After several years of living with anxiety, you don’t always notice it so much.
It’s always there, sure, but it might be sitting in the back seat of the car twiddling its thumbs, looking out the window for the next thing to alert you about. Maybe sometimes it leans forward and taps you on the shoulder, to let you know you’re not worrying enough.
When you’re driving through beautiful landscapes and can see wonderful things ahead, you can almost forget it’s even there.
But of course, when you turn the corner to find a scene you never expected, or when you pull up to a crossroads and aren’t quite sure which way to go, anxiety likes to jump out of the back seat and into your lap.
You forgot how controlling anxiety could be until it grabs the steering wheel and lurches the car from one direction to another, causing you to weep, and gasp for air from sheer panic whilst beating yourself up that you lost grip on the wheel, even though it was anxiety’s fault in the first place.
Anxiety jumped back into my lap last month.
I should have expected it of course, after losing two much loved people from my life in the space of about six weeks. But being human, we like to keep driving don’t we, and carrying on whatever happens along the road.
I started to feel stressed about small things, like meeting up with a friend on a weekend and planning how I was going to get there.
I woke up one Saturday morning and felt more anxious than I did on a workday (when my routine is all laid out for me), because getting tasks done like laundry and food shopping felt too much.
I was going for dinner with friends that night and started to worry about money. I worried about the train journey there and the upcoming birthday cards I needed to buy and presents I needed to sort. What about the bunny supplies I needed to buy? And the prescription I hadn’t yet picked up?
All of these normally quite small and straightforward things felt overwhelming.
I worried about the friends I hadn’t messaged enough recently, or the friends I had recently messaged that I hadn’t yet heard back from. The list goes on.
I realised when I started to think about it more clearly, how it all linked back to what had happened. Searching for some kind of reassurance, I came across an article about grief and anxiety that summed it up…
In it the author points out that “Grieving people often feel that they have lost their sense of safety and control in life, and they find themselves panicking or worrying excessively about what or whom else they could lose in the future.”
This was exactly how I felt. That underlying fear was throwing out everything else, and no wonder. Everything was starting to feel too fragile, too uncertain.
And it still does – I haven’t miraculously thrown anxiety out the window of the car since then. But acknowledging its renewed presence has helped a little. I spoke to Aaron. I spoke to a friend over coffee. I cancelled a plan. (Bailing is a pet-hate of mine but after realising how how much anxiety it was giving me just working out how to get there, I explained to my very lovely friend and she understood completely.) I spent some time on my own, just me and my laptop. I ate some yummy food. I cuddled our pets. I ticked some things off my to-do list, one by one. I watched some telly (I’ve found Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up to be an immensely calming watch). I went a little bit easier on myself.
All of these little things are coping strategies I come back to.
There’s no cure for anxiety but there are ways to manage it. I think the car analogy came to mind from reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful book, “Big Magic”, in which she describes the idea of going on a road trip with creativity, knowing that fear will come along with her everywhere she goes.
“You’re allowed to have a seat”, she says to fear, “and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”
Whether your anxiety has been triggered by grief or something else – perhaps even by something you can’t put your finger on – this is a gentle reminder from me to you that you’re not alone and that this isn’t forever. Anxiety might jump into the driving seat but it doesn’t get to stay there and call the shots.
Small things like the strategies I’ve mentioned might help. I know for a lot of people, exercise makes a big difference. Or you might need help from a qualified expert (which I am of course not) whether that’s in the form of CBT, counselling or perhaps medication. I’ve had all three and there’s no shame in any of it – prioritising my mental health is one of the most important things I’ve ever done.
I hope if you’re struggling that you can take some healthy steps forward to cope. And that if this isn’t you at the moment, that you’re able to look out for friends and family feeling this way (I also wrote a post called 5 things you can do for a friend struggling with their mental health which might be helpful).
I’m sending you all the love and encouragement that this truly will pass.
Charity proving advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem.
The charity that provides a 24/7 free phone line for people who need to talk to someone (116 123 in the UK).
Online CBT treatment for people feeling stressed, depressed or anxious.