Don’t Panic – a year of living with anxiety and a search for unbridled joy
05 February 2020
Or: Miles, Moyles, Massage, Meditation and Music
Starting the new year with a bang - a quick recap
If you didn’t read the blog I published back in July 2019, "I'm no alpha male", this time last year I was suffering from what turned out to be panic attacks, a very physical manifestation of poor mental health. They culminated with an attack of epic proportions at about 2am on the 2nd Jan, which left me running around the house naked, thinking that I was having a massive heart attack and genuinely believing that I was about to die. In retrospect this attack was a godsend, as it left me in no doubt that I needed to get some help. I ended up being diagnosed with Anxiety and Panic Disorder, which came as a surprise, but I got some support through work, had some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and took some steps of my own. I won’t go into the details here, you can read the last blog for that, but my issues were all around the death of my dad (over 30 years ago), coming to terms with my own mortality (as I approached 50) and trying to live up to unreal expectations (mostly self-inflicted).
One of the most important decisions I made was that I wasn’t going to hide things, I wanted to share my experience as part of learning to manage this. As I learned early on, you can’t get rid of anxiety, it’s part of who you are, so there is nothing to be gained from hiding from it or getting angry about it intruding on your life. I have to say that I had never thought of myself as an anxious person, I thought I managed stress fairly well and so when I started to talk about it many people reacted with surprise. That is of course apart from one of my oldest and closest friends who said, “of course you’re an anxious person, I’ve know you for 40 years, you always have been, I could have told you that”. Which just goes to show you that we need to share more, particularly us blokes, as our friends may know us far better that we know ourselves and probably more honestly too. So, make sure you regularly check in on your mates to see how they are really feeling and don’t take “yeah, I’m fine” as an acceptable response.
In the last six months I have written my first blog, shared it at work, then shared it online and was blown away by the response from people. People I know, people I work with but don’t know, people on the Board at work, strangers from across LinkedIn all came forward with messages of support, sharing their own experiences and also reaching out for help if they were currently suffering. Lots of people have kept in touch and told me that they are now getting support, trying CBT or just more aware of their or others mental wellbeing. I have had a couple of articles in our company paper, been invited to speak on men’s mental health to some other companies, including one of our Investors, I have been included in Business in the Community’s video to accompany the launch of their Mental Health at Work report and even met with Ruby Wax just before Christmas. My story was seen as a positive one; I was taking proactive action and feeling better but also people told me it was important as a man that I was seen to talk about these issues and as a senior figure in business it was important to show that we can all suffer with poor mental health and that it would not negatively impact on your career.
So, as I pass the one-year anniversary of discovering my mental health, anxiety and all, I thought I should share an update. I have realised how important some things are to manage my racing mind (more on those in a moment), I have allocated a little more time for me and as a result brought more joy back into my life, I have had successes at work and on balance it’s been a good year. But honestly as I write this I have also had several days of intense anxiety and middle of the night panic episodes (not full blown attacks), the first for over six months.
Having had a wonderfully relaxed run up to Christmas, out of nowhere I had the worst case of the jitters for most of Christmas Eve. Jitters is how I label that feeling that something just isn’t right, I get feelings of anxiety and a bit of a racing mind but many of the symptoms appear as physical; muscle tension, temperature fluctuations, I also get quite hypersensitive to noise and over all I just feel jittery. At its worst I can feel like my thoughts and even sanity are spinning away and it takes all my concentration to hold on to them, keeping them held tight against the whirlwind trying to pull them away. When it gets like this it’s hard to concentrate on the things that will actually help; holding a conversation, reading, meditating or even watching something on TV. Anyway, bizarrely it went away completely overnight, and I then had the lovely Christmas Day, completely relaxed even though I cooked turkey, pigs in blankets, two types of stuffing, sprouts with chestnuts and bacon, carrots, gravy, roast potatoes and parsnips followed by both Christmas and Ginger puddings, going to bed very full but proud of myself. Only to have a near panic attack followed by two hours of adrenaline fuelled restlessness finally getting to sleep about 01:30.
