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My Gifts From Anxiety

I’ve learned that my particular brand of anxiety – or poor mental health, is triggered by been out of whack with my values. When I’m not true to myself, when I don’t stand up for and act on what I believe in, when I don’t focus only on what I can impact, when I don’t practice acceptance, when I try to conform with others who might think, feel and behave differently, when I find myself in environments where optics matter more than humans – it triggers me.

I feel myself shrinking, I feel less than, I sometimes feel panicky, even now, even after I’ve spent decades working in health, teaching, and using psychology and neuroscience. I’m lucky, I recognise the pattern and have plenty of strategies for managing myself, most so well practices they happen almost by default.

It wasn’t always like that though…

My anxiety started in my last year of school, I had no idea why, nothing major happened to me, I didn’t have a traumatic childhood, I was doing ok at school, I had friends and a plan for my future. Then anxiety set in, I couldn’t stay in the classroom, I suffered panic attacks, then I couldn’t go out of the house, then my bedroom – my world shrunk, my dreams of university and been a teacher along with it. I didn’t understand why or what triggered this anxiety until many, many years later.

I was lucky, I had a supportive family, my dad in particular, he knew when to hold on tight and when to loosen the reigns. He helped me navigate my way out of my bedroom and back into the world, and when I felt strong enough to actually sit some A levels – in my 20’s, my dad came too. I said I wanted to study politics, he said so did he, we both knew why he was there really and neither of us needed to speak of it – and we both got an A level out of it. This picture is from our last trip up Snowdon, dad was in his late 80’s, I think he still held the reigns.

I learned how to control my physiology first, becoming a nurse helped me with that, and then eventually I learned that a lot of what went on in my head was my own creation. At that point I realised just how powerful I was, and more importantly I felt back in the driving seat. I stopped arranging my life to avoid situations I found stressful and learned to manage my busy brain as well as my physiology.

Perhaps the biggest gift anxiety has given me is the very thing I believe kicked it all off, the need to be true to myself, even when I’m out of whack with everyone else. At school this was often the case, not with my friends, sometimes with my classmates, and frequently with the teaching team and establishment! I felt weirdly at odds with most of the things my school espoused, and some of the behaviours I witnessed from those in leadership positions felt alien to me as a human. I couldn’t help myself, if something felt wrong, I spoke out. I think the seat outside my headmistress’s office was reserved for me, the number of times I got sent there.

Eventually, I started to internalise things, spoke out less and suffered more, a series of unfortunate events, a tennis accident, a chess tournament, and a geography class left me too anxious to go to school. In those days there was no attempt made by school to accommodate, or even explore my challenges – there was something wrong with me, better to just hide me away.

25 years on my bestie from school, who I’m still great friends with today, persuaded me to go to a reunion with her, mostly because she didn’t want to go alone. In the days running up to the event I was in a real spin, I didn’t want to go, I felt all the old emotions, felt stupid that the last time most of this people saw me would have likely been in a full-blown panic attack, cue shame, fear and ridicule – how could I possibly show my face.

This was balanced by the human I have become, or maybe always was. My friend needed me, it was only a couple of hours, I’d faced much worse and survived, – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, nothing as it happens, I went having worked hard on grounding myself first, I went and I was truly surprised by other’s reactions everything from ‘we always knew you’d do well’ ‘you were always so brave’ – ‘you stuck up for everyone’ and only one person spoke of that geography class – ‘That teacher was wrong, I didn’t dare say anything, none of us did,’   

The reason for sharing this reunion story is that we each have our own version of reality, based on our experiences, memories, and the emotion we attach to them, my perception of being a freak at the end of my school journey, was a long way from other’s perceptions – the suffering I’d caused myself from running and rerunning my version fuelled my anxiety for a long time.

Sometimes we need to consciously choose what we focus on, what we say to ourselves, and how we manage our physiological state to keep ourselves from suffering. This can feel silly and unreal yet it works, you calm yourself, your neurochemistry changes, you get out of fight /flight and have better access to the logical parts of your brain. It takes time and practice, and it may not cure your anxiety, but it will give you one more tool to help you live with it.

You might be thinking it’s ok for you, you got better – and I have, only because I understand what triggers me, and I have tools to manage myself.

Perhaps the biggest lesson was we all have our own challenges – poor mental health, shows up in many ways, some obvious, some deeply camouflaged –like super confident, life and soul of the party, always right. I’ve learned to always look beyond the behaviour and see the human,   

I wouldn’t dream of telling you how to manage your own mental health, but I know this, if you pay attention to yourself, when you feel ok and when you don’t, what helps what gets in the way then you stand a chance of managing your own wellbeing in a way that works for you.

My gift from anxiety, be true to yourself, don’t hide the weird, awkward bits, they might be your genius, as I say frequently to my students, clients and friend  learn to stand in your own imperfect glory, however wobbly you feel.

So, here’s to your imperfect glory,

and thanks for reading.

With love Lynda x

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