My Very Personal Story: Where I Am Now | For World Mental Health Day 2018!

For World Mental Health Day this year, my team suggested I do an update on the very personal article I wrote in 2013 where I told everyone that I experienced chronic anxiety, ADD and (previous to that) depression too!

Please note: This article turned out a bit longer than I intended, and I hope you find it helpful!

So, five years and a few months later, what has changed, what is new?

First, I still have anxiety. BUT, it is not nearly as bad. My anxiety used to be both chronic (I had experienced it for years on end) and severe - with little respite. It took the form of a deep sense of panic and dread, many unpleasant bodily sensations and debilitating self-criticism.

Over the last five years the severity of my anxiety has decreased substantially, and I have had some breaks from it altogether!

What form did my anxiety previously take? Here are a few examples:

  • Sometimes I would get literally tongue-tied as I tried to hold a conversation with someone. At the same time as conversing, my critic would analyze what I was saying, berate me, and I would argue with it. My processing power taken up arguing with myself, my tongue literally could not form the words. Then a sense of shame would hit me as I realised I was "making a fool of myself" - which only compounded the situation.
  • I didn't sleep well, and was usually tired, sometimes exhausted.
  • I would half-wake up in the morning before the alarm, often feeling moderately OK. Then the alarm would go off and my body would go into full-blown panic - a massive sinking feeling in my stomach, lurching, heart-racing, cold sweat.
  • I would sit at my desk, working, trying to ignore the dread and panic. Feeling nauseous, hating myself, hating the feelings. It was horrible! I knew there was nothing to be frightened of. I am very logical and practical - I knew it was ridiculous. But my body was reacting as if there was a grizzly bear stood in front of me!
  • Luckily full-on panic attacks were a rarity. I had a handful of half-formed panic attacks of the kind where people need to breathe into a paper bag, and feel like they're having a heart attack. I usually noticed what was going on, and used logic to calm myself - there are no bears, I am not in any physical danger, BREATHE. My ability to step back from the situation and willpower was such that I could pause and halt the anxiety attack before it got out of control. Ironically this "skill" also makes it hard (and still does sometimes) to look at my fears and heal them!

Some background

It's important to say that I didn't grow up feeling this anxious. It grew slowly in my early 30s, after giving up my successful career as a Relationship and Project Manager in IT, moving half-way around the world and starting a coaching business!

I spent my childhood hiding my feelings from others. I got so good at it that by the time I was an adult, even I didn't know what I was feeling. I also got very good at ignoring and blocking thoughts that didn't suit me. So good that I became completely disconnected from... me! I pushed through every challenge and difficulty with sheer willpower. This willpower and strength is applauded in our society, "Mind over matter!" But it's hugely detrimental to our personal well-being!

At the age of 26 I was managing development 'releases' for the one of the world's top banks. I was responsible for implementing software changes to the retail systems - various inter-connected systems that manage personal bank accounts and ATMs! I matrix-managed up to 25 projects per quarterly release and the related IT departments - with a virtual team of approx 50 people. I regularly managed meetings of 30-40 people where I was the youngest person in the room. It was a huge responsibility, and I just kept learning and pushing through. Push push push. When a release had a major issue, I worked straight through Friday night and the ensuing weekend - with extremely senior managers. I could not show any weakness or fear. I had to be competent and professional at all times.

As many of you know, starting a coaching business is not the fun and easy task many of us imagine it to be. It involves a lot of work, learning and learning about yourself. Who am I? Who do I want to serve? What do I offer? It involves a lot of trial and error. And a lot of mistakes learned the hard way.

My carefully constructed view of myself shifted as I realised there are some things that cannot simply be pushed through, forced and have logic applied. There are feelings, intuition, the allowing of things to evolve and unfold. It takes time to build relationships, trust, a referral network - and to build the experience, expertise and confidence that make you attractive to hire as a coach.

I talked in my previous article about the first counsellor I finally made a long and lasting connection with. And what a difference that made.

Walking with our dog Dexter in nature!

And then my husband's and my life turned upside down for 18 months as we had a family situation to deal with. My husband moved back to England for 18 months and I travelled back and forth. The additional expenses this incurred forced me to push through on many things I had been avoiding in my business. And as I pushed through (this time in a more healthy way) my business grew. And my confidence in life - and myself began to return.

What does "pushing Β through" in a healthy way mean/look like? Well, instead of ignoring my fears and riding roughshod over them, it means paying attention to them. Soothing them. Soothing myself. Taking care of myself when the stress grew too great. Stopping work earlier. Meditation and nature walks during the day. More journalling. And learning self-kindness.

I believe this is where the idea of Fierce Kindness first took root. Simple kindness to myself was not enough to see me through. My inner critic was vicious in getting its needs met. I needed to be incredibly Fiercely Kind. Fiercely Kind and protective of my inner self. And Kindly Fierce towards my critic to stop the self-bullying.

Kindly fierce is important, because if I simply yell at my critic to be silent then I am continuing the cycle of inner violence. It was important that the self-bullying stopped - but not using the same old techniques! So I used Kind Fierceness to stand up to my critic, and Fierce Kindness to look at the fears my critic had - and soothing both the critic and the bullied part of me.

So. Where am I now?

