"Be not afraid,
I go before you always
Come, follow me,
And I will give you rest..."
As soon as I heard the first few notes of this classic hymn by Bob Dufford at Church last weekend, my eyes welled.
I cry every time I hear it.
And it has been the case since I was a young child. I recall becoming emotional in Church and then desperately trying to stifle my tears. Perhaps at the time I being exposed to death for the first time, or overwhelmed at school or home. I just recall being a frightened child, and hearing this song at Church would reduce me to tears. Was God really hearing me and telling me not to be afraid? The very thing that I always was?
No matter what is going on in my life, in times of anxious or peaceful state, this song stings my eye. How powerful is the message from God is reminding you He is there in His words…
“If you pass through raging waters
in the sea, you shall not drown.
If you walk amidst the burning flames,
you shall not be harmed.
If you stand before the pow’r of hell
and death is at your side,
know that I am with you, through it all…”
I really needed to hear the words this week. I had just signed off on the final manuscript for the book and sent it to the printers. I read it until my eyes tore and all my doubts crept in … “it’s not great… I want to change it…what are people going to say…” In addition the thought of the launch itself, and the response, has been overwhelming… a bit of excitement, nervous anticipation; and an old tape popped up that I thought I had smashed and thrown in the bin… “I’m so embarrassed, people are going to say, who does she think she is…?” Yikes!
That’s a big one with me when it comes to my writing. I am yet to completely validate myself as an author, so putting myself out there is more difficult than others may think.
So I had a crazy week, very mixed feelings, and a few extra knots in my stomach. I used my tools and managed to get on top of them well. So, sitting in Church and hearing this song was perfect timing. I know God knew I needed to hear it, I truly believe that. And no greater comfort is knowing that no path is too difficult without Him before you.
I want to tell you something that you haven’t heard...
You’re doing just fine.
Everything you go through will carry you to where you need to be.
You’re much smarter than you know, you’ve just never been taught to trust in your ability. You’re not the brightest in school but you’ll learn that it’s not the most important tool to get by in life.
Thanks for not paying attention in Maths. Your gazing out the window and daydreaming will open a Pandora’s box that you could only dream of. All those short stories you’re writing, created by your wild imagination, you’ll find when you’re 38 and it’ll trigger that love again.
I know that boy in class that called you a ‘wog’ and told you to ‘go back to your own country,’ made you blink back tears for some time and drove that horrible feeling that you were different. Forgive him. He was a child himself. Your dark curly hair, bushy eyebrows and olive skin that make you stare at envy at the ‘white aussies’ in your class will end up being quite a cool thing. And your culture that you shy from will turn into pride and something very special for you. The girls you idolise from far in fact end up becoming quite normal women, just like yourself.
You’ll make plenty of mistakes. Don’t let them define you. You will remember for some time, the lonely girls that needed your friendship. Your intention was never to hurt anyone, rather, belong. And an experience that will haunt you, was not your fault too.
I wish I could save you years of pain, and tell you that the constant agony in your stomach was undiagnosed anxiety. Your mum didn’t know better. It was a different time then. And the doctor telling you that it was due to too much sugar, was trying to solve an issue, though it never did. I can’t stop the way that you will suffer with this for some time but it will lead you to the right help, freedom, knowledge and empathy to help others.
I wish I could tell you to spread your wings and fly, to take risks, to stand up for yourself, to stop trying so hard to belong, and that your body is good enough.
Life was never meant to be that easy, nor your road so perfect, but you will see your choices as you grow.
But right now, you’re doing just fine 🌺
We are told to “control” how emotions aren’t we? That’s all we seem to hear. Control them or they will control you! Nothing is further than the truth.
When we have an anxiety disorder and/or depression we are tuned into all our feeling state… too much so! We note that we are having a ‘good’ day or a ‘bad’ day. We constantly watch and monitor our emotions, out of fear and because we feel that if we don’t, we will lose ‘control’ of them. I was a master at emotion-watching once upon a time!
I recall chatting to my therapist, Bronwyn, when I was all-consumed in anxiety. I said to her, “I have never liked crying. I’m afraid of it actually, because it makes me feel low and depressed. Can I just cry when I recover?” I recall her kindly chuckling and saying “well, it doesn’t quite work like that.”
