My first experience of anxiety was when I was nine – I'd had a family bereavement and was being bullied at school. I remember feeling tearful, out of control and overloaded with worries, but I didn't know what I was experiencing was called 'anxiety'.
People back then didn't understand that children can be anxious too, which is probably why no one (myself included!) realised I needed help. I soldiered on with my life, thinking that maybe everyone felt this stressed and out of control. It wasn't until I was 30, struggling with depression, that I finally understood that anxiety was at the root of it all and started to get help. Here are the lessons I've learned over the years. I hope they help if you're struggling too.
1. You're not alone
One in 10 of us has 'disabling' anxiety over the course of our lives. I think of this statistic often when I'm feeling alone. The problem is, anxiety comes in all different 'flavours': something that makes one person anxious, such as spiders or small spaces, isn't necessarily what causes another's anxiety. This can make us feel really disconnected, and like no one understands. But take comfort in the fact that it might not look like it, but many others are struggling too.Expert view: 'Anxiety comes in many shades and forms,' says Richard Gilpin, psychotherapist and author of Mindfulness for Unravelling Anxiety. 'Even within the recognised clusters of symptoms that make up different diagnoses, each person's experience of that 'disorder' is necessarily subjective and therefore unique.'
2. Being in company will give you strength
Anxiety makes me feel like I'm in free-fall: like a snowflake tumbling. not knowing where I'm going to land. When it gets especially hard, it's good friends that are, if you like, a branch to stop the free-fall in its tracks. Anxiety is about a fear of being out of control and for me, friends help to rein that feeling in again.Expert view: 'Social contact helps to ground us and also serves as a distraction,' says Dr Ian Drever, psychiatrist at The Priory Woking. 'There was a longitudinal US study over many decades which outlined how protective a network of positive relationships was to maintaining lifelong health and happiness.'
3. Mindfulness does help
Thank to the mindfulness techniques I learned through therapy (both psychotherapyand Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) I now have coping strategies for my anxiety. One of my favourites is to 'ground' myself in the present by saying 'Now I am looking at the sky', 'Now I am looking at the clouds', 'Now I can see an animal shape in the clouds' etc. Focusing on the here and now can help stop anxiety taking hold.Expert view: Niels Eek, psychologist at mental wellbeing app Remente says, 'A study at the Harvard School of Public Health found that 85% of people who spent a few minutes meditating and focusing on the present were more successful at managing stress and anxiety.'
4. Sleep disempowers anxiety
Anxiety often grabs me at night, so I combat this with a good sleep routine: a warm bath to induce relaxation (the water will raise your body temperature, and the subsequent cool-down has been shown to aid sleep), writing a to-do list before bed to release any worries from my head before I try to sleep, and keeping a calming book nearby. I find a 'cluster' of good-quality sleep nights in a row helps to alleviate my anxiety so I do everything in my power to make sure I sleep.Expert view: 'A study conducted by University of California researchers found that sleep deprivation can have a number of negative health implications including increased anxiety levels,' says Niels Eek. 'If you are prone to anxious thoughts and feelings, clearing your mind before you settle down to sleep and removing brain stimuli like mobile phones are great ways to prepare you for sleep.'
5. Your body send warning signals before things get really bad
For a long time, I never listened to my body. I didn't realise, for example, that the stomach pains and debilitating headaches I suffered as a child were probably related to anxiety. As an adult, I know that a stomach upset within minutes of me feeling high anxiety is a clue that I need to do something to help myself calm down. Our bodies give us constant clues that we often choose to ignore (or mask by, for example, using antacids) – clues we should pick up on and react to straight away.Expert view: 'The mind and body are intimately linked,' says Dr Drever. 'What happens in one part of the body (a headache, for example) can actually be a warning light that something elsewhere isn't right (too much overload of life stresses).' The key is to learn to be in conversation with your body, be receptive to its messages and to act accordingly.
6. The tidal wave will pass
Anxiety can make you feel like you're on the crest of an interminable, swelling tidal wave. It can be hard to imagine being in control again. Even though it can be a trial to do so when I'm anxious, I repeat the mantra 'This too shall pass' to myself, over and over again, remembering that I have survived this kind of out-of-control wave before and can do so again.Expert view: 'Many people who have anxiety want to get rid of those unpleasant feelings quickly,' says Niels Eek. 'But if you push yourself to simply ride out anxious thoughts, you will notice that the anxiety decreases after a while. This is exposure therapy and it's the most important element when it comes to treating anxiety.' By coping with what you're most afraid of right now, your anxiety will diminish in the long-term.
7. Anxious people make great friends
Anxious people are often the most emotionally intelligent people I know. It's the upside to the downside of anxiety. They are often kind, thoughtful, emotionally strong as well as being funny (because they see life from all different angles). It's important to remind yourself of this because, as an anxious person, it's easy to be negative about yourself. You might think of yourself as the one who gets too nervous to participate in things and worries what others think of you, but they rarely see you in the same light.Expert view: 'There's something very powerful about a shared experience, whether it's anxiety or depression,' says Dr Drever. 'People who have been there before truly "get it". Next time you're feeling anxious, reflect upon how your experiences may help others who are going through something similar themselves.
8. Having a creative outlet helps
Writing my blog has helped me to work through anxious moments. Pouring out feelings, putting my own anxiety into perspective by discovering statistics about how common it is, receiving feedback from other sufferers; all these things have helped to alleviate anxiety by diminishing its potency. Whether it's writing a diary or blog, music (listening to or playing an instrument) or art, creative outlets can really help.Expert view: Dr Drever says: 'Writing can be a great way to get thoughts out in a structured and non-time-pressured way. Unlike speaking, written content can be reviewed later on for a greater sense of perspective and clarity to events, as well as perhaps helping to clarify possible triggering events. And it's not just the written word which can be powerful; sometimes patients of mine draw powerful sketches and other artwork to illustrate how they're feeling.'