What I’ve done to help my anxiety in 2021
Many of my clients tell me how calm and soothing I am, so it might surprise you to know that I've been struggling with anxiety since spring 2018.
I've done various things over the last three years to tackle the anxiety, but I've made bigger strides in 2021 than previously. After a member of The Extraordinaries Club asked me to share more details, I thought I'd be brave, put my vulnerabilities to one side and share what I've done this year in the hope that it might help you too.
How my anxiety started
It was one hot day in 2018 when I first thought to myself that what I was feeling was anxiety. It was very strange to have that realisation because I'd always seen myself as a very calm, organised and together person.
The thing that brought on that episode of anxiety was the GDPR laws that came into force in May 2018. That year, I had made big plans for my business and suddenly, with about a month to go before GDPR became law, I became aware of it.
If you don't know what GDPR is, it stands for the General Data Protection Regulation. It was a law brought in to protect individual's personal data. As a business owner, I hold lots of personal data and while I always did my best to treat everyone's data with respect, this new law threatened the whole foundation I'd built my business on for the last three years.
It wasn't just the new law…
Over the previous three years, I'd worked really hard to do all the things…
- Grow and develop my business
- Be a present and supportive mum to my two young children
- Keep fit and healthy
- Look after the house and garden
- Be a good wife and daughter
Basically, I'd got myself caught in the perfectionist trap of a contemporary working mother. I was stressing myself out trying to be great at absolutely everything, without the support I really needed. This had caused chronic headaches and migraines as well as chronic muscle pain and tightness all down the right-hand side of my body.
GDPR was the straw that broke the camel's back and tipped me over into anxiety. And, in February 2019 I was then diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
I wasn't in a great way.
How I addressed my anxiety 2018-20
There's a lot of stuff out there about how to cope with anxiety. At this point, I didn't want to admit what was going on inside my head to the outside world so I didn't tell anyone that I was feeling anxious, I just struggled on regardless.
I doubled down on my meditation practice (getting very perfectionist about doing it every day). I did a lot of yoga. I kept exercising, although, by this stage, the only exercise I could do without having to sleep straight afterwards or suffer with chronic pain for the rest of the day, and possibly for days afterwards, was walking.
I also noticed that if I ate too much sugar the anxiety increased.
I experimented with news blackouts – I found all the shenanigans around Brexit massively increased my anxiety, but as someone who has always been interested in politics, I found it very difficult to switch off. It was like being caught up in my own political soap opera – except it had serious real-life repercussions.
The other thing I did, primarily to deal with all the pain I was experiencing, was learn clinical somatics. Clinical somatics is a practice of very slow and mindful movements designed to retrain your nervous system and muscles to relax and stop holding so much tension.
Through the summer of 2019 clinical somatics not only helped me with the pain but also had the ability to calm me right down – and I practised it virtually every day for well over a year. It has made a long-term impact on the pain, for which I'm very grateful.
In January 2020, just before the pandemic, I read the book, When the Body Says No by Dr Gabor Mate. I'd known for years that my body was saying no to me, but I couldn't work out what it would take to make it say yes again. Dr Mate's book showed me that there was science behind what I was experiencing – and where it could all end up if I didn't find the answers (motor neurone disease and MS were two of his examples) but he didn't actually give the answer of what I needed to do to turn it all around.
January 2021 – Anxiety reaches a peak
In January 2021 we were at what felt like the darkest point of the pandemic. To me, it felt like the government had it's head in the sand. There was also so much uncertainty around education, and my business is reliant on education. To top it all off, I was my family's sole breadwinner for the first time in my life after my husband had started a new job during the first lockdown which had turned into a stressy nightmare that our family couldn't sustain.
I can remember the first Monday in January, the day that many schools went back, the Prime Minister made the announcement that schools were closing, we were going back into lockdown and all the summer exams were cancelled.
This not only meant that we were being plunged back into homeschooling, but that the business was under threat. If there were no exams would anyone want to work with us? How were we going to pay the bills?
For a week, I barely slept I was so consumed with worry. I remember one night I had managed to get to sleep but woke up at 1 am with the worst migraine ever and anxiety raging through my body. It took me five hours to calm myself down enough to go back to sleep.