What I didn’t see at the time, and what I clearly see now, is that accepting all your emotions and your feeling state IS the recovery. Not being able to experience all your emotions out of fear IS the disorder.
The more you try and push your uncomfortable emotions away, the stronger they become and the more you think something is terribly wrong with you. And the more you avoid triggers (conversations, places, people) is giving those feelings the power and a REASON to stay with you.
It is very important to know that sadness is not necessarily depression, just like worry is not necessarily an anxiety disorder. We are meant to be sad when deemed appropriate, it is a normal feeling state. Worry or fear when appropriate, is a normal feeling state.
I hear many people say that they are very sad about something in their life, that really warrants sadness, and they feel they are going through “depression.” It is not always depression, it just may be sadness about what is happening. If they just allow the sadness to be there, they would find that it will leave once it has served its purpose with them. It only lingers and can be felt as depression when one feels so down and hopeless because they are feeling sad (rather than at the event that caused the sadness).
Same with anxiety. There is normal anxiety… flying on planes or concern about life changes, amongst many other things are normal anxieties. Being frightened of the anxiety only serves to compound the anxiety, thus starting the vicious cycle of fear (disorder). So it is the fear of anxiety that causes an issue, rather than the anxiety of the event/or what is going on.
Accepting your emotions is a huge step to freedom. This is telling the emotions that YOU have the power. Not control. But POWER. Power to let them be there for as long as they need to be, as uncomfortable as it will feel. Only then will they get bored and leave… and they will leave.
...and that’s the good news!
There is no cure because when you can see on an intimate level how your panic and anxiety is created, you would understand that there is no external factor that can heal an internal issue… at least not for the long term.
Believe me, there was a point that I tried it all. I was yearning for a quick fix. And why wouldn’t I be so desperate for a ‘cure’ when I was feeling the way I had been? I tried calming techniques that were advertised, like massages and yoga. I tried hypnotherapy, drinking potions and promises made through internet searches. I even tried my luck at an anti-curse-exorcism-type of ritual (when someone suggested that I may have been cursed). And all this did was heighten my anxiety and increase the feeling of hopelessness as I pinned my hope on each everything else, and believed that if only I could do ‘this’ or ‘that,’ then it would all be over.
While activities like yoga certainly help contribute to a better quality of life, they are not the way to long term
recovery of an anxiety disorder or panic attacks, and will always be a ‘cutting the tree at the stump’ approach.
Long term freedom from chronic anxiety and panic will come from working with your thoughts and shifting your perception. You need to switch the light on your thinking pattern and bring it to consciousness. Not doing so would be as fruitless as looking for a coin on the floor in the complete darkness. We need to switch on the light and shift our focus.
Your thoughts create your feeling state. That’s it in a nutshell. Happy thought = happy feeling, worry thought = worry feeling. So why don’t you just have a happy thought? If you try forcing a happy thought, you will find yourself having a conflicting feeling. It is the level of belief that you hold in your thought that your body reacts too, that is, you can’t lie to yourself.
The relationship between thoughts and feeling is so intimate, that they are having an affair. Your bodies physiological response (eg rapid heart beat, knot in stomach, unable to breathe, panic) to a thought is so rapid that we can look straight past the thought (and sometimes believe we weren’t even thinking anything) and immediately focus on the feeing state. And that feeling state can be so powerful that we keep our mind on it and consume ourselves with thinking about how horrible it is, and that makes us feel worse and the spiral just keeps going down and down until it feels all-consuming and we feel powerless. We are never powerless but it just feels that way. And in all of that we ignore the fact that there was a thought, or two, or several that started it all. It’s a matter of catching the thought/s before it does the damage.
Depending on what the thought it is, can determine what action you take. If it’s your worrying about the anxiety (eg, “I hate this… I’m going crazy”), you may just need to let it go and come back to the present (mindfulness); or if it’s representing of deeper issues/roots under the tree (eg “I’m not a good mother…I don’t know what I’m doing”), then you may need to challenge it and be self-responsible.
I recommend reading Bronwyn Fox’s book “Power of Panic,” to fully explain techniques and that relationship between thought and feeling.
But that is the cause of the anxiety – a thought. Not something mystical that’s coming from out there, that’s come to you, or chosen you, or you've been cursed with. It’s coming from a place that needs healing and helping.
