Long Reads

“The surprisingly simple way I learned to live with my anxiety”

Posted by
Kate Townshend
Published

“I can’t banish my anxiety, but I can control it. I can tame it.”

You might recently have heard Stephen Fry speaking movingly about living alongside his mental health problems, rather than being able to banish them forever. “I’m not going to kid myself that it’s cured, because it isn’t,” he said, comparing his bipolar disorder to a scab that can still break open and bleed on occasion.

Although I don’t suffer from bipolar disorder, I do drive myself to distraction with my own perpetually present wound. Mine takes the form of anxiety, so his words gave me a dark shiver of recognition – not least because it’s taken me a long time to recognise that, when it comes to mental health problems, the language of ‘cure’ and ‘solution’ isn’t always very helpful.

Let me go back in time for a moment…

The first time I was really, life-interruptingly anxious I was 18. For three months, worrying consumed my life. I worried more than I ate, or washed, or worked. I lost a stone in a month and slept for just four hours on a good night. At the end of it, when the fog of dizzying, heart thumping terror finally lifted, I swore, Scarlett O’Hara style, that I’d never be anxious again.

I felt, on a surprisingly visceral physical level as well as a metaphorical one, that I’d been rescued from a death row sentence. I was adamant that I’d change my ways and never see the inside of that cell of worry ever again.

“I was adamant I’d never see the inside of that cell of worry ever again.”

Looking back, I can see how unhealthy it was to blame myself for my own mental health crash. But I needed to believe it because, having barely made it out alive, I couldn’t contemplate the thought of going back. So I pretended the whole episode had never happened and thus was thoroughly unprepared when, inevitably, one day I found the walls closing in once more.

In fact, I repeated this pattern of anxious torment, followed by complete denial, more times than I care to remember. I didn’t want to be the girl who got anxious - I had bought into all of the stigma surrounding mental health issues and was convinced I didn’t fit the stereotype.

However, the thing that has helped me to manage my anxiety best of all is an acceptance of the same sort that Fry expresses above. Although my 18-year-old self would have been terrified to think I’d still be dealing with the problem more than a decade later, I’ve come to value the ability to be prepared for it, even if I can’t dismiss it from my life entirely.

“Mental health isn’t binary,” agrees Hilda Burke, integrative psychotherapist, couples counsellor and life coach. “Even the most ‘stable’ of us have moments when we feel out of control and that we cannot cope, that everything is falling apart or we’ve lost our reason. Just like with physical health, there are many shades between ‘totally unfit’ and ‘extremely fit’. If we view our mental health in the same way, it can be helpful.”

She’s right, too: when I think about my anxiety on that continuum of being sometimes better and sometimes worse, I stop punishing myself for feeling it at all. And this gives me time and space to figure out some strategies for coping with it.

“I had bought into all of the stigma surrounding mental health issues and was convinced I didn’t fit the stereotype.”

This idea of anxiety as a recalcitrant entity – one that we have to learn to co-habit with successfully – is also examined by Sarah Wilson in her book First We Make The Beast Beautiful. In it, she talks movingly about how she’s learned to live with her own anxiety issues. “I now know that my anxiety doesn’t have to be caused by anything particularly fear-inducing,” she writes. “After more than three decades of it coursing through my veins, anxiety is sometimes simply in my bones.”

Oddly, this is a thought I find strangely comforting. Anxiety is a part of me too, but in recognising this I’ve also realised it’s only a part of me. Anxiety is just one of a thousand things that make me, me – no different to my blue eyes, or my love of water, or the freckles on my nose.

Wilson takes the title of her book from a Chinese belief regarding making a monster beautiful in order to vanquish it. Accepting my anxiety has also helped me remember that my tendency to think too hard and peer too deeply into things also makes me creative, thoughtful and empathetic, too. If I could swap my anxiety but lose these things too, would I? I’m no longer convinced I could gleefully wave it all off.

Wilson agrees: “I wouldn’t give back the richness, the depth, the emotional spectrum I’ve experienced,” she writes. “Anxiety is the thing that takes you down, this anxiety about not knowing what life is about takes you down. But it’s also the thing that ultimately takes you to where the answer lies.”

This permission to give up constantly fighting against my anxiety, or to see it in a purely negative light, has been a huge relief. It may seem counter-intuitive, but there’s no point in constantly restarting an argument you never get to win. Anxiety is still hard and miserable, and it still manages to send me into a blurry, wide-eyed spin. But I no longer end up exhausted and weeping under the dining room table having tried so hard to *force* myself to feel better, and to *force* my worries to flee.

Ultimately, the fight, the utter panic and the refusal, and that feeling of being a wild animal, caught and flailing in a trap, only results in me becoming more stuck. It’s my desperation to end the worrying that has sent me down Google’s rabbit hole of more and more detailed reasons to worry. It’s my desire to fight, squash and kill the worry that means I worry about worrying, too. But I can’t ‘beat’ my anxiety, so instead I seek to keep it small and biddable, wherever possible.

“Having this sense of awareness, and feeling that you have some jurisdiction over your own mental health, can be extremely empowering,” says Hilda.

And that’s been the key for me. I’ve accepted that I can’t banish my anxiety from my life forever, but I can control it. I can tame it. I can accept it and breathe and tell myself that this too will pass. And in doing so, I can stop it ruling my life with quite such wilful destruction.

Images: Min An, iStock, Maxime Caron