Anxiety is a very common and very real issue in 21st century life, with many celebrities and members of the Royal family speaking openly about their own struggles. Anxiety can occur in all social settings and bears no boundaries on age, race or sexual orientation. Its effects can be debilitating and relentless. For that reason, I want to discuss my own experience with anxiety and to share with you how I extinguished its fire.
My experience of anxiety began many years ago after leaving a very controlling relationship. How do you picture a controlling partner? How would you characterise them? Perhaps you’re envisaging an openly aggressive and ill-tempered individual, someone who demonstrates domineering behaviour in the presence of others. Sadly, in most circumstances, this is not the case. Contrary to our initial thoughts, controlling individuals manipulate behind closed doors and often introduce their control slowly, over time.
My then partner became overbearing, isolating me from friends and family members. Even when at work, I was made to feel guilty when talking to others, ultimately becoming a social recluse. The classic Jekyll and Hyde, his mood was unpredictable, but his rage was laced with moments of kindness. The uncertainty of this could be confusing and frightening. Maybe he’ll change, maybe I need to change. The manipulation was so emotionally complex that I began to blame myself.
The emotional aftermath of this relationship can only be described as unanticipated and exhausting. As our bodies have such a fantastic way of protecting us, we don’t always see situations for what they really are until we’re out of them. I certainly didn’t. I expected to leave the relationship and to pick up life from where I’d left off. I returned to the rat race of life without giving myself the respite I needed to heal, throwing myself into work, convincing myself I was ‘fine’. What an equivocal word ‘fine’ is. Are we ever just ‘fine’? Such a small and simple word, I imagine we often use it to mask the severity of being anything but ‘fine’.
No longer in the grasp of someone else’s control, I gained the perspective of an outsider looking in. The realisation of everything that had happened, although a vital starting point in the healing process, was stark and unforgiving. Having been controlled by someone for so long, I felt as though I’d lost my inner voice. When somebody controls you, they strip away all of what you deem to be good about yourself, those fundamental characteristics that give you strength, self-respect and a sense of identity. That’s precisely when and how control takes its grip.
I fell into what felt like the deepest and darkest hole. Feeling too embarrassed to speak openly about what I’d been through, I kept it all to myself, something I now know was so detrimental to my recovery. I wanted to protect my loved ones from the pain I was enduring. From then on, anxiety became a very poignant element in my life. I felt vulnerable, isolated and afraid and quickly became my own worst enemy, lost in a sea of self-loathing. I’d lost the inner voice that was once my voice of reason and direction. Anxiety became the devil on my shoulder that wouldn’t go away.
Other than to go to work, I didn’t want to leave the house. Having been isolated for so long, I felt very uneasy and uncomfortable in social situations. I specifically recall a trip to a local supermarket, feeling as if everyone in there knew about my situation. I felt branded by it. When asked to go out with friends, I would make every excuse not to go, feeling unsettled at the prospect of being out in public. I no longer knew who I was. I had no sense of identity.
At that time in my life, metaphorically speaking, there was no light, nothing to grip onto. The sides of the hole I felt I’d fallen into were so muddy and wet that I couldn’t find a firm enough foothold to escape. My life at that point seemed cold and unfulfilling. I look back on this period of my life as mere existence. You may well have felt this way yourself at some point. This, however, is not a story of existence, but rather one of living. What I didn’t realise at the time was that being at my lowest point would provide me with the strength I required to climb up to my highest point, the place I am at today.
Lying in the bath one evening, consumed by anxiety, I happened to lower my head into the water. Such a simple and non-intentional action turned out to be so incredibly comforting and thought provoking. All I could hear was my own heartbeat and the movement of the water. In that moment, I felt very much alive and conscious of my surroundings and feelings. That was a big turning point for me. It dawned on me right there and then, I hadn’t lost my inner voice at all, I’d just not been listening to it. Unknowingly, I’d allowed another’s voice to suppress my own. I hadn’t given myself the space I needed to rediscover myself, to rebuild a sense of identity. I had to ask myself some fundamental questions. Who am I, who do I want to be and what do I want to do with my life? My answer? I’m human, I’m not worthless, I have passion and I want to thrive at life.
Over the weeks and months that pursued, I had to look inwards on myself. I had to take a mirror to my inner self and respect the true reflection. This was not always an easy thing to do. For someone who was, at the time, so self-loathing, it was quite unnerving, but I had to put myself out of my comfort zone. I also had to accept that the reflection would not be that of the girl I once was. Over time, this process gave my inner voice the respect it deserved and the platform it needed to guide me with conviction.
The biggest relationship we will ever encounter is that with ourselves. The toughest relationship we will ever encounter is that with ourselves. Any relationship needs nurturing, but especially our own. The great John Lennon once said, “love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep on watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.” Sadly, we don’t invest enough love into ourselves. We are often our own worst critics. We long to be like other people and in doing so, we fail to see our own strengths.
I now make a conscious effort every single day to give myself some solitude. At a glance, solitude could be confused with loneliness, but they are in fact very different. Solitude enables me to be at one with my mind and to keep a firm grip on my own thoughts and feelings. At the end of most days, I take myself away and engage in some self-reflection. I often run a warm bath and soak in candlelight. This presses me to focus solely on myself. I often ask myself, how was my day and how do I feel about it? I make a point of being kind to myself by identifying moments of fulfilment. I find this to be very rewarding.
When I can, I like to escape the hustle and bustle and take my moment of solitude with nature, out in the woods in a quiet and rural setting. Nature can be so incredibly liberating. It helps me to reconnect with myself and my surroundings and enables me to see life for what it really is. Being surrounded by nature gives me a real sense of freedom, freedom of thought and freedom to feel. The ever-changing colour palettes of nature, the sounds and the sights, remind me what is real in life. It is often a very peaceful, yet stimulating experience.
I’d be lying if I said that anxiety is no longer an issue for me, but having a greater level of respect for myself, for my inner voice and for my surroundings, enables me to manage it much better. I now speak with more conviction and I’m not afraid to listen to my own mind. If you take anything away from my story, even if anxiety isn’t an issue for you, it’s to value and respect yourself and your surroundings more than you probably do. Pay more attention to your thoughts and feelings in any given situation. Write them down in a journal format if need be. Seeing your thoughts on paper can give weight to their importance. Are your thoughts your own or simply a blueprint of someone else’s? How much time do you give yourself to just be? Are you spending the most part of your life existing as opposed to living? The simplicity of solitude and the ability to be more mindful could to be the answer to your own rediscovery.