Lena Dunham writes amusingly about anxiety in her new memoir, 'Not That Kind of Girl'. She tells us about women she envies, people who don't worry that they have lupus or cancer and who can clean their ovens without wondering why they are bothering because the ovens will just get mucky again and anyway we are all going to die. I can relate to all of this, but I can't help feeling that when it comes to worry, Dunham is just an amateur.
I have had a lot of experience with worry, although I realise that's not something I should be boasting about. I was an anxious child who became a worried adult. As I grew up I found specific issues to anguish over - money, my appearance, whether people liked me, and of course, like Lena, the big existential questions. I began to feel the worry as a physical sensation - it would start as a warning prickle in the top of my head and then spread like fire until it extended all across my scalp. This, I supposed, was a panic attack - but there was little I could do to stop it.
As time went on, anxiety morphed into paranoia - the attacks happened more and more frequently, and the fear of them happening became all-encompassing, almost as bad as the symptoms themselves. Of course, it didn't help that I self-medicated with cannabis. It all ended in tears - I suffered total mental breakdown, fell into a psychosis and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. You see what I mean? Lena Dunham, amateur worrier.
I got better, eventually, but it was only in recent years that I received effective therapy to banish my anxiety. The short (10 week) course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was a revelation - after it, I felt really, properly worry-free for the first time that I could remember.
So here, in a nutshell, is what I learned from the CBT and how you can use it to help yourself.
1. Anxiety is not something that everyone experiences to the same extent and it is not part of your personality. You do not have to live with it. Severe anxiety almost always has its roots in traumatic experience, often in childhood. Now that you are an adult, you can unpick the causes of it and learn new patterns of behaviour.
2. Start by practicing mindfulness. I think of this simply as staying in the present moment, teaching your mind not to wander. So, if you are walking your dog, and your mind starts to stray to the thought of the murderous attacker concealed behind the next tree, waiting to pounce on you, knife in hand, evil eyes staring... stop! Look at the grass, the leaves on the trees. Breathe the air around you. Count your steps. And so on. Eventually you will start to recognise that you are succumbing to anxiety as soon as these sort of thoughts begin, and you will be able to stop them in their tracks.
3. Set aside a time each day for worrying. So, if you are thinking about your son going off on his first Scout camp and how on earth he will cope, and how on earth you will cope without him, set those thoughts aside until an allocated 'worry time' - say, at five pm each day. When I did this, when the time to worry arrived I would usually already be vaguely bored by the prospect of deliberately worrying and didn't then spend much time at all on the job. Postponing the worry will help to lessen its hold on you.
4. If there are particular situations that make you anxious, you will need to expose yourself to them gradually. It is tempting to avoid the things that make us nervous, but all this means is that the list of things we try to avoid, grows. So, if your greatest fear is eating in public, first go to a café for a drink. It may help to take a friend along, to make you feel more relaxed. Then, build up your exposure to the situation, even if you feel extremely nervous, until you can eat that meal. Repeat. Eventually, as you realise that you can cope, the fear will lessen.
5. Get professional help. It is possible to know all the theory and yet be unable to implement it. There is counselling available through the NHS. Improving Access to Psychological Therapies - IAPT - is a simple, self-referral process. Yes, there are long waiting lists, but if you get your name down now, you will get help eventually. (As an analogy, I wish I had put my name down for a beach hut in my local area, but the wait was ten years at the time and I didn't think it was worth it. That was fifteen years ago).
Becoming anxiety-free is easier than you think, once you have the necessary tools at your disposal. You may find yourself slipping back into old habits on occasion, but once you have beaten anxiety you will always have the ability to stop yourself wasting energy on unnecessary worrying in the future. I wish you luck on your journey.