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We’re going to aim for two things within this email:
1. Build on the work you started last week of capturing what’s going on for you in an anxiety moment, by asking you to record what you do that makes that anxiety better or worse
2. Show you how to develop a process that will help you better manage yourself in those moments
1. Capturing what does and doesn’t work
It’s likely that, given some of the responses that you’ve given us to the follow up surveys, that most of you already have some strategies that help you manage anxiety, whether it be counting from 1 to 10, practicing slow breathing or scanning for particularly stressful situations.
Some of your strategies may be aimed at dealing directly with the stressor or trigger, while others may simply be about managing the emotional discomfort that they produce. How conscious you are of using a particular strategy can vary enormously. Slow breathing, for example, does require that we pay some conscious attention to what’s going on in our bodies. Other strategies, including safety behaviours such as avoiding eye contact, are ones that we may not be so consciously aware of.
Being more conscious of the strategies that we employ has two significant benefits:
1. It can help us identify the strategies we employ for different situations and identify underlying patterns (e.g. whether we have a habitual ‘go to’ pattern, or do things that actually make the situation worse)
2. If we understand our current repertoire of strategies and how well they serve us, we can either do more of what works, or expand our repertoire with further tools
2. Developing a process
The exercise that follows is about becoming more conscious of the strategies you employ that make your anxiety better or worse, and you’ll be drawing on the work you started last week of capturing what goes on in your anxious moments.
In a subsequent edition, we’ll be offering you a tool that will help you to evaluate the effectiveness of your strategies and start to identify other options if needed.
I’m 17 years old. I’m standing in a bookshop in a large town near where I live (Slough, as it happens). I’m facing a wall of books at the top of which is a sign that reads Psychology. As I browse the books on display my eye is drawn to one in particular. It’s a book by someone called Eric Berne M.D.and its title is What Do You Say After You Say Hello?
Feeling as self-conscious as I’ve ever felt I reach out and take a copy from the shelf and turn to the back cover to read the summary to find out what it’s about. Because despite feeling so self-conscious, I desperately want an answer to the question in the title. Because for the life of me, I really don’t have a clue.
This was where my journey of self-discovery really began. In some ways a land long ago and far away, but with just a little effort I can reach back to my adolescent self and remember what I felt like back then. It wasn’t good.
Fast forward to now, and it’s no coincidence that I practice as a therapist and coach, with more or less three decades of experience behind me. How did I get here? Early on it was probably more a question of luck than judgement. I trained as a volunteer counsellor within a youth counselling agency after answering an ad in a local paper. I got one or two early breaks with jobs, and later on was able to make more active choices that eventually brought me to where I am now.
It could have been so different.
Figures from the Psychiatric Morbidity Survey show that the proportion of the UK adult population likely to be suffering a ‘common mental disorder’such as anxiety, depression, phobias, mixed anxiety and depression – is around 17%. That’s around nine million adults and a lot potential misery and reduced quality of life.
Whatever Governments may say, physical health and mental health aren’t treated the same. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapy programme in England, when it was established, set out to provide therapies for 15% of the adult population in need. Not all, just 15%. Recent talk of parity in treatment between mental and physical health is just that – talk. Without vast investment it can’t be achieved in any meaningful way.
But not everyone, wants, needs, or even believes in therapy. And many can’t afford to access it privately. So what’s left?
Well, there’s the local bookshop, and self-help has come on a long way since I set out on my journey. There has also been an explosion of online resources, including apps that can be accessed on mobile devices. Some of them are good. I think there’s room for better.
THE BIG BANG
I can still remember the moment. It should have been a perfect day. Bright spring morning. Sun streaming in through the window. Birds singing in the park opposite (you get the picture) … except it was the darkest moment of my life.
It was the moment where I had to admit that I was totally screwed. No way I could continue trying to deny this … hoping it might go away … no point in pretending I had any resources against the bomb I now carry around in my head.
This thing is alien. It forced itself into my life and now holds it hostage, threatening to explode at any point. Now everything I do is subservient to it and I have to life my life by its demands. I know it’s warped (and getting worse), but there’s nothing I can do to stop it … “Oh no, you can’t do that any more … If you try do that, and it goes wrong I’ll go BANG! and then where will you be”
So I carry on trying to live some kind of life. Incidents happen, my world shrinks a little more, anxiety increases its grip on me, and life gets a little more distorted. This cycle continues until a weekend break to the Channel Islands where I finally catch how bad things have become. My anxiety/panic around banks has become so bad that I’m now walking around with £50 notes stuffed in my shoes! … “ENOUGH THIS HAS TO STOP”
MY (FALTERING) ROAD TO RECOVERY
So how the hell do I get fixed? Self-help seemed a good place start … then healing … then the web … (the list goes on). For a while it seemed as if recovery was assured “Yes …. I’m fixed … cured …. life is great … I can go do anything. Then … BANG! “Hello Giles … I’m back … Did you miss me?”
That was the most damaging of setbacks, but I eventually realised that misapplied, even the best help can be ineffective or even damaging. Moreover, the kind of help we need can change over time, and it needs to be able to handle failure and setback not just “pump” us for success.
Finally, after being introduced to a specialist dealing with anxiety and panic, I realised that there is no substitute for proven expertise. I can still remember her saying (with a slight twinkle in her eye that proved she was human as well as expert) “I love working with anxiety … Because when you do it right its so easy to fix”. For the first time in three years I felt a slight flicker of hope start to burn.
On 27th Jan 2000, I confronted my anxiety and won. It was the first in many rounds. But it marked the start of the end of that voice. By chance I showed friends some of the software tools that I developed to help me get to that point, they commented that others might find benefit in using them too. And so the next chapter of my life started.
There have been many iterations of many ideas between then and now. Some providing clear value for many people, others failing to see the light of day. While long, this journey leaves me with a very clear sense of how the combination of wellbeing & technology can create understanding, that can bring about change, that can bring about long term benefit for many people who would otherwise be outside the loop.
I was lucky. I was able to persevere to a point where I learnt how to make things better. I know of many instances where others have not been so lucky. I see no reason, when we have as many resources as we have, why this should continue to happen.
In software Hello World is a programme “simple enough so that people who have no experience with computer programming can easily understand it”. I think it stands as a perfect example of our principles … this can be simple … it can be straightforward … you can feel better and then stay that way. Where would you like to begin?