Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 takes place from 15 to 21 May, and the theme this year is anxiety. It is estimated that around one-in-five people will experience some kind of anxiety disorder in their lives. So, it’s a subject worth talking about.
There aren’t many things in life I’m qualified to talk about with any degree of knowledge. American TV dramas; the books of Stephen King; and the history of Arsenal. And anxiety. I can talk about that. I can talk about it because I’ve had Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) for 30 years, and for much of that time, I’ve thought about little else. So yeah, annoyingly, I’m qualified to talk about it.
Anxiety hit me like a ton of terror-inducing bricks back in the summer of 1993. I was working on a summer camp in America, and I had a panic attack. Back then, the dialogue and understanding surrounding mental health was considerably less sophisticated, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what was happening to me. More attacks followed in the coming days, and pretty quickly, I was absolutely overwhelmed with a constant feeling of fear, misery and nausea.
I came home at the end of the summer a different person from the confident, happy-go-lucky 20-year-old who had departed three months previously. I went on antidepressants (which also work for anxiety) and life gradually began to take on a degree of normality once again.
Broadly speaking, and save for some very unpleasant hiccups here and there, my GAD was kept under control by the meds. I had a relatively normal, happy life. Although, looking back, I was more risk-averse than most. I abhorred change, staying in the same job for 25 years, and wasn’t a terribly good traveller (I’ve not been outside of Europe in two decades).
But, other than that, things were good. I fell in love, moved to Brighton (which freaked me out), got married (which freaked me out), had a family (which fre… you get the idea). Quite a lot of things seemed really frightening, but I did them, and they always worked out well.
And then Covid hit and, not to put too fine a point on it, I fell apart. My anxiety ramped up to a level I’d never experienced before. I was terrified not of Covid itself, but of everything that went with it. Would society collapse? Would the food supply chain break down? Would there be a run on my antidepressants? Anxious people fear change, and fear uncertainty – and this was both, in spades.
I was terrified to go anywhere. A trip to the supermarket filled me with dread. We booked a summer holiday – two weeks in Scotland – and I was consumed with terror at the prospect. I just wanted to stay in my room, pull the covers over my head, and sleep for two years. Except I couldn’t sleep.
I monitored the news constantly – death rates, infection rates, the R number. I was desperate for a vaccine to be found. I listened to podcasts about vaccines and read all the literature. I told myself that as soon as a vaccine was found, and there was light at the end of the tunnel, I’d be fine.
I remember the moment the news broke that a vaccine had been found. It was the moment I’d been waiting for, for months on end. And the instant I heard, my reaction was not one of joy, or even relief. It was one of fear. I knew that the world was going to go back to normal – but that I wasn’t. Anxiety had got its claws into me, in a way that it never had before, and I wasn’t going to get better anytime soon.
In truth, I thought I wasn’t ever going to get better. It simply didn’t seem possible. It felt like a switch had been flicked in my brain, that could never be flicked back again. This was my new reality.
And what a grim reality it was. The word ‘anxiety’ doesn’t begin to do it justice. Anxiety makes you think of someone worrying a bit too much. Did I lock the front door? Would I meet my next work deadline? Are the kids doing well enough at school?
This wasn’t that. This was a constant feeling of terror. An unremitting nausea, combined with a tight chest and profuse sweating. A fear of my own mind, and its bizarre, frightened thoughts. And a horrendous feeling of distance and disconnection from everything around me (a symptom called derealisation) which made the world feel like a deeply strange, alien place. I worried about my mental health for every second of every minute of every day.
A week or so into the first lockdown, I got myself a Zoom appointment with a psychiatrist. We upped my medication, then upped it again, to the maximum dosage. It didn’t appear to touch the sides of the problem. I went (back) into therapy. I read self-help books that promised to cure my anxiety. I downloaded ALL of the relaxation apps and attempted to master meditation (I was utterly hopeless at it). I listened to endless podcasts about anxiety. I googled every symptom. I joined anxiety forums. I took supplements and vitamins that I’d read might help. I had acupuncture.
