When we sense something isn’t quite right with our body, or something has changed that we are unsure of, we get it checked out. We do so in a preventative way – our body and health is what keeps us going, and we don’t want anything sneaking up on us. Maybe you’ve got a bit of a toothache, best to see your dentist before that turns into a cavity. Maybe you’ve started feeling something in your throat, so you see your doctor to get it checked out – you know, just in case something serious is up. Or maybe you’ve noticed your vision isn’t so great at night, so you book an eye test with your optician just to rule out any conditions that are known to affect night vision. But what about that unsettling feeling in your mind recently – maybe you’ve been having regular anxious moments, have been finding it hard to focus or have feeling a bit down. But you know, maybe you’re just tired or the change in weather is bringing this on, it will pass.
Or will it? Would you delay that dental check and let a cavity form in your tooth? How about that feeling in your throat, would you risk not having that checked? Or how about your vision, would you be comfortable skipping the health check on your eyesight? The answer is probably not – we feel that these things are socially ‘normal’ to us, almost everyone will take a part in these regular check-ups. So why don’t we do the same for our mental health? Those slight anxious moments you’ve been having, or that struggle to focus could easily grow into something more – maybe the anxiety starts to take over your daily tasks or stops you being involved in certain activities. Or maybe that struggle to focus leads you into less and less of your day being productive for you. Whilst there are many situations where the health of the mind could effect the things you do – the point is, we easily put off the well-being of our mind due to either the social subject, thinking these things will pass or that they are nothing to have a concern over.
As a child growing up I spent some of my time in a children’s hospital. It was a family member who was ill, not myself – and whilst I can’t really remember much of this, I knew what those visits would include. Most times there would be children missing from the previous trip, I never asked questions but it was obvious why – I remember it feeling kind of normal at the time.
Whilst I am not placing reasoning on that, it is possible that it triggered something or I am just someone who has naturally over worried about things. I can remember as far back as around 10 years old I would have concern about health related things – even the slightest symptoms would spiral my mind into a worst case scenario mindset. I’m pretty sure doctors would call it a ‘hypochondriac’. I regularly remember my doctors reassuring me that something wasn’t cancer, even when I hadn’t implied so – likely because of that history and my pattern for worrying. It’s likely that not every person would be affected by this, but all of our brains are wired differently.
None of these concerns ever stopped me from doing things, that’s why I see it as mild-anxiety. But when something does come up, it is on my mind a lot – this can cause unpleasant feelings that are often unnecessary. A couple of examples of these times that come to mind:
- I travelled to Boston last year and a few days before leaving I needed to get a Tetanus jab for an upcoming trip to Singapore. I had some kind of reaction to the jab when I was in the US – I was jet-lagged and tired, which didn’t contribute well to my mental well-being. I had a small bout of an anxious moment which kept me up late that night, which resulted in me being pretty tired the next day. This likely affected my talk and my overall presence at the conference. Had I been able to remain calm in that moment, maybe the conference would have been a better experience for me.
- Last year I was aware of a wisdom tooth that was waiting to erupt and needed to come out, which wasn’t scheduled until after my team retreat. A lot of that time whilst away I had that fact on my mind, which was a natural cause of worry for me. Because this was on my mind a lot, I wondered if it distracted me from enjoying my time away to the full potential.
- I was in Australia a few years ago during the stinger season. During this time I was stung by a jellyfish, which is quite a common thing to experience. Knowing it was stinger season, I got into a bit of a panic when this happened – regardless of the fact I was wearing a stinger suit. I became quite stressed at the moment and very restless.
In each of these situations the affects varied – excessive worrying, agitation, feeling restless or irritated. And when experiencing these feelings, your mind tends to just spiral and worsen each of these feelings. Above was just a few examples and as you can see, none of these are life threatening things and not even that bad, but often caused me a level of anxiety which I would deem uncomfortable or became a distraction from me really engaging in the moment. And just like I would go to the doctor or dentist to get a check-up on something, I decided to go and talk to someone about this.
