Communication is vital when it comes to mental health issues. If we can talk about it, we can normalise it and we can feel less like outsiders. Living with anxiety is already tiring enough without the weight of feeling lonely with it. Anxiety means you are constantly arguing with yourself, constantly feeling as if you are not doing enough and failing at tasks most people complete with ease, so knowing that you are not alone in this is crucial.
This isn’t a book to cure you of your ills, this isn’t a self-help book or a very long motivational speech packaged between irreverent metaphors, this is a ‘how to start looking after yourself’ book, this is a ‘reminder that you can do this’ book.
This is just a basic guide to survival.
A Beginner’s Guide to Anxiety
The one thing to remember is that anxiety doesn’t play by your rules, which is why it can be so hard to diagnose. One of the hardest things you can do is to stand face to face with your mental health problem and scream ‘FUCK YOU’ in its face, or at least, ‘You and I will have a long conversation about this when we get home’, accompanied by that glare your mum used to do when you were in trouble but also in public. My anxious brain is proficient in ignoring my persistent screams to give me a break, even if it’s just for a day or so, but it is important to keep screaming, to keep letting it know that we won’t stop screaming at it. Anxiety is erratic, unpredictable and fucking annoying, but the worst thing you can do is pretend that this isn’t happening.
So welcome to the anxious brain, it’s bloody awful in here.
My Anxious Brain vs. The Morning
Yes, it’s a simple thing, but even if you aren’t planning to leave the house today, you will have done something.
This will make you feel like you are ready to leave the house, even if you have absolutely no intention of doing so. Similarly to the above, it’s about convincing yourself that you are achieving something with your day even if you have already resigned yourself to a day of YouTube videos and a bucketful of toast.
Invite a friend round.
You don’t have to tidy your house, just a bit of human interaction can give your brain a little bit of calm.
Don’t want to see someone in real life today? Skype someone. FaceTime someone. Call someone. Having someone else to listen to instead of your own thoughts can be invaluable.
Plot your routes outside.
This sounds stupid, but it has worked for me so I am putting it in. If you are concerned about going outside or are simply avoiding it entirely, use Google Maps’ street view, and do a practice run of whatever walk or journey you need/want to do. It’s a simple activity to pre-empt any triggers that may be out there.
My Anxious Brain vs. Commuting
Proper preparation. Know where you are going and go earlier than you need to just in case anything goes wrong. Plan different routes just in case and have backup plans – you probably won’t need them but in the back of your mind you’ll feel calmer for having a plan B.
Pack anything that can take your mind to a different place: books, portable games consoles, stupid little apps on your phone that involve moving one cube from that bit to that other bit – anything that can cause a little bit of escapism for your weary noggin.
What can work, even if it may seem a little silly, is taking a little bag of ‘anxiety treats’. A ziplock bag to keep in your cabin bag that contains things to distract you on the journey. A small notepad and pen in case you want to keep an ‘anxiety log’ of how you are doing every fifteen minutes during your journey, no YOU’RE obsessive. Some sweets (or, for you Americans, candies) to keep your blood sugar high, a stress ball or something similar to keep your fingers busy. It can be whatever you need, just keep them close.
These can be simple breathing exercises done quietly – you don’t want people to think you’re going into labour as this could result in people bringing you towels and hot water against your will. Raising one foot off the ground and turning it in circular motions to give you something to concentrate on, rolling your neck, tapping your index finger to your thumb in successions of four: any exercise you can find that helps you keep your mind in your current situation without it overloading.
My Anxious Brain vs. Work
Have someone you can talk to
This doesn’t need to be someone in the office. If everyone you work with is a complete arsehole, then you don’t want to divulge the innermost workings of your anxiety-ridden mind box to them. Send a friend a message, send a loved one a message – giving yourself a brief few seconds of escapism by focusing your energy on a constant that exists outside of work can be a great way of keeping you grounded. If the first two options aren’t available, simply speak to people on your social media, there will always be someone to reply.
Lay off the caffeine
Yes coffee is awesome, but when you’re seven coffees in, it’s only 10 a.m. and you’re screaming at Mike from Accounts, whose T-shirt is now strobing and giving you a headache, it’s obvious that you need a new vice. All caffeine does is fuel whatever state of mind you are in at the moment, so if you’re already anxious, now you’re just really fast and anxious. If you’re depressed, now you’re just really fast and depressed. Try herbal teas, water, squash, or even just fruit
Get out of the office (basically get away from work or real life)
Do it. Get the hell out of there. Go for a walk or something and just get your brain out of that space. It sounds obvious
but this is one that genuinely helps me on a day-to-day basis. Put your headphones on, listen to a good podcast or a playlist and even just a twenty-minute walk, or a walk to a park and then chilling out on a bench, will give your brain enough time to do a little reset
Drink plenty of water
Every book on mental health ever written will tell you to drink plenty of water throughout your day. It’s either something to do with dehydration being linked to poor mental health or the mental health illuminati have stocks in the water industry and I’ve just stumbled upon one of the biggest conspiracies of our time.
