Wellbeing

Surviving the Storm: Breakdown, recovery and learning to manage anxiety

I am taking a huge deep breath and sharing this deeply personal experience with you because when I was in the clutches of a mental health crisis I felt like I was alone in my struggles even though I had incredibly supportive family and friends around me. Once I was able to be honest with myself and started opening up to them, I noticed that they were able to tell me about their own experiences with mental health issues or how they had overcome other adverse situations.  Listening to their stories gave me the courage and motivation to keep going. Crucially, I also felt some reassurance that it wasn’t ‘just me’, that the nightmare I was in would eventually end, and life would get better. 

So, with the intention and hope that I can reach out and help people who have experienced, or are currently going through, similar circumstances, I am going to share how anxiety took hold of my life, my experience of breakdown, the simple tools I have used to stop my anxiety from spiralling, and the resources I have consulted in order to gain a better understanding of my condition. 

I appreciate this is a long post so please feel free to go ahead and skip to the part where I share the anxiety busting techniques that have worked for me and the resources I have found to be particularly helpful.

I must also add that this post is based on my own experience of living with anxiety and depression.  I am not a medical expert and therefore what I have written should not replace any medical or other professional advice/treatment you may have received. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression then please contact your GP.

How the anxiety began to take hold

The distorted thinking patterns, which fuel anxiety, began during my childhood, soon after my father passed away from cancer.  After struggling with the memories of witnessing such suffering, and the intense waves of sadness and sorrow that grief brings, I started to think that if I worried and thought about the worst case scenarios then I’d protect myself from experiencing hurt and other painful emotions (because, in my mind, I would have preempted such catastrophe and would be fully prepared to face it).  Although I later had counselling and a couple of courses of medication for depression, I didn’t realise that I had also started to develop an anxiety disorder. 

In retrospect, I can see now that my anxiety was always bubbling away in the background especially during any challenging times or significant changes in my life, such as when I became a mum and felt completely clueless, when I was staying up all night to finish my dissertation because no matter what I wrote I told myself it wasn’t ‘enough’, the all-consuming nerves I would have at job interviews or while delivering presentations, and the feelings of uneasiness, insecurity and paranoia in social situations.  I shrugged this all off as me being a bit of a ‘worrier’ and I knew very little (if anything) about how to manage these anxious thoughts and feelings.

I came to a point in my life where I felt like I was on a treadmill and was conflicted in so many different areas; there was change and uncertainty afoot in my career and at the same time my biological clock was tick-tocking away. 

A few months later, I was completely delighted to discover that I was pregnant with my third child but, sadly, after 11 weeks of pregnancy I had a miscarriage. Having lost a lot of blood and enduring incredibly painful abdominal cramps, I sat in hospital feeling helpless and empty, acutely aware that I was in an antenatal ward and could just about hear the cries of newborn babies over in the postnatal ward – a poignant reminder of my loss especially since just two years earlier I had been in the very same place full of happiness as I welcomed my second child into the world.  It felt like there was now a massive black hole in my heart but that I had to carry on and ‘be strong’ for the family I had waiting for me at home. So, I held back many of my tears, and bottled up the disappointment and grief. After a couple of weeks I returned to work, thinking that I was ready to get on with my life.  

The breakdown

It turns out that it didn’t matter how much I tried to fool myself, my body knew differently and it forced me to stop. That evening, as I arrived home from my first day back at work with an awful headache brewing, everything changed.  I started to tremble uncontrollably and became nauseous.  I thought that maybe I had a migraine and that some painkillers and a good night’s sleep would solve it.  I woke up the next day feeling horrendous, I was in a cold, clammy sweat, the nausea was stronger than ever before, and I didn’t want to eat a thing (that’s when I knew something was wrong because I love my food!)  Over the next few days this continued and I slowly spiralled into a constant state of worry. My heart started to race and my vision became blurry, as thoughts ranging from ‘maybe I’ve caught a nasty virus’ to ‘I have a terminal illness and I’m dying’ occupied my mind.  

I had no idea what was happening to me so I desperately began seeking answers and I soon became obsessed with asking Dr Google about my symptoms (I absolutely would not recommend doing this!)  I also went to my GP several times and ended up in hospital for a couple of days undergoing test after test. I even went to a private healthcare clinic to have some more advanced investigations done, but all the tests revealed that there was nothing physically wrong with me. 

But the physical symptoms were frightening and relentless. When I walked into a room I felt like everything was happening around me but I wasn’t actually there, I was getting very little sleep, had poor concentration, and constant tension headaches. I was jumpy and restless yet I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to talk to anybody and routine tasks such as making the dinner or taking my children to school just felt too hard. I rarely left the house as I thought I was on the brink of collapse (even walking around the block for 5 minutes was too much). Every single minute of the day was like an endurance test and I grew tired of battling my way through it.