Now just to point out, I’m coming from a view of minor anxiety – not even something that would stop me from doing anything day-to-day or travelling regularly. Even though these anxious thoughts did not have that affect on me, it was extremely eye-opening to talk to someone. Not only did I learn more about myself, but I learnt methods to tackle these thoughts which will allow me to be more comfortable with them there and also prevent them from growing.
I had never really considered talking to someone about these kind of worries. To be honest, because I felt them from such a young age it kind of felt like the ‘normal’ – as in, we are meant to worry about things, a human instinct maybe. And whilst I don’t see them as disabling or a big concern, I started to wonder about how situations would be if I was more in control of these kind of thoughts and feelings. I ended up having a conversation with Katie, about similar things they had experienced and how talking to a therapist has helped there.
When first talking to my therapist, they asked me about these worries. When first explaining them and what it was I was worrying about, I was actually laughing a little bit to myself – at that point I realised how silly and over the top my thoughts actually were. Even at that early stage of our conversations, even just telling a stranger about this was a huge realisation for me. Other than talking, we practiced exercises to help shift my focus into a more present mindset. One of the things that I found really amazing during this experience was that these exercises, and the mindset they bring, are things that can help us in everyday life situations. Whilst that seems obvious to me now, it’s often difficult to see these things at first thought. And if you’re curious, then below I’ve listed the exercise toolkit which I now have and practice as part of my daily routine.
This exercise is about anchoring your attention and really becoming focused in the present moment. Being able to anchor my attention has been really successful in helping me be more ‘present’ – this involved a simple 7 minute exercise which I would carry out in the mornings. The exercise involves a full mental body scan and makes your focus on each part of your body, followed by your surroundings and senses. Done properly, this helps you to place aside the distractions in your mind and shift your focus onto the current moment.
You can check out an anchoring exercise on youtube here.
Breathing exercises are tied closely to the above exercise. Whilst the exercise itself has a different focus, it’s still all about being able to shift your focus onto something. Breathing is a great thing to practice this on as you are in control of it and it’s something that you can both hear and feel. The exercise involves several minutes of deep breathing, focusing on the breaths that you take and flow of breath that enters and exits your body. This exercise is a little shorter than the previous (it can be long, but even a few minutes is enough to practice for) which is great for fitting into your day.
There are plenty of breathing exercises online. For example, something like this works well as it is short yet still effective.
Being in the moment
Again related to focus, this exercise is something that you can carry out when literally doing anything in your day. When we’re so involved and often busy throughout the day, it can be hard to switch off and really take in the things around us. Being in the current moment can help us to have a few minutes off, shifting our focus onto what we’re currently doing and really be engaged. For example, when I take a 5-10 minute break from work to make a coffee or to prepare a snack I now try and be fully focused in that activity. So if I’m making some toast for a snack I will be really engaged in every step of the process. Making toast is such a small task but there is so much you can focus on – how you scrape the butter out of the tub, the smell of the toast as it’s being toasted, the friction of the knife as you spread the butter and the sounds that it makes.
Whilst at first this might sound a little odd, having that focus in what you are doing in that moment is a great resilience exercise – really helping you to improve your focus.
Not fighting feelings
Whenever you have anxious thoughts, you don’t want them there – so the natural thing is to try and get rid of the them. The only thing is, anxiety is natural and it’s only human for us to worry about certain things – it’s only when these thoughts become uncomfortable or distracting that they start to become an issue for you. When this is the case, our natural response is to fight these feelings and get rid of them. In my experience, this doesn’t really work and often leads to more stress from trying to remove said feelings that don’t really budge. In turn, this creates more stress and in turn creates more anxiety.
Whilst easier said then done, I’ve become comfortable with those feelings being there. The only reason this has become easier to achieve is because of the previous exercises that I’ve practiced – being more present in the current moment. Because these exercises practice focus, this helps you to focus in on these feelings and identify what makes you feel uncomfortable, accept it is there and move your focus onto other thoughts and feelings.
