It began with me being unable to go to bed if the cushions weren’t straight on our sofa. My husband joked often about my “raging OCD,” as he called it, but the issue ran far deeper than that. It was this need for perfection, this need to make everything right — all the time — that was grinding me further and further down. I soon realized that I was living with anxiety every day: about what I wore, how I looked, conversations I had (I’d replay them in my mind, wondering, Had I offended that person?), stress that my writing wasn’t up to par, that I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage, that we would be homeless, that I had failed as a wife and a mother.
So it isn’t surprising to read that in a survey of the mental health of 7.5 million young people in the U.K., one-fifth reported suffering from high anxiety levels. So how do we overcome our anxiety? Is there any way to control it — to keep the palpitations, the sweaty palms, the nervous energy at bay? Dale Carnegie suggests in his 1984 book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living to do a simple exercise:
- Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
- Prepare to accept the worst.
- Figure out how to improve upon the worst, should it come to pass.
While this isn’t a bad idea at all, I couldn’t help but fixate on the worse-case scenario, and the more I thought about and tried to “accept it,” the worse I felt. Somehow it felt like imagining it was making it come true. Instead, I found my own coping mechanisms.
By no means am I fully cured; I am in the process of (and will always be) managing my anxiety. While I was always an anxious child, since becoming a mom, my anxiety has increased 100 percent. Why? Because I now have responsibilities — two of them — that need fed, clothed, and looked after, and I need to make sure I have finances to do that.
It is ironic that as someone who loathes insecurity so much and craves stability, I’ve chosen a career as a freelance screenwriter that is as far away from stable as you can get. I never know from one month to the next what I will earn and if the TV shows I write for will keep me on or cut me immediately.
Yet a few weeks ago, I was shocked when a friend reminded me that “your career has always been unstable — since as long as I have known you — almost 20 years!” Genuinely, I hadn’t realized how much stress and worry my lack of a regular paycheck had brought me. That, combined with the fear of not being a good enough mom, as everyone else seemed to know things that I didn’t, made me (and still does) a wreck. I’m constantly worried I’m being judged, worried I may have let my kids down or forgotten something, worried that I’ll show a sign that reveals my lack of smarts when it comes to motherhood.
My insecurities have plagued me my whole life. Lack of sleep, nails chewed to the quick, raging IBS, and permanent stress all combined to make me a snappy, irritable, spiky woman who spent far too much time beating herself up. Something had to change.
So how did I overcome the demon that is anxiety?
Well, I walked. And walked. Because walking helps clear the mind and all of a sudden the world feels so much bigger and more important than little you.
I stopped drinking caffeine, and immediately I was less jittery. Chamomile all the way!
I also forgave myself my failings. I was kinder to myself. I found people I liked, and every day I told myself this mantra: “What other people think of you is frankly none of your business.”
Work-wise, I thought of a plan B. And a plan C. I convinced myself that I will always get by and that I needed to trust the universe (and myself) a bit more. I made the choice not to take a job just for the money but because I loved it, and I chose to be around more for my kids. This means I may earn less than others, but I’ve had so much fun along the way. There’s not a wasted moment, and I’m proud of that.
I also downloaded the Headspace app, and every day I do the “Take Ten” meditation practice to give myself a little break from the negative thoughts swarming around in my head. I also write a gratuity list every single morning before I get out of bed. It makes me aware of all the great things I have in my life and to focus on that. One of the best things I did was take a break from social media: in that instant, I stopped comparing my life with everyone else’s.
These all are small steps I take every day and they work for me. There is no “one size fits all” to help with the anxiousness that can eat away at us. But I did read once that 85 percent of what we worry about never comes true — that the things that will devastate us most in our lives are the ones we least expect — things that blindside us, coming out of nowhere. So really, what is the point of all that worry when it achieves nothing but exhausting us?
Finally, I try to do one thing a day that brings me pure joy: cuddling with my kids, exercising, kissing my husband, watching a great TV show, even having a really great cup of tea. It is the little rewards that count.
And my mantra? If in doubt — just breathe, and this too shall pass.More On