The power of words

Words are powerful things especially when it comes to anxietyPanic attacks and high anxiety is often perpetuated by the ongoing dialogue we have in our minds about what the anxiety symptoms might be, or what might happen, or what we should have done, or what we should be doing.  Often we are beating ourselves up with words; calling ourselves names.I have used words in my head to do all of these things.  If I ever said them out loud and people disagreed with me, I would just continue the dialogue in my head with “but you don’t understand…” or “but you don’t see the truth..” or “but you’re just saying that…”

However, the fact that words are so powerful in a negative way means they can also be powerful in a positive way.  One of the ways you can tap into this is affirmations.  I know, they are often portrayed as being said by high flying business people who already have an inflated ego but they really did help me!

I didn’t just pick a phrase and say it though, it needs to counteract the negative things you are already saying.  The first thing I did was spend a week catching all the negative things I said to myself.  This can be easier said than done because sometimes we don’t even know we are doing it and we can also do it a lot.  But I wrote it all done in a notebook.  At the end of each day put them into categories and by the end of the week you should have some themes about what you are saying.  Some of my negatives were: “I not good enough”, “It is my fault”, “I’m always going to be like this”.  There was also lots of ‘should’ statements and the biggy was that I didn’t deserve to get better and live normally.

Once you have these you can start making counter statements for them.  You need to at least partly believe them so begin to look for evidence that these statements are not true then write a positive statement.  For example to counteract “I’m not good enough” I wrote “I do the best I can every day.  This is good enough for the important people in  my life.  The better I get, the more I will be able to do.”  This may not seem the most positive statement ever but at the time it was the most I could believe.

I did this for about 20 different statements.  I then copied them out every day for two weeks and after that read them.  If I heard myself arguing against this, I tried as much as possible to find evidence to prove my positive statement.

It did get easier, particularly as I felt better and I recommend that if you are struggling with anxiety you give it a go.  It alone will not stop it but this, along with other things I have talked Continue Reading »

Breath Easy


Breathe (Photo credit: sausyn)

hyperventilating is a major part of a panic attack that can make us feel light-headed, detached from the world and weak.  It is terrifying and this is how the cycle starts because you become afraid of the panic attack which in itself creates anxiety.

I have been a sufferer of panic attacks for many years and when things are bad can have up to five or six a day.  However, in between panic attacks or when I am feeling stressed, I can feel dizzy and light-headed anyway which make me feel anxious.  It isn’t a panic attack but if a panic attack is ten on a scale of one to ten, this is an eight or nine and this can last all day.

What I discovered was that I was shallow breathing all the time, not quite enough to hyperventilate but enough add to my anxiety.  I also discovered that I had been doing it for so long that my body thought it was normal.  I had to learn to breathe normally again.

Read most literature and they will tell you 15 minutes of deep relaxation a day is beneficial, but because the thought of focussing on my breath made me anxious, this seemed an impossible task.  I hate the feeling of deep relaxation – it frightens me.  As soon as I focus on my breathing it no longer feel natural then I get fixated that I’m not breathing enough or a breathing too much.  So I started by simply trying to breathe to a count of seven and out to a count of seven ten times.  At first I could only count to four and only do that three times before I got anxious.  I didn’t much like the feeling of breathing in so deeply – it made me feel full, I’d almost say it actually hurt – but I did it every day and slowly built up to ten times in a row.  By now I was less scared of it and ventured into other relaxation like deep muscle relaxation and also some yoga.

I didn’t get very far with those but I found quite quickly that simple spending three or four minutes a day on purposefully breathing deeply made a difference.  I was less dizzy and light-headed and I did have less panic attacks.

When I began to feel better, although I kept running, I stopped practicing breathing – I never meant to but suddenly life got in the way (I could actually go places).  The last week or so have been difficult for me and I have begun to feel dizzy and light-headed again.  This post is to remind me and hopefully some of you that a little bit of practice can make a difference.

I am going to find three or four minutes a day simply to breathe.

I would love to hear if you have similar experiences to mine.

Exercise and Anxiety

56/365 morning run

Exercise really does help.  It is not going to cure you, it is not going to make all the difficult and horrible thoughts that go with anxiety go away, it will not even make any of the symptoms go away completely.  But what it does do is make you feel better for a few moments a day and can make some of the symptoms of a panic attack easier to deal with.

