But What If?

20th October 2017

Born worrier Claire Moulds on what life is like when anxiety is your middle name…

If I had to describe how I feel most days the answer would most likely be ‘on edge’. I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when I haven’t been anxious. I can clearly recall from a young age having what my mother liked to call a ‘nervy tummy’, not just when faced with big challenges – such as going on stage at the panto aged three, when poor Barbara Windsor tried to get me to share with her and the 1,000-strong audience what I wanted for Christmas – but also when navigating the comparatively simple task of leaving my form’s classroom to join all the other year groups in assembly at primary school.

And it’s not just taking me out of my ‘home’ environment that causes agitation. Spontaneity may be life-affirming for others but for me not having a plan or, worse still, suddenly having plans completely thrown up in the air and changed – from guests arriving early (before I have everything in the house how I want it), to the suggestion of an impromptu meal out (which then leaves me fretting about what will happen to that night’s dinner that is currently sat in the fridge waiting to be cooked) – can be at best unsettling and at worst completely overwhelming.

Then there is my brain’s delightful fondness for anticipating possible problems in the most ordinary of settings.

Take going on holiday. I will lock all the windows and doors and then check them, check them, check them and then check them again. And then, just in case, I’ll go all around the house checking once more, just to be absolutely sure. The irrational fear that someone might be in my seat when I get on the plane (also applicable in cinemas, theatres and anywhere else where I have a reservation) means that I practically run to the boarding gate the minute it opens, even if that means dragging my poor travelling companion away from the book they are currently browsing or out of the bar with a drink unfinished. As for the stomach-churning wait for my suitcase to appear on the conveyor belt at my destination… my husband long ago realised that I should be nowhere near this process and should be deposited at the furthest location away from the carousel while he waits with the crowd.

It’s not just ‘problems’ either. Anything out of place or not quite as it should be is a cause for concern and must be acted on immediately. I must have jumped off the sofa a million times to pick up a random piece of fluff or other ‘alien’ item off the lounge carpet, unable to relax until it’s been correctly identified and disposed of. I’m just completely incapable of leaving such things alone, even when my husband – correctly – asks “what exactly is going to happen if you don’t do that right now?”

To be anxious is to have a mind that never truly switches off – leaving you unable to just sit still and ‘be’ – and which is always five steps ahead. It prevents sleep, as you’re unable to quieten your thoughts, and it disturbs sleep as the slightest unfamiliar or unexpected noise has you wide awake, heart pounding, wondering what’s going on. After ten years of marriage I now can’t sleep without my husband in bed with me; his presence, while not a cure, at least helps me to relax slightly and to feel secure.

To others looking in, who’ve never experienced constant anxiety, it must be perplexing. After all, how do you make sense of behaviour that can appear, on the face of it, so irrational? And yet behaviour is one way that an anxiety sufferer can ‘regain control’ of their life. It might not seem logical to you – in truth, it probably seems odd, tiresome and like I’m being deliberately difficult – to check a front door six times in a row before hopping into a taxi but to me it offers peace of mind that yes, I did definitely lock it properly. No wonder Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and anxiety so often go hand in hand.

The truth is that anxiety is such a fundamental part of me that I’m often not even aware of my behaviour unless someone else mentions it. And they do: from observing my shoulders suddenly tightening when faced with an unexpected social engagement, to noticing ‘the claw’ where my hand becomes rigid in response to stressful situations. Massage therapist after massage therapist has compared me to everything from the biggest ball of knots they’ve ever seen to a block of concrete. I’m so used to being permanently tense.

I’m not alone though.

With mental health and wellbeing high on the public agenda at present, celebrity after celebrity is opening up about their own personal battle to stay ‘in control’, from Lena Dunham who suffers from anxiety and OCD, to Emma Stone who has lived with anxiety and panic attacks since she was a child, to Nadiya Hussain, who describes her daily struggles with a panic disorder as ‘living with a monster’.

Meanwhile a review led by the University of Cambridge and published in the journal Brain and Behavior last year revealed that women are almost twice as likely to experience anxiety as men, with young individuals – both male and female – under 35 years of age disproportionately affected.

In my case I was finally diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) after renovating our new home tipped me over the edge and, on top of all my other anxiety symptoms, I developed heart palpitations.

According to the NHS, GAD is a long-term condition estimated to affect up to 5% of the UK population. It causes sufferers to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed.

As soon as one anxious thought is resolved, another may appear about a different issue.

Yep, that would be me then.

I therefore read with interest the outcomes of another recent review, published in the journal Biological Psychology, on excessive and uncontrollable worry. It highlighted, amongst other things, how people who experience high levels of anxiety process information differently to others so that they are more aware of potential threats in their environment, however minor, and are more inclined to interpret ambiguous situations as threatening.

The paper goes on to examine how someone affected might associate the need to worry with positive outcomes, ie ‘worrying will prevent bad things from happening’ and ‘worrying will help me to solve the problem correctly’ and therefore employ strict goal-directed rules for worrying, both to maximise goal attainment and to evaluate when the goal has been reached, ie ‘I must consider every single solution to this worry’.

This latter point particularly intrigues me, as I’m renowned for my perfectionist approach and need to cover things from every single angle before I make a decision, no matter how time-consuming or stressful. In contrast, other people will stop worrying when they think ‘enough is enough’ or they tire of the task in hand. I’m aware that this behaviour becomes more pronounced if I’m unhappy, a fact borne out by the researchers who confirm that a negative mood will promote the use of a systematic, deliberate and effortful information-processing style. No stone left unturned (and examined, and carefully replaced).

While your GP can offer treatment suggestions including therapy and/or medication for anxiety, Mind (www.mind.org.uk) also suggests a range of ‘self-help’ techniques to help you to cope with your condition. These include talking to someone you trust, breathing exercises for relaxation, shifting your focus (try having a stress ball to keep your hands and mind occupied), listening to music you enjoy and can lose yourself in, taking physical exercise to remove from everyday stresses and which offers you space to think and have fun, keeping a diary to help you to identify triggers and patterns for your anxiety as well as ways to manage it and joining a support group, where you can share common experiences and ways of coping with others who are facing similar challenges

As for me, I’m keen to explore mindful meditation after a recent study by the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, revealed that just ten minutes of this activity a day can help prevent your mind from wandering: a hallmark of anxiety.

‘Helpful’ family and friends will tell you it’s simply mind over matter but it’s my mind and it does matter, which is why we all need to learn that where mental health is concerned it’s not only good for those affected to talk, but also for those closest to them to listen. Carefully.

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