I officially received a diagnosis of anxiety at 24, although unofficially I’d been living with it from an early age. I was a nervous child and very impressionable.
At the age of 8, after witnessing a vampire in a TV show, I was so traumatized that I slept with a woolly scarf around my neck for three weeks — and it was summer! No matter how my parents tried to reassure me, I couldn’t shake the feeling of danger.
As I grew, the anxiety grew with me. I had a constant feeling that something bad was about to happen. Someone I love would be in an accident, I’d receive a brain tumor diagnosis ... you get the picture.
So, given my temperament, you can imagine how the last year — with Brexit, unexpected election results, and cuts to funding for the National Health Service — has been demoralizing. It’s felt as though the world was spiraling out of control.
And, months ago, the worst of all happened in my hometown of Manchester, England.
A terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert left 22 dead and more than 60 injured, including children. Twitter was a sea of people desperately tweeting pictures of their loved ones, seeking confirmation that they were safe.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. My anxiety went into overdrive. I cried hysterically and then felt selfish for doing so, because I didn’t know anyone who’d been directly affected. The events validated that voice in my head, like it’d been right all along: “See, I told you. Something bad has finally happened.”
All of Manchester mourned in the days that followed. We cried together, felt angry together, and offered support. I was proud to be part of a city that came together so quickly. The symbol for Manchester is a bee, and it’s true: We stick together. Everyone is part of the hive.
In times of turmoil, whether that be political, social, or personal, it’s easy to fall into despair. Nobody likes to feel helpless, or at the mercy of something.
So, what can be done? Well, a prominent sports psychologist once taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. He said, “Don’t focus on all the things that you can’t control. Focus on the things that you can control, and put all of your energy into that.”
This is something I value. Whenever I feel overwhelmed and everything in life goes “tits up” (as the British say), this is my technique of choice. For example, I can’t control when or if something bad happens. It’s out of my hands, and no amount of worrying will prevent it.
But I can control how I behave each day and how I take care of myself. Here are some of my techniques.
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps me rationalize the compulsive worrying thoughts in my head. CBT exercises, like filling out thought charts, are a great way to articulate irrational thoughts and highlight whether any classic CBT “thinking errors”— such as “catastrophizing” or “mind reading” — are present. The user then assesses whether there’s any solid evidence to prove that the worrying thought is going to happen (9 out of 10 times, it’s a no).
Finally, the exercise encourages the user to rewrite the scenario from a rational perspective. For example: “I feel worried that something bad will happen if I leave the house today, but it’s just anxiety and that’s okay. I’m safe.”
If I feel panicked and need a moment to calm down, I use breathing techniques, like belly breathing and rebreathing (think brown paper bag).
If anxiety strikes while I’m out and about, then I use distraction techniques to mentally switch thought tracks and give my subconscious a rest. Game apps on phones are good for this. Internal maths equations are also great, or something simple like trying to name all of the characters in your favorite TV show.
I can’t control if or when tragedy strikes. But I can control whether I let myself be a slave to fear or instead carry on living my life as normal. This positive focus is a powerful way to stay on track during times of hardship.
During unsteady times, people come together. There’ll always be someone in your corner.