I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life.
As a very small child, I worried that my parents would leave and never come back. They’d never given me any indication that they would (and they never did!), but I still begged my best friend that I could live with him if they did abandon me. I worried about every noise I heard at night, every ache and pain I felt.
Growing up with very frail grandparents (the joys of being the very much youngest in the family!), I spent a lot of time in hospital with them. I was consumed with health anxiety for a long time.
High school didn’t help too much. I worried a lot about exams. Did really well, mind, but worried a lot.
Probably the calmest I’ve ever been was when I was away at university. I had a few very calm and happy years, including the first years where I knew my husband.
There aren’t always major triggers for my anxiety; sometimes it just happens. It’s a bit overwhelming at times, especially during pregnancy. I’ve worried a lot about childbirth, obviously, but now that the birth is getting closer I’m feeling slightly more at peace with the idea. My current major worry is about finances, actually. How are we going to cope financially when the baby is here, now I’m taking some time away from work?
It feels like my brain overheats sometimes with the worry, and I could scream some moments, everything is so scary. But most of the time, I can keep it at bay! Here’s how I’ve been coping.
My anxiety coping mechanisms
I know I should be doing this during pregnancy, but I’ve been so tired that it’s been a bit of a catch-22. Exercise would invigorate me, but I don’t have the energy to do it!
Part of me wishes I were able to run and enjoy it, because a lot of people seem to get a lot of joy out of it, but it’s just never been enjoyable for me. So instead, I turned to swimming and dancing.
Pre-baby, I used to take a couple of ballet classes each week – ideally three, but I tried to do at least two. What I love about ballet is its intense focus. There is just no way you can think about the things that are worrying you when you’re also trying to concentrate on every single muscle in your body at once. There just isn’t room, so you have to switch your worries off and move your focus for a bit. I miss my ballet classes such a lot!
Also, if you’re thinking that you’ve never danced before and you won’t be able to try this one, I never danced at all until I was about 25, so I was a complete beginner as an adult. There are a surprising number of adult beginner classes out there! If you’re near Birmingham at all, I’d recommend DanceXchange.
Before I got married, I would go swimming about three times a week. The nearest swimming pool to our house now isn’t exactly my favourite, so I haven’t got back into that yet. But the pool I used to go to was wonderful, huge and quiet. I could swim a kilometre or two without anyone bothering me.
Swimming isn’t quite like ballet for me in terms of coping with the anxiety; I’d use them in slightly different ways. You can focus intently on different things when swimming: if there was something I needed to seriously think about, a swim was often a good time to do that. No one could interrupt me, and I’d often come away feeling a lot better.
Breathing and meditation
Okay, it’s very cliched, but the “childbirth” style breathing is really helping me. We’ve been taking “Wise Hippo” birthing classes, which used to be known as hypnobirthing. They’ve moved away in these particular classes from that label, not wanting people to associate them with hypnosis, I think. I’ll write more about the classes another time, because we’re really enjoying them.
One part of them that is working really well for me in particular is meditation. I’ve always sort of resisted the idea of meditation before. If I couldn’t get it to work immediately, clearly it didn’t work at all and there was no point in trying. I’d just be anxious forever and that’s fine. But here, our instructor has given us a track that we play, and my husband talks me through a visualisation, and I get so swept along in it that the worries do fade away for a while.
We’ve been mainly doing it just before I go to sleep. Night times are usually some of the most anxious moments for me, so I’ve been asking to do this every evening. I’ll lie down in the bed, and we’ll start the soundtrack and he’ll hold my hand and talk me through it. By the end, I’m usually so near sleep that I barely realise we’ve finished.
I also love that the baby responds well to this. I can feel her bopping around a lot during the meditation, but the moment it’s over, she drops right off to sleep. I’m hoping that this will continue and we can use it to calm her not only during childbirth, but also in the weeks and months immediately after. It feels like a wonderful bonding moment for all of us as a new family.
It’s by far the best tool in my arsenal right now.
I might not feel great, but at least the living room has been vacuumed! Or the laundry is in, or the dishwasher has been emptied, etc etc. It works as a distraction and I get to feel good about something as well.
This one is also proving a little harder during pregnancy. Bending to empty the dishwasher can be a bit of a struggle these days. And, even though our vacuum is pretty light, carrying it up and down the stairs is difficult.
Getting into bed
It’s not that I need to sleep when I feel anxious (well, not always!), but there’s something about the feeling of having a heavy duvet on top of me that really calms me. I know that weighted blankets are a treatment option for some people – I don’t find that I need one of them, but I do find that the weight of the duvet provides some sort of comfort for me.
It’s the same feeling as being hugged really tightly.
I make my bed a bit more inviting by having more pillows than anyone ever really needs. I have two currently (although I’ve bought two more today as they’re getting a bit flat!) and my husband has three. We have a few decorative cushions, a big pregnancy pillow, at least one soft throw… The bed is a lovely little haven of safety and security.
Usually when I end up there because I’m feeling anxious, I don’t sleep. I either just close my eyes and daydream, or I read on my phone for a bit. I try and find something that will occupy my brain but won’t remind me of any of my worries. The Guardian Long Read section is pretty good for this, I find, or I’ll pick a random subreddit like /r/travel. I don’t really travel so I won’t be reminded of what’s concerning me, but it’s usually interesting enough to immerse myself in for a while!
My phone is actually a great tool for helping me when I’m feeling anxious. If I know there’s nothing I can do to solve the problem, I can take out my phone and play a couple of levels of Candy Crush or similar. It gives me something else to focus on for a time.
Books that I know and love are also a really great tool here. Something where I know the story so well that I can just dip in and out. I don’t have to read the whole thing, but can just immerse myself in another world temporarily. The Handmaid’s Tale is a favourite for doing this with, actually.
This sounds really silly, but I can tell the difference in my mood if it’s been a while since I’ve eaten. I don’t always recognise the feeling I’m experiencing as hunger, but I get panicky and irrational.
It happens less during pregnancy as I’m trying very hard to make sure that I do eat little and often. Pre-pregnancy, though, a couple of biscuits could be a very good emergency anti-anxiety measure!
So, I know it’s not just me that feels like this. How do you cope with your anxiety?