The science bit is that regular exercise speeds up your metabolism which means your body uses things up quicker.  So with a faster metabolism, when adrenaline is released during a panic attack, the body should be able to get rid of it quicker therefore reducing the length and strength of the attack.  Exercise also releases extra endorphins which make you feel happier.  If you are severely depressed it is not going to make you see sunshine all the tim,e but it does make you feel better enough to see hope so you can tackle some of the symptoms in other ways.  In my experience the better you feel the stronger this effect is so once you start keep going.

From a personal perspective what exercise does is give me a sense of achievement.  When I struggled to leave the house, going for a 25 minute run meant I had actually got out of the house.  Running for me is ideal because I can go at any time, it is free, it only takes up the time to run (I don’t have to get anywhere) and I don’t have to be with other people to do it.

I’m sure that if you are reading this and are struggling so much with anxiety that you can’t leave the house very much you are thinking this task seems impossible but here are my tips for getting some exercise:

Whilst I will focus mainly on running, the exercise doesn’t have to be this.  If leaving the house is too much try a work out at home by walking or running up the stairs.  You could also do a dvd – I did a bit or Zumba when I really couldn’t face going out.  As long as you sustain the exercise for at least 25 minutes each time.

Choose a route that is close to home.  When I first started I running I would literally run around the block twice so I was never a few minutes walk from home.  As you feel better you may want to extend the distance from home.  If it is easier for you, ask someone to go with you – the exercise will benefit them too!

Choose a time to suit you.  I used to go early in the morning when it was dark.  Partly because I had no time in the day as I was looking after my son but also because there was no one around to see me.  It also meant I did not have all day to talk myself out of it.  I always take my dog at these times so it is safer.

If you don’t like the sound of your breathing or don’t want to think too much, listen to music.  This means you can’t hear yourself as much.  I have a playlist I use especially which I know all the words to so I can sing along in my head then I don’t have to think.

It doesn’t matter how fast you go.  Some days I am really slow because I don’t really want to go or am already feeling anxious.  This is okay.  You are not in training for a big race; you are doing this for you, so as long as you are slightly out of breath it doesn’t matter.  If you are running for the first time you may want to try 1 minute walk 1 minute run and keep repeating.

You need to Exercise 5 to 6 times a week, doing something that gets you out of breathto feel the effects of exercise on anxiety.  I always did a bit of running but to overcome the anxiety of running itself, I made sure I did it almost every day.  Otherwise I would put it off and when I was really anxious (when I probably needed it the most) I didn’t go at all.

Starting a regular exercise programme is not easy, you have to fit it in and be brave enough to commit but it is worth it.  When you know you can’t go on like this any more this is an easy way to begin recovery today.  For me running has had the most accumulative effect on my anxiety and it is something I can continue to do and sometimes I even enjoy it now.  There are still day when I don’t feel like going.  If I feel a bit anxious my brain says “don’t go incase there is something wrong with you and you make it worse”.  It is at these times that I stay close to home and don’t go very fast but I make sure I go because deep down I know this is when I need it the most.  98% of the time I feel better after the run anyway.

I hope this has been helpful to anyone reading.  Please leave a message if you have any questions or tips of your own.

It’s been a while

It has been a while since I have posted and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I’m more busier – without the gripping anxiety I was feeling every time I thought about going anywhere – I’m able to do things and visit people I didn’t think I would be able to ever again. Maybe it’s because i feel guilty – I know there are others out there who are where I was a year ago – I don’t really know what to say to make it better. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to remember – by reminding myself that I have anxiety will I create more anxiety?

What I do know is that it’s a bit like being a drug addict – you always need to fight against the urge to “freak out”, remember what you have been taught which some days is easier said than done. Recently it has been harder.

Last week I had my first full-blown panic attack for about six months while I was at the supermarket. It didn’t last too long and I was able to sit it out and then carry on with the shopping and not leave the shop which I have done before. While this in itself is quite small and insignificant I know that this is where it starts. If I dwell on this incident, next time I will already be anxious when I get there so the symptoms will be worse and harder to ignore.

So I have to remember what I have learnt, remember that I can be strong and remember that I don’t want to be chained to the house again.

Therefore, I will be posting my tips on how to overcome anxiety – to help me remember but hopefully it will help others to

Guilt and Anxiety

Look up the word guilt in the dictionary and it refers feelings that may be experienced when you commit a crime.  Psychologists suggest that the purpose of guilt is to help us recognise when we have done something wrong and change our behaviour or make amends.  I have committed no crime.  Despite this, almost daily I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and I don’t really know why.

