I was 18 and in my first year at University when I started suffering from debilitating anxiety.
I changed from being a carefree 18 year old, into an anxious, worried wreck of an 18 year old. It started with a small worry about getting ill, and soon turned into a tidal wave of anxiety and negativity.
I had no defence and became obsessive over my health, trying to avoid the worrying thoughts. Obsessing about getting ill achieved one thing. It fed the fear, helping it grow until I was almost certain I was ill or that there was something seriously wrong.
I would follow this obsessive pattern, attempting to avoid anxiety and worry for the next 15 years.
It took my wife a long time to understand what I was going through, which I think comes down to the way anxiety shifts your perspective. At its core, my anxiety takes things that I’m afraid might happen, comes up with the worst possible outcome and then convinces me that it will happen.
In 2016, my anxiety and the obsessive way I try to deal with it hit its peak. But, it was also the year that I managed to take a step back and start to regain some semblance of perspective — it was the year I started to understand what was healthy for my mind and what wasn’t.
Here’s how I did it. (I am in no way a doctor or professional health expert. This is just what worked for me).
At the beginning of 2016 I started a new project at work. It meant I had to move offices from my Westminster office to Fleet Street. I had commuted to work on my bike but the added miles and busy roads meant I wasn’t keen to continue on the bike. I had cycled to work every day for four years so it took me a while to notice what I had lost.
The two hours I spent on my bike gave my mind a break. With nothing to think about other then the road, my mind was free to process the day and rest.
Less distraction. More boredom.
Have you ever found you are more at peace in certain environments? The lighting in a room matters. So does working at a tidy desk. The music we listen to can get our hearts pumping or calm our nerves.
It’s the same for our minds. In this digital age, we are bombarded with information. A 24hr news cycle and friends available at the tap of a screen — my phone was the main problem. I couldn’t put it down. I would check Twitter, then two minutes later, I would look at the latest football news or my Instagram feed. My brain was constantly on, processing information without a break.
I read an excellent article by Jake Knapp about the distraction free phone. I stopped using Facebook. I deleted the Twitter app from my phone. And Instagram. And news apps. And games.
This is my phone screen today.
My phone is what it needs to be, a smart phone which tells me when my train is going to arrive and how to get to a meeting. It’s a music player and fitness tracker.
But, importantly, it’s not a source of constant information. If I want to check Twitter or see the news, it is a little effort, so I only do it when I need to.
Less news = less negativity
The news is mostly negative — we all know this. But in this 24hr, 365 day news cycle, negativity has risen to new levels. I‘m very selective about what news I read and I have dramatically reduced the amount of news I digest. I would be tempted to ignore the news completely, but to quote my awesome friend, Tom Price;
“To be a disciple and a citizen of the world we are called to engage with its brokenness”
It’s not that difficult to manage the news you read. I deleted the news apps on my phone. I now try to get a more rounded feed of news, looking out for positive news. The news leaves out a lot of excellent positive stories — bad news is better for clicks and ratings. Try something like positive.news or read this and feel a bit better about our world.
Whenever I start to struggle, I write. One of the ways I try to deal with my anxiety is to obsessively think about how I can avoid anxiety and worry — with the hope that if I just get a hold of my thoughts, I can get back on with my day. This ends up with my thoughts spiralling out of control. I am not able to identify the logical, normal thoughts from fear. Writing all this down helps to bring clarity and control back to my mind. Talking about what I am feeling helps me as well.
Occasionally, I look back through old entries in the journal I keep on my phone. The anxiety which felt so strong 6 months ago seems almost ridiculous when you have a clear mind.
It all comes back to positivity
This was the game changer. The most powerful tool I have found to combat anxiety.
Take my anxiety about illness and getting food poisoning — for about two years, we couldn’t have raw chicken in our house because cooking it caused me so much anxiety.
I had a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in 2015. It was helpful, but the positive effects didn’t last long. CBT teaches us that when we have anxious thoughts, our anxiety becomes stronger the more we think about it. CBT teaches us to ignore those thoughts, which interrupts the increasing anxiety.
This year I had a more general therapy and it revolutionized my state of mind. The same techniques CBT taught me were enforced but instead of passively ignoring the anxious thought, I interrupt it with a positive thought. This was in no way easy. What helped was having a positive thought on standby. So, when an anxious thought hit, I would stop, breathe, and put all my effort into focusing on that one thought.
Now when I cook chicken I can either think about the good meal I am about to enjoy or the risk of food poisoning. The way we think about things is a choice — I can choose to embrace joy and positivity.
My to-dos for a healthy mind in 2017
None of this comes easy – anxiety, in my experience, was a gradual decline. By the time I was aware of where I was, I was already deeply lost. Having a positive thought amid debilitating anxiety isn’t easy. Writing takes effort, as does putting down the phone and exercising more. But with perseverance, I hope my mind will be in an even better place by this time next year.
- Exercise (and eat healthy)
- Put down the phone
- Digest good news stories
- Be positive