And if it’s coming from within, then does it define you? Absolutely NOT. But that’s for another time.
NB: I have been asked about medication as a ‘cure’ of anxiety. I was once prescribed anti-anxiety tablets from a GP, after I told him that I was experiencing regular panic attacks and before I found the right help. He did not bother to refer me to any psychological assistance and immediately wrote the script. I was ecstatic to be prescribed anything, but an adverse effect for me was hallucinations which lead to more panic and anxiety, and I stopped taking them after a month. I am not saying this is the same for all anti-anxiety medications, and there may be a place for medication for certain people and their situations, but for most people who put the work into recovering and find the right help, I come back to the solution coming from you and ONLY within you. Even the most anxious and panicked can find their way as we all have the capacity to recover.
...that I forgot myself in the process. I lacked self-responsibility, and most of us do when we are overwhelmed with our emotions. We are usually the type of person that takes care of everyone else’s needs, and takes on other people’s problems and worries. We are the type that can sit for hours on end with a friend who is struggling; have all the time in the world to listen to their issues, and usually feel sorry or guilty when we can’t give our all. We are empathetic, patient and understanding and offer sound advice and encouragement. Never once do we dismiss another person’s struggle or make them feel silly for feeling the way they feel. Because they are entitled to… right?
But aren’t we?
We see others’ ‘imperfections’ as being human, and ours as failures. Why do we allow the anxiety and depression to consume us and paralyse us and why do we turn our anger on to ourselves?
Why do we lack self-responsibility?
When I was working through recovery, I was called to be self-responsible. I was given a task - to write down my thoughts when I was feeling anxious, to really ask myself what I was thinking at that moment. And then later, when exploring the roots under the tree, I was taught to challenge those thoughts with what I had learned. I was not a very good student for some time, because I didn’t give myself a chance. When the thoughts would creep up, I would be quite dismissive of them; rather than be open or accepting of what I was thinking, I would be angry at myself for thinking that way. The general feeling deep inside was ‘grow up… you know better than that…stop being stupid’ and just plain anger. Instead of giving myself a chance, I would tear up the paper and say, ‘I have no time for this,’ and continue my day, snaked in anxiety.
It was a different time for us growing up. We were not taught how to take care of our emotions, and perhaps were even scolded for expressing our feelings or showing ‘negative’ emotions like fear, anger or sadness. We are adults now, but that fact doesn’t magically arm us with the tools we need. Chances are we have taken what we have learned from our past into our present.
I have a friend who is suffering greatly from anxiety. She feels underserving of any self-care, and feels that she will be acting selfishly when I suggested that she begin to help herself. Yet she is the most caring and empathetic person to other people and will shed a tear with your tear in a heartbeat. It is a shame that her lack of self-worth and lack of self-responsibility are a huge road-block to her peace and finding freedom from fear.
I once read a sign that said, “No one is coming.” And this sums it up perfectly. Of course prayers and faith are integral to growth and peace but as I have always believed, God gave us the power of knowledge and the skills to self-help. His hand will not come down from the sky and pull you out of this. Neither will anyone else’s hand. It is time to step up, be ‘selfish’, start by being less responsible for everyone else, and being responsible for yourself. Perhaps step outside of yourself for a moment and imagine you are having coffee with you, and just see then how you would be or what you would say.
This is from Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:
On Self Responsibility:
To achieve a healthy level of self-esteem, you must be able to accept who you are and be confident about your decisions and behavior.
But there is another important ingredient in the development of self-esteem that is often overlooked — the ability to take responsibility for your future. To live self-responsibly, you must be able to influence your behavior freely in three major areas:
Remember: You cannot respect or trust yourself if you continually pass on to others the burdens of your existence.
During one of my more difficult moments, when I felt overwhelmed by anxiety, I recall having a session with Bronwyn. She was quiet as I unleased my pain and gulped on my tears. “This is not me,” I cried. “I can’t be like this…”
Calmly, she said. “What would happen if you accept yourself, Sonia?”
I was horrified! “Accept? No way! How can I accept myself this way?”
I could still hear her voice to this day as she answered, “I will tell you what would happen if you accept yourself… you will recover.”
