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11 ways to improve your willpower

Sweet Temptation

So, how is your New Year’s resolution going? Are your abs ripped, your hair glossy and your skin glowing just like the magazine promised when you began their ‘14 Day Kick-Start-Your-New-Year Plan’? No? All you had to do was reduce your daily calorie intake to the requirements of 6-year-old child, drink 5 buckets of water a day, run 100km a week and abstain from drinking alcohol for eternity! Oh well, welcome to the world of being normal!

If your New Year’s resolution isn’t going quite as well as you hoped, maybe this will help. A better understanding of how your willpower works might just be the answer to put you on the right track again.

Contrary to popular belief, it takes more than writing your goals down, getting your friends to pat you on the back and dangling a carrot on a stick to get you where you want to be. Before you reach your exercise goal, or whatever goal you’re aiming for, you need to exercise your willpower muscle. Yes, apparently you can exercise your willpower like a muscle and from personal experience, I’m inclined to agree.

According to the psychologist Roy Baumeister, we normal folk don’t have an infinite resource of willpower. It gets used up on other things as we go about our day. Psychologists call this ‘using up’ of willpower, ‘ego depletion’. Following further tests carried out by Baumeister and other psychologists, it has been found that there are various steps which can be taken to help you build up the strength of your willpower. So below is my list of the best ways to strengthen it.

Remove temptation
Resisting things you want uses up willpower (this was one of Baumeister’s main findings). If you remove them completely, you won’t have to resist them! If you’re trying to pay off debts, leave your credit card and home and take a fixed sum of cash out with you so you can’t overspend. Don’t keep unhealthy treats in your home! If you’re not using up willpower resisting these things, you’ll have more willpower for all the other things you want to do.

Mindfulness
“But I can’t stop thinking about chocolate and now there’s none in the house – this is agony – I want it even more now!” Mindfulness is the art of focussing your attention on there here and now and helps you to disconnect from your thoughts. It’s said that just 10 minutes of mindfulness practice a day helps you to train your brain to stay focussed. A mindfulness technique is to sit on a hard-back chair, with your feet on the flat floor and your hands on your lap. Start by focussing on your breath moving in and out of your nose, and your belly rising and falling. Next, starting with your feet and working up to your head, focus on where you feel pressure. When you get to the top of your head, reverse the process back to your feet. This is called a body scan. Every time you feel temptation, perform a brief body scan.

Make time for happiness
It has also been found that improved mood helps raise willpower (it’s not rocket science really). Make time in your day for things that lift your spirits. Make a play list for your iPod of songs for these moments. Carry a small album with photos of happy times with friends and family to look at when you need a boost. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it makes you smile. My friend made me a mix tape when I was feeling down, it began with Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 (my guilty pleasure): it never failed to make me smile!

Regulate your blood sugar
Low blood sugar also depletes your willpower. Try looking up some low GI recipes to keep your blood sugar regulated throughout the day or drink a glass of juice a short time before you take part in an activity the requires extra willpower.

Prioritise your least favourite task first
Or in the words of Brian Tracy, “If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.” Doing something you don’t like or something you find boring is a guaranteed way to zap your willpower so do it first. Preferably in the morning when our reserves of willpower are higher. This is when I prioritise exercise because I know after a long day at work, I’m just not going to be in the mood for the treadmill.

Perform unrelated habits
Get into the habit of getting into habits. It sounds strange but if you get into the habit of doing simple, unrelated tasks, it becomes easier to make other things a habit. Try it and see. For me, I’m not good at drinking as much water as I should. It’s not too much of a challenge to keep a bottle of water on my desk and make sure it’s all gone by the end of the day. So that’s the habit I’m practicing at the moment.

Accept setbacks
Don’t beat yourself up about falling off the wagon. Everyone does it at some point. Congratulate yourself on being normal and carry on as you were before. Feeling guilty lowers your mood which will also deplete your willpower

Reduce stress
You’ve probably got the gist of this now! Performing stressful tasks requires willpower so as your stress levels rise, your willpower lowers. Practice mindfulness, go for a walk in your lunch break or listen to calming music. Do whatever suits you!

Be in-tune with your motivational rhythm
We all have our own motivational rhythm with its peaks and troughs. Notice when your naturally more motivated and make use of these peak times to get things done. For me, and like most of us, it’s first thing in the morning when reserves of willpower are high.

