Welcome to a weekly feature on my blog – Ben’s Zone. Written by husband… Ben. A foodie, coffee obsessed, ex-smoking, ex-drinking and Ridgeback loving Dad. Who is also seriously into his fitness. You can find him on the blog (mostly) on Sundays. Enjoy!
Some Tips on How I Cope with Anxiety
I get quite anxious. At times in my life, sometimes with good reason and sometimes without I have found anxiety to be quite overwhelming. It’s not as constant facet of my life any more and I feel a lot better for that. Right now there is a huge amount of uncertainty in the world and a lot of people, quite naturally, are feeling pretty anxious about the situation we’re in. This week I am going to talk about what I do to manage my anxiety. This is just what works for me, I’m not an expert and have no strong background in any psychological science.
I split what I do into 4 general areas, physical, emotional, factual analysis and what I call ‘checks and balances’. The first of these, physical, is pretty obvious. I exercise. I do not believe that a good personal trainer can cure all ills of the mind, I do know that, for me, maintaining a level of physical fitness is a cornerstone of my personal mental health.
In my younger years, along with physical health, I took mental health for granted. As I got older and a bit less arrogant it became obvious that I needed to put time, effort and attention into both if I wanted either. Exercise releases endorphins once done which make you feel good and have a positive impact on mental health. In addition, exercise pulls you into the moment and keeps you there, which means it’s impossible at that time to dwell on the past or worry about the future, both of which are key drivers for my anxiety. At the moment it is hard to get to the gym for people but don’t try and tell any cross fit aficionado that you can’t exercise in limited space!
As it happens, to get prepped for the surf season this year I had started working in some core strength work into my normal regime. So when the lockdown came, I just upped the burpees. Now I hate burpees, don’t get me wrong but they do the job. By the time we emerge from our burrows I am going to be utterly ripped believe me. That or I’ll be slightly less rotund and have sore shoulders. I do see that a bunch of personal trainers are now running video sessions while we’re social distancing. This is a double whammy, you can get some great tips and you can support a small business that’s really impacted by the virus situation. If this tickles your fancy I can’t recommend Rick Burgess over at RAW Fit enough. He does a great HIIT workout amply assisted by his wife Kelly.
When the physical is in check it’s time to look at my emotions. I heard someone say something that really stuck with me, they said ‘Emotions are just physical manifestations of thoughts we have’. That really tripped something in my head because often I feel like emotions are something we are victims of and that simple statement turned it around. My emotions are a consequence of my thoughts. Now, I can’t necessarily fully control what I think but I can become more aware of it and with that awareness I can make changes. The awareness, for me, comes with meditation. The goal for me when I meditate is to increase my energy and increase my awareness of what I am thinking. Yes, sitting and focusing on my breathing will also calm me down, but that’s not the end goal. The end goal is to see the world as it really is and not to be afraid of that.
When I am in that place, where I can rest in awareness without attaching anything to what I see, then I can look at the factual in an honest way. When I do this I examine the source of my anxiety in this way I am looking to answer two very specific questions, first, am I able to control this situation? Second, what is the next right thing that I should do? The answer to the first question, in all but the smallest of circumstances is that no, I have minimal control at best.
I can control when I go to bed, for example, but I can’t control when I wake up, it might be my alarm, it might also be my youngest shouting from his room. Once I can really, truthfully look at the facts I can see that I have a staggering lack of control. That may sound bad, it may make one feel like a rudderless ship in a stormy sea, adrift but it’s not bad, though we are pretty much rudderless. The illusion that I have control over a situation, that if I just did this or that things may be different is a chief source of my anxiety, which is pain. If I can see that I have no control and be comfortable with that, then I can approach the second question, the really important question, with the right frame of mind. What is the next right thing?
What I can and should always do is to identify the next right thing and get on with doing it. It breaks the procrastination (another symptom and source of anxiety) and helps me get focused and into a positive direction. To come back to my rubbish boat analogy, I could spend all day in my rudderless boat worrying about where I’m going or I could get looking to see if I have some oars lying about. Often what I find is that the next right thing leads to the thing after that and if I stay focused in that manner I’m trucking along quite nicely as long as I stay focused.
So what’s the next right thing when I am confined to my home for weeks on end? Well, on Wednesday it was getting the lawn mowed before it rained so the kids could play in the garden today. Yesterday it was writing an article for the knowledge base at work. Sometimes it’s just getting the dinner on. It’s not coming up with a solution to the virus problem, that’s way out of my hands, and because I know this, and I’ve accepted it. After all, there’s nothing I can do.
Checks and Balances
The final thing is my checks and balances, and that comes in the form of other people. I’m not a social person. I enjoy working from home and for most days if the only people I chat to are Laura and the kids then I am quite happy with that. But with anxiety I need to be in a larger group. On his or her own, a person is a weak and fairly useless creature, we’re slow, we’re not strong and our massive heads mean we literally need to be carried around for the first year of our lives, but put people together and we can work miracles, we can fly to the moon, we can keep warm in winter, we can cure diseases, we’re unbeatable. It’s the same with emotion.
Emotion that can be overwhelming for one person, when shared with a group or a friend can be the basis for a really funny joke, such is the extent that it gets minimised. I don’t get about much, but 2-3 times a week I connect with a small group of friends and we talk, not about football, or TV programmes, about what we feel, what we’re scared of, what’s going on for us at a really basic level. And it works. We call it ‘right sizing’ things and you might think that sounds cheesy but it means I don’t spend time reading about anxiety because the fears I have are right sized. I’m not paralysed by the events around me because I know that I’m powerless over them and what little is left after that I talk about until it’s not frightening. Fear only really works when it’s held inside.
One of the amazing things about the situation we’re in is that communication has never been easier. Being on a web conference with a bunch of mates is nowhere near the comfort I get from being in a room chatting to people, but in a pinch it will do.
None of these things detract from the seriousness of the situation that we as a people face, nor should we take it lightly or ignore good advice when it is given, but it does not have to rule our thoughts. My knowing that fear is a natural and normal part of life and managing it with the same pragmatism that I apply to keeping my weight in check or managing my asthma I can have a life where fear isn’t the key driver behind everything that I do, and that leaves me free to enjoy my life and the many beautiful things in it.