Then came the depression, which was so very isolating.  My thoughts told me that nobody understood me and that it would never get better.  With a growing sense of hopelessness, I told myself that my husband and children were much better off without me, that I’d let everybody down, and that I would never be ‘me’ again.  I was tearful all day, every day.  I remember crumbling to the floor in tears in my bedroom, in the arms of my husband and my mum, in the hospital and in various doctors’ rooms just wanting everything to stop.

I am so incredibly grateful for the love and support I had around me while I was going through all this.  My parents looked after me in the day so my husband could go to work, they listened to me, asked me how I was feeling and we talked about what was going through my mind. They took me to appointments and helped me to pick up my children from school.  My husband coaxed me out of bed in the morning, kept the house clean and tidy, ensured our children were fed, dressed and entertained, and did all he could to get me outside in the fresh air. I’m also thankful to my doctor who either called or saw me every single week to check on my wellbeing and to my work colleagues who were all very understanding and accommodating.

After many consultations with my doctor and my local mental health team, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).  I initially found it very hard to accept as I knew nothing about anxiety and how bad it could get. Personally, I needed to take medication to get myself to a place where my symptoms felt under control.  Then, little by little I managed to have one ‘good’ hour in the day, then a couple of a good hours and gradually this increased and I finally felt like I could move forwards.  

I now started to believe what my loved ones had been trying to tell me all along – that this period of my life was only temporary, and it would pass.

Healing and recovery

And it absolutely did pass!

After getting the medication and dosage that was right for me, completing an online NHS Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) course, reading lots on the topic of wellbeing, and practising an array of self-help techniques, I gradually began to feel like I had got myself back…but in a much more enlightened way!

I now know what triggers my anxiety and low mood and, importantly, how I can prevent myself from spiralling into excessive worry and negative thinking. I’ve discovered how my brain works and I’m now fascinated by psychology.

I’m setting goals that are right for me and am working my way towards them. I got back on the commute, completed my contract at work and then found a job in an area I was really interested in but had never worked in before. I am deliberately getting out of my comfort zone and am doing things that push me (in a good way) as I want to keep on progressing.

The road to recovery is long and I’ve had to learn to be patient with it. Two years later, and I still have my bad days where a low mood will overcome me or my anxiety is particularly heightened.  However, I am finding that I can recognise when this is happening and can then do things to improve my mood and manage my feelings of anxiety.


Anxiety Busting Tips and Helpful Resources

Tap into your creative side

While my anxiety was severe, I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate. Even reading a book or watching a film for a few minutes was not very achievable for me as worrisome thoughts would soon start to race around my mind, vying for my attention.

However, there were creative activities that I found that I could engage with for short periods of time.  These activities provided some much needed relief from my symptoms and helped me to focus on something other than my thoughts:

  • Building Lego sets (or try making your very own constructions)
  • Colouring (there are plenty of adult colouring books out there now)
  • Paint by numbers
  • Sketching
  • Piecing together a jigsaw puzzle

Daily relaxation

For me, the whole relaxation thing took lots of practise but once I got into it I eventually found that I would habitually start to use these techniques to sooth myself if my anxiety levels started to get a bit too much.  Listening to a guided meditation was very useful in the beginning as it taught me how to get into a relaxed state and I liked following the visualisations.  There are lots of guided meditation and body scanning videos available on YouTube or you can download and listen to a meditation app such as InsightTimer or Buddhify.

You can also try out various deep breathing techniques to help you re-centre and relax or you can simply take a seat, close your eyes, remain very quiet, notice how your body is feeling, ask yourself how you are doing and then think about what you need to do that day to look after your own wellbeing.

Mindfulness

Again, this one takes practise but is so worth it! Mindfulness helps me to pull my anxious mind out of the worrisome or downright catastrophic future scenarios that it generates and gently brings me back into the present moment.

As a mum of two, I wasn’t sure how I could find space in my day to be mindful, but I found that it actually takes very little time. So, while I’m in the shower I’ll take a couple of minutes to be mindful by focusing on the feel of my feet on the floor and saying a calming affirmation. I then also bring all of my attention back to the gorgeous smell of the shower gel and the feel of the soapy suds on my skin. Another good one is sitting with a cup of tea (or your choice of hot drink), savouring the taste, the smell, the feel of the cup in your hands and the warmth of the tea in your mouth. 

One of the other very useful things about mindfulness is that it helps you to notice the kind of thoughts that are going through your mind but in a very calm, non-judgemental and objective way – like taking a step back, watching them float down a stream, not buying-in to them, and seeing them for what they are – ‘just thoughts’.

There are plenty of mindful activities that you can try out and the NHS has a mindfulness page that contains lots of suggestions.  