Trust the process
Trust that you will gain more willpower the more you use it. Remember this when you find yourself flagging. Keep a journal to talk about whatever it is that your starting. Record how motivated you feel before you perform the task and how you feel afterwards. Give your motivation a level out of 10. At the end of the week, see how much your willpower improves. Just keep going!

What’s your carrot?
Oh okay, maybe carrots are helpful! What are you doing it all for? Keep a clear image of the outcome in your mind. If you can find a likeness of what you want in a real picture then use that. For me, I’m saving to go and see my sister and her family in New Zealand but I love to shop! I have a picture of my niece on my desk and every time I’m tempted to do a bit of internet shopping, I look at her and am reminded that I don’t need a new pair of shoes that badly!


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Fly Meditation

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” –  Norman Vincent Peale

I’ve been on a course this weekend and yesterday I learnt about CFT (Compassion Focussed Therapy); a therapy that is used to help people who are highly self critical and need help overcoming the shame they feel towards themselves.  CFT bridges the gap that can sometimes be left by CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) where people know and understand that their thoughts are irrational but don’t ‘feel’ their rational thoughts on an emotional level (if you don’t understand any of this, or care, just skip to the last paragraph).

Part of CFT is the practise of Mindfulness; a type of meditation that had been proven effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.  Mindfulness is said to be an effective treatment because, with practice, it helps people to disengage with the negative thoughts that maintain their anxiety or depression.  In time, cutting the mind off from negative thinking relieves the negative emotions.

We were shown the animation below called ‘Fly Meditation’ by Hanjin Song to illustrate how Mindfulness works (the fly represents a thought and the battle represents the inner battle you experience if you don’t learn to disengage from your thoughts).  I thought the animation was a great metaphor for Mindfulness and wanted to share it with you.


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How to cope with Social Anxiety: Behaviour Experiments

worried woman

In Wednesday’s post (8th January), I spoke about performance anxiety and began to put together some action steps for preventative self-help. I explained the theory behind REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) which counters the common held assumption that ‘things’ make us feel bad. REBT (a form of CBT) argues that it’s not things that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad. If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.

I detailed a series of questions I ask clients which highlight the beliefs that cause their anxiety and help them to realise their beliefs are irrational. Identifying and disputing irrational beliefs and re-wording them to make them rational are the first steps in relieving future performance anxiety.

Thoughts, emotions, behaviour

Our thoughts, plus our emotions cause our behaviour

If we experience performance anxiety (or any kind of anxiety), the following sequence plays out:

You’re about to give a presentation 100 people –

Thoughts = I’m dreadful at giving presentations. I become a total mess. I’m going to look stupid and everyone will talk about me behind my back!

Emotion = Anxiety
When we feel anxious, body sensations such as shaking, sweating and blushing begin. We start to focus on these and make our anxiety worse by worrying about them. To try and relieve this added anxiety, we start to adopt ‘safety’ behaviours to mask what is happening from others. While in the short term, these safety behaviours help relieve the added anxiety, in the long term they begin to add to it.

Let me show you how this plays out with an example –

Before the presentation, you anticipated that the anxiety would make your neck flush and you would sweat more. The safety behaviour you took on to relieve your worry about this was to wear more layers of clothing to absorb the sweat and to wear your shirt buttoned up to the neck to help disguise the flushing. However, during the presentation you feel hot from the extra layers of clothing and feel like your flushing is even more obvious; in the long term, your safety behaviour in maintaining your anxiety, not relieving it.
Another scenario might be that your hands start to shake during the presentation and you try to hide them as much as possible. You avoid picking up your notes or drinking any water. However your mouth begins to dry out and your become focussed on the discomfort.

Changing your behaviour, changes your thoughts and emotions

In REBT, the idea is that we can try to change our emotions by changing our thoughts first (as described in Wednesday’s post) however for some of us, changing just our thoughts is sometimes not enough to change how we feel. In this case, if we can change our behaviour, we can think differently and therefore feel differently.

Behaviour experiments

When we experience anxiety, we make predictions about things that ‘might’ happen or how we ‘might’ feel in a particular situation. When you take part in a behaviour experiment for anxiety, you put yourself in a situation where you know you will feel anxious and you purposefully ‘drop’ your safety behaviours (as they only serve to maintain anxiety in the long run). The idea is that before you go ahead and put yourself in the situation, you list what ‘safety’ behaviours you are likely to adopt how you think you will feel in the situation if you stopped yourself from using them. The next step is to go ahead and do the activity (without the behaviours) and assess afterwards how you felt; were the outcomes as negative as you had predicted?