It was at this point that I finally phoned the doctor and asked for help.
What I've done to help my anxiety in 2021
The doctor suggested a very low dose of medication to help me deal with the anxiety. I wasn't keen on this idea, but it felt, at this point that there was no other option if I was going to keep functioning and do what I could to save the business, serve my community – who needed support and leadership in such uncertain times – and keep money coming through the door.
For me, though, I never viewed medication as a long-term option.
2. Improving my nervous system function
Irene teaches people how the nervous system works, so you really understand what's going on inside your own body, and exercises to help you re-regulate your nervous system.
I found Irene's teaching revelatory. All over the internet, I've heard people going on for years about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Doing Irene's course I finally understood this complex system, how it worked and how to re-regulate it.
I also understood the role of trauma in taking your nervous system out of balance. Different people suffer different kinds of trauma – whether it's small ‘t' everyday stress from running a business and family (which happened to me) or big ‘T' trauma such as abuse or being involved in a major accident. Basically, if we don't let our nervous system process the trauma at the time it occurs, it will continue to live in our systems and manifest itself as health conditions such as anxiety, chronic fatigue and chronic pain.
I completed Irene's course and still do the exercises every day. The exercises are very subtle but they have the power to take me from feeling stressed, anxious and overwhelmed to feeling like I have the capacity I need for life in less than 15 minutes.
3. EMDR therapy
One of my clients in The Extraordinaries Club, practices EMDR therapy and she told me all about it. I have to admit that I'd heard about it before, but I didn't think it was for me because I didn't consider myself to have experienced any big ‘T' trauma in my life.
On an assessment call, we discovered that I did have a big ‘T' trauma – I fell out with my group of friends when I was about 12 or 13 and they blanked me for years. This has had a major impact on my ability to form friendships and trust others for the rest of my life.
I've now had six sessions of EMDR. Shikainah, my therapist, said that one of her clients described the effects of therapy as taking you from a situation where you feel like you've got a football inside your head, crowding out your thoughts and energy, to just having a marble of all that stuff. In my six sessions, I have gained so much energy and I feel like my football has shrunk by half. We will have more sessions to finish the therapy later in the autumn and work through the remaining events on my timeline.
What is EMDR?
My understanding of EMDR is this.
In the REM phase of sleep, you process what has happened to you during the day. If an event is too big to process, or you don't have enough sleep to process it, the event isn't processed and remains very real for you; it's not like a memory of something that once happened, but it's raw and visceral.
EMDR replicates what happens in REM sleep and helps you to process traumatic things that have happened to you in the past so that you can move on from them and your brain is no longer ‘stuck' on those events.
4. The Wim Hof Method – cold showers!
The other thing that I've been doing is practising the Wim Hof Method.
Wim Hof is known as the Ice Man for his feats of swimming in iced water and running marathons in the cold. He teaches a way of improving your health and increasing your mental and physical resilience that has three parts to it:
- Cold exposure
It works because breathing and cold water work with the nervous system to reset it, again processing past trauma. There have been university studies on different aspects of the method which explain why it works.
Wim Hof Breathing
This basically involves taking about thirty deep breaths in a row then emptying your lungs and holding your breath for as long as possible. When you can't hold any longer you fill your lungs and hold your breath again for 15 seconds. You do this cycle three or four times in a row.
When you finish your set of rounds you feel all buzzy and high – people say it's like a natural high (I wouldn't know, being such a good girl!).
People who have followed the method have cured all sorts of illnesses such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety and rheumatoid arthritis – basically all the things that Irene Lyon's work on the nervous system addresses too.
The next part is exposing yourself to the cold. For me, this has been mainly having cold showers. I've worked up from about 30 seconds under cold water. I can now happily sit in an ice bath for ten minutes!
I have a cold bath or shower every day now. When I was on holiday in Derbyshire at half-term I did wild swimming everyday – swimming in the beautiful rivers there. I wish I could do that everyday!
The commitment part is really about your belief in yourself – from being able to hold your breath for long periods of time (the longest I've managed is 2 minutes 4 seconds, but many others achieve much longer) and your ability to stay in the cold.
