Saturday, December 17, 2011

Coping with anxiety

Coping with anxiety problems can be a significant challenge for a great many people at different stages of life. In days gone by plenty were belittled as "having bad nerves", and even today despite the recognition by clinicians of the many anxiety disorders and their debilitating effects, I think a lot of people still suffer from an under-appreciation from those around them.

I raise this as a starting point because anxiety as much as any other mental condition rarely makes itself clearly identifiable the way a broken limb does. This is all the more reason for generating a greater awareness because the sooner anxiety trouble is properly identified, the better.

As I have previously written, anxiety first affected my life when I was in my late teens via panic attacks which I have described previously as a mental earthquake. It was at the same time as I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder that my doctor also identified me as having the anxiety condition Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

On reflection it is clear to me now that my episodes of depression were intensified by my anxiety problems, and it was during my stay in hospital in 2004 coming to grips with having bipolar disorder that I began to win the battle with anxiety.

One of the most powerful memories I have of my budding recovery was a very simple exercise I learned and practiced during in those early days of recovery. I would sit in a quiet space and focus my attention on my senses. I would bring to my attention five objects in my field of vision, then five sounds to my ears, then be five parts of my body. I would do this until all I could think of was these simple sensory impulses. It was actually through doing this that I began to regain my sanity, because I was training my mind to be fully in the present - something that I had not done for months upon months.

It is probably fair to say that no one with a history of anxiety can say they are 100 per cent cured. The principles I learned in hospital remain highly relevant to my ongoing health and wellbeing management.

One of the underlying thoughts that can cause me to be anxious is a sense of needing to hurry up lest I miss out on proper fulfillment of some aspect of my life. Since this sensation is as much a feeling as it is a cognitive process, it often slips below my radar of self-awareness.

A key belief underlying this anxiety about fear of "missing out" is that life's blessings are scarce and related to time constraints. The best way I know how to counteract this anxiety is to turn the idea of missing out on its head by asking myself "what will I miss out on if I rush". This is because so much of what life has to offer requires me to slow down rather than to speed up in order to benefit.

One of Australia's best known poets, A.B. "Banjo" Paterson had this in mind when he penned one of his best known works, Clancy of the Overflow. He describes the terribly fast-paced nature of city living in the 1880s (I wonder what he would say about life today). He says that people "have no time to grow" because "they have no time to waste".

Paterson was on to something. My own experience of recovering from serious anxiety problems bears this out. I am at my healthiest (and incidentally my most productive) when I am not in a hurry.

Here is a clip from one of my favourite shows about a lovable detective with OCD.