This is a blog post which has been quite a long time coming. I’ve mentioned before that when I’m ‘in’ something I find it difficult to talk about it objectively or rationally. Only distance and time and hindsight really allow that. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the right distance but I’m far enough along the line that I can talk about it without it emotionally sucking me in.
That sounds ever so dramatic doesn’t it. What follows may seem ridiculous to you but in my head it has been a big battle – I’m not talking Lord of the Rings with Orcs and Wizards but definitely on par with a good James Bond vs the Baddie sequence or maybe the end game in Die Hard.
I think over the course of this year of life lessons blog series, I have made it clear that anxiety has been my personal battle ground. Whilst I may not have shared the intricacies of my history, I recognise that this is where a lot of my life challenges sit, the canvas for my picture if you like.
I want to use a recent experience / episode to highlight the sort of shit that can tip people over the edge and to demonstrate how it is possible to push through the to the other side – to get yourself out from feeling lost in the woods so to speak!
I’m going to put my shame aside and just be totally honest. Which is hard as I read back through this before hitting publish. But hard things are usually worthwhile.
Are you sitting comfortably? This is a long one!
To give you some background, my particular generalised anxiety is at it’s highest when I feel I am in a situation I cannot leave. When I do not have control of my own destiny so to speak. I am getting better at letting this go but it is still there.
Something that makes me feel safe is to drive myself places. Then I can leave any time I want with no inconvenience to anyone else (inconveniencing other people is another big fear I have but we’ll save that one for another time!).
Anyway. Back in early 2017, I had been to London for a work thing and got snapped on a speed camera on the motorway on a variable speed limit – I was doing 58 in a 50 on the m25 to be precise. I had only ever been done for speeding when I was 19 and it freaked me out so massively that the only time I ever went over the speed limit was on the motorway – because that’s “good speeding” right? I mean it’s not like the adds where doing 35 in a 30 is going to kill a child.
I went on a speed awareness course feeling that I was a bit unlucky – I didn’t know they enforced those variable limits but now I did. It was actually an interesting course but clearly did not change my attitude to speeding on the motorway…
…6 months later I got snapped twice in 4 minutes doing around 80 on the A1M early on a Saturday morning. Boom like that I had 6 points on my licence (plus the fines!)
Okay. That was a bit more concerning (fuuuuuuuuck…. was my more accurate response when the second letter came through 2 days after the first). Could I have appealed for one penalty? Probably (especially as that stretch is now an average speed check area) but ultimately I broke the rules and should take the punishment.
A month after that, someone drove into the back of me in traffic (the year before someone had used the boot of my car to stop their moped when I stopped in traffic ).
Not too long after this a friend went over the 12 point mark on their license and ended up with a 6 month driving ban. There was no wreckless endangerment or drunkenness or using their mobile… just consistently getting speeding points.
Anyway… this combination of events sent me into a bit of a tail spin of catastrophising.
What if that happened to me?
What if I got done for speeding 2 more times and lost my license?
What if I couldn’t get myself from A to B independently and had to rely on other people?
What if, what if, what if?
Well my helpful monkey brain decided to start answering those questions for me by making up stories.
Cue explosion of panic and thoughts of doom and darkness.
I know most of you would see this as an inconvenience rather than a herbiger of doom like I did but for me, the prospect was like telling an arachnophobe that they had to spend 6 months in a room full of spiders.
The rational response to this situation is to say. I just need to keep to the limit. Which was obviously what I have been doing.
However, being of the anxious persuasion, I also started developing a paranoia about speeding by accident.
Was I definitely doing less than 30 through that speed camera?
Am I sure?
What if I lost concentration and was actually doing 32?
Was that a camera flash behind you?
We’re you paying proper attention?
Were there hidden speed cameras around trying to trick you and catch you out if you didn’t slow down quickly enough approaching a roundabout?
There is the sound of the post on the door mat… what if there is another ticket in the mail?
Was I going to end up in court?
Maybe I should just sell the car and turn into a hermit?
Even writing these paranoid thoughts down now makes them rise up as my tummy drops. This is partly why I needed so long to write it all down.
