As someone with arachnophobia severe enough to make me dance like an incompetent Northern Soul fan whenever Incy Wincy makes a move on me, the advice I was given by a friend many years ago proved invaluable:
“If you see a spider, imagine it in a disco dress - it won’t seem so scary any more”
Of course, it’s not bullet proof. Sometimes, no matter how elaborate the sequinned ra-ra skirt and disco lights I conjure up in my mind, the arachnid fiend still gets the better of me.
But it helps a little.
If there was a magic cure for anxiety I wouldn’t be writing this. There’s not. But several years ago, when my therapist said my behaviour reminded her of that of a meerkat, anxiety felt a little less dark and gloomy.
Whenever I hit Google to confirm whether or not I had a sinister illness, or waded through traffic reports to check my loved ones’ cars were not crushed in a pile-up on the M1 (they weren’t even due to travel on the M1), I pictured my anxiety as a meerkat - a cute furry thing standing on hind legs and on the lookout for danger.
My therapist said my life must be ‘exhausting’ being constantly on the lookout for danger. And at the time it was. I was desperately trying to protect the desert burrow from sandstorms even though the weather report promised sunshine.
But I have lived through the 80s, when Michael Fish got it wrong and that peaceful day in 1987 turned into a devastating hurricane.
SO I KNOW IT CAN HAPPEN.
That’s the nature of anxiety. Even when all around is calm, the brain frantically goes into ‘what if’ mode. And you beat yourself up about it. Another therapist described my mind as working like a conspiracy theorist. No matter what the odds were, if I couldn’t find definitive evidence proving my theory wrong then I believed that the worst could probably happen.
But beating yourself up about it makes the anxiety worse. It ups your levels of internalised stigma (or self-stigma and shame), which intensifies negative feelings.
But you can’t despise a cute little meerkat can you? You think ’ah, bless, them, always on the lookout. They’re only trying to protect their loved ones and their home.′
And really, that’s what my anxiety was doing. It didn’t hate me. It wasn’t a dark demon trying to choreograph my downfall. It was just a little meerkat who had lost its way, its sense of judgement and its ability to administer self-care.
Of course, if a meerkat has lost its way, its family will no doubt rally round to try and help. It needs to take breaks from its lookout post. It needs calm and mindfulness. It needs to sleep in its burrow and play in the sunshine and devour its favourite buffet of scorpion, locust and fruit.
But to do that it needs to like itself. Love itself even. And it won’t if it’s forever angry at itself.
So I learnt to empathise with the meerkat in my brain. And instead of feeding it a constant diet of Google, social media and alcohol, I tamed its over excitability somewhat with exercise, good food and iPhone breaks.
I’m no angel of perfection. I still let its over-protectiveness prevail at times. But I’m aware, I try harder than I used to and I take my meds every day. It’s now far better behaved than it used to be - even though it does freak out from time to time.
Sometimes, it even morphs into a happy, over-excited spaniel. I know this because one of my closest friends, Tom, summed me up when we first met by saying:
“You’re like a spaniel - you’re just one full fat coke away from licking someone.”
I don’t think that playful spaniel would exist if the over-reactive meerkat didn’t. I think they kind of depend on one another to survive.
So the idea that with anxiety comes some of my more positive traits also allows me to make peace with it. I can’t let it run riot, but I don’t have to hate it. And I don’t need to make it vanish forever. I just need to make peace with it.
Lucy’s book about mental health stereotypes and self stigma, published by charitable mental health publisher Trigger Press, is available to pre order here.