Working through your worries

A very proactive technique that I learned while on my CBT course was to explore some of the concerns that I was having by completing a ‘Worry Tree’ (see example here). This involves writing down your worry and looking at whether it is about something that is actually happening, or has happened, and if you can do something about it (or not). You can then decide what actions you can take to address the worry and when you are going to carry them out. 

If the worry is something has not even happened, or is unlikely to ever happen, and you have absolutely no control over it, you will need to learn to let it go and turn your attention to something else. I know ‘letting go’ of something that is troubling you is easier said than done but I have discovered that there are ‘letting go’ meditations that can help with that or you could try engaging in an activity that you find enjoyable.

Another very useful technique for dealing with uncertainty (which is a common trigger for anxiety) is to think about the situation you are facing and to then write down all the things you have control over (or can influence) in relation to that situation and then list out all the things you cannot control about that situation.  The aim is to then put your focus and attention on the things in your ‘can control’ list rather than dwelling on the things that are beyond your control (and are therefore a waste of your energy). This activity comes from Stephen Covey’s book entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and there are many different examples online that you can look at (just search for ‘circle of control’) which will help you to take the concerns you have and to then think about all the things that are directly within your control (this usually relates to how you behave, activities you can carry out, taking care of your health etc.)

Take good care of your mood and mindset

Get to know what triggers your low mood and anxiety.  This is where you can undertake a little research – observing and noting down what happens to you in the day, how you felt about it and what your response was (which can then help you to identify your triggers and make a plan to manage or address them).

Here are some other well-known habits that can boost your mood and help you to create a positive mindset:

Exercise/movement

This is my ultimate top mood enhancer! I always feel happy and energised after a workout or a nice long, brisk walk.  As I find it difficult to commit to going to the gym, I’ve invested in some home exercise equipment or I sometimes change it up a bit and follow a workout on YouTube.  Failing all that I put on the cheesiest music I can find and shake my booty around the house while I’m cleaning or cooking the dinner!

Bedtime routine

One of my top triggers is lack of sleep.  I know I’m in for a day of irritability and low mood if I’ve not had my 8 hours! I’ll hold my hands up now though and confess that I’m a night owl so this one is still a work in progress for me… It is best to establish a regular time for going to bed and a regular time for waking and, before you settle down to sleep, to put your phone away, turn off the TV screen, and just do what you can to relax and unwind (have a warm bath, meditate or read your favourite book). You can also keep a note pad and pen nearby if you want to jot down any thoughts or actions that suddenly come to mind to get them out of your head (believe me I know what it is like laying there with thoughts going round and round…)

The Sleep Council have some great advice on how to get a good night’s sleep so check out their website for more tips.

Keep a gratitude journal

I’ve tried and tested this one many times! It really has helped to lift my mood and has reminded me of all the good things that have happened or are currently present in my life (which can be especially comforting when you are going through a difficult time). Write down at least 3 things that you are grateful for each day and, going further, try and pinpoint what it is about those things that makes you so grateful for them. You can show gratitude for literally anything – for the people in your life, the things in your environment, material objects, your favourite places, the food you have eaten, activities you have done or experiences you have had.

Use the ‘3 good things’ technique

One thing I have learned recently from the field of positive psychology is to think about, and then write down, 3 good things that have happened in the day. It does not matter how small these good things may be – it could be that someone made you smile that day or took you out for lunch, you won a prize, you got a job interview, you got up and dressed before a certain time or completed a task you had been putting off. Again, making these lists will serve as a reminder of all the good that is in the day which can, in turn, help to boost your mood,

Repeat affirmations daily

This one takes commitment, and some buy-in, from you but eventually you will start to really believe in what you are saying!  The key is to write out or select an affirmation about something that you really care about, that you really want to work on, and are willing to abide by. If you search online for affirmations you will find loads of suggestions (there are even affirmations specifically for anxiety).  I usually think about the things I am struggling with (like self-doubt, comparison, lack of confidence or self-belief) and note down 3 affirmations that address those things. I also always include an affirmation that I find calming such as ‘All is well’. I then commit to saying those affirmations aloud or in my head on a daily basis.

Carry out random acts of kindness

This is a bit of a win-win situation really as carrying out acts of kindness makes you feel good and the receiver of your kind act will also feel great too. For lots of ideas on how you can show kindness to others visit the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.

Be aware of what you are feeding your mind

This is not about ignoring the news (by all means stay as informed as you need to be) or pretending that bad things don’t happen – we all appreciate the need to keep it real and avoidance is also not good for managing anxiety in the long term.  Obviously, a constant bombardment of negativity or things that really wind you up isn’t going to be the best thing for managing your mood.  It is just about thinking how much exposure you are having to such things and getting some control over that. To address this, you can commit to doing things such as minimising the time spent scrolling through social media and turning off notifications, only following accounts that bring something positive to your day, and listening to inspirational podcasts and upbeat music.