The purpose of this is not to throw yourself in at the deep-end. Your first experiment should make you feel uncomfortable but not panic-stricken and put off.  You should aim to move further out of your comfort zone with each activity. You can begin by writing a list of activities you can do that will make you feel anxious and grade them from 1-10. Start at 1 and work your way up to 10 as you begin to realise your negative predictions are not coming true.

If you can get feedback from others, then make sure you do.  Did they see your hands shaking? What were their thoughts when/if they did? Try to get feedback from a mix of people, not just your friends.

Before you do the experiment, you may need to return to the questioning process I went through on Wednesday’s post to help recognise any irrational beliefs you hold over your safety behaviours to diminish them first.

I’ve attached a behaviour experiment record sheet, with an example to show you what to do (from http://www.psychologytools.org/).

Behavioural_Experiment

Lizzie Velasquez: so inspiring!

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I wasn’t going to write a post tonight but after seeing Lizzie’s video which was tweeted by a friend of mine, I had to share it.  I hadn’t heard of her before today but I was so moved by the strength of her resilience.  She has such an important lesson to teach us about overcoming adversity and the choices you must make in the face of it.  Enjoy…

 

You can visit Lizzie’s website at http://www.aboutlizzie.com/


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How to cope with Social Anxiety: Irrational Beliefs

The anxiety that accompanies public speaking has probably affected most of us at some point in our lives.  Even those of us who are normally very confident in most social situations can find ourselves with sweaty palms, shaking hands and a racing heart when we are standing in front of an audience and presenting.  Take for example Michael Bay, director of the Transformers films, whom Samsung employed to reveal their latest television to a crowd of hundreds in Las Vegas this week.  Not long into his speech, the teleprompter that Bay was reading from malfunctioned.  Bay froze, became embarrassed and walked off the stage.  For most of us, having our minds freeze in the middle of a presentation is our worst nightmare; the prediction of it happening before we’ve even began is enough to give us palpitations.

This kind of anxiety is called performance anxiety and when we experience it, we often make negative predictions about what may go wrong and what people will think of us before then event has happened. The most absurd and frustrating thing for those of us who experience performance anxiety is that our predictions never come true; we put ourselves though all that suffering for nothing.  Even though we’ve spoken time and time again in public and nothing untoward has happened, we still continue to disturb ourselves the next time we do it.

There is plenty of advice on the internet about how to cope with public speaking, but much of it assumes that reading the advice alone is enough to quell your fears and much of it talks about how to cope in the moment rather than what you can do in advance.  I have recently read an article that advises to focus your thoughts on the fact that you are helping your audience and to stop focussing on your own fear.  I don’t know about you but I feel this is easier said than done.  When I work with people to address their performance anxiety, I use a process that was designed for use in REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – a form of CBT) that uncovers and disputes irrational thoughts in order to weaken them.

Similarly to CBT, the theory behind REBT is that it’s not ‘things’ that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad.  If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.

REBT identifies four beliefs that make us feel negative emotions and these are:

  • Demands: we demand or insist that something ‘should’ or ’must’ be a certain way.
  • Awfulisation: we believe that a situation is so bad that we just can’t cope with it.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT): we believe that we ‘should’ or ‘must’ always feel comfortable.
  • Depreciation: we believe that we or another is not behaving as they ‘should’ or ‘must’.

These beliefs are considered irrational because they are:

  • Inflexible (all or nothing thinking)
  • Unrealistic
  • Illogical
  • Unhelpful in goal achievement

Let me give you an example in the context of public speaking to demonstrate how I use REBT:

My boss asks me to give a presentation to an audience of 100 that comprises of people from my office and regional offices.  The request itself is enough for me to feel anxious as I immediately begin to imagine members of the audience whisper about me as they see my hands shaking.  They’re questioning my competence.  I imagine my throat drying out as I avoid drinking any water (I don’t want to show the audience my hands) and I start coughing.  I go red and feel humiliated.