These destructive thoughts gradually corroded my confidence to the point that I would feel myself get stressed every time I got in the car or knew I had a long journey coming up.
Now this pissed me off because I love driving. It’s a great time to think or sing or listen to podcasts and generally get some head space. But that love was starting to be eroded by this paranoia that I might do something wrong by accient and it would get taken away from me
I’m aware that this was a disproportionate paranoia. I was aware of it at the time but that didn’t seem to matter. I’ve been driving for over 20 years… I’ve not suddenly turned into a menace on the road. I know how to drive below the speed limit (except on motorways apparently)
I now drive at 25 in 30 zones and 60 on the motorways. When I have to drive – I also started using my bike a lot more last year, which is much better for my health and the environment so it’s not all bad news!
I bought myself a sat nav (something I’ve always been against!) just because I could set it to beep at me if I accidentally exceeded the speed limit. Like having ann ally in the fight with my monkey brain.
This helped a little, but what if it malfunctioned (there is always a what if!!).
Anyone who has general anxiety knows that it can be a bit like whack-a-mole… you deal with one aspect so your anxious brain goes and finds something else to attach itself to. In my case it started telling my that I had run a red light… are you sure that pedestrian crossing light was green? How sure are you? Did you check for bikes before you turned left? What if you didn’t and you knocked a cyclist off the road?
It was relentless.
Every time I got in the car I would tense up ready to do battle with my brain. It was exhausting.
The thing is with something like driving is that most of it is pretty automatic once you’ve been doing it for a while. My unconscious brain would never let me drive through a red light and it knows where to check for danger but I began to question it.
Once you try to make something which has become automated conscious again it’s a nightmare.
I remember around the time of my hip surgery being asked by a Physio to “walk normally”.
Trying to work out what normal was completely threw me off guard. Think about when you walk, do you put your toe down first of your heel, do you bend your knee and if so when?
Go on, think about it, try and describe the movements needed to walk. Then try and walk ‘normally’ whilst thinking about it.
It’s confusing as hell and suddenly you have no idea how to put one foot in front of the other!
I digress. Back to my driving paranoia
I knew that I had to do something to stop the spiral of fear. Whilst it’s no bad thing, environmentally speaking, to give up driving, it should be done as a positive choice, not as an avoidance technique.
This is where we get to the part that I really wanted to share with you.
The how I dealt, and continue to deal with it.
My issue may be driving but the same princaples apply to anything which causes you anxiety (whether that anxiety is rational or not is irrelevant!).
The first think you and I need to remember is that the brain came up with all these scenarios to scare me in order to keep me safe (as the chimp brain sees the situation) but the thing is, they were all lies.
Yep. My brain was lying to me. It does it alllllll the time.
Yours probably does too!
Look at the evidence and find the facts
As I said before, I had been driving for years without incident. When I was speeding I was aware I was doing so. I just wasn’t aware of the cameras or consequences.
Is it possible I could accidentally speed without realising? Theoretically yes but it’s also theoretically possible Elon Musk will build a hotel on the moon. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.
If I think about the ratio of incident free journeys to those where something has happened we are in the 0.00000something probibility realms.
Confronting yourself with facts can be a very helpful tool.
Do not follow facts with yest but *enter made up story here*
Facts are facts. Thoughts are not facts
Thoughts may or may not be true.
Recognise and release the stories
All those ‘what ifs’ my brain was coming up with were invented stories.
The brain loves to tell stories and you will never stop it doing so. Trying is a pointless battle.
What you can do however is choose not to believe them.
Aknowledge these stories and lies which your brain is telling you. See that they are there, then choose not to buy into the propaganda.
You do not need to engage with them, just let them be there and let them pass like clouds floating though the sky.
They do not belong to you, they are not part of you.
You can also tell yourself new stories which have basis in fact like this one:
“You have been driving for years without incident, be aware but trust that your unconscious brain knows how drive and to keep you safe”
That’s the new story I have used to replace the old unhelpful ones.
You can handle it!
I’ll say it again. Trust yourself!
I think that’s a phrase I use more than any other when trying to get through an anxiety challenge, whatever it’s nature.