If you want to find out more about the Wim Hof Method I suggest looking at his website and YouTube channel. There are tutorial videos available for free. If you want to take it further, you can buy the app or the online course. I signed up for the Fundamentals course.
5. The little things
I've also done lots of little things in 2021, or continued to do them, which I'm sure have helped my recovery. These are some of them (some of them are so ingrained I'm probably not even aware I do them any more).
- Go for a walk outside every day, no matter the weather
- Consciously giving myself the time and space to feel what my body needs to feel, rather than crushing my feelings and crashing on with life
- Eating as well as possible
- Taking a probiotic and Vitamin D supplement every day
- Stopping listening to Radio 4 – it's too depressing!
- Allowing silence into my life – we don't need noise, input and stimulation every second of the day. In fact, humans weren't designed for it and it's making us sick
- Dropping meditation from my routine – after nearly six years it wasn't giving me results. I now meditate if I want to, but don't do it regularly. This article by Irene Lyon explains why meditation isn't the answer to the mental health epidemic (I'd already stopped meditating daily before I read this)
- Hugs – I've always needed lots of hugs and I continue to get them from my nearest and dearest as often as I can
- Sleep. Everything's always better after a good night's sleep.
What I've learned about anxiety in 2021
- You feel anxiety when your nervous system has become dysregulated because the trauma you've experienced in life hasn't been processed properly.
- Many other health conditions are also caused when you don't process your trauma.
- We have all experienced trauma, even if you think you've lived a relatively blessed and easy life (I thought that I didn't deserve to label what I've experienced in my life as trauma because I've been so lucky and privileged, but I now know that every human has experienced trauma and I'm as entitled to heal it as the next person).
- There are many ways of processing trauma, but the simplest is pausing and feeling the physical feeling in your body rather than just being caught up in your anxious thoughts. If you sit with the physical feeling of anxiety, it will dissipate.
- Medication can help you while you find more fundamental solutions to your anxiety
- You don't have to live with anxiety, but you do have to be patient while you work with your nervous system to re-regulate it and process old trauma.
- Anxiety won't go away of it's own accord – you have to dedicate time to process it – but it's the best time investment you'll ever make.
Has this article helped you?
I know that many young people, as well as parents, who listen to what I have to say about education and how to succeed in GCSE and A-Level exams have suffered from mental health issues both during and before the pandemic.
I really hope that what I've had to say today will help you to find a happier path forward in life.
Learning differences, trauma and the education system
One thing that I've become particularly conscious of as I've done this work in 2021 is how much trauma students with learning differences experience in the education system. As I write this, I can think of three clients who I've spoken to in the last 24 hours whose children have various types of learning difference. All of them have experienced both big and small traumas on a regular basis throughout their education because their learning needs have not been served either by individual teachers or their schools as a whole. I have to admit that learning differences have never been one of my key interests in the world of education, but it makes my heart break seeing these young people who are trying so hard but are being systematically traumatised by the education system.
I wasn't taught anything about how to teach or support students with learning differences during my teacher training. In order to give all our young people a better start in life learning differences need to be made mainstream and all teachers need to see supporting neurodiverse students as part of their core responsibilities.
Trauma, mental health and the medical system
The thing that I want everyone to know, and seems to be missing from the mainstream conversation about mental health and certainly missing from the understanding of all the medics I've been in contact with, is the critical role of trauma in causing anxiety, and other health conditions. This needs to be part of all medical training, and probably part of mainstream education for all young people so that every human has access to the tools and understanding to regulate their own nervous system. If you want this education, the best place I currently know that you can get it is from Irene Lyon, and particularly her YouTube channel (if you're looking for free stuff) or her 21 Day Nervous System Tune-Up if you're really serious about solving your mental and physical health issues.
Start your healing journey here
If you're suffering from anxiety, I'm so sorry that you're feeling this pain. I hope that what I've shared with you today gives you a better understanding of why you're feeling this way and what you can do to heal your body and mind.
Good luck with this journey. If you start it, you will start seeing results quickly, but you will have to be patient for total healing.