My Brain vs. Socialising
Identify your comfort zones
We are most comfortable when we feel safe. That safety can be a place or a person. If you are feeling anxious about going somewhere, pick a place you know – perhaps a place you’ve been to many times – and you will feel like you are battling on home ground. If your safety blanket is a person (a partner, a friend, a colleague) ask them to join you, to support you, then if worst comes to worst, you have someone you know to speak to and to make light of the situation you are in.
The only person demanding more from you is you
This may be a recurring theme in this book, but stop being so fucking hard on yourself. The people you meet aren’t expecting you to be the best person in the entire world, they are expecting you to be you. My social anxiety derives from crippling low self-esteem – a need to impress and show off and create a persona that people will like. Your friends, your colleagues, your family, know that this isn’t you. They aren’t expecting anything of you, just your company, which is important to them, so take a deep breath and do what you can.
Excuse yourself when you need to
Yes, it’s that pesky flight response again, but sometimes you need it. If you start to feel like you can’t handle this, or that you are uneasy, feeling ill or like your brain is on fire, bail. You are allowed to. Go home, make a cup of tea and think about what caused you to leave. The crowd? The noise? The fear that you were boring? Identify that and rationalise it and use it to help you in the next scenario. Because in the end – in the nicest possible way – no one else cares as much as you. Trust me.
Look after yourself
No one can look after you like you. Real life is not like in the films where you are saved by the strapping hero – you have to save yourself. Yes, other people can help you stand back up, but you’re the one who has to remain standing.
Don’t put yourself in situations you know you can’t handle. Breathe. Self-care is vital here.
Practice makes perfect
It’s baby steps. Try half an hour of being sociable, then next time try forty-five minutes. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, but push yourself that extra little bit and you’ll be able to fall into a pattern you can handle. It’s like stretching: right now I can’t touch my toes but with daily stretching, I’d have my leg over my shoulder in no time. Probably. I’m not going to try this
My Brain vs. The Internet
Your online persona is your own. You can use it however you want (as long as you’re not being a dick – don’t be a dick, we all have to suffer Donald Trump tweets every day already, and the world can only take so much fuckwittery). Converse, be supportive. If you see someone struggling, or you think they aren’t doing so well, send a short message; you have no idea what that will mean to them. If you haven’t got anything to say, read. Read other people’s experiences and know you are not alone and there are millions of people who have written about their problems; you may just find a kindred spirit in a complete stranger. And if you still feel low, there are plenty of funny cat videos on YouTube.
Don’t read the comments
It seems like this has been a (not so) secret rule of the Internet for some time now. You only need to look at one Daily Mail comment section to find the worst in humanity. The Internet is like real life: those with the most ignorant opinions are usually the loudest. However, if you write something – anything – about your own experiences, read the comments. HYPOCRISY KLAXON. But for every troll, for every person trying to get a rise out of you, there will be a hundred people supporting you. Yes, the human brain is predisposed towards ignoring the positive and engulfing itself in the negative, but skip past them, delete them, mute them and read the positive ones over and over again like a mantra. The negative comments say more about them than you, always.
Like your friends’ selfies
A lot of people mock others for taking selfies and posting them online, but the fact of the matter here is that selfies don’t hurt anyone. That person has taken a selfie because they feel good about themselves that day; a simple double tap or a like can help that person’s self-confidence, let them know that someone out there is with them that day and digitally tell them: ‘Hey, you look awesome today, you are doing awesome and KEEP BEING AWESOME GOD DAMN YOU!’ … I got a bit carried away there but the message stands.
Look after yourself
Self-care is as important online as it is in real life. Your online experience is your own, so don’t put yourself through anything you wouldn’t do in normal life. Avoid articles that could trigger any mental negativity, avoid tabloid websites, avoid self-diagnosis. Remember, for every bad thing on the Internet, there are thousands of nice things, there are people celebrating something worth smiling about, there are people spending their time making jokes for you to find funny, there are even Instagram accounts that are just pictures of piglets trundling around the place.
My Anxious Brain vs. A Global Pandemic
After years of our anxious brains telling us everything is going to go to shit and our fight or flight systems trying test runs at every opportunity, we are all in a situation that we have prepared for, even though the preparation was against our will. The secret to you getting through this, just like any mental health problem you will experience, is completely individual – your recovery is unique to you and only you will know what works for you.
It’s all about tiny achievements. Yes, you’re stuck at home, yes, this is shit, but you brushed your teeth today and kept it together. That’s a fucking win.
To put it frankly, this entire thing is shit, but we can only do our best, in whatever guise that may be. You’re up and about? Great! You brushed your teeth today? FUCK YEAH. You put on underwear? Alright, calm down, stop showing off. Things will go back to normal eventually, and until then look after your brain please.
Right now it’s ok to be just fine – as long as you’re fine, you’re doing fucking great.