I see the meerkat much more often now.
It’s the same with the anxious thoughts. When the meerkat starts delivering them they feel a bit more manageable. I can even find humour in them. I can forgive them for making an appearance.
It reminded me of meeting blogger and author Claire Eastham for the first time when she was speaking at a Time to Change event. As she stood to speak to the audience she admitted she was shitting herself. And I realised I didn’t think any less of her for it. In fact, I liked her a bit more for it.
So why did I give myself a hard time for experiencing nerves? Why was I so determined to kick those thoughts to the side and bury them beneath a false sheen of confidence?
Pretending it (anxiety, low self-esteem, whatever) doesn’t exist isn’t a very effective way of dealing with it. So I followed Claire’s lead.
When I launched my book in February I was in the midst of a particularly bad anxiety episode. So in addition to the usual nerves around public speaking, I had that dark demon hitting me over the head with a heavy brick of doom.
But rather than pretend I was super confident about the whole thing, I informed the lovely manager at Waterstones of my fears of peeing my pants whilst speaking to an audience. I told her that, if I got too panicky, I’d run away to the loo and perhaps we could make light of it – make a joke of it? After all, I was there to talk about anxiety…
It felt like a weight had been lifted. I wasn’t pretending. And I turned that frightening doom into a cute meerkat on high alert.
I didn’t find it funny when I ran away full of panic half way through an all-staff meeting in the theatre years ago. Or when I left my shopping trolley in the queue and legged it, beetroot-faced and full of panic, to the loo. I didn’t need to go on either occasion. And I felt really stupid for what happened – and built up more dread about it happening again in the future.
Similarly, I was on the train to London recently to meet a journalist for work. The train trolley service wasn’t accepting cards and I had no cash. So I’d missed out on my morning cuppa. I suddenly remembered that I couldn’t pour from the milk jugs that the cafe we were meeting at delivered with your pot of tea. Shit. I NEED A CUP OF TEA. I’ll have to order a latte instead. BUT I WANT A CUP OF TEA.
I chuckled. This may have shrouded me in dread previously. But I could see the ridiculousness in it today. And it made me laugh. Meerkat again.
So instead of trying to hide this anxious thought, I used it as an ice breaker. I told the journalist I was highly likely to cover the table in milk, quickly armed myself with a napkin and when the offending jug arrived, he gave me a top tip: hold it high and pour it fast.
Instead of trying to hide this anxious thought, I used it as an ice breaker…
The whole milk jug incident even sparked interesting conversation about eastern and western philosophy. Apparently with western philosophy, we can often feel like it’s us against the world, me against the milk jug.
But in eastern philosophy it’s about how we interact with the world, about how I interact with the milk jug.
You know, like how can I ensure that my relationship with this milk jug is improved? Well, the napkin, the advice and the jokes about it were the result of an improved relationship with said milk jug. I’ll happily order tea from there next time.
Similarly with anxiety – how do I change my relationship with it? I perceive it differently. I enjoy its quirks when I can. It doesn’t take the fear away all of the time, but it makes some of it more bearable, amusing even.
My husband, Chris Connel, is an actor who has performed in front of thousands of people at a time – from the Broadway stage to the Metro Radio Arena.
He also delivers presentation training and one thing he says is that we should try to embrace the nerves we feel before going on the stage or speaking to an audience. Again, don’t try to fight them off, use them. Just like I used the milk jug as a conversation starter.
He says, rather than think about how terrible stage fright is, take it somewhere else. Associate it with those feelings you felt at Christmas as a child. The physical symptoms are the same after all.
He also says that without a bit of stage excitement (as we shall call it from now on) you can become complacent. He feels that this nervous energy can drive a brilliant performance.
So really, don’t beat yourself up for having anxious thoughts. Simply look at them through a different lens and giggle with them. Find the positives in them. It won’t work for everything – of course it wont. Anxiety as an illness is difficult to manage. But it might just help you strike a balance and manage your expectations. The panic attack and obsessive thoughts are tough enough to deal with on their own. You don’t need pee fears and milk jugs on top of them.
After all, there’s no point crying over spilled milk.