As you can see, it’s not the presentation that makes me feel anxious but all the negative predictions I make before I’ve even written it.  When I help clients address their performance anxiety, the first thing I need to do is find out what prediction is making them feel the most anxious.  We then write the prediction down and see which of the above REBT beliefs the prediction is reflecting.

Let’s take the prediction, ‘if I shake, everyone watching will think I’m incompetent’ as an example of the most anxiety inducing thought in this instance.

A demanding belief could be:

‘I must never show weakness in front of others’.

An awfulising belief could be:

‘I couldn’t cope if I looked weak in front of my boss’

A LFT belief could be:

‘I must always feel calm and composed’

A depreciation belief could be:

‘I will looked stupid and incapable if I show I’m nervous’

Once we have identified the beliefs that cause the feeling of anxiety when thinking about shaking, I dispute the beliefs with my client.  By this I am trying to help them see that their belief are irrational and serve them no purpose.

REBT uses three main lines of disputing.  It asks:

  • Is your belief realistic?
  • Is your belief logical?
  • Does your belief help you achieve anything?

Let’s take ‘I must never show weakness in front of others’ as an example to demonstrate the disputing process.  First of all I will question the client about how realistic this belief is:

What evidence do you have that proves you must never show weakness in front of others?

  • What law of nature enforces the fact that you must never show weakness in front of others?
  • Do you believe that any great leader has never shown weakness?
  • With this in mind, how realistic is it that you must never show weakness in front of others?

Next I will question the client about how logical their belief is:

  • Does is make sense that because your anxious and shaking, that everyone in the audience will all come to the conclusion that you are weak?
  • What alternative thoughts could the audience be thinking?
  • What would you be thinking about someone who was shaking while giving a presentation?
  • With this in mind, how logical is it that you must never show weakness in front of others?

Finally I will question the client about how far holding this belief helps them achieve their outcome?

  •  When you think to yourself that you must never show weakness, how does this help you prepare emotionally for the presentation?
  • When you think this, how is it helping you focus when writing your presentation?
  • When you think this, how is it improving your ability to give presentations in the future?
  • With this in mind, how helpful to you is it to believe you must never show weakness in front other others?

I repeat this process with each of my client’s beliefs.  By the end of the process, the client usually as a good intellectual understanding that their beliefs are not rational, which has the affect of weakening them.

After this, I ask my client to re-write their beliefs based on the answers they gave me, which may end up reading something like this:

‘I would prefer it if I didn’t shake when giving a presentation, but it does not mean that I am weak.  It is more likely that the audience sympathise because they’ve experience it themselves’.

You must bear in mind that this a process that intends to bring about sustainable change in your thinking.  It’s not a quick fix.  You need to practice identifying and disputing your irrational thoughts and repeating your new beliefs like a mantra.  Even though most clients have a good intellectual understanding that their thinking is irrational, some client’s aren’t able to ‘feel’ their new belief and need ongoing intervention such as completing ‘behavioural experiments’ in order to help them feel more emotionally convinced of their new belief.

I will talk about behavioural experiments in more detail about in my next post.


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Is unemployment really the issue?

On the 2nd January, I wrote a post called What’s the point?  It was in response a news item I’d seen on the BBC website that morning which quoted that a large number of young people the UK feel they have nothing to live for.  It cited unemployment as the main contributing factor and stated that young people’s mental health was suffering as a consequence.  On reading around other sources and from watching the news that evening, it seemed that young people in the UK feel their lives lack meaning because a without a job they have no reason to get up in the morning and without a job they weren’t able to contribute to society.  I also had feedback that young people feel they have nothing to live for because they aren’t able to afford a house or put money by for a pension.

In my post, I felt I was being sympathetic and suggested that the reason  young people’s mental health was suffering was because they are wasting too much of their time and energy focussing on one future-oriented goal, i.e. home ownership and need to set themselves present-oriented goals to give them satisfaction in the here and now.  On reflection I would like to elaborate on that post as I feel I did not say everything that needed to be said.   What I feel is required, is a big virtual slap in the face for those who feel the Government and unemployment is to blame for young people’s ‘suffering’ mental health.

Despite leaving university 10 years ago with a first class BA degree, I am still not in a position where I have the disposable income to put aside for a deposit on a house, pay off my student loan or put any extra money towards a pension.  I have also suffered with mental health problems on and off for most of my life.  So with that in mind, I think that I’m more than qualified to have the following opinion.

