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My experience with anxiety has been a long and winding one. I knew I was ‘shy’ from a young age – hiding behind my Dad in public, crying in the corner at ballet class, talking to no one but my best friend at Brownies…
But things kicked up a gear when I was 15, and I started having panic attacks. Suddenly, I was exposed to a dark side to life where things could go wrong; it was the ultimate in losing control, I thought I was dying and on top of that, I thought I was losing my mind too.
Fast forward to 2010 and anxiety had been holding me back and poisoning my mind for nearly ten years. I’d had countless panic attacks, millions of obsessive worries, several trips to the doctors, and god knows how many missed friendships, messed up relationships, times I’d doubted myself, restrained the real me and been really, really mean to myself. Finally, at 24 years old I realised I needed help.
But change didn’t happen overnight. It was a steady process of slowly learning to open up and talk about how I was feeling (I found this SO hard at first), trying different techniques and therapies, reading every self-help book I can get my hands on, and learning to accept myself.
I now feel so honoured to be able to help other people who feel the same way I felt.
Today, I’m sharing the key tools and insights that helped me the most. I hope they help you too.
A few years ago I came across a quote ‘Make peace of mind your priority and organise your life around it’ by Brian Tracey. When I read it, it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I realised that for ages, I’d been prioritising ‘achievement’ ‘work’ and ‘being busy’ at the expense of my mental health and happiness. I’d been comparing myself to others and believing that I needed to be ‘successful’ to be happy. When I started to make peace of mind my goal in life, everything changed. I started making time for things that made me feel good and decided that taking care of myself was my primary job. The funny thing was that as I did this, every area of my life improved. My relationships got better as I had more to give, my work life grew because I could think more clearly and creatively and I became so much happier.
This was an incredibly important step for me in overcoming my anxiety. It’s something that I learned through therapy as well as my training as a hypnotherapist. We all carry old beliefs from our past. As kids we’re like sponges, absorbing things that Mum and Dad tell us, stuff our teachers say, and giving meaning to the experiences we have. As the oldest child of three, I’d felt a need to be a ‘good girl’ because I didn’t want to upset my Mum – who would get very stressed when my Dad was working away. I’d taken on a belief that I needed to be ‘perfect’ to in order to be ‘liked’ and I carried this belief into adulthood. This meant I put a lot of pressure on myself; suppressing the real me around new people and never feeling good enough.
The first step to making a change is to identify what negative beliefs are holding you back. The second step is to create a new belief and start telling yourself that new belief on a regular basis. For me, it was ‘I am good enough just as I am’ and I used hypnotherapy (which helps us to embed new positive beliefs into the subconscious mind) and positive self-talk to change that old view into the new, more supportive one.
There’s a saying – ‘Fear shrinks when you walk towards it’ and I absolutely know this to be true. Anxiety makes you want to hide from your fears, which is totally understandable. The fear can feel paralysing and impossible to overcome at times. But challenging myself to move out of my comfort zone was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Whenever you do something you’re afraid to do, you’re PROVING to yourself ‘I can do this, it’s safe, I’m ok’ and the more you do this, the more confident, capable and calm you become. Things like going to networking events, public speaking and travelling alone would have once seemed impossible for me, but now they’re things I enjoy. The only reason I can do them now is that I slowly pushed myself further and further out of my comfort zone, growing my confidence in the process.
Finally learning to calm my mind
I believed for years that I was just one of those people who ‘couldn’t’ meditate. I couldn’t sit still, closing my eyes felt boring and it made me too aware of my racing heart. I resisted it for years. Finally, I discovered something that yogis of India have known for millennia. It’s called meditation ‘practice’, not meditation ‘perfection’. I let go of needing to be good at meditating, just doing my 15 minutes dutifully each day and throwing in a few yoga stretches beforehand, and something ‘clicked’. The trick is to not beat yourself up if your mind wanders during meditation; you simply bring your awareness back to your breath (or mantra) as soon as you notice it’s drifted. Having thoughts during meditation is totally normal and doesn’t mean you have failed. The thing that convinced me to really give meditation a try was learning about the science behind it when it comes to anxiety. It changes our brains, reducing the part responsible for the fight or flight response (the amygdala) and helping the part of our brain that thinks about the future (the frontal cortex) to become more calm and rational. I started to feel results gradually, and after a few months of regular practice, I felt as though I’d rewired my brain.
A big thing for me was learning to float rather than fight against my feelings. Sounds counterintuitive right? Why wouldn’t you want to fight your anxiety, it’s the baddie, isn’t it?
But when the famous psychiatrist Carl Jung said ‘What you resist, persists’ he had a point, especially when it comes to anxiety. Ever found that the harder to fight against your worries or feelings of panic, the worse they get? For me, learning to float with any anxious feelings, relax with them and allow them to be there meant that they started to reduce on their own. It’s a bit like being in the sea and allowing your body to be supported by the salt water, rather than thrashing and fighting against the tides. If we fight, we just end up exhausted and panicked but if we relax and float, we are supported.
Being kinder to myself
Sounds so obvious – so how come we don’t do it? Self-compassion is one of the most important things we do for ourselves in life, and for anxiety, it’s crucial. Self-compassion is like a cushion against the difficulties of life. It makes everything easier. I thought that giving myself a hard time was motivating me to do better, but in fact beating myself up was holding me back. It sapped my motivation and meant I was too scared to try things, knowing I’d give myself hell if I felt I’d failed. These days, I choose to live my life as though it’s all a ‘training montage’ from an 80’s or 90’s film. Failure is inevitable, but I get up and try again. All the while I remember that my ‘audience’ (my friends and family) love and support me no matter what and that I grow and learn all the time. We are all in our own training montage, failure is never final and being kind to ourselves (and others) and trusting in the process is all we need to do.