Who is judging me? Probably myself.  I have a picture in my head of what a woman of my age should be doing, feeling, behaving.  I don’t really live up to any of these images therefore I constantly berate myself for not being good enough.  But where has this picture come from? Certainly the media – only the other day  watched an advert that featured a woman who was talking about doing 10 things at once like it was a an achievement. Why? Surely if she is doing so many things she is (a) not doing any of the things very well and more importantly (b) not enjoying any of the things.  Yet somehow this is seen as something to aspire to.

It can’t all come from the media though.  Therapists (and I’ve had a lot of therapy) would say that we are affected by what we are told throughout our childhood and if a message is repeated often enough then you will believe it.  I’m not sure I have been told anything that would cause me to feel guilty though: I certainly don’t remember it if I have.  What I do know is that I watched my mum blame my dad over and over for things that he couldn’t do when what I really wanted to do was defend him:  It wasn’t his fault; he was severely ill; why can’t she do more? why can’t she help him?  Instead I did nothing because deep down I knew that she was doing her best.  She was tired and worried.  This was not the life she had planned for.  She was letdown.  Maybe this is what makes me feel guilty.  I also remember thinking that this is not the way I want to live; when I grow up I’m going to do things differently yet now I am ‘grown up’, I find it’s not that easy. I can’t achieve the prefect life I have in my head.

I guess what needs to be kept in mind is that nobody is perfect.  Nobody can do everything right all the time  The picture that is in my head is a fairy tale and when I’m not up to these standards, I haven’t failed.  I don’t have to feel guilty all the time.

English: Black bear in the Canadian Rockies

A program like Planet Earth Live is not one that would normally appeal to me; I find the cruelty that is the circle of life difficult to watch.  However, being in the right place at the right time meant I happened to catch some of the action.  The program mainly focusses on young animals and the struggles they and their mother’s face in order to survive.  Whilst I did find this difficult to watch, I was also left with an air of optimism that some of the struggles we humans face as mothers are natural and part of life rather than due to just being inadequate and lazy – feelings which probably underlie much of my anxiety.

During one of the episodes I watched, a black bear mother, relatively new to her role and therefore inexperienced, was seen allowing her babies to climb trees in the snow.  Even I could see that they needed to be warmed up as they were visibly shivering.  When they eventually descended, instead of wrapping them up close to her, the mother seemed to walk off.  It became clear later however, that she was finding a suitable place for them all to curl up for the night and by the morning all three bears were well and warm.  My immediate reaction after seeing that sequence of events was the realisation that being a parent does not all come naturally.  Now, I know that we are told this, but the underlying message that many mothers actually get is that it should be natural.  On the surface all the advice that you are given about feeding and  sleeping are there to help mothers who are inexperienced, yet the sheer amount of conflicting advice between experts seems to actually suggests that you will know which advice is best for your baby!  What if you don’t? Seeing this family of bears made me realise that generally even if you get it wrong to begin with, eventually you will figure it out.

This lead me on to my second eureka moment with these bears: little mistakes will not have a profound impact on a baby forever.  Again, writing this now, it seems logical, but we are so used to people telling us the problems we have are due to our childhood that I have become obsessed with not making a single mistake incase my little boy becomes a ‘damaged’ adult.  Actually, it is not going to have a lasting effect on him if he is too cold between the car and the house or hungry while dinner is cooking or doesn’t get up and go to bed at exactly the same time every day.

Anxiety is a funny thing because it makes you believe things that, logically, you know are not true.  This is because instead of thinking thoughts, you feel them.  When my sons ‘routine’ is disrupted I don’t consciously think “this is bad” but I feel it because I feel sick or tight in my chest.  Through CBT I have begun to learn not to associate these feeling with negative thoughts but it is hard.  So the actions of the mother bear provides evidence to help me prove what I logically thin; helping me to be that little bit less anxious.  Thanks Black Bear and Planet Earth Live!

CBT – has is worked?

The feet of a tightrope walker.

The feet of a tightrope walker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About 10 weeks ago I started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with some trepidation (how far were they going to push me?), with some relief (I had been waiting for a long time), but mainly with an expectation that this had to work because I knew I couldn’t continue down the ever narrowing path that I had got myself on.  Now that it’s over, has it worked?