I don’t really know why I am in an anxious period, maybe it was rushing around for Christmas, maybe it’s a lack of exercise (I have injured my knee and only just getting back on the road), maybe it’s the constant overcast weather or maybe it was the anniversary of the big attack.
As I say, anxiety does not go away, so complacency in just not an option. But over the last year I have sought out and found a number of things that have helped me. So, in a light-hearted way, remember I am not an expert just someone who is willing to share my life experience, here are some of the things that I have found useful this year.
Miles & Moyles
If you read anything about improving your mental wellbeing it will mention the importance of exercise. Not only does exercise release the chemicals in your brain, endorphins, that can combat the feeling of anxiety but for me exercise, and particularly running, provides time when my brain can work through problems and do some “thought filing” in a semi-conscious sort of way. I picked up running after many decades of limited exercise about 9 years ago and it has become an important part of my routine. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a road junkie, focused on times and nothing else, but I like to run 3 times a week and do the occasional 10k race just to get the shiny medal – people of a certain age may remember a cartoon “Catch the Pigeon” and Mutley the dog, I’m a bit like that – I love a shiny medal. And when I can’t run because of illness, injury or too much work, I really do notice the impact.
Now it’s fair to say that I am built for sprinting, and was pretty good at it as a kid, so doing any kind of longer distance is a challenge. I had run one half marathon, when I was 21, but apart from that I thought 400m was long distance. So, when I started running in 2011, as an attempt to regain some fitness in my forties, it was a slog and it took many months for my muscles to develop any memory at all. But after a while it became something I genuinely looked forward to, and although I am not fast I did manage to train enough to beat my 21 year old self when I ran my 2nd Half Marathon.
But it has to be said that running any distance regularly can get a bit repetitive. It’s one thing to be running through beautiful countryside on a crisp, bright morning but quite often it’s more likely to be running the pavements in the dark after a hard day’s work. So, I like to have a sound track to run to. Now I love music but what I have found even better for me is doubling up on my endorphin hit by running to something that makes me laugh. Now I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but rediscovering the Chris Moyles show on Radio X was fantastic. There is something about feeling part of a group conversation that works for me and not taking life too seriously. Yes I admit people at work would probably expect me to be listening to the Today Programme rather than a bewildering array of fart sound effects but one thing I have learnt this year is that I don’t need to feel guilty about my choices and I deserve to laugh a little bit more. So, if you happen to be around Cambridgeshire and look up to see a grey haired, bandy legged, red-faced vision running slowly towards you and laughing uncontrollably that is likely to be me. I hadn’t realised Mr Moyles was back on the radio until last year and so I am slowly working my way back through his weekly podcasts – so my sweaty, chuckling runs will last for quite a while yet. And Chris and team, if you happen to read this, thank you, all of you. You have made it easier to face each day, you have made me laugh before many a journey to work and difficult meetings and you have helped me leave behind the pressures of life as I run off, slowly, into the distance.
We are all different and you need to find what suits you but for me Miles and Moyles is an absolute necessity for my good mental health.
Massage & Meditation
Something I have always wanted to try but I have put off for many reasons is get a proper massage. Just like exercise there is plenty of research out there to demonstrate the wellbeing benefits of massage, but as one of my physical manifestations of anxiety is muscle tension, it seemed a no brainer. Trying to find the right masseuse can be tricky, not just the fact that googling for someone in your local area can give you options you really weren’t looking for (tantric and naturist massages were ones I was not expecting to find) but also did I want sports, deep tissue, Swedish, hot stone, as a complete novice I just didn’t know. All I wanted was a respectable masseuse that I was fairly certain wouldn’t leave me embarrassed by offering a range of extras! So, in the end I put out a call at work and asked for recommendations. I didn’t realise just how popular it was and was flooded with suggestions and eventually picked someone who at least three people in my office (who I knew I could trust) used regularly.
I booked a session and turned up, thankfully at a treatment room in the local town rather than the added anxiety of having to go to a house or for them to come to mine. It worth saying that it’s quite a step for someone with anxiety issues to do this. Firstly there is just meeting someone new in such a strange situation, then there is the fact that you are effectively trapped for your session and are putting yourself under someone else’s control, oh yes and then of course then there is the fact that that person is going to be rubbing your near naked body with oil!