This was supposed to be an article to celebrate World Mental Health Day, and to give you an update!

Previously, I was severely anxious. Out of 10, where 10/10 is a full-on panic attack, I would score myself at an 8 and occasionally a 9/10 for at least 50% of every day. My anxiety would reduce to a 5, 6 or 7/10 as the day went on, and was often only a 7/10 on weekend mornings.

Now? I would say I am at a 1-3 out of 10 at the start of the day. Sometimes something will trigger me during the day, but often by the evening I might be feeling no anxiety at all. I have even had a few weeks where I have felt no real anxiety at all - usually when I'm super clear on what I'm doing and everything is going well! Then when the anxiety comes back - I think, "Wow! Look how far I've come!"

I still have anxiety peaks at 6-7/10 for specific occasions when I make mistakes or face challenges. Those higher anxiety peaks happen perhaps once or twice a month at most. And I haven't been at an 8 or higher for a couple of years now.

Importantly, I don't panic about my panic any more!

In fact, that is one of the things that has most contributed to my recovery; learning not to be afraid of (and avoid) my anxiety. I wouldn't quite say I embrace it(!) but I treat my anxiety as a sign that I need to take care of and be fiercely kind to myself: "NO! I'm not working late tonight - I'm going to finish early, make a cup of tea and journal, or sit on the patio and read a book."

Continuing the story...

I reached a point a few years back, after writing the last article, where I felt strong enough and that I had learned enough for now. So I took a break from counselling. During that time my original counsellor retired. I had a couple of sessions to deal with specific issues, but I knew I had moved forwards hugely!

Then about 2 years ago, as the idea of launching a website around Fierce Kindness grew, I found a new counsellor. I chose someone who worked in the body with feelings and emotions - something I avoided for so long.

I knew that in order to launch Fierce Kindness I would need to confront my "Who do you think you are?" judge. I knew I needed to embrace my fears about being seen for who I am, and my still bone-deep and completely irrational fears around rejection and abandonment. I wanted to walk my talk. And I wanted to be the BEST, happiest and most confident person I can be. I wanted to fully enjoy life - and myself, ALL of myself.

And up until then, despite all my work, these fears and beliefs remained. So, it was back to counselling - with a new focus! This has been my most recent path.

So, what's NEXT?

What I am working on now is leaning INTO the anxiety when I feel it. I am learning to embrace it (literally) - to put my arms around it and myself - and take care of me.

I am also working on recognizing my critical thoughts in the moment! I have gone from having horrendous anxiety with no idea what beliefs and thoughts triggered it, to figuring out what I was saying to myself with time set aside for journalling. Then I got to a place where I figured out what I was saying to myself shortly afterwards - sometimes just by thinking about it. These days I get the feeling, and can sometimes tap into the thought or belief immediately - ah - I just had the thought that I'm a total idiot and a worthless human being (that's the polite version!), so that would explain that lurch in my stomach!

I have always been extremely sensitive to the reactions of others - it was my way of staying safe growing up. Now, with select people, I sometimes share aloud my thought or fear as I am triggered. If I am over-reacting out of a fear of rejection/abandonment, doing this allows me to hear OUT LOUD how irrational that thought is and gently laugh at myself (plus now with fierce kindness I don't judge it). And if my reaction/fear is not silly - perhaps it's a rational fear around my interaction with someone - we can clear it up. Was I imagining that, or is there something we need to discuss here? I am retraining my brain!

I only do this with select people. It's important that if someone tried to ridicule or shame me while I was being vulnerable, that I can stand up for myself.

Knowing what I say to myself, being fiercely kind (and sometimes kindly fierce), reprogramming how I respond to myself, accepting all my feelings, and constructively re-imagining and feeling painful experiences with my counsellor - all this has led to where I am now. Actually, that doesn't even begin to sum up all the personal work I have done, but it gives an idea!

The other piece of self-work I am thoroughly enjoying right now is shadow work. I believe this is important for me to be fully myself. Shadow work allows the expression of parts of myself that I have blocked - because they were disapproved of or caused me shame growing up. What's fascinating is that it's not just "bad" stuff in your shadow, it's also "good" stuff. Your shadow is anything you've concealed in order to "survive"! We expend a lot of energy hiding parts of ourselves, so as you accept and release these parts, you also free up energy! It's a wonderful area, although painful sometimes as you face up to all of who you are!

Duncan and I on my last birthday!

Wrap-up

So, it IS possible to heal from anxiety and depression. But it takes time - and a lot of work. It takes courage and fierceness in defence of the parts of yourself that have been ignored, despised and shamed for so long! And it takes a colossal (fierce!) amount of kindness and self-love - to cut through that shame and love yourself anyway.

And it also helps to have an extremely supportive and non-judgemental husband! Thank-you Duncan!

Here are some things to do if you're suffering with anxiety, shame, depression:

  1. You are NOT alone. It's actually quite common!
  2. With work and time, it is absolutely possible to heal.
  3. I urge you to get help. Find a counsellor. Try a few until you find one who both challenges you - and who you feel safe with.
  4. Talk to trusted friends about what's going on with you.
  5. Read, read, read. A counsellor will help you with what you can't do on your own, but ALSO educate yourself and learn how your brain works!
  6. Use the