Walk the Thought

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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/

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What’s the point?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25559089

When I opened my Twitter feed today, I was saddened to read a report on the BBC website with the headline, Young people ‘feel they have nothing to live for’. The report discussed a study carried out on behalf of the Prince’s Trust which found that there could be as many as three quarters of a million young people in the UK who feel they have nothing to live for. The study, which interviewed 2,161 16 to 25-year-olds, found that 9% of those questioned agreed with the statement, “I have nothing to live for” and cited levels of unemployment amongst their sample as the main contributing factor. The report went on to say that, ‘[…] 40% of jobless young people had faced symptoms of mental illness, including suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks as a direct result of unemployment.’ Alongside this, it quoted that 72% of unemployed young people felt that they had no one to talk to about it.

It seems from responses cited in this and other news sources that without a job, young people feel they have no meaning in their lives; some of those interviewed said that having a job would give them a reason to get up in the morning and that they needed to feel they were contributing to society. In my post from 31st December titled, Top 5 tips for healthier thinking, I listed ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ as one of my tips. By this I explained that to focus all your time, thoughts and energy on one goal alone was not healthy because if that goal does not pan out as you hoped, you will be left feeling miserable. Goals give our lives meaning and without them we feel as though we lack drive and zest for life.

The Government responded to the BBC report saying that it was doing all it could to get young people into employment but is that enough? Young people need guidance as to how they can find meaning. It’s all very well for me so say ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ to adults; we have the life experience to appreciate what that means but young people don’t, what I suggest the Government need to provide in the interim is greater and wider ranging sources of guidance and inspiration for young people.

It has become an increasing trend for businesses to utilize the services of executive coaches for the development of their staff, as well as train their staff in peer coaching to support colleagues. Could coaching not be an option for the Government to invest in to help young people unlock the meaning to be found in their lives? One of the reason’s I decided to train as a cognitive behavioural coach is because in my previous career as a teacher, I worked with a wonderful coach who helped me find my own way out of a terrible time. Coaches are not employed to advise you, or tell you what to do, their skill lies in asking questions that give you greater access to your own understanding and knowledge; being coached is an immensely empowering experience. Why not send coaches into schools, job centres or even teach young people peer coaching as part of the curriculum so they can support each other?

It is distressing to be unemployed and it’s distressing to feel that you are being held back from achieving independence, having your own income, transport or home but life doesn’t need to be pointless without it. Everyone has at least one interest or skill that gives them enjoyment, they just need to realise it and how to use it. Using and expressing your skills doesn’t need to be expensive; whether you’re a footballer, artist, musician, writer or baker, volunteering in schools, youth centres or charities is free plus you get to use their materials and equipment; blogging is free, tell or teach the world about something you’re passionate about; start your own community project; pool resources with friends to use; use the camera on your phone to present an interest or idea and put it on YouTube.

Viktor Frankl argued that creative thinking and creativity was one of the most important factors in helping us to find meaning. What do you think? What creative ways can you think of that are free and would enable young people to express their interests and give them purpose? Or do you have a completely different point of view all together you’d like to feed back?


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Procrastination: the enemy of your progress!

Stop Making Excuses Concept

Procrastination is the act whereby we put off a task until later. Often the task is put off until we achieve a particular condition. In these instances, you may find yourself saying, “I need to be in the mood to get this done” or “I need to be under pressure to get the best result”. We believe we will only be able to get the job done to the best of our ability once we have achieved the condition we’ve told ourselves we must have.

Have you resolved to lose weight after Christmas but looked out the window only to see a grey, drizzly day outside and told yourself, “I’ll go for a walk when the weather cheers up”. Did you plan to rewrite your CV today for your dream job but put it off until you’ve researched writing the perfect CV?

Does this ring any bells?

Procrastination is a self-soothing mechanism: when we feel uncomfortable about doing something we avoid doing it, which in the short term makes us feel better. However when we procrastinate, the condition we are waiting for can take a long time to materialise and the small task we started off with begins to feel like a chore; our avoidance can make us feel guilty, anxious or even ashamed. In the long term procrastination does anything but make us feel better.

There are a number of excuses we make to avoid a task and the first step towards ensuring procrastination doesn’t get the better of you is to recognise which excuse you find yourself using.

1. The ‘comfort’ excuse: I must be comfortable before I can start.
2. The ‘mood’ excuse: I must be in the right mood before I can start.
3. The ‘competence’ excuse: I must feel competent before I can start.
4. The ‘motivation’ excuse: I must feel motivated before I can start.
5. The ‘immediate understanding’ excuse: I must understand everything completely before I can start.
6. The ‘pressure’ excuse: I must be under pressure before I can start.
7. The ‘preference’ excuse: I would rather do something I feel like doing before I can start.