Certainly, I am no longer avoiding things: I do the food shopping, I drive to and from work, I have had my haircut at a hairdressers, I have even driven on the motorway (something I haven’t done for 10 years).  I experience less panic attacks, and the ones I do experience are shorter and less intense.  From outside it has definitely worked.  In the first two sessions the therapist had me hyperventilating to prove that it wouldn’t hurt me, that I was bringing on the worst of the symptoms myself.  Then we started doing things I didn’t do – she took me to Tesco and on the train.  I had homework every week:  I had to welcome panic attacks without any safety behaviours (see if they were as bad as I thought), I had to not avoid things, I had to record everything down in diaries.  I responded very quickly and I have got my life back.

Yet the underlying anxiety I have hasn’t gone:   I still have knots in my stomach that tell me I have something to fear, or feelings of guilt over… I don’t know.  I still feel tired from the daily effort of coping with anxiety.  I still cannot have a panic attack without some safety behaviours; even though I fight it, there is something in me that doesn’t believe 100% that my panic attacks won’t send me mad or hurt me.  I still have to actively avoid avoiding things rather than just go about my daily life.

From the point of view of my therapist I am a complete success as I am in charge of my anxiety now.  “You were never trying to get rid of the anxiety symptoms, just look at them differently,” was how she reassured me at our last session.  However, from my point of view I feel I am stood on a tightrope and it wouldn’t take much to lose my balance and find myself falling back into avoidance behaviours and round the clock anxiety.  At the moment it takes a lot of energy and guts to keep walking along the tightrope because there is part of me that wants to jump off – in some ways it would be easier.

Despite this, I am going to try my hardest to stay on the tightrope and continue to walk along it albeit slowly because what CBT has done, I believe, is kick-start a recovery.  It has not been a miracle cure I so wanted it to be, but it has given me enough knowledge of my condition to shrink it slightly.  It is now up to me to continue to shrink it further because actually I would like to get rid of the symptoms of anxiety.  Will I always be susceptible to anxiety? Probably.  Will I always have to work this hard at it?  Hopefully not.  Has it worked?  It’s too soon to say.  Would I recommend CBT to others?  Definitely.


Ireland (Photo credit: Trent Strohm)

Recently I took a trip to Ireland with my family to visit some of my husband’s relatives, and throughout our stay there were numerous enquiries about people’s general health, ongoing health issues and recent operations.  Yet how my battle with anxiety was going was never mentioned.  Not because they weren’t interested or didn’t care, but because they didn’t know.  There was plenty of opportunity to bring it up, and in fact no reason that they didn’t know already  – irish people love to know everything they can about everyone – I’m sure they have asked after me during several phone conversations.  Yet I nor anyone else refered to it, even though every night I filled out a panic diary as part of the CBT I’m having, and had to battle daily with some sort of anxiety.  It wasn’t until I was on the ferry back that I wondered why? Why am I ashamed? Why is it such a taboo?When someone has a physical condition, people naturally sympathise, even if they haven’t had that condition, everyone has been in pain or felt sick.  But, the same could be said for anxiety; everyone has felt nervous at some point.  So why do I think that people won’t understand?  Maybe that’s the problem: because everyone has felt anxiety at some point, they think they do know how it feels and it’s not that bad.  Also, for most people, there is generally a reason for it which makes it more manageable – again, it’s not that bad.  So I’d have to explain why this is different, worse, debilitating, to people who didn’t really get it. Would they even believe me? For the most part I can hide how I am feeling inside or I can make a reasonable excuse to leave so people don’t see me at my worst.   Would them knowing make the anxiety worse?  If they knew,would feel I was under constant surveillance for signs of anxiety?  Would I simply regret telling them?Of course the answer to these last questions is no.  In other areas of my life, such as work, I have needed to be very open and generally it has helped.  They may not have understood but then they don’t need to offer some support.  Actually, I have found that more people than I thought do really understand as by opening up they have confided that they also suffer from panic attacks and anxiety and I have felt able to support them.  I have one friend who is have CBT the same time as me; a fact I would never know if I hadn’t confided in how I was feeling.  It is said that anxiety of one kind or another will affect one in three people at some point in their life, so by opening up and sharing stories with the people we know we can raise awareness of this taboo subject and help each other in the process.

Next time I go to Ireland I’m just going to mention it – see what happens.

Related articles

I noticed that someone in the government is suggesting that there needs to be a ‘mental health secretary’ in order to raise the profile of mental health up to the same level as physical health.  The reason being that mental health affects a lot of people yet the services are not nearly as accessible as if, say, you had broken your leg.   This got me thinking about my own experience of mental health services.