Putting all that aside, I had weighed up the potential benefits and thought I could get through it and if they could work through the knotted rope that passes for my shoulder and neck muscles then so much the better. So, I will set the scene, I go through a door off the high street, one of those doors that appear between two shop fronts that you have walked passed a hundred time and never seen. I climb up three flights of stairs in what appears to be an empty building, but as I get to the top I start to smell an increasingly strong scent of essential oils and tiger balm. It’s my last chance to turn and flee but before I can a voice calls my name. At the top of the stairs she appears and welcomes me into a small room with crystals, relaxing music, oils and a large table in the middle. We chat and she asks if this is my first time and I explain that it is, and all that goes through my mind is “what if this is not legit!”, what would I do and even worse what would that say about the people who recommended her! Anyway I tell myself not to be so stupid and hear her say “I’ll go back outside and you can take off your clothes, make yourself comfortable under the towel on the table and call me when you’re ready and I’ll come back in”. Then she leaves and I am left thinking, take off my clothes! I must have misheard, stop imagining things. So, I start to undress and she calls through the door “sorry I mean leave your underwear on!”, thank god! So down to my smalls, I slide onto the table, get under the towel and call out that I am ready – here goes.
I have had physio on my back before now and so I am not completely new to this but it’s a strange sensation, face down through a hole, towel being tucked into my briefs (I had opted for briefs rather than boxers as the safer option) and a women I have only just met rubbing oil into me. I try my hardest to focus on the music, the smell of the oil, working out whether she is using hands or elbows to dig into my tense shoulders and not let my racing thoughts or heart rate get away, trying not to get into fight or flight mode. But twenty minutes in I am starting to relax and am thinking that both the pressure and style of massage is just about right. Then out of the blue she says, “now I am going to lift the towel up and can you turn over”! Well that’s it, my mind races off – hang on I have only asked for a back and shoulder massage, why on earth do I need to turn over! Oh no I’m going to be asked if I want something from the extras menu! What do I say! But of course, I am English and I am too embarrassed to say anything and I just comply and turn over. Lying on my back all I keep telling myself is to stop being silly, but the response from my brain is, yes but what do I say if she asks!
So here you can see the joy of living with an anxious mind. It was of course nothing out of the ordinary, she was simply turning me over to work on stretching my neck and then finishing off with a head and face massage. A much more appropriate happy ending. Getting over the anxiety of the first visit I am happy to say that monthly visits have become part of my routine. I have suffered with shoulder and neck pain off and on for years and this little treat has made all the difference.
Now one of the reasons I was able to prevent myself from spiralling into a blind panic on the massage table and running off trailing a waving towel from the back of my briefs, is that I was using meditation techniques. As I described in my last blog, I have practiced mindfulness and meditation for the last 12 months. And of all the things I have tried, this is the most important one for my daily wellbeing. I use Headspace, there are lots of other ones out there on the market, but this suits me. As I say I have meditated every day, sometimes first thing in the morning, quite often at lunch time at work and frequently just as I am going to bed. If I am feeling in good mental health then it keeps me centred, if I am struggling then it helps to reset my day, and on occasion when I feel the panic rising then it can help to manage the episode and prevent a full blown attack.
All in all, I have been doing pretty well this year but I still have the occasional panic, but having become familiar with meditation and mindfulness techniques I can use them in that situation even without the app. Just such an occasion happened in the height of summer. I had travelled down early to London to speak at a conference in Victoria then I had to race across to Westminster as I was speaking and presenting an award at the House of Commons. As I arrived I knew I wasn’t quite right, going through security I was hot and flustered and then got held up going into the committee room. All I wanted was some water and a bite to eat before checking my notes, but instead I got cornered by someone filled with far too much self-importance, and too little respect for personal space, who wanted to tell me just how great he was. Anyway, rather than making a suitable excuse I very nearly fainted instead, just catching a chair at the last minute and managing to sit down. Before having a chance to collect my thoughts they gathered everyone around the lectern – it being a standing rather than sitting affair. I had to make my way to the front to stand between the Minister and a Baroness waiting for my turn to speak. At this point my legs were like jelly, my heart was racing, and I thought “well this might make the news as I pass out between these two”. But six months of meditation gave me enough self-control to get hold of my thoughts, disregard the fear of passing out and calm myself enough to step onto the podium when I was introduced. I am not sure I stuck to my notes and anyone close enough to the front would have seen the whites of my knuckles as I clung to the sides of the platform, but I got through it.