I am not a fan of the current Government (I used to be a teacher) but by holding them and the current financial climate solely to blame, we are neglecting the real cause of the report’s finding that young people feel they have nothing to live for.  What I suggest is to blame is a chronic lack of self-awareness, resilience and lateral thinking amongst some young people.  It is not the lack of ownership and disposable income that causes mental suffering in this context, it is thoughts those young people have about their situation that causes their suffering.  It is their thoughts about what they ‘should’ have that cause their suffering.   It is their thoughts about what is ‘normal’ and what their entitled to that cause their suffering.  These thoughts need to change.

I would very much like to be able to own my own house without having to share part of it with the Government but just because my parents were able to (which they weren’t in my case) and my grandparents were able to, it doesn’t mean I’m entitled to it or that it is the only way to achieve happiness in life.  By holding the demand that ‘I must own my own home, it is the only way to feel successful’ or ‘I must own my own home, it is the only way to feel happy’, or ‘I must own my own home because the children I plan to have need it’, young people are setting themselves up for despair because these are demands, they are rigid, they’re all or nothing.

I’m willing to bet good money that someone comments on this saying, ‘it’s not demanding to want to own your own home; it should be a basic right’.  If they do, it will illustrate my point beautifully that some young people are chronically lacking in self-awareness.  I’m going to repeat my point from my previous post.  If you place all your happiness on the condition you achieve one future-oriented goal that you may or may not achieve, you will feel miserable; it’s a given.  Carry on with this line of thinking and you will continue feel miserable until you hopefully buy a house in 20 years’ time. Do you honestly want to delay your happiness for that long?  Stop whining about and dwelling on what you can’t get in the future and focus more closely on what you could have now that brings you satisfaction and joy.  For me, this blog brings me satisfaction and joy. I wrote a post about my experience of overcoming anxiety.  One person commented that I’d given them hope and that’s all I need.  The fact that I’ve managed to give hope to one person in the world gives me enormous satisfaction in the here and now!  By blogging about my experience in the hope it will help others helps me find meaning in the adversity I’ve faced.  I’ve made a choice.  I could have been beaten by adversity but I’ve chosen to use it for my personal growth and to support others.

This brings me on to the chronic lack of resilience in some young people.  The self-pitying whining I’ve witnessed in the press is, quite frankly, embarrassing.  I feel embarrassed because there are people in Syria and other parts of the world who have no home, no belongings, have been separated from their families and live in fear of losing their own lives.  There are people who are living through the most horrific, barbaric and degrading adversity but they carry on.  They have no choice but to carry on because they only other option is to opt out of life altogether.  When I was a teacher, I witnessed this lack of resilience in the young children I taught; I saw their defeatist attitude towards the most minor setback.  I worked extremely hard to help children build their resilience; I believe it’s one of the most important qualities we can own in life.  I had to teach them from scratch that making mistakes and learning from them is one of the best ways to learn; some lessons are forgotten but never the ones where you’ve learnt from your mistakes.  I had to teach them about acceptance; that unfairness is a part of life we will experience our entire lives and sometimes even as adults, we can’t change the unfairness, we can only accept it.

Finally, I want to talk about the chronic lack of lateral thinking.  Young people of the UK, what brings you joy and satisfaction in the here and now and how can you use it in a creative way (I don’t mean creative in as in artistic.  I’m not asking you to draw a picture of yourself playing football or baking a cake)?

I’m going to do some spoon-feeding now, because from what I’ve witnessed, it may be needed.  If you love sport or exercise, why not start a team?  Why not organise lots of teams and start your own league?  Use Facebook and Twitter to publicise it.  Make links within your local sporting community and work together; you can find them on Facebook and Twitter!  Do it to raise money for charity.  If you don’t want to start an adult’s team or league, do it for local children.  If you don’t know how to organise it, then research it and find out.  Perhaps you can start a running club or start your own boot camp in the park (pool resources with friends) and don’t be under the illusion that it all takes money that you don’t have.  Nothing I’ve suggested so far requires any cash.  Are you a poet, a writer, an illustrator, a musician, a lover of fashion or technology? Get blogging and show off your ideas and share them with other people.  Follow other people’s blogs and see what ideas you could use; get inspired!  What would you like to do as a job?  Do you need to work for someone else?  Setting up your own website needn’t cost any more that £15 a month at the most and with social media, marketing is free.  If you keep hearing ‘no’ from employers, go out and do it yourself.  Don’t think you’re good enough?  Nothing ventured, is nothing gained.  It’s your choice but just have a go at exercising some lateral thinking!