How could I? To accept myself the way I was feeling… anxious, nervy, riddled with all the symptoms of an anxiety disorder and feeling so different to everyone else… would be the LAST thing I wanted to do. And it seemed an impossible task to me. For me, I felt that self-acceptance would mean that I was relinquishing control. The thought that I no longer would need to ‘fight’ my experience was terribly frightening. I wanted to be in control, stay on to top of it, and conquer this by pushing my way past, with my anger, if you will. I couldn't see that in actual fact, giving up control would mean victory.
I felt that I was working hard at the recovery, and putting in the work that was required… I was meditating, practising mindfulness, I was letting thoughts go and challenging others. As I moved through the process I felt as though I was making some progress, but I never felt quite there, and there was a general feeling of unease inside of me, for which I couldn't understand why.
Bronwyn knew why and she was waiting for me to see that realisation. That no matter how much work you put in to yourself with all the therapies and tools you learn, it will mean nothing in the end if you hold yourself at an arm’s length away or if you despise and blame yourself. It would be like telling another, “I am here for you, I want to see you grow/improve/develop, I will help you… but please don’t get too close because I really don’t like you.” How would that sound? That person would run the other direction and put up an almighty resistance to any help you offer them. And that is the same for the way in which we treat us. We can not lie to ourselves... ever... you can try, but deep down you know the truth. And if you feel blame/anger/resentment towards yourself because of what you are going through, then you will be bashing your head against the recovery wall.
It's so easy to read delightful poetry and mantras that talk about self-acceptance but the hard bit is putting it into practise. Why? Because if we accept ourselves in whatever moment we are in, in however way we are feeling; if we accept our emotions, our perceived failures and shortcomings… then we are saying to ourselves “I am good enough...I am a human...I am imperfect..." And for many people, this is far from the truth that they feel deep within.
Self-acceptance does not mean you have to agree with or even like your experience. Self-acceptance does not mean self-love either. Who wants an anxiety disorder, or depression, or struggles in life? It will be terribly insincere to walk around saying "I feel great... I love myself..." when in fact you don't. I believe self-acceptance is owning your experience, to let go of the blame you place upon yourself and the hatred; to say these crucial words.. "THIS IS ME FOR NOW...not forever, but for now." And give yourself a break - having depression, anxiety or any pain or struggles in life, can be terribly frightening and difficult and is NOT YOUR FAULT. It is what it is. Does it mean you have to live with it and there are no other options? Absolutely NO! But can you begin to accept yourself so that you can trust yourself enough to work through it and power on? Absolutely YES!
Self-acceptance does not come easy, and it certainly didn't come easy for me. You need to work at it like everything else. The more you exercise it, the more naturally it will come. At times I can still find it a challenge. But I know that the self-hatred and blame took me nowhere, and I can see clearly that I have a choice - to go down the spiral or look up towards peace and freedom.
So what did I do?
I wanted to share what worked for me, as I strongly believe in these teachings and practices, and I really hope you can benefit from these too. Anxiety, depression or hopefully not, these are excellent tools to strengthen mind. It is all about Power, and how to find the power within (we all have it, but we just forget to use it).
1. Knowledge: This is very important. It is crucial to achieve an understanding of what is happening to you, how your thoughts affect your feelings, how your mind and body works, how very, very intimately thoughts and feelings are related (they are joined at the hip). And most importantly, how thoughts come first, and feelings come second, so then you can see what choices you have.
2. Mindfulness: Basically putting in practice the above. Mindfulness is all the rave at the moment with colouring books on every stand at the stores. Whilst it is a great way to relax, it is quite fruitless to rely on this as a healing process without understanding why. Mindfulness teaches you to see the fine, intimate relationship between thought and feeling and then understanding your choice not to get involved in those. Mindfulness, for me, worked much better than Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT challenges and analyses thoughts, and while this is important in the third step below, anyone who has suffered a full blown anxiety disorder will understand that one of the common symptoms is unwanted thoughts. Thoughts such as, "I'm going crazy... I'm losing control... I'm going to have a nervous breakdown..." to completely unwanted and sometimes scary thoughts. These stem from a tired mind and and trying to continually analyse them and challenge them can be exhausting, and is giving those thoughts a purpose and frankly more attention than they deserve. There is no airy-fairy way of the mindfulness that I was taught, it is honest-to-goodness sensible therapy. It takes practice and patience (a LOT of patience) and is learned skill. And like anything else, the more you put in, the more you will get back.
