This post is by me, Louisa Whitney, founder of LKW Family Mediation based on my recent experiences. It is an invitation for us all to reflect on the anxiety we feel and to perhaps look at this through the lens of what is anxiety related to our current challenges, and what is anxiety that is coming from others and society generally.
“Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations”
Here’s a confession to begin with: I have suffered with anxiety for most of my life. No one called it anxiety when I was a child but I can vividly remember situations where I felt overwhelmed and had a strong desire to be with my mum, even though I couldn’t really explain why. Fast forward through various life experiences to a mini breakdown in 2003 and seeing a brilliant counsellor and I finally understood that this was anxiety. Since then I have been fortunate enough to both recognise and minimise the anxiety in my life. That sounds simple to say but it has been a journey and I will come on to things that have helped me later in this blog post. But I would describe it as a bit like learning to surf. Sometimes you are riding the wave knowing you are in charge and it feels amazing, then you end up slightly off balance and the wave takes over and you have a face full of sea water aka racing heart rate, not sleeping well and having what I have come to call washing machine head i.e lots of different thoughts and worries racing around your head, all at the same time. I really mean when I say that I have learned to minimise anxiety, that I have learned to look at the swell and the waves and to navigate my life to miss the worst of them and know my limits.
I have noticed lately though that we all have a cup of what we are anxious about. I have had a big work load lately. I am in the process of recruiting another mediator. Work has been easier since my children went back to school as I am able to properly focus in between the time they go and the time they come home rather than having to factor in breaks to supervise the home school (whilst trying to remember how the heck you multiply fractions!). But we have had a considerable amount of illness since the schools went back and this is never the easiest bump to navigate as all working parents are aware.
Anxiety too has been coming up in lots of conversations with clients. Many people going through a separation describe suffering with anxiety. This can be anxiety that started during the relationship as a result of problems, or perhaps disfunction, in the relationship. Issues may have been exacerbated by poor communication and a lack of affection or support. There can then be anxiety that comes with the end of a relationship. That often looks like thoughts like this going round and round:
- Will my children be OK? I don’t want them to be affected by our separation.
- Where am I going to live?
- How will I make ends meet?
- Will I be able to afford a suitable property / to pay my bills / to eat?
- What if he/she/they make things really difficult and we have to spend thousands of pounds resolving things?
Being someone who struggles with anxiety anyway coupled with pressures of a separation can lead to an overwhelming sense of dread a great deal of the time, and it’s important to get help and support with this as it can be a huge barrier to making decisions and sorting out what happens next, which in itself can feed anxiety. Seeking help from a GP or counsellor is a good first step. As is isolating what makes you feel better, and what doesn’t.
I have also found that the pandemic has been adding to people’s anxieties. This is understandable in circumstances where it may have meant being ill or dealing with illness in close friend and relatives, bereavement, a loss of income, loss of a job or other added pressures on a family. But as well as your own personal sources of anxiety there is also a collective societal anxiety.
I invite you to think about what is in your own personal anxiety cup. This might include your relationship situation, money worries, worries about vulnerable relatives, what will happen with your separation, your own health and so forth. But it can help to draw a distinction between what is in your cup and what is being thrown into your cup by other people. Picture the scene: you’re not having a great day and you sit down for a brief moment and have a scroll through social media to see what’s happening. You then see a post from a friend, or perhaps an actor or public figure you follow on line, and you feel an instant pang of upset, increased worry, an elevated heart beat – whatever it might be. I have found this myself that I have been triggered by things I’ve seen online. This is what I mean by a societal anxiety going straight into your cup and giving you an extra cup of anxiety to go with the one you already have. You may also feel a similar reaction currently watching the news and it can help to limit how many times you catch up on this.
This thought process started for me a couple of weeks ago during a week of trying to juggle too many balls (that is always when anxiety starts for me and it’s what I mean about reading the swell in my surfing metaphor above). I know myself well enough to know when my anxiety is increasing and that I will need to up my self care to compensate for this. That sounds good, right? It is definitely something I’ve learned the hard way. BUT (because just in case you were labouring under this misapprehension) I’M NOT PERFECT and so I have a tendency to start scheduling in self care at a future point when all the balls have been juggled rather than right NOW when it is needed.
My friend, Annmarie Carvalho – a counsellor and non-practising family lawyer – shares brilliant short videos on YouTube about navigating particular issues that are coming up for her clients. Just around this time she had shared one regarding anxiety with three important questions to ask yourself during a time when you feel you’re struggling with anxiety overload. During a particularly anxious moment where I knew I was facing a potentially poor night’s sleep I asked myself these questions and it really did bring the anxiety down a number of notches. I am sharing it below so you can have a watch (it’s less than 10 minutes).
I said I would share some things that have helped me with anxiety and this definitely helped me to just pull back a bit. Other things that have helped me with anxiety recently have been:
- Deep breathing – it’s a cliché but things usually become sayings because there is some truth there. I’m fairly knowledgeable about breath thanks to a number of years spent doing yoga with a brilliant teacher. But I still find myself realising I may not have taken a deep breath all day at certain points. I now try to pause a few times in each day to make way for deep and slower breathing.
- Yoga – this is my go to. I can feel ill, overwhelmed, stressed and pretty darn emotional but I know that shortly after a yoga class I will feel better in every way (not always in the class it has to be said but definitely after). I encourage everyone to find something that for them takes the edge off the symptoms. Nothing is a magic cure but knowing what will lessen the spike is really important.
- Giving myself permission to not be superwoman. This is surprisingly tough. Saying to myself that I might not complete the to do list this week, there may be unanswered emails or I may have to cancel something induces anxiety in itself but I’m always grateful I have put myself first (again that afterwards thing).
- STOP the second you feel triggered by something on social media. Ask yourself if you are likely to feel triggered by this again. Maybe it’s the same person spreading conspiracy theories that you feel you don’t need right now? Maybe it’s someone who is clearly having a bad time but their anxiety is heightening yours. Snooze them, mute them, put them on pause. No one knows when you’ve done this but it means you don’t see their posts for a while and can escape whatever is triggering you. I have people and subjects paused and snoozed on my social media feed because there are certain things I just don’t need right now.
- Talk about it. It’s not easy to say “I’m struggling”. I don’t say it to many people but I have a close circle that I can say that to and I’ve learned to do that. If nothing else it makes me not hide it so much and that can only be a good thing. I also talked about feeling overwhelmed in my meeting with my PPC (Professional Practising Consultant – a supervisor/mentor all mediators have) and that was great. So much so that I bought it up in a meeting with other PPCs that I was chairing. Self-care is massive right now and the more we talk about needing that the more that we might be able to help others who may not have recognised their need for greater self-care right now.
I think most people are finding a heightened anxiety right now and I think it’s enormously helpful to ensure that you are not letting the world at large lob extra spoonfuls of anxiety into your cup so I encourage you all to reflect on how to stop extra anxieties you don’t need making their way into your cup. Boundaries have never been so important – online and in real life. Following the tips above (and find your own) to discern ways that will help you with your own anxieties.
Above all if you’re struggling with overwhelming anxiety right now then please talk to your GP, or if it is leading to you feeling suicidal please reach out to the Samaritans. You can call free on 116 123.