“Anxiety is living in the future. Depression is living in the past. Happiness is in the now.”
I have been running for more than a year now. I feel my physical health improving and that I am stronger, fitter and more energetic. To be healthy is not just physical, though, and recently many of my Running Thoughts went to that subject. Being healthy is threefold: you need to move, you need to eat properly and you need to be mentally stable. Poor mental health is just as destructive to your body as being overweight is, however it is so often overlooked. Stress, anxiety, depression; those are all illnesses which have become embedded into our society as normal. And that when they can cause a myriad of physical illnesses. To me, that seems wrong.
I recently said goodbye to my therapist and told her that I want to try to deal with my anxiety alone. To those who read my articles, that might come as a surprise, but often things are not as they seem. When I write, I tend to write about the positives, I try not to upset anyone and I show a brave face. In reality, I am not as strong as I make myself out to be. Running a one-man company, living in a very strange country and raising 5 kids is no mean feat!
Today, I would like to speak about reality. I “dealt” with anxiety for years without seeking help. It seemed like part of life and something I just had to live with. Now that I am slowly starting to feel better, I see everything that is wrong with that way of thinking. I can also see the huge impact that being anxious had on my daily life. That is why I want to speak about how being anxious felt for me and how it influenced me every day. Without moaning about all the issues that caused it, I will look at what anxiety made me do and offer possible solutions.
The curse of the 21st century
Unfortunately, anxiety is everywhere. It is almost like we accept it as something that belongs to our current zeitgeist. There are financial, professional and social pressures that our younger generations are dealing with, that were perceived differently in the past. It takes two full time incomes to afford a house, having children is something that needs to be financially planned and apart from trying to make a career, getting on the property ladder and dealing with multiple loans, there needs to be time for a social life as well. No wonder we are drowning. There is not enough time in the day to live up to all the expectations that were drilled into us growing up. As a result, too many of us experience anxiety, depression, stress or a burn out and that is extremely sad.
What is anxiety?
I am no therapist, so I cannot give a scientific definition of anxiety. I think it manifests itself differently in people anyway and my therapist would tell me that conditions cannot be pigeonholed. For me, it means feeling nervous continuously. I wake up nervous and go to bed nervous, without any apparent reason. It feels like the moment just before you go into a job interview or an exam. I find it hard to sit still, to do nothing and to switch off my thoughts. I am always fidgeting, thinking about everything that needs to be done and how there is never enough time. Feeling like this, makes me behave and think in a way that is totally out of character for me. I am blessed with a lot of energy, so for a long time I thought it was just that. But, as time progressed, I realised that what I was feeling was not normal.
What anxiety made me do
First of all, I would like to stress that what I describe below is my perception of anxiety and what helped me cope with it. I am no therapist and what is good for me might not be for someone else. Anxiety influenced me in many ways. Here, I will speak openly about what it made me do and think on a daily basis.
1. Everything is a must-do
When I am anxious, I continuously see things that need to be done. And those things cannot wait, they must be done immediately. It is like having a to-do list and every task is at the top spot. Nothing is a ‘would be great if I did it’ or ‘should do sometime soon’. There is never enough time in a day to do all the things I want to do and, as a result, my anxiety increases.
The solution for this for me was to lower my expectations. Looking at the situation I am in, every task I complete is a bonus. Work and spending quality time with my family are priority and I do not need to do anything else. So, as I expect that, the extra tasks automatically create less pressure. The biggest contradiction: it actually made me more productive.
2. The constant urge to order things
When I am anxious, I constantly want to order things around me. For years there has been so much chaos around me (we had 4 kids in 2 years and were living on a building site) that I cannot let it go anymore. To be able to manage 4 or 5 small kids, order is also a necessity. Only by meticulously planning sleeps, meals, outfits, excursions and appointments, can you do it all successfully. Now that they are older and the need to plan has become less urgent, I was still unable to stop.
The only way for me to deal with this was to force myself to let go. I literally had to allow things to get chaotic around me and to see that it really does not matter. I give the kids more freedom, I sometimes leave the breakfast on the table and I let everyone deal with their own mess.
