Everyone has had times when you feel "anxious" or "worried" - however I would like to tell you the story about me and my anxiety.
Growing up I was never the most confident person. Sporty, but never the first-picked. In the popular crowd, but never the ring leader. Outgoing, but always preferring my own company. Adventurous, but never a rule-breaker. And all the while there was a feeling of never being comfortable or relaxed.
First it was school plays at primary school, then first dates and parties, then exams and career-planning at sixth form, then giving presentations and studying at university, then more recently job interviews, finances, and events.
Driving lessons in particular have stayed with me and perfectly demonstrate living with anxiety. Learning to drive is seen as the ultimate perk of growing up. Getting your licence and with it your freedom - the world as your oyster. I have several friends who had lessons and theory tests within days of their 17th birthday, all the discussions about what cars to get, where we would go. I remember thinking at the time it was strange that everyone else was so excited, whilst I was dreading it.
Everything from learning a new skill, having to make small talk with a stranger, the embarrassment of stalling, the pressure approaching every roundabout and traffic light, begging the lights to turn green before the opportunity to stall and infuriate other drivers presented itself.
The feelings and sensations would begin days in advance. This looming cloud growing darker and more tumultuous as the hours ticket by. The sleepless nights, and loss of appetite, the stomach pains, the frantic search for a legitimate excuse to cancel.
I can vividly remember the sheer and utter joy of receiving a text message from my driving instructor one morning to say he was sick and that day's lesson was cancelled. The pure elation and relief of knowing I had been spared those two hours of torture. It was absolute happiness in its rawest form.
Whilst the example of driving lessons is useful to highlight what the cycle of anxiety was like, these feelings and emotions applied to all aspects of my life from the simple (what if I lose my keys, the train is delayed, my alarm doesn't go off, or this phone call/email is going to be bad news) to the extreme (what if I lose my job, or something bad happens to my family or my girlfriend breaks up with me) - concurrently and relentlessly. It's an exhausting cycle.
I would be a rich man if I had £1.00 for every time I've sent a last minute text message cancelling plans. I have flaked on everything from coffees with friends, to weekends away, even holidays - let alone job interviews, dates, socials, the list of no-shows and missed opportunities is endless.
Of course I have great regrets as a result, usually as soon at the point of hitting the send button. The shame of letting people down, and the memories, opportunities and experiences that have passed me by. But on the flipside, what I do know is that on each and every one of those occasions, the levels of stress, worry and pressure were so great that those texts or WhatsApps were a relief. As much as I knew I would regret it and feel awful for being a bad friend, in every instance it was 100% worth it for that momentary release.
However it is only in the past 18 months that I have come to understand all of these feelings and experiences, where it comes from and what it means. Since late summer 2016, persistent injuries stopped me running and everything that comes with it - endorphins, socialising, identity, routine, competition, health & confidence in your body. A cycle of reclusiveness, negativity, isolation and continued disappointments followed.
One day I awoke completely incapable of getting out of bed. I felt exhausted and motivation for everything was gone. I put this down to fatigue and took a rest day. But after 7 days passed I knew something was up. This led me to my GP in August 2017 (at the request of my girlfriend Coralie), where a simple questionnaire raised serious red flags and a diagnosis of depression and severe anxiety. It made me realise that the way I worried was not normal. I was offered medication and anti-depressants, but chose not to go down that route and since August I have undergone counselling for depression and since January cognitive behavioural therapy for my anxiety.
Looking back, it's hard to put a date or time on when I first began feeling this way, but what I do know is I can't recall a time when I didn't feel this pressure, and worry of worst case scenarios. And I can see over the past year, long periods of injury and unhealthy lifestyle habits severely exacerbated the anxiety that has been with me for so long.
It was time to finally address this. As someone who can act impulsively and in an all-or-nothing fashion, I've tried to adopted a holistic approach to tackle my anxiety and to recognise there is no one silver bullet or miracle cure.
Firstly, recognising some of the warning signs is really important. For me those include not sleeping enough, overworking, struggling to concentrate, checking social media too often, feeling overwhelmed, and a general sense that time is moving really quickly.
So I decided to take a break from social media for a couple of months and removed all the apps from my phone including work apps, creating clear boundaries between work and personal life, helping me to switch off and relax.
Next, mindfulness has been critically important. I know for many it can be a buzzword used by bloggers and influencers on social media, but for me it means calming things down and slowing down my thoughts. Hours have flown by on jigsaw puzzles and rediscovering my love of reading. It's difficult to worry about things whilst trying to rebuild 1,000 pieces of London, or whether Harry, Ron & Hermione will find the seven horcruxes (don't worry - they nailed it).
These may both sound childish, but previously I would have felt "too busy" to do either, and instead spent this time cleaning, fidgeting, working or worrying about anything and everything that could go wrong in the worst possible ways. Being selfish and making time for myself has been a massive step.
The cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in particular has been incredibly useful in breaking worries down. Understanding what is a hypothetical worry and what is practical. Dismissing the hypothetical worries, like what happens if an astroid hits the earth(!), which to be fair is probably a bit above my pay grade and something I'm unlikely to fix in a day.
That means I now have more time and energy to focus on the practical things I can control and plan. Things, like budgeting finances, being self aware of distractions and better managing my time. It stops me feeling overwhelmed by creating manageable chunks and a clear plan. Being rational.
I've also tried to make sure I go for a walk every lunchtime, and that I spend more time with family and being sociable. I'm only a couple of months into this new approach, so there are still times where I find myself wishing I hadn't made plans, but I've not regretted any of them so far. Although I'm not quite yet a social butterfly, so I leave that to Coralie!
Clearly too, being able to run again has helped massively, and swimming and cycling and triathlon have helped, but I recognise it's not sustainable to pin happiness, health and identity on being able to undertake a sport where injuries are common.
Recognising how much I missed running and how well it helps me regulate my mental health, I've shifted my emphasis much more on participation rather than speed, like finally getting my parkrun 50 t-shirt (only 13 more to go!), running with other people so I can enjoy the social side, and not entering races. My next steps are to ensure I continue to act on physical warning signs and listen to my body, to reduce the chances of overtraining and injury, and creating less reliance on exercise.
Whilst I believe in the power of introverts and letting your success/achievements speak for themselves, overall this process had made me realise that being "shy" or "quiet" or "a worrier" are not normal parts of growing up for everybody. This is anxiety and it is an illness... but it can be treated and managed like any other.
Anxiety is with you permanently. From pretty much the moment you wake up your mind is racing, bouncing from the simple to the absolutely ludicrous. My advice to others who may recognise some of the feelings or behaviour, either yourself or in friends or partners, is to understand that you are not alone and to speak to someone.
Having open and honest relationships with those around you is a much healthier environment to manage your worries and talk about them, deal with them rationally and have support, before your behaviour becomes too negatively impacted and the pile of missed opportunities and experiences grows even greater.
Anxiety has been a huge part of my journey to 30, but it doesn't have to be a part of my future. And if I've ever text you and bailed, now you know why!