I was only six when our family had our first need for mental health services.  From a six-year old’s perspective we woke up one day to find my dad had literally gone mad overnight and by the end of that first day it was clear that we needed help fast.  Not knowing  where to go, the out of hours doctor was called.  He promptly turned up and then promptly left – stopping briefly on the step outside to write a hasty prescription then retreating – clearly out of his depth.  I don’t know exactly what happened over the next few days except we looked after him; often eating dinner while my dad was naked, talking balmy or being an animal.  We also slept downstairs with the ironing board in front of the door so that he couldn’t leave the house with no clothes on – eventually he was sectioned.  For the next six years, my dad was in and out of hospital while they tried to diagnose and control his condition.  He was assigned key workers that my mum could contact when needed and mostly, I would say that, the service was good: as they got to know my dad better, my mum had proactive people that she could get in touch with quickly.  To date, he still has regular meetings with a psychiatrist and with an added diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, the different professional areas are keen to coordinate.

Perhaps because my own experience of mental health has not been as dramatic or, perhaps serious, my experience hasn’t been as positive.  When I first had serious anxiety, I was at university but went to my doctor at home as it was the holidays, they prescribed me with beta blockers which I though made my chest tight.  Now, if you have suffered from anxiety, you will know that one of the symptoms anxiety is a tight chest – I don’t have asthma and so there is no reason why they should do this, but instead of investigating further, I was taken off them and told to go to the doctor at uni.  By this time, getting to the doctor was almost impossible and when I got there sobbing, I was told off by the doctor because I hadn’t come sooner.  However, they still simply prescribed me antidepressants and sent me on my way.  Over the next eight or nine years I was on and off of various antidepressants even though depression was not the problem.  One doctor I had bearly spoke to meet when I would make my monthly appointments to get the antidepressents.  He never asked any questions and it was only when I moved doctors that she informed me I had been on them for over two years.  I was refered to the mental health team when I moved, but because I was holding down a job, I was simply not a priority.  It is only now after having a child, so is potentially a social services case, and taking time off work (it could also be a change in borough – my forth), that someone has taken me seriously and I feel like I’m actually being helped.

This is where, I feel, the mental health services are going wrong – not taking moderate cases seriously enough.  Because the problem is, eventually those moderate cases become serious chronic cases unless they are addressed.  I don’t know what the answer is – perhaps more education for GP’s, more awareness in society so less stigma, more money put into therapies that really do help rather than just medication or spmething else.  What I do know is that, if a mental health secretary can get people help sooner, then I’m all for it!

It’s That Simple!

High Anxiety (album)

Image via Wikipedia

Scratching, tensing my muscles, trying to control my breathing (usually by hyperventilating), stamping my feet, blinking quickly, rubbing my eyes, getting out of the situation as quickly as possible. The list of ‘safety behaviours’ are endless – there are probably some I don’t even know I do.   Built up over years of trying to control the anxiety and panic attacks.  Built up one behaviour at a time, as each behaviour proves insufficient against the wave of anxiety so another one must be found to control it further.  Built up until eventaully the bricks have surrounded me and I cannot escape the anxiety or the avoidance behaviours that keep me locked in.

“This week I want you to not do any of these behaviours.  When you feel anxiety, just let it happen.”  These were the words of my cognitive behavioural therapist this week.  It’s that simple.  Yet if it’s that simple why haven’t I done this before? If it’s that simple why have I been wasting my time on these behaviours for years?  Logically, I have known for some time that these behaviours don’t stop the anxiety; that it was probably making it worse, so why didn’t I just stop?

If you’re a councillor and know the biology and psychology it is that simple, or perhaps if you have never had a panic attack it is that simple but the truth is that, despite what I know rationally when I am sitting here now, I also know that when I feel even slightly anxious, I completely believe that what I feel is going to cause me to die.   If you were falling, would you not put your hands out in front of you?  It’s that simple for me!

That is not to say I’m not going to give it a go.  I will try to just let it happen when that nervous feeling whirls around my body. I will try to relax my hands rather than clench them, try to breathe normally rather than hyper-ventilate, try not to twitch, not to scratch, not to fidget or run away.  At best that’s going to take some practice, at worse it’s going to be impossible.  Never the less, I will try as hard as I can – let’s face it –  the behaviours aren’t helping so maybe not doing them will.