3. Hyper hypersensitivity
I am already hypersensitive and empathic, but when I am anxious, I am even more so. Emotions of others influence me the same as it does them. Just the sound of the television or radio can make me very nervous. I am constantly wondering if everyone is happy, if everyone is okay, if anyone needs help and if anyone needs me. Needless to say, with 5 kids and a husband, making everyone happy all the time is impossible. It is also unhealthy and unnecessary. I am inviting them to take advantage of my good nature, and with them being kids, they probably do.
I am now trying to turn my hypersensitivity and empathic personality into something positive. My therapist helped me a lot with this. She taught me to set boundaries for myself. This was a difficult thing for me to do, because that means doing something ‘selfish’. But, as long as your boundaries are fair and realistic, you are saying: “I will be nice to everything and everybody, but you cannot take advantage of that.” My therapist says being empathic is a superpower. I am not that far yet, but I am learning.
4. The constant urge to work
I am the breadwinner in our household. That is because we need one person to look after the kids, cook food and do all the errands. This alone is another more than full-time job. The financial state of our family depends on me and that in itself makes me nervous. We do not get child support, because I am foreign. When I work, I make money and when I do not work, we miss out on finances we could have had. That responsibility makes me want to use every minute. As a result, I was often working weekends and evenings and far too many hours a week. Not only is that unhealthy, it also means that there is no time left for anything else.
Dealing with this was hard, because giving up on money influences everyone in our household. I no longer start working before 9 o’clock in the morning and often I start even later than that. That gives me time to relax and run in the morning and just to take some time for myself. I also do not work during the weekends anymore and I try to finish around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. When I give clients deadlines, I do not make them too tight and instead I give myself more time than I would actually need. I feel better, I experience less work-pressure and I am more productive. The irony of it all is that my income has not gone down at all.
5. Non-stop thoughts
Luckily, I am not a worrier, but I do think about things and try to find explanations. When I am anxious, my head does not stop. Thoughts are going through my head constantly, about anything. Random subjects, things to do, things that still need to be solved or what we are planning. It is extremely tiring to not be able to think nothing. It is something that I still struggle with.
The solution to this is meditating, or doing mindfulness exercises. You teach yourself to make your head completely empty or just to focus on what is happening around you. With a more pragmatic view on life, this is difficult for me. Filing unwelcome incoming thoughts away, or imagining the light filling your body; it is not my thing. But I do notice that when I take a moment to just sit and breathe, that my shoulders lose their tightness and that I feel calmer.
Just a few examples
The 5 examples above of what anxiety made me do, or sometimes still makes me do, do not sum this up completely. There are many other ways in which anxiety can influence your daily life. Feeling overwhelmed by the smallest tasks, feeling insecure or guilty, trying to influence other people’s behaviour, having unrealistic expectations; you do not realise what is happening until you start to feel better. The good news is that recognising what the … you are actually doing, is the first step towards getting better. I see anxiety coming before it can overwhelm me.
The most important difference now as opposed to before is that I recognise those symptoms, my behaviour and my reaction to it. That means that I can do something about it before it gets too bad. I force myself to sit and have a cup of tea, I have drastically reduced my workload and I do things for myself now. When I get nervous, I take a bath, when I feel the urge to control things, I take a step back. I am still learning, but I try to speak about what is going on in my head instead of bottling it up. It is really going well and I feel more relaxed, more in control and less tense. I see things differently and am focusing on what matters, not on cobwebs.
A headless chicken
For years I was going through life like headless chicken, moving things from one place to the other, feeling overwhelmed and extinguishing fires. I tried to deal with it myself, but I needed help and I found a really good therapist. She taught me some methods which can help alleviate the anxiety and spoke to me about things that could be the cause. A few weeks ago, I let her go and now I am trying to do this on my own. I am no longer the headless chicken that I was, even though sometimes I still lose my head.
We will probably never live without anxiety and sometimes being nervous can makes you sharper, more concentrated and more precise. At other moments, anxiety is unwanted and unhealthy. The problem with anxiety is that it creeps up on you. Before you know it, you think that feeling nervous and tense is part of daily life. Luckily, it is not untreatable and no one has to live with it. It is greatly underestimated and too often waived off and ignored. By speaking about it like I am doing here, finding solutions that work for you and not waiting to see professional help, I think most people can give it a place in their lives.
Respect Jans! Niet alleen omdat je dit hebt opgeschreven, want praten over je depressie/burn out is heel lastig weet ik uit eigen ervaring, maar ook hoe je voor je gezin zorgt en nu dus ook steeds meer voor jezelf!