Having awareness of your procrastination is your first line of defence against it. Be aware of your excuses and recognise that is all they are; they are not valid reasons for why you cannot begin your task. Remember that while your avoidance feels good in the short term, in the long term you are setting yourself up for feelings anxiety or guilt or stress; feelings which are certainly not conducive to your good mental health!

“My advice is to never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”
– Charles Dickens

Top 5 tips for healthier thinking

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Peace of mind.

I really enjoy researching and learning about what it takes to develop healthier thinking and have been privileged to have listened to some very inspiring and motivating speakers from various areas of psychology this year. As it is the last day of 2013, many of you will be reflecting on your year and what changes you would like to make in 2014. So in my final post of 2013, I would like to share with you the most helpful advice I have learnt and which I have found the most beneficial myself (they are by no means in order of priority).

1. Take personal responsibility: Who do you blame when things go wrong? If you look deep down, does your critic have a valid point? Insensitive words may have a good intention behind them. If so, swallow your pride and ask their advice on how to improve. If they are in fact a complete idiot that is not worthy of your time, then set about changing your situation. Yes, this may mean some temporary discomfort if you have to leave a job or a relationship you’re in, but nothing worth having comes without some sort of sacrifice.

2. Develop a flexible attitude: Many of our negative emotions come from inflexible expectations that we hold; usually over how other’s should behave around us. Have you ever been left feeling irritated because someone has pushed their way onto the train without letting you off first? We are all guilty of holding rigid expectations, ‘how dare they not wait for me to get off the train, everyone knows it’s polite to let people off first!’. Yes, in an ideal world, everyone would be polite and considerate but unfortunately there is no law that enforces this. Getting angry isn’t going to make your feel any better about it. Practice thinking in a more flexible way, ‘I really would have preferred it if that person/idiot had been polite and let me off first but they didn’t have too’.

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket: How many friends do you have (if you’re not guilty of it yourself) that pin all their happiness on their relationship or career? All their happiness is dependent on one factor and one factor only; you hear them say that without it, they just couldn’t bear it? Well that’s a recipe for disaster! Call me negative, but there are no certainties in life. If that one thing were to be taken away, they would have nothing and they would feel miserable. For your mental health, if nothing else, have a variety of goals or interests that give you an equal amount of satisfaction. You may be left feeling sad without one but at least your life will not feel empty and meaningless.

4. Don’t let anger fester and certainly don’t feed it: One of the most absurd things I’ve heard all year is that in Argentina, people (especially women) go to places where they can smash up office equipment to ‘relieve’ their anger. Upon first inspection this may sound like a good idea. I feel angry so I’ll take my anger out on something and then I’ll feel better. Fantastic but does that actually solve the problem or does it just treat the symptom? That amounts to taking painkillers to treat a whole in your head. How many of you when angry, instead of trying to resolve the issue, swept it under the carpet but went away and replayed the scenario in your head over and over again? Did it make you feel better or did it just feed your anger? Did it solve the problem? Do what you can to resolve the issue by talking about it to those concerned. If it can’t be resolved then change your attitude or your situation.

5. Recognise the difference between fact and prediction: Hands up if you’re a worrier. Hands up if you’re worried about something that hasn’t happened yet. You’ve probably heard this before, but I’ll say it again. The vast majority of our worries are based on something that we predict will happen, but in fact, never does. If you’re worried, write a list of all the evidence that you have to support that this worry will actually happen. How far did you get? Now write a list of all the ways that worrying is helping you? I bet that list was shorter than the first. Now think back to the last time you were worried, and the time before that. Did the thing you were worrying about actually happen as you imagined it? I bet not.

Have a wonderful New Year’s Eve: celebrate the good you’ve experienced this year, learn from the bad and do wonderful things in 2014!


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Talking of personal responsibility…

“[…] everything can be taken from a man but one last thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

(Frankl: 2008)

I first read this quote a few years ago. I had bought myself a book called, ‘Water Off a Duck’s Back: How to Deal with Frustrating Situations, Awkward, Exasperating and Manipulative People and… Keep Smiling!’ by Jon Lavelle. I bought this book because I had a boss at the time that I found awkward, exasperating, and definitely manipulative so this book seemed quite a find! The book was okay, but it was Viktor Frankl’s quote that the book referenced which set me on a path to a new way of thinking.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with his work, Viktor Frankl was an Austrian Psychiatrist who survived imprisonment in concentration camps during WWII. The above quote is from his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ (I really suggest you read it) and it concentrates on mapping the different stages of the prisoners’ mental states whilst being held in camps. In his book, Frankl talks of the men in his hut, who despite losing everything – possessions, family, health, physical freedom and who had faced daily and relentless degradation, continued to comfort others and share what little food they had.

