I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t anxious. I know for sure that by the time I was at primary school I was experiencing symptoms that are classic signs of anxiety but of course my parents never interpreted my symptoms that way. Anxiety wasn’t on the radar 40 years ago the way it is now.
I distinctly remember struggling with my breathing at first. Every time it happened I’d find my Mum and tell her I couldn’t get a ‘full’ breath. No amount of air seemed to help me feel content and at ease. I also experienced a lot of nausea. This would happen at school and started in prep. I was only four. The other tell-tale sign of anxiety that was a constant in my life was my propensity to worry. My parents called me a worry wart. I was constantly seeking their reassurance to help settle my mind. They always did so lovingly and each time it helped a little, but never for long enough.
I endured undiagnosed anxiety right through primary school, high school and my undergraduate degree at university. I managed surprisingly well, with constant reassurance from my parents, and, on the whole, life was great. Though I do wonder if, with distance, it just seems better than it actually was.
It was during my second year of teaching that my mental health took a terrible turn for the worse. Despite having a full-time position teaching in a wonderful school, being in a happy and loving relationship (with my now husband Pete), having bought our first home, playing sport with friends and even having a gorgeous puppy to love, a sadness began to creep over me that I couldn’t understand.
Anyone looking at my life would have wondered why I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t long before the feelings of sadness turned to feeling numb, miserable and hopeless. There was not a speck of colour left in my life. Yet on the outside, my life looked perfect.
It was only when I ended up crying uncontrollably at work that I knew I needed help, only to be diagnosed with depression. It may sound strange but I left that doctor’s appointment feeling relieved. This ‘thing’ that had overcome me had a name, and that meant I could learn about it. That opened the possibility up to me that I might just be able to feel better. Maybe one day.
My untreated anxiety put me at risk of depression. And my depression was triggered by a death in the family. I was treated with anti-depressants and found a wonderful psychologist who I met with weekly for many years. He was the third psychologist I tried.
It took a long time to recover from depression and eventually I was able to manage without medication for a long time. I continued seeing my psychologist on and off over the next 10 years to support me to understand and manage anxiety which was always the heart of my struggle.
Knowing the ‘contagious’ nature of anxiety it’s extremely important for me as a parent to continue to manage my anxiety each and every day. Exercise remains an essential management tool for me, as does sleep, keeping my sugar intake low (not always an easy one for me!), breathing, mindfulness and a low dose of anti-anxiety medication. My study of and training in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT (pronounced act like the word) was a huge turning point for me in managing my thinking and my anxiety as a whole. Learning that I didn’t need to continue to seek evidence to dispute my unhelpful thinking and that there was another approach to managing my worries was life-changing for me.
Through my studies in ACT I learned the skills to notice and accept my anxiety. I learned that saying to myself “I’m feeling anxious” and exploring what that felt like always lightened the load. Instead of trying to fight it, to seek reassurance that my worries were unfounded or find ways to try to feel better; acknowledging the feeling and developing a willingness to sit with anxiety is unconventional by traditional cognitive behavioural therapy standards but wonderfully helpful. The fight with anxiety is over when you can do this. I also learned defusion, a powerful skill that I use almost every day to manage unhelpful thoughts and any worries that show up. Defusion is a real game changer.
I learned through ACT that despite feeling anxious, it doesn’t have to stop me from doing what matters. I’d wasted so much time waiting to get rid of my anxiety so I could do the work and enjoy the experiences that are important to me. During my training in ACT Dr Russ Harris said “even though you have anxiety your arms and legs still move” meaning, you can actually still move in the direction of your values. You can do what matters with anxiety. And so that’s what I’ve done and will continue to do as a speaker, author and being the most present, available and calm parent I can be.