I struggle with an anxiety disorder, and have done for a long, long time. Until recently, I kept it hidden (except from a doctor and a few counsellors); but, this summer, I opened up to my boyfriend and two of my friends about it. For me, that was a huge step to take, but it feels so free-ing to have done so.
Nonetheless, I still struggle. This is still the shadow that hovers behind me, and the largely-secret fear that can shape my life.
A couple of years ago I had some sessions of CBT treatment, and that helped me to make significant progress. It also gave me a lot of confidence. I could face calmly and successful– and even enjoy – situations where before I tended to panic. But, gradually, this progress slowed, even regressed a little, as I became so afraid of losing my new-found freedom that I was reluctant to take many risks. I was afraid that a setback would catapult me right back to where I had been pre-CBT. But situational phobias like mine thrive on being handed control – avoidance strategies feed them. I still think it’s better to take things in steps, and there are some situations that I think are just too challenging or risky for me to face at the stage I’m at, but I know I need to keep pushing myself forward in facing my fears.
The last few months, I have been doing so again. Not always consistently, but overall I know I have placed myself firmly in situations that terrify me. And, mostly, I have been victorious: I have made it through the situation without my fear rising to uncontrollable levels; in fact, sometimes I haven’t felt fear at all, I’ve been able to enjoy those situations the way “normal” people do. It felt so good to be able to enjoy those things and to feel like I’d made such progress!
But, the more ‘victories’ I’d had, the more I was scared of failure. I started counselling again a couple of weeks ago, with the aim of equipping myself with strategies to deal with potential failures, so that I could continue to move forwards in the process of healing from anxiety.
This week, I did fail. Or it felt like it at the time. I reached a point in a situation where I was so overcome by panic that I physically could not continue. And I was worried what effect that would have. The panic had descended so fast from almost nowhere – that felt new. And it struck again the next evening. That time, I got through the situation without “giving up”, but again I was taken aback by the suddenness and intensity of the panic when it descended and how it wouldn’t leave even after I’d got through the situation. It all felt new to me, and worse than things I’d felt before. I kept worrying that I was on downwards spiralling path to a new low, and that my life would be messed up like never before.
I tried to calm myself down, at bedtime both evenings, by reminding myself that actually I hadn’t “failed” at all. I’d faced situations that I find challenging, that were a step forward in the “fear scale” for me, and I’d been victorious in many ways. But, all the same, the negative thoughts kept creeping in. Where were things going to go from here?
So, I asked Google (sometimes the best advisor you can turn to on the spur of the moment 😉 ) how to deal with anxiety setbacks, and found two really useful pages. (I’m not advocating their questionnaire or the rest of the site – which I haven’t looked much at – just the advice on these pages): http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/how-to-deal-with-setbacks ; http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/mistake-that-makes-anxiety-worse
So, how do I move forward? What are a few simple steps I can try?
– Accept that setbacks happen, even in successful treatment programs. It doesn’t mean failure. It doesn’t mean a return to the beginning. Setbacks are normal, and should be expected and planned for. This prevents utter shock and fear of failure when they do occur. Don’t worry about them (as far as possible), and don’t let fear of them shape my behaviour.
– Don’t think about my anxiety much. I’ve noticed in the past this is a successful strategy, but I’m not always consistent enough at applying it. Give myself a set amount of time before stressful situations to work through my fears (using the CBT techniques I’ve learned). But, other than that, keep my mind on other channels. If an anxious thought drifts into my mind, acknowledge that’s what it is, and move firmly onto other matters. Be consistent in this.
– Stay positive. When I do think about my anxiety, and especially when I think over situations where I have a tendency to think “I’ve failed”, draw out the positives. Often, actually, I’ve made progress, and I’m just slipping into unhelpful fearful negativity. Even putting myself in a situation I find difficult is a success! Getting into those situations is half the battle, and big step towards curing my anxiety in the future. Also, be proactive and concrete in planning future strategies, using any difficult experiences or any persistent fears to create a positive plan of future action – which is often as simple as, “keep putting myself in these situations, keep on with treatment, stay positive and don’t give up!”
– Don’t start avoiding situations I fear, or potential triggers, in order to avoid another setback.
– Keep busy! This keeps my mind on other things, keeps me doing things I enjoy – which makes me positive, prevents me from withdrawing into myself and avoiding situations I fear, and puts fears into perspective (they always loom largest when I’m by myself – thinking over them and so accidentally feeding them).
– Do plenty of things I enjoy, and spend time with people that make me positive and cheerful. And, avoid, as far as possible, things that are by nature negative or anxiety-inducing (such as some types of music, films, and conversations). Generalised anxiety and negativity can help to trigger my specific phobia, I suppose both because generalised anxiety / negativity increases the levels of anxiety hormones in my body and because it establishes anxious and negative thought patterns in my brain.
– Keep living a healthy lifestyle, including eating, sleeping and exercising well, so that my mind and body are healthy and best equipped to face challenges.
– Keep on with treatment! Setbacks are normal. Don’t give up. Don’t be discouraged. Look firmly forward, and press on.