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How I overcame Anxiety

portrait of a sad girl sitting near the window

The first time I remember having an episode of anxiety was when I was 10 years old. It was more than the usual worry a child feels when faced with something new or something they don’t want to do. I call it an ‘episode’ because it is one of several significant periods of anxiety I’ve experienced. They have come and gone rather than being continuous. When I was 10, I had an allergic reaction to some new earrings which made my ears inflamed and sore. A boy pointed it out in class and laughed. That made me feel upset but I didn’t feel particularly worried at the time. It was the thoughts I had about the event afterwards which triggered my first episode of anxiety because I began worry about the allergic reaction and then my thoughts turned to my overall health. My Grandmother had breast cancer at the time too and had been in and out of hospital alot, so I suppose the two events were linked in terms of why I was worried about my health.

The symptoms of the attack began with that horrible feeling of dread, that something bad was going to happen (although I didn’t have a specific idea of what I felt was going to happen). Then I would begin to shake, feel panicky and start to cry. This all lasted for a few weeks. At the time I didn’t know what the reason for all this was, I was too young to know about anxiety and my mum, understandably, didn’t pick up on it either. My Grandmother eventually died from breast cancer when I was 11 and when I was 14 my Grandfather died from a brain tumour.

When I was 17 I had another episode of anxiety. I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and began to experience symptoms of stress such as chest pains and palpitations. I didn’t know that these symptoms were what happened when you felt stressed so I began to worry about my health again. At this point, my Dad was receiving treatment for bladder cancer. Ruminating about my family history of cancer along with my symptoms fed my anxiety and made it worse. I thought maybe I could have lung cancer or a blood clot. At this point I went to my doctor. He listened to my chest and questioned me about my lifestyle. I told him I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and there was no discussion about my family’s health. He told me I was experiencing symptoms of stress relating to my studies and sent me on my way without any advice on how to manage my symptoms. I then started to get IBS, which I convinced myself was bowel cancer and went back to the doctor. He ‘helpfully’ told me it was another symptom of my stress, recommended some over-the-counter drugs and sent me on my way again. You would hope my doctor would have looked at the notes related to my past visits and put two and two together and thought about how to help me manage my stress. I still had no idea that I had been experiencing anxiety.

After several months the level of the symptoms subsided. I would wake up most mornings feeling that ‘fight or flight’ response kick in the moment I opened my eyes, followed by nausea but it would wear off during the day. I experienced this every morning throughout my teens and into my late twenties. It was almost like it had been programmed into my brain and there didn’t need to be a reason for it. It became normal so I didn’t think too much of it, it was just ‘me’.

When I was 27, I had my worst episode of anxiety. This time it began after a series of changes in my life. I split up with a long term boyfriend, left my job, began living on my own for the first time, started a new job, met someone else and then split up with them too. This time my normal morning routine of waking up feeling panicky and nauseous got worse. I would wake up, feel panicky and vomit. I wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast as it wouldn’t stay down and my appetite became less and less. This time the feeling did not go away over the course of the morning but it stayed with me all day, every day. Eating became a chore as I could barely manage half a sandwich before I felt completely stuffed. I felt embarrassed eating in front of my colleagues in case they thought I had an eating disorder as they could see that I would never eat much and was losing more and more weight. I then began to worry about my health again which fed my anxiety and then I became anxious about being anxious which fed it even more. By this time I knew I had anxiety, I had researched it online but I felt like I was going mad. I didn’t feel like my recent upheavals were a good enough reason to feel so bad so couldn’t link these to my anxiety.