Focus induced feelings
It is known that anxious thoughts themselves can bring on physiological feelings in your body. So for example, say if I was worrying about there being something wrong with my arm – thinking about that thought a lot can itself bring on some form of feeling in the focused part of the body. Now, I know this is a difficult one and to be honest at first I didn’t think I would get it. With this exercise I’ll sit down, hands on my lap and focus on one part of my body – usually one of my hands. For 5 minutes I will just focus on that hand – the point of this exercise has two outcomes:
- The ability to focus on a single thing and ignore other thoughts, feelings and surrounding distractions
- Bringing on some feeling within that focused part of the body
The main point here is the second one. If you can focus on one part of your body and psychologically force some kind of feeling in that part, then you’ve proven to yourself that it is possible for you to feel something based on thought rather than by your body (say from illness or pain). Doing this helps me to realise that any feelings I may get in my body (for example, my teeth) can be brought on by my anxiety rather than an issue to be concerned about. If you can make yourself feel something in your hand when it isn’t even doing anything, then your mind can do the same thing.
This exercise is not something that has worked for me every single time regarding the second point. And to be honest, it does have a low success rate. But even when it does work, it’s enough to reassure yourself and the focus part of this exercise is still beneficial regardless.
Stopping the research
Whilst this may seem specific to health related things, it can also affect other areas of stress inducers. One of my biggest issues around this topic since being a teenager is looking things up – if I felt like I had an issue in my body somewhere then I would Google it. Partly from an anxiety point of view but also from a curiosity angle, I find interest in learning the how and why about things. Whilst it’s obvious that research can make us feel uneasy, it’s not always easy to stop ourselves doing it when we’re so tied in to technology.
The issue with this, as we likely all know, is that you can end up reading things that make your worries grow further. This is something that often happened with me – and in these cases I would then look into things until I would come across something that would make me feel better about some form of issue. Whilst I’d usually find something, this is a short term fix. For example, during that research I would come across N number of things that would have a negative effect, and 1 thing which would be in the positive. Whilst that 1 thing would be at the forefront of my mind, that N number of things were at the back of my mind and whilst I wouldn’t be thinking about them at that time, they were there to easily surface and make me feel uneasy about a situation again.
Looking things up is a short term fix to a problem and in fact, is more damaging for your wellbeing moving forward. Since speaking to my therapist I haven’t looked anything up that is health related and to be honest, it has definitely helped. If you feel like something is up then go and see the corresponding person such as your doctor or dentist, that’s their job to diagnose you, not yours.
What I really found interesting was that even though I was learning these methods for mild anxiety, these are methods that could essentially be used in everyday life. Be it stressful moments in life, a mental block during work or some other concentration related thing – all of these techniques can be used to alleviate these situations. This shows just how talking to someone about things that are on your mind – be it something specific or common everyday challenges, there is likely something that you can benefit from. Building resilience to thoughts and feelings is an incredibly powerful ability.
If you look at the things that you regularly spend money on – be it related to health or personal pleasure – for example, I pay £35 a month for my gym membership to keep my physical health in check, £25 a month for my phone bill, £6 a month for my Spotify membership, £7.50 a month for my netflix membership. I also pay for a dental check-up every 6 months which is about £65, as well as a physio-therapy every 6 weeks to make sure my back is in check (as I previously had a bad back from my posture) – (£45). It’s interesting because when I found out it would cost me £80 a session every two weeks for therapy (for 6 sessions), my first reaction was “Wow, that’s a lot of money to spend” – but really, in the grand scheme of things and the investment on your mind, it’s really not that much. It would still equate to less than I’ve spent on any of the other things that I mentioned above.
Whilst things may be changing in new generations, I feel like whilst growing up keeping a check on your mental just wasn’t a thing. If you saw a therapist, it was deemed that something was wrong with you or you needed serious help. We are only just starting to accept that these kind of things are normal – keeping a check on the health of your mind is no different from the health of your body. In fact, it is just as important.
Maybe you’re experiencing similar things, or something related. If you haven’t talked to anyone yet and have been unsure of it then it could be worth giving it a try. Who knows, maybe it will help you out too.