The Simple Things
MY ANXIOUS MIND
EMILIE McMEEKAN TELLS HOW CONNECTION, HUMOUR AND THE ACCEPTANCE THAT GOOD ENOUGH IS ENOUGH HELPED HER TO FEEL LESS ANXIOUS ABOUT LIFE
Perilously perched. I used to feel like I was standing on the edge of a cliff, peering down at a gloomy landscape, all jagged rocks and fog and crashing waves. Alone. About to fall. Falling even. That is anxiety.
Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real, immediate threat. Anxiety is the expectation of future threat. Anxiety turns thoughts into your enemies. Lets them control your responses. When the phone rings you assume that someone is dead. Even though it’s a nearly always a PPI call.
We are living in the age of anxiety. More than eight million people have been diagnosed in the UK. That’s 12.5% of the population who have crawled away from that cliff edge, headed to a GP and said something like “Help. I can’t sleep, eat, I am panicky and uncertain all the time, I can’t stop crying, I am so tired.” There will be millions more who are just frozen at the edge, clinging on. Thinking that their pounding heart and constant jumpiness is normal. Their personality even.
Today I am armed. Armed with some tools for living: a weekly swim that always shifts my mood; a therapist who gives me a safe space to air all my fears. I am also armed in my workplace with the website I co-founded, themidult.com, in response to what happened to me: a space for women to connect, discover and laugh, to blow a hole through the panic.
So what is making us so anxious? Is it our 24/7 phone dependence? Is it the terrible pressure of multi-tasking? The curated lies of social media? The excessive strains of modern life and the proliferation of choice?
In short, yes, says Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist who runs executive coaching business, the Unlimited Mind. Dr Swart believes there are three main drivers to our current state of anxiety emergency: information overload, technology, and social media. “Technology means we are switched on 24 hours a day, our brains are bombarded with information and social media means we are subjected to a greater level of public scrutiny.”
We are left in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. Something I understand all too well. The roots of my own anxiety stem from a fractured family and highpressure environments (school, university, work). After a stressful period in my life – during which my father died, I changed jobs, and, oh, had several children – I began a course of therapy. Which made me realise the following: I am constantly checking everyone’s emotional temperature to establish whether everything is OK – and adjusting myself accordingly to make everyone else feel better. I have a very loose sense of my own needs and wants, as well as a drive to do everything brilliantly. On a bad day this leaves me feeling like I am never going to be good enough. And this in turn leaves me with a deep-seated sense of shame.
For me, that ‘not good enough’ shame spiral turned into real anxiety attacks. My negative thoughts became a chorus, so loud that I could not focus on anything else. I would hide in the loo at work waiting for the assaults to subside. By the time I crawled to my GP, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. He immediately prescribed beta-blockers, to stop the physical sensations of panic, such as racing heart. And sent me to a therapist, to deal with my negative head. I had never felt so alone.
Now, of course, I know I am not alone. Anxiety affects anyone, regardless of status or apparent happiness – even those who seem to have it all. Take Brontë Aurell, the successful Danish entrepreneur, owner of ScandiKitchen and author of Fika & Hygge. Brontë tells me that when she was writing her second cookbook, she became so weak with anxiety that she couldn’t lift even a glass of water. “I started getting muscle spasms in my left arm. I went to bed for a week and didn’t move.”
In the course of sharing our experiences, haunting as they are, Brontë and I laugh, a lot. We find common ground beyond the terror. And this idea, this connection, this facing-off the worry by making it funny, is central to The Midult. Founded in 2016 with fellow journalist
“I learnt that to fight anxiety you need connection. It’s the loneliness that will tear you apart”
Annabel Rivkin, it is a digital enterprise geared towards women negotiating midlife. An online community of news and views built to help navigate this difficult period – where we might feel trapped by our choices, anxious about what the future might hold.
It is anti-shame because what I discovered while getting better is that shame can’t “survive being spoken”. That quote comes from Brené Brown, a therapeutic researcher who calls her own breakdown “a spiritual awakening”. I learned that to fight anxiety you need connection – it’s the loneliness that will tear you apart.
You need to accept your vulnerability because this is where you will grow, and blossom. And you need to be present in the moment, and restore your defences. The biggest lesson I learnt on my anxiety journey is this: I am good enough. I will always worry and that’s OK. And sometimes, when I feel my feet firmly on the ground, I can let things go. Because perfection is for other people.