It’s difficult to say what worked and what didn’t. But a couple of things certainly helped. I had a freezing cold shower every day for four minutes. It was singularly unpleasant every time, but afterwards, I felt a bit better. Many people have been doing likewise or going cold-water swimming. It is said to boost the production of endorphins – the happy chemical – and uses up some of your adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones that were coursing around my body 24/7.
And best of all was exercise. Again, it boosts endorphin production and uses up the stress hormones. Plus, the need to concentrate on my breathing, and on not collapsing from exhaustion, allowed me occasional respite from my obsessive thoughts. I always, always felt better after exercise.
I also walked the dog for an hour every day up on the local public golf course. I began collecting lost golf balls, with a view to selling them and giving the proceeds to a mental health organisation. It gave me something to focus on during my walks, to quiet the constant mental chatter inside my head. I still do it today. Currently, I have 5000 golf balls, and one very bemused wife. Now I’ve just got to get around to selling the blasted things.
I watched what I ate. I made sure to consume a balanced diet, with plenty of fresh veg. I cut down on caffeine (my beloved Starbucks iced latte habit is down to one-a-day). I limited sugar, replacing it with sweeteners wherever possible.
And I talked to people. I have a couple of friends who are similarly afflicted (note: everyone has friends who are similarly afflicted – and it may be the last person you expect). We checked in with each other every few days. It was a useful reminder that I was not alone, and a genuine comfort to speak to others in the same boat.
Recovery from anxiety is an agonisingly slow process. It is full of setbacks – and every time there is a setback, you feel like you’re right back at the beginning again. But when you come out the other side of the setback, and move forward once more, you realise that you’ve learned something else.
For a long time, I counted the length of time I’d been enveloped in this anxiety cocoon with despair. Six months. A year, Two years. I was never going to get better. And then, about six months ago, I somehow changed the way I thought about it. It wasn’t a deliberate strategy – more something that happened organically. I realised that I was two-and-a-half years into this awful experience – and I was still standing. If it hadn’t killed me yet, perhaps it wasn’t going to?
I am moving forwards. I am getting better. It’s difficult to say why. It’s partly experience, the discovery that the things you thought would be impossible are actually fine, that the anticipation of an event is far, far worse than the reality of it. It’s partly a degree of acceptance, that anxiety is going to be a part of my life from now on, and that is okay. It’s not exactly welcome, but I can live with it.
There are still setbacks. I know there are, because I’m slap bang in the middle of a rather nasty one at the moment, with particular neurosis regarding sleep. And, true to form, I often worry that this setback will be permanent, that this time it’s different. But realistically it isn’t - and I just have to hang on for a while longer and wait for the clouds to part once again.
A couple of years ago, I received an email from my old boss, who asked if she could pass on my details to a man who might be interested in getting me to do some writing work for him. I agreed, albeit tentatively, because I was worried I’d not be up to the task.
I got a call from a very nice man called Robert, who was co-founder of an organisation called BuddyBoost, a workplace wellbeing tool designed to help improve the mental and physical health of participants. I was attracted to the idea of working for an organisation that was helping people.
But when I learned more about BuddyBoost, and its emphasis on physical activity, nutrition, kindness, camaraderie and openness, I knew I’d found something I wanted to do. Because, take it from someone who knows, the programme they are pushing absolutely aligns with my own experience. What they are doing works. My own recovery has been helped by all of those things.
Having constantly slogged at the coalface of anxiety for the last few years, I could never have gone to work for an organisation whose programme was misguided, or cynical, or something that I didn’t genuinely believe in.
I’ve been writing for BuddyBoost for over two years now – doing a variety of articles and blogs. But best of all are the community newsletters, where I get to look at the community feed of organisations taking part in monthly BuddyBoost challenges and write about what everyone has been up to. Scanning the community feeds, looking at the photos and comments, and the supportiveness and generosity of colleagues towards one another, it is a reminder of the innate kindness of people, as well as their courage in overcoming life’s hurdles. None of us are doing this alone. Thanks for listening.