And when I have trusted myself I can’t think of a time when I regretted it. That doesn’t mean I have never made a mistake. I have made a lot of those!
Now, just to confuse you… Sometimes with these stories, particularly the persistent ones, it can be useful to do the opposite of what I just suggested.
Follow them through to their conclusion and when it gets to rock bottom just say to yourself:
Well if that happens, so be it. I’ll deal with it when I get there. I’m sure it will be a good learning experience if nothing else.
Acceptance is a very powerful tool in dealing with anxiety.
Accepting that even if your worse fears come true you will be okay liberates you from those chains that your anxious mind wraps you in.
It is not easy but it can be so effective!
Understand that some stories can be signals of something else
I used to have a paranoia that I had left my hair straightners on and was going to burn the house down.
I now know that this little thought is an indication that I am tired or stressed about something else.
It’s a classic flag and I can mostly ignore it or use it to try and work out what else is going on under the surface – what is it that’s really bothering me?
I don’t use hair straightners anymore so the thought has shifted to an elaborate sequence involving leaving the hairdryer plugged in and worrying that the cat is somehow going to step on it and turn it on and that’s how the house will burn down. It’s actually hilarious when I write it down.
Tell someone else the stories
Sometimes just verbalising the paranoia stories helps to reduce their power. It can be really hard to just aknowledge and ignore the persistent ones so share them with someone.
Not because that other person will have a solution, though maybe they will help by pointing out some facts, but keeping all these things in your head can get a little overwhelming!
I had another friend who told me how she thought her boss was only complementing her work to be nice.
I asked her what grounds she had for this and it opened my eyes to this deeply insecure side of her that thought she was shit at her job. She had all these stories lined up as to why her her boss was lying to her about her good performance. She thought that was the same way that everyone thought.
Me telling her that bosses are often the first to point out areas for improvement might not change her mind but it will allow her to realise that there is another possible explanation – that it is actually genuine praise!
Know that you have a choice what to believe
I have done a little meditation in my time, mainly in yoga class, and have learned a few things from this practice which can be applied to help lessen the impact of this kind of magical thinking.
Firstly, you can’t clear your mind.
What does that even mean?
What you can do, with practice is learn to focus your energy one one present thing, whether that is your breath, the senseation in your toes or a dot on the wall.
The stories will still be going on in the background and are likely to capture your attention and distract you. Just aknowledge to yourself that this is what’s happening – say to yourself “STORIES” – then let them go and get back to your area of focus.
This is hard to do and takes practice – which is why meditation is so ofen talked about in terms of being a practice.
However, I use this technique regularly in all aspects of my life. For example, say I’ve got an event coming up which is causing me irrational anxiety and. I’m trying to watch a movie but it keeps distracting me from the plot.
I will press pause, tell myself it’s a story and not to believe the lies, then go back to the film. I might have to do this 10 times but that is better than just sitting and let the stories escallate to the point where I go to bed believing they are true and that Mordor is on the rise again.
I use this for my driving too. So when I’be passed through a traffic light and that voice tells me it might have been red, and my stomach drops and it then tells me, what if someone had been crossing and you didn’t see them and you hit them and they died and you got arrested and and and and… I hit the pause button, yell stories and carry on with my day.
I’ve been working on a combination of these techniques over the past year and it has definitely help alleviate the anxiety. To the point where I can actually share it without feeling I’m going to jinx it somehow! (If you don’t know about magical thinking, its worth looking up if you’re prone to the if I think X… then… Y will happen mentality!)
Do I have all my confidence back? No.
Will I ever get it back completely? Maybe
But I will keep driving and keep trying.
The fight to manage anxiety can be short or life long. The battleground may change over time. You may have many victories but the war will continue to rage.
I guess the key is to keep going with compassion and always humour (seriously – like the cat would switch on my hairdryer!!)
Challenges can enrich our lives in so many ways, even if we don’t see it at the time. This is what I try to tell myself when I am cursing my monkey brain for planting seeds of doubt.
So enjoy the rollercoaster. With every dip down you will learn a lesson and with every win you will know you can achieve great things.
I hope that this will help you to recognise and leave your stories behind, stop trying to predict the future and enjoy the present.