Frankl’s quote resonated with me above everything else I read in Lavelle’s book. The idea that you could choose your attitude when confronted with adversity was a revelation to me (I feel a little embarrassed by this admission now), surely people make you feel a certain with how they treat you? In the situation I faced with my boss at the time, my emotions would range on a daily basis from anger, to anxiety, to depression and she was making me feel that way with how she treated me. At least that’s was I believed up until the point at which I read Frankl’s words; according to him I could choose my attitude and what better authority could I read those words from? It seemed easier said than done to me but I was determined to find out how I could learn to choose my reactions in a way that was more healthy for me.

It has been a journey learning to live Frankl’s philosophy. In response to the situation with my boss at the time, I decided to take Maya Angelou’s advise first which is, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” I changed my situation and left my job as a teacher and undertook training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT teaches us that we are responsible for our emotions; not events or other people’s behaviour but our own beliefs that we can change with support and practice. So that’s was I do now, as a cognitive behavioural coach, I help people to take personal responsibility and change their attitude and at the same time, I have learnt to change mine.

Who do you blame when things go wrong?

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A few months ago, I attended a lecture given by Dr Raj Persaud, a Consultant Psychiatrist based in London. The subject of his lecture was motivation; a subject that links nicely to my post yesterday. Yesterday I spoke about the importance of considering the sacrifices you will need to make in the pursuit of your New Year’s resolution; if you want something badly enough, a good measure of your motivation is to think about what comforts you are willing to give up in order to achieve your goal.

Dr Persaud began his lecture by showing the audience a clip from Rocky Balboa (2006) in which Rocky’s son complains that sharing the ‘Balboa’ name has been difficult to live with and warns Rocky of the negative impact his impending fight will have on his own career. Rocky hits back at his son’s words with a humbling reminder of the virtues of personal responsibility and the importance of fighting on when things go wrong.

After we watched the clip, Dr Persaud explained that when it comes to motivation, there are two personality types: internalities and externalities. Individuals with internalities are those who are more likely to enjoy success in life because when something goes wrong, they will look first of all at what they could have done differently. Individuals with externalities are those who are less likely to enjoy success in life because when something goes wrong, they will look first of all at other individuals or events to blame.

Internalities, when exercising personal responsibility, have power.  They have power because if they find the fault with themselves, they can set about changing the fault, learn from their mistake and move forwards.

Externalities lack self awareness and the ability to exercise personal responsibility. By blaming other individuals or events, they are powerless as the ability to change these factors is outside their direct control. They will find themselves wallowing in self-pity and anger and will ultimately hold themselves back just as Rocky’s son would have done.

So when you face the first hurdle on your journey to fulfilling your New Year’s Resolution, or any goal for that matter (and you will face hurdles), think about which personality type you fit into: are you an internality or and externality?


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Something to Consider before you make your New Year’s Resolution

I don’t know about you but in the past, when it came to sticking to my New Year’s resolution, I’d usually come unstuck around February time (the beginning, not the end). Not great going really. I’d start the year with such enthusiasm for my new fitness regime with my plan of action all mapped out, only for it to fizzle out at when I realised just how much effort it required. I used all the usual excuses to justify giving up on my resolution, “I’ve got too much on at work”, “I’m too broke” or “I’m naturally more motivated in the summer, I’ll start then instead”.

The fact of the matter was, when it came to the inevitable sacrifices I would have to make to achieve my desired level of fitness: cutting back on socialising to pay for aerobics classes, getting up earlier to make time for a run or getting myself out of the house when it was dark and cold outside, I just wasn’t willing to tolerate the discomfort that sacrifice entails.

I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t commit to resolutions you don’t feel passionately about because I believe there are mitigating circumstances where you will commit to a New Year’s resolution you don’t feel particularly excited about. Giving up smoking is one example; you want to give up so that you’ll live long enough to see your children grow up but actually, you really enjoy it. It’s going to be tough.

My advice for staying on track with your New Year’s resolution is once you’ve established what your resolution will be, anticipating times of discomfort and planning for them are just as important as planning the steps you need to take to fulfil your goal. Think about the last time you achieved a goal and ask yourself these questions: Was it easy? What did you give up to achieve it? How did it feel to give those things up? How did you get through the discomfort? How did you feel when you achieved your goal? If you’re a very organised type who writes an action plan for how you’re going to achieve your New Year’s resolution, then include what comforts you anticipate giving up to achieve your goal and what will you do to help yourself tolerate them when confronted by them.

How about you? What past resolutions have you made and what tips would you give others for overcoming obstacles?

Good luck and remember:

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”
– Elbert Hubbard