Learning to Thrive as an Anxious Individual

This guest post was written and shared by Ben, 44, Kent

I don’t know if I was born anxious. But, looking back, anxiety was part of my life from a young age.

I remember a very specific incident when I was five years old: My mother had taken me shopping in our nearest city and bought me a cardboard Halloween mask.

On our return home, I realised that I had not one mask, but two. This was a thin, cardboard mask, and we’d inadvertently taken two that were stuck together.

I didn’t sleep that night, and I was terrified for days afterwards. I sank into a spiral of what I now know as “catastrophising.” My thoughts took me all the way from deep shame to being locked away in a cell for stealing.

I seem to remember insisting that the “stolen” mask be kept in the cupboard under the stairs, and I only really calmed down once I’d convinced my mum to return it on her next trip to the city. I don’t know if she really did.

I’m now 44 years old, and a dad with two children of my own. A formal anxiety diagnosis didn’t follow until 30 years after the mask incident.

The diagnosis made a lot of things make sense. The signs were always there, from the spiralling worries and the racing thoughts, to the fact that I’ve always startled easily – something bullies, young and old, seem able to instinctively detect and have fun with.

I’ve since become fascinated by the nature or nurture debate around mental health – especially as one of my sons is clearly following in my anxious footsteps. It’s not something I ever wanted to pass on. In fact, I think it would have been fairer to give him the early baldness! But it turns out I didn’t have much choice.

Scientific opinions vary on the numbers. Before writing this article, one source told me that anxiety is 26% genetic, but I’ve previously read that in can be up to 50% “nature over nurture.”

And, however hard you try, you can’t help but pass some of it on through the generations as a result of your actions. Regardless of how much I try to hide it, my son has grown up around a worrier, and has a father who leaps at the slightest jump scare. I grew around a man like that too.

But I’m not writing this to wallow in self-pity. On the contrary, I’ve worked very hard to embrace my anxiety. It’s a part of me, as are the spells of depression I endure. Given that I’m already middle aged, it seems probable my mental health will remain something I manage, rather than something I “cure.”

And I’m OK with that.

So now I’m going to tell you a little more about my mental health journey. Some people are reluctant to share this “personal stuff,” but I feel it’s incredibly important. Not least because I seem to have gifted some anxious genes to my oldest son. The least I can do is help him grow up in a world that knows how to look after him.


The Diagnosis

You may be wondering why it took so long for me to be diagnosed with anxiety.

Well, I did what most men with mental health issues do in a world with a twisted view of masculinity: I did everything I could to outrun myself. Alcohol, drugs, toxic friendships, travel, gambling, debt – all the things we label as “work hard, play hard.”

That’s not to say that mental health didn’t rear its head. I presented at the doctor a few times over the years: with depression, with suicidal thoughts, with worry about smoking too much weed, and once for beta blockers to get me through a nasty breakup.

Ironically, given that I’d now describe anxiety as my principal mental health concern, it never really came up as a thing.

Until it did.

Strangely, it was once I’d stepped back a little from the hectic lifestyle that the anxiety really emerged. I’d moved abroad and was living a much calmer life. I’d not claiming I’d altogether stopped partying – but compared to my city lifestyle I’d practically retired!

I think perhaps I became more conscious of my patterns – of how once every couple of weeks, irrational spiralling thoughts would rob me of sleep and upset my body clock for days. I’d had panic attacks before, but I gradually became more able to recognise them as such. It steadily got more out of hand.

And then came something that may fall into the “Too Much Information” category: I stopped peeing properly.

I should elaborate.

For a week or so, I began to feel like I constantly needed to run to the loo. I’d either need to go three times in ten minutes, or I’d spend hours feeling desperate but be unable to do what I needed to do. My abdomen constantly ached, and I was struggling to go further than five minutes from home without having to turn back.

I can still feel the visceral fear, just the same as I can recall the fear of the mask theft incident. My mind zoomed at 1000 miles per hour around all manner of fears: dialysis machines, every imaginable cancer, dying before achieving the things I wanted to.

After about ten days of this, I did something constantly worked to avoid: I went to a doctor.

To cut a long story short, there was nothing physically wrong with me. My anxiety wasn’t being caused by some mysterious bladder-related illness. In fact, it was the other way around: Every physical symptom was being caused by anxiety. In the years that have followed, anxiety has caused me an impressively varied selection of physical symptoms.

Within days of receiving my diagnosis, and helped by some medication, all the symptoms stopped. But here’s a thing: that peeing thing still happens whenever I travel far from home.

The nearest service station is just 10 minutes from our house, and I have to stop to use their facilities on almost every journey. And that’s despite asking myself if “I’m sure I don’t need to go?” more times before leaving the house than I ask my children!

The thing is, it doesn’t bother me now. If it did, I wouldn’t be sharing it here. I mean, let’s face it, it’s kind of embarrassing. But embracing every part of myself is how I’ve learned to thrive with anxiety, rather than letting it define me.

And also, as I’m now far better informed, I know what’s going on physiologically. My amygdala, the “flight or fight” part of my brain, is getting over-excited because I’m doing something anxiety-provoking. It’s emptying my bladder in preparation to fight a bear, when all I’m actually doing is going into town.

