Late last year I had a lot of traveling to do with work - I love my job, going into schools to inspire pupils and teaching staff character education and positive psychology interventions, but I have a secret. For awhile there every single time I got into my car I had horrific visions of me crashing on the motorway. The visions was so awful that my heart rate would increase, I would get sweaty palms, my mouth would go dry, and I felt like crying. This tide of extreme anxiousness would roll over me and all of my excitement for traveling, for working, for teaching character and wellbeing would wash away. With this intense anxiety and fear, I would force myself in the car, and I would drive to the other side of the country, and I would arrive absolutely fine.
This couldn't go on though.
Here I was, going into schools and telling pupils and staff how they could bolster their own mental health, build their resilience, and cultivate character strengths, and yet I was a quivering wreck hours before hand - this wouldn't and couldn't work. I had access to hundreds of interventions and their subsequent research, I had to delve deep into my bag of tricks, I had to self reflect and understand why I was having these anxious thoughts.... again.
Because yes, this wasn't the first time I have been overcome by the tide of anxiety and taken to the depths of panic. Six years ago I was undertaking a PhD in Fine Art. Everything seemed fine, at first, but then that little voice started telling me "you can't do this," "you will fail your viva voce", "your supervisor is leading you astray" (there was actually some truth in that!). I let these thoughts in and I let them settle. And then the physical manifestation of this doubt, fear, and anxiety happened. To get to my university I had to get a train, I have never been afraid of trains before, but in a gradual build up I started to feel sick whenever I got on that train. Then I would feel sick and start to get the shakes. Then I would feel sick, start to get the shakes, and then feel like I was going to faint. Finally, after a few months of this, I was due to head to uni to set up for an exhibition. My housemate found me, in tears, rocking on the couch. I felt paralysed. My bag was too heavy to carry (not really), the door was too far away for me to get too (2 metres away), I couldn't talk on the phone for a taxi (talking on the phone is a whole other social anxiety story for later), and there was no way that I was getting on that train to get to uni. After much coaxing, my lovely, understanding housemate, got me out of the house, onto the train, and into uni (yes, she came with me all the way to uni). And when we got home later that day she said "you are going to the doctors over this, this isn't normal." And she was right.
2 years on anti-depressants for anxiety.
There had to be another way - and I found drug-free ways to handle my anxiety. Meditation and yoga have helped me immensely and though I try to keep them both up, sometimes they slide, and I feel that tide ebbing in again... closer.... and closer.... and closer.
I consider myself a high functioning anxious person.
What is a high functioning anxious person?
1. A perfectionist: everything in your life has to be "perfect" for everything to be okay.
2. Busy Bee: you are constantly busy, or feel like you should be.
3. You have a Tick!: Or rather some bad habits that help you manage your feelings (I bite my cuticles when I am anxious, if you want to check out my current state of mind look at my finger nails).
4. You hide it well: A lot of the time people don't realise you are having a hard time unless you tell them. And tapping back into being a perfectionist, you never let others know when you're having a hard time.
5. You can't say no: You worry so much about letting others down (and as part of this you worry about what other people think of you), so you never say no to anything, even when it is detrimental to you. (This is a HUGE thing for me, and it takes a lot of self discipline to say no to people, a lot of practice, and a lot of stopping the overthink).
I have started up my yoga practice again and it is helping. But today I want to share with you a slightly different, slightly odd-ball way of approaching anxiety - especially when it comes to anxiety about travel (let's come full circle to my story above).
Engaging with character education and positive education had me thinking, last year, when I was feeling that tide of anxiety roll into me whenever I had to drive, was there a character strength that I could tap into to help me change my mindset. I needed a new narrative that didn't involve horrific crashes on the motorway, and I found a solution that worked for me.
Curiosity is a character trait recognised by pretty much all people that work in character education and positive psychology. The VIA Character Strengths explanation of curiosity is - interest in exploring new ideas, activities and experiences, and having a strong desire to increase personal knowledge.
I decided to change my response to my emotional riptide.
I decided, through the fog of anxiety, that I would look at the travel through the lens of curiosity.
Whenever a feeling of fear would arise and the visions of a horrific accident would play like a move in my mind, I would flick that switch, and like an imagination u-turn, I would change myself into an explorer of what was ahead. Don't be afraid, why worry about an accident that hadn't happened, or in all likelihood wouldn't happen, instead think of the exciting things that may happen on this journey. Imagine the people you may meet, the sights you may see, the things you might hear, smell, touch. Think of the opportunities that may come your way if you approach this journey with an open-mind and eyes wide open to all that is around you. No need to get pulled into the tide of anxiety and curl up into a tiny ball of quivering emotions. Be bright, be open, be curious.
I now remind myself on every journey I take, to look up and about, take it all in, be open to the experience, to not worry about something that hasn't happened, and have fun.
That doesn't mean I still don't feel anxious, but that tide is not a King Tide anymore, it is a small, gentle, lapping tide, that only tugs at my toes and slightly wets my ankles.
1 in 5 of us will experience potentially crippling anxiety in our lifetime. So if 5 people read this blog, one of you will suffer, but know that you do not suffer alone, and that with courage and bravery (two more character strengths), and a little imagination, try bringing some curiosity into those anxious moments, it may or may not work for you, but it is worth a try.