Grab a notebook and start journaling

When I have taken the time to write down my thoughts in a journal it has been a truly therapeutic experience.  There are many different ways to journal – you can do stream of consciousness ‘free’ writing where you simply jot down whatever is going through your mind at the time or you can use journal prompts (there are loads on Pinterest or online) which are typically posed like thought-provoking questions that you then write down your response to (which can be very revealing indeed!) You can also use images that particularly resonate with you to start off your writing.  No matter what way you choose to write in your journal it will bring you lots of insights about yourself. I love how you never really know what is going to come out!

Set yourself some goals

I used to go through life not really knowing where I was heading or what I wanted to do and I would then complain when I became dissatisfied and unsettled. Identifying my core values, and how I wanted to live by them, was a huge turning point for me in my recovery as well as setting aside some time to go through all the different areas of my life (such as career, family, leisure time, health etc.) and deciding what actions I could take to improve my satisfaction in these areas.  If you want some step by step guidance on working out your values and setting goals then take a look at my posts on discovering core values, goal setting and maintaining progress.

Establish a daily routine that works for you and schedule in some tasks

While there is a time for sitting with your thoughts, noticing and accepting them in an non-judgemental way (which mindfulness and meditation are both brilliant for) there is also the need to get on with your day. Having some structure to my day (such as regular times for sleep/waking, meals, washing, and other activities) has helped me to feel like I am in more control of it. Writing down a few manageable, goal-orientated or other routine tasks has also given me something to accomplish and look forward to during my day (rather than sitting around getting engrossed in a whirlwind of anxious thoughts).

Prioritise self-care activities

Doing things to take care of ourselves is essential for our wellbeing. Have some simple self-care activities that you can easily add to your daily routine and that you can ‘go to’ when you need them the most (like on those bad days!)  Self-care can encompass many different kinds of activities and your choice of activities all depends on what leaves you feeling nourished, re-energised and relaxed. It can be having a bit of a pamper, doing something creative, going out for a stroll at lunchtime, taking a yoga class, 10 minutes of meditation or establishing a regular journaling practice. There are some fabulous self-care ideas and resources available from The Blurt Foundation and I have picked up loads of tips by following Instagram accounts such as @selfcaresurvivalkit and @suzyreading.

Self-compassion

I really can’t stress enough just how important it is to be kind to yourself (and in all honesty this is something I am still practising!)  When you have bad days do not beat yourself up – it wont change a single thing and just makes you feel so much worse.

You can show yourself more compassion in many ways, here are a few techniques that I have found particularly comforting and easy to carry out:

  • Be very conscious of how you are talking to yourself and start dropping the criticism (literally catch yourself when you do it and then rephrase what you have said into something more compassionate).
  • Switch on your inner nurturer and speak to yourself using the same kind, gentle, compassionate words and tone that you would use if you were speaking to a friend or a small child who was experiencing the same emotion as you (or who was in a similar situation).
  • Tell yourself its all ‘OK’ – so, for example, ‘I’m noticing that I am feeling low today and that’s OK’ or ‘I’m feeling anxious about going to my appointment today and that’s OK’ (I discovered this tip while following @journey_to_wellness_ on Instagram, there are absolutely loads of excellent wellbeing tips on this account!)
  • Wrap your arms around yourself and give yourself a lovely, warm, and gentle hug, or place your hand on your heart, and repeat some soothing affirmations such as ‘I love and accept all that I am’.

Keep Informed

Once I had received a diagnosis, I really wanted to understand what GAD was and to empower myself with knowledge about the condition.  Gaining an understanding of how my mind worked, and what was going on in my body, has helped me to realise that I am not alone in experiencing this anxiety disorder and that there were lots of techniques I could learn to manage my anxiety.

My local NHS mental health team recommended the ‘Overcoming’ book series to me and so far I have read Overcoming Health Anxiety by David Veale and Rob Willson and Overcoming Worry and Generalised Anxiety Disorder by Mark Freeston and Kevin Meares.  These are both brilliant books as they explain how anxiety develops, what type of thinking habits make anxiety worse, and are packed full of CBT based exercises that encourage you to explore and re-frame your thoughts and implement new behaviours that will serve you better.

I have also regularly consulted the materials available through these organisations and stay up to date by following their social media accounts:


Once you have discovered what triggers your anxiety and have figured out what strategies work for you, you can put together a wellness plan to help you to stay on the road to recovery. I have written a post about how I put mine together after I completed a CBT course and you can read more about it here.

This post contains no sponsored material or affiliate links and is based on my own opinions, views and experiences of carrying out the self-help activities described above.

Links to the external sites in this article are purely for the purpose of demonstrating examples of the techniques I have learned and resources I have consulted. I am not responsible for any of the content that exists on these sites.