Some people have a shoulder or a knee that gives them grief and makes certain things difficult. I’m simplifying the science here, but anxious people just have an amygdala doing the same thing. It’s a pity there’s much more stigma and shame attached, but the world is getting slowly better on that score. And I like to think articles like this help.

Let’s zoom forward to the present day. How’s my life now, other that the fact that I take an unfathomably long time to get ready to leave the house?

Well I’m not cured. I’m nowhere near. But I can confidently say that I’m more authentically happy than I’ve ever been in my entire adult life.

Anxiety still has a constant presence. Thanks to a global pandemic and my advancing years, health anxiety is my jam right now. And I’m still frequently kept awake by racing thoughts around routine things. Now they’re things like mortgages and pension provision, rather than late homework and pilfered Halloween masks.

Despite all that, I have far more good days than bad. Here are the things I do to ensure that’s the case.


Living a Clean and Healthy Life

It’s a frustratingly clichéd, but there’s solid reasoning and science behind the fact that almost every self-help book includes material about exercise and healthy living.

I’m better when I exercise. I’m better when I eat well. I’m better when I read books instead of social media feeds. I’m better when I avoid drugs and alcohol.

I’ve steered well clear of drugs for years now, but alcohol was a faithful anxiety crutch for most of my adult life. Or so I thought.

18 months ago, I stopped drinking completely. I don’t intend to turn this piece into an evangelical plea to give it a go yourself, but it has been transformational for my mental health. You can read here about the benefits I’ve felt from quitting drinking.

I’m no puritan, and I’m not a fitness freak. I love chocolate, cake and Diet Coke. But I do know that looking after myself is key to keeping anxiety largely at bay.


Living Authentically

Since I stopped drinking, I’ve re-embraced the hobbies and interests that gave me joy when I was young. I’ve also finally learned to love the fact that I’m an introvert, not the extrovert I spent years trying to be.

My free time is filled with books, with music, with good food, and with people who share my interests and beliefs.

My world is much smaller, and subjectively less exciting. My life is much more routine driven and – by some measures – boring.

But it’s a life I wish I’d realised I could have sooner. I’m passionately, unashamedly and argumentatively ME.

With anxiety you have quite enough to worry about without having to worry about who you are.

And that brings me to my next point.


Keeping The Right Company

Here’s one of my favourite quotes at the moment. Its original source is unknown. I’d love to claim I found it in a high-brow book, but I saw it on a meme:

“I used to walk into a room full of people and wonder if they liked me… now I look around and wonder if I like them.”

Over the years I’ve become much more discerning about the company I keep and – if I’m being honest – much less tolerant.

I don’t have time for people who think the solution to mental health issues is to “man up.” And I no longer think relationships that require me to pretend I’m somebody else are worth spending time on.

I’m blessed with some wonderful people in my life – especially a wife who works hard to understand my mental health, indulges my irrational worries, and never complains about inspecting a suspicious spot or bump for the thousandth time!

I’m always willing to give my time to others, and am particularly passionate about helping people with their mental health. I’ve completed counselling training, and often spend spare moments replying to threads on online support groups.

But I also believe that “do as you wish to be done by” should work both ways. For an anxious and “sensitive” person, I can also be pretty damn assertive if not treated right. Another thing for the “wish I’d learned all this sooner” category.


Constantly Learning

I have a stack of books by my bed, and plenty of them are of the kind you’d find in the “Mind, Body and Spirit” section.

If a self-help book teaches you just one or two “knowledge bombs” to help you to deal with situations better, then it’s worth reading. I WANT to evolve. I WANT to understand more about the world, and about other people.

I’ve lost count of the number of times the right book or the right article has broken me out of a depressed spiral. Humans are a work in progress, and I’m far from done.


Therapy

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my counsellor.

I’m not in regular therapy at the moment, but I had a long run of sessions a few years ago that helped me “put to bed” all kinds of issues from my early life. Without that therapy, I wouldn’t be the same person today.

I don’t wish to sound melodramatic, but I might not be here at all.

Having a strong relationship with the right counsellor can be a game-changer. About six weeks ago I had a couple of challenging things to work though. A couple of ad-hoc sessions were enough to allow me to tackle them as a balanced adult. Without those sessions, I would have tackled them as an impulsive child!

Counselling works.


Doing the Right Work

I’m a full-time freelancer, and work from home. While I’m sure that I could cope with a full-time, office-based job – and did for years – the freelance lifestyle fits the mind I’ve been given much better.

There’s an irony here, because freelancing comes with a huge amount of responsibility and financial uncertainty. That doesn’t seem like a natural fit for somebody with anxiety! But, for me, the trade-off is freedom from rules, routines, and from having to work with people and company values that don’t sit well with me.

What I’m saying here is that you have to spend a huge amount of your life working. Getting your career situation right is perhaps second only to getting your relationships right.

So there you have it, a couple of thousand words on how an anxious, mid-40s male with anxiety navigates the world.

Anxiety is always there for me. It’s a rare day (perhaps a rare hour!) when I don’t have to think about it at all. But I’m pretty happy and zen about being me.

There’s a lot I like about how my mind works: I feel deep joy, and enjoy good times without cynicism or snark. I can tune into my children’s emotions effortlessly.

I spent plenty of my life conditioned to believe that being “sensitive” was a weakness. As I become older and more comfortable in my own skin, it begins to feel more like a superpower.


This post was written and shared by Ben, 44, Kent

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