3. Self-Esteem and Deeper Psychology: The reason that people partially recover (cut the tree at the stumps), or continue to live with unease, is that they are not going to the roots. We all have a good deal of baggage underneath and your childhood and upbringing effects your perception, beliefs and behaviour. It is not about throwing anyone under the bus, or blaming but rather to have, in an empathetic way, an understanding of why you think the way you do. For me, I had to see why I never felt good enough as a parent, why I needed to be able to do everything...and perfectly, and why I couldn't handle by fear and my anger. It is different for all but these are the big issues that drive the disorder and keep it alive. Pull these out by the roots and you are home-free. Because let's be honest, life can throw some shitty curveballs, and without an understanding of yourself, then the risk of setbacks is high.
Sometimes trying too hard or reading too much (in particular trying different therapies) when suffering can lead to more confusion and anxiety. I was fortunate to have Bronwyn Fox (Power Over Panic) counsel me, and she recommended Six Pillars of Self Esteem and The Power of Now. They all tie in with each other very well and do not conflict in terms of teachings, so they are very safe to read.
If you cut a pesky tree at the stump, you can bet it'll grow again. Pull it out by the roots and problem solved.
I had my first panic attack four months before my wedding whilst I was shopping for shoes at David Jones. I remember it clearly as I was so overwhelmed by the horror and spontaneity of it all (the panic attacks not the wedding!) that I ended up in the 'sick bay' of the store then in hospital that night. I didn't know what the panic attach was or where it came from. I was uneducated about it all (and embarrassed) that I didn't seek help. But I learned how to avoid another panic attack by no longer shopping on my own.
I moved past the experience, was married and then moved away. Not long after, I experienced multiple attacks, and chronic anxiety. I was blissfully in love, so this took me by complete surprise and I could not understand why I was feeling so rotten. Nevertheless I left no stone unturned and ended up with MRI tests, hypnotherapy, yoga, massages... I clung on to any type of 'fix' to feel better. I never bothered exploring my feelings and put it down to stress leading up to a wedding and a a big change in my life. Soon after I 'recovered' as around that time we relocated closer to my parents home.
Three years later I had my first child, a beautiful girl. I experience three months of sleepless, and I mean sleepless nights. Not because my daughter was difficult, but the anxiety and panic frayed my nerves to the point of absolute fear and kept me awake twenty-four hours. No one noticed this, as I became a great actor. Once again I just lived with it, without any exploration of self, or understanding of what was happening, until the darkness lifted and I became used to having a child and well I 'recovered' again.
Child number two, and I was in a slightly better place, so I was optimistic about Child number three. Boy, was I wrong and I came crashing down. It was the most difficult time in my life but thank God, it lead me to the right way with full recovery.
Remember that tree? I hear many people say, 'when I leave my job... when I lose weight... when we move house I'll get better,' and it hits me in a certain place. I used to continuously cut my tree at the stump too.
I recently came across a woman who had been in my class at high school 25 years ago. We had barely spoken back then - she was part of a high achieving, 'ideal' group of girls. Now we were two 'normal' mums chatting away. We came to talk about the school years I opened up to her and confessed at how 'different' I felt in school, being one of few girls in the grade of Lebanese background; how I felt that I stood out – big hair, foreign food, and general family life and wished at that age, to be an Aussie, like herself, as it looked so easy and 'normal’ to me.
She seemed genuinely shocked and confessed her own insecurities, how 'different' she had felt in school amongst her friends, and how she yearned to be like 'us' because we looked happy, confident and pretty… with our exotic features and food.
I walked away thinking...it is such a shame that I wasted my years at school, suffering - not accepting of my 'difference' and wishing myself any other way. Never did I realise my full potential whilst I had olives in my lunchbox. It also showed me that we suffer the same way, regardless of background. It doesn't end in school, does it?
The most common thread I hear, when it comes to chatting to sufferers of anxiety and depression, is how ‘different’ they feel, that there is something wrong with them and they wish they could be like everyone else. Growing up feeling that difference in a sense of cultural divide is a huge driving force of those illnesses, and sets the tone of helplessness.
Until we are ok with ourselves regardless of what is happening with us or what our background, we will continue to be our own enemy. Is it any wonder that we have an anxiety epidemic?