I went to the doctor and told him that I thought was suffering from anxiety. He interviewed me and diagnosed ‘free floating anxiety’ based on my explanation that I didn’t think there was a reason to feel so anxious. He prescribed beater blockers and told me to make another appointment for 6 weeks time to review my symptoms. At the time beater blockers felt like a God-send! It felt as though someone had pressed a ‘pause’ button in my brain and I was able to get a holiday away from my thoughts (probably because I was so sedated) and I no longer felt that sense of dread. Beater blockers also work by blocking the release of adrenaline so I no longer woke up feeling panicky, shaky and nauseous. I got my appetite back and began to return to ‘normal’. I didn’t want to go back to how I felt before so decided to stay on the beater blockers and my doctor didn’t discourage me from doing so. At first the idea of coming off the beater blockers was frightening because I didn’t want to return to how I was before but after three years of being on them and at a more settled point in my life, I decided to bite the bullet and stop. The dose had to be reduced gradually over time but I came off them and felt okay. The morning feeling of waking up feeling panicky and nauseous returned after a while but it was at a level I could cope with and it wore off once I got going with my day.

It didn’t take long though before I faced my next upheaval. I became a primary school teacher when I was 31. I managed my first year as an NQT well but in my second year it became clear that my head teacher and I were not going to see eye to eye. Our values as teachers were at polar opposites and she wasn’t happy that while I worked in accordance with her policies, I didn’t agree that they were the best for all the children I taught. I found myself on the receiving end of treatment from my head teacher that wasn’t particularly professional or ethical and my symptoms of anxiety began to return. I was constantly anxious of what she would say or do next, and I would ruminate over it. My own predictions about what ‘might’ happen made me feel even worse.

This time I thought about going back on the beater blockers again to ‘get me though it’ but I decided not to. They hadn’t cured me of my anxiety, they had only treated the symptoms. I wanted to fight back against my anxiety, I felt angry now and wasn’t going to let it get the better of me. I felt I had to do something more decisive to prevent it coming back again in the future. I did my research and decided that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might help.

The theory behind CBT is that it’s not events or other peoples actions that make us feel bad (which is was most of us believe) but the thoughts we have about them that make us feel bad; we essentially disturb ourselves with the irrational thoughts that we have about things. The problem is, that without someone else drawing our attention to our irrational thoughts, we don’t see them as irrational; we think they’re completely normal. For me, when I was 10, it wasn’t the allergic reaction which caused my anxiety or my Grandmother dying; it was my own irrational thoughts about my health in response to events that caused my anxiety. As my anxiety was never picked up on and dealt with, I continued my way of unhealthy thinking. CBT teaches you how to analyse a situation you feel causes your anxiety so that you can uncover your irrational thoughts yourself. You learn how to re-word your thoughts so they become rational instead of irrational. After a while your new thinking process becomes automatic and you’re able to do it pretty much instantly. CBT takes effort and commitment and you have to practise what you learn. If you’re hoping to be ‘cured’ by someone who sits there at talks at you, you’ll be disappointed.

I haven’t had an ‘episode’ of anxiety since then. I haven’t ruled out it happening again because it might but what I know now is that I can cope with it and keep it at a level where I can control it, rather than the other way around. Also, with the problem solving skills CBT has taught me, I find myself applying it to other emotions such as anger and hurt. I felt very angry and hurt about how my head teacher treated me but now I’m fine about it. I would love it if everyone in the world had morals that match mine but there’s now law which says they have to and you can see from the news this will never be the case so I accept it.

Now I’m a very passionate advocate of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I choose not to be a ‘why me’ person. I’m grateful for all my experiences, especially the negative ones. Now I know that I don’t have to worry about the future because, while an experience might not be enjoyable, I know I can cope with it. If it’s something I have limited control over, for example a serious illness, then I have no other choice but to accept it; the only other choice would be to not accept it and experience further misery which is a choice I’m not willing to make. I’ve also decided to use my experiences to help others by training as a cognitive behavioural coach. I’m not qualified to treat people with anxiety or depression, but I use the skills that CBT uses to help people through other difficulties such as transitions in their home life, personal life or career.

My advice to others in my situation would be that there is no shame in talking to someone; showing vulnerability shows strength, not weakness. There is no shame in taking medication; beater blockers gave me the peace I needed to feel ‘normal’ again and get myself to a place where I could think more rationally. CBT doesn’t work for everyone, in the research I’ve done, there are plenty of people who haven’t found it beneficial. However, I do advise some sort of talking therapy such as CBT to complement the use of medication; it may get you to a place where you feel you might not need medicine. If it doesn’t, then make the best choices for you and not what you feel pressured into by others.

There are some wonderful charities that will go out of their way to support you and give you advice. I have listed the websites of some of them below.

http://www.mind.org.uk/
http://www.youngminds.org.uk/
http://www.sane.org.uk/