After it finished I felt well enough to share my condition with the organiser and apologise if I was not on my best form. Now she might just have been being kind, but she said on the contrary, she would never have known and said my speech was the most effective and inspiring of the day. So, it just goes to show, adrenaline can sometimes be a good thing.
I don’t recommend that kind of adrenaline rush but would recommend meditation and mindfulness, it does take a little time to get used to, and you do have to find one that works for you. But don’t forget you don’t get fit enough to run a marathon without training and really the same goes for your mind – you can’t expect to get it to a healthy state without putting in some training.
Music and unbridled joy
The final revelation I wanted to pass on from my experiences this year is that we all need a bit more joy in our lives. Ask yourself this, when was the last time you completely let yourself go? When was the last time you danced with complete abandon, without a care for who might be watching. It’s a conclusion I came to after discussing things at therapy, I do too many things I think I am expected to do, or what I think other people want me to do. Just occasionally, or even more regularly, it’s ok to do something just for you.
For me joy can come in many forms but the one I’ll touch on here is music – as it’s something that can drive straight into your soul. I passed 50 this year and my family knowing me well treated me to several tickets to concerts. I am not a music snob, if it’s good and it hits me then I am fine with that. So, this year I saw Take That, I went to an 80s festival with ABC and the Human League and I went to the Cambridge Folk Festival for the first time. Now I love live music and have always been in awe of anyone who can play an instrument well and with passion and traditional folk sums this up. It’s not a big part of my record collection but seeing it live for the first time was a transformational experience. I challenge anyone to stand in the middle of a marque with some Folk in full swing and not sway, bounce, tap your foot and most importantly smile. This is what happened to me whilst listening to some cracking tunes on the Northumbrian Small Pipes – I even ended up downloading the album! But even in this heady mix of summer sun, real ale and full on folk, I didn’t completely let go.
This came a good few months later when, along with two of my closest friends, I went to watch Big Country doing a reunion tour to celebrate their Steel Town album. You should know that I have seen hundreds of bands from Queen to Madonna, George Michael to Oasis in big venues and small but Big Country top them all (go and check them out). And so you find me at a small gig in Oxford at the end of November 2019, having had a couple of pints (but being careful, as too much is no longer good for me) watching the best band in the world strike up for a couple of hundred people. It’s loud, very loud, and because of the small crowd we can get right near the front. But as ever we hang just a bit back, give ourselves a bit of room. The album came out in the mid-eighties and so I am in my late teens again, transported back in time.
They sound as good as ever. But I have injured my knee and so I am bouncing and swaying, taking it easy, rather than dancing more energetically. But just in front of me are six lads in their 30s, too young to have been original fans, but that doesn’t seem to matter as they are giving it their all. They dance with such joy on their faces and I look on in envy. As the band play through the set, the dancers emanate happiness and I see people tempted away from their partners or friends and drawn to join this sweaty, bouncing, coalescence of fun. And eventually a tiny voice in the back of my head pipes up and says, “it’s alright, they won’t mind if you join in, what’s the worst that could happen”.
And that is enough. I leave my find with a smile over my shoulder, unshackled from fear, doubt and any care that I might look like a greying, limping, dad dancer, and go through the centre of the mosh and right to the front. For the next 40 minutes I scream every lyric from the top of my lungs, I dance with my arms around people that I had never met and will never see again. I didn’t care about yesterday, tomorrow or any responsibilities I have – I simply existed in the moment, in a state of complete and unadulterated 100% joy. Oh, how refreshing for the sole that was
These are the moments you must make time for, these are the moments that you must find, these are the moments that you deserve.
However, you feel at this moment, they are still out there to be found and I hope you find one soon.
Whatever your current state of wellbeing, try some exercise, be mindful, find some time for you and stay happy, stay healthy and seek some joy.