For as long as I can remember, I have lived with anxiety. At school, my teachers would always tell my parents I was a “worrier” – most decisions I’ve faced throughout my life have been made after long periods of “what ifs” and panicked pleas for reassurance.
I’ve since been diagnosed with OCD – a mental health condition which causes high levels of anxiety as a result of irrational “obsessions” – and used both antidepressants and cognitive behavioural therapy to help me learn more about how to handle these feelings.
As a result, I have developed a handful of trusty coping methods and techniques I turn to when I’m feeling particularly wobbly. Some of these I learnt from my time in CBT, but others are ones which I’ve picked up along the way to help me deal with random bouts of anxiety and panic.
For people who deal with mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and OCD, having coping methods to turn to when things get tough is a useful way of managing tricky symptoms. But during the coronavirus pandemic, many people are experiencing mental health problems for the first time, leaving them without the coping mechanisms they need to deal with them. According to new research from LinkedIn, nearly a quarter of British people have struggled with their mental health for the first time during lockdown.
It’s important to remember that, however you’re feeling right now, it’s 100% OK. If you need to spend a day in bed watching an entire series of Gilmore Girls, do it. If you need to get outside and do some exercise, do it. If you need to eat an entire Easter egg and then have a long, dramatic cry, do it.
As we face the long Easter weekend and find ourselves with lots of time to think about the people we’re missing, plans that have been cancelled and everything else that’s going on in the world at the moment, chances are many of us will be finding things difficult. Everyone is going through different things at the moment – some people live alone and will be finding the isolation difficult, for example, whereas others might be struggling because they’re separated from their parents.
With this difficult period in mind, I thought I’d share four things that help me to deal with my anxiety, in the hopes it will help people experiencing these symptoms for the first time and make their lives a little bit easier.
Remember that everyone is different, so what works for me might not work for you. And of course, if you’re struggling to cope with your mental health and your anxiety is beginning to get in the way of your day-to-day life, you should always seek professional help.
1. Think of it as you would a physical illness
On the days when I’m feeling particularly anxious and find myself getting frustrated that I can’t make the feelings “go away”, I try to think of my anxiety like I would a common cold and rationalise my response to the symptoms.
When it comes to mental health, there’s often an assumption that we shouldn’t feel the way we’re feeling – that our feelings of anxiety or depression are invalid because we don’t have a “reason” to feel that way. The only problem with this kind of thinking is that we end up blaming ourselves for not being able to get rid of those uncomfortable feelings, even though they’re legitimate symptoms of an illness.
Thinking of my anxiety as a common cold helps me to show more compassion towards myself in these moments of frustration. If I had a sniffly nose, I wouldn’t blame myself for not being able to make myself feel better – so why should I act this way when I’m feeling anxious?
Thinking this way also helps me feel better about taking care of myself when I’m feeling anxious. If I had a particularly troubling cold, chances are I’d feel justified taking some time off of work or making sure I get plenty of rest – thinking of my anxiety in this way reminds me taking care of my mental health is no different.
2. Distraction, distraction, distraction
When my mental health is particularly bad, I know the only way to deal with it is to try my best to distract myself.
It may feel like you need to wallow in your anxiety and depression and attempt to try and “fix” it, but sometimes the best way to deal with these feelings is to take your mind off of things.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but sticking on your favourite TV show, playing a particularly engaging game or watching some silly TikTok videos is worth a shot. Even if you don’t succeed in distracting yourself completely, it’s often better than sitting trying to rationalise or solve your problems for hours on end.
The reality of mental health is that sometimes there is no way to make the feelings we’re experiencing go away completely in the moment – for me, doing the best I can to take my mind off of things and engage my brain in other ways helps me to come back to whatever I was worrying about with a clearer mind.
3. Talk to someone
Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m incredibly open about my mental health – but this didn’t come easy at first.
Before I was diagnosed with OCD and was experiencing a particularly difficult period with my mental health, I tried to hide what I was going through from everyone but my family, boyfriend and housemates. I thought people would think I was weird or would feel sorry for me – and, as I told myself at the time, they wouldn’t be able to help me anyway, right?
Turns out I was incredibly wrong. Even speaking to just a couple of people about how I was feeling was enough to lift some of the weight off of my shoulders. There is something incredibly liberating about putting everything out on the table – and I’ve had plenty of friends and family members open up to me about their mental health struggles as a result. If you’re isolating away from a trusted friend, consider giving them a call.
And if you don’t feel quite ready to tell someone you know about your mental health, why not start by talking to someone via a trusted service such as HearMe? The peer emotional support app pairs you with a trained, empathetic listener who can chat to you about how you’re feeling – plus, it’s completely anonymous.
4. Give yourself permission to take things easy
This one’s quite similar to number one, but stick with me. When I’m feeling anxious, one of the best things I can do for my mental health is to take the pressure off.
For me, that means taking the pressure off in all areas of my life: doing what I need to do to get through the day at work, getting a takeaway so I don’t have to face cooking, picking up a sweet treat on the way home to look forward to later, and getting rid of any expectations of “productivity”.
I like to think about it as treating myself how I would a friend – if your best friend told you they were struggling, chances are you’d want to make life as easy as possible for them until they were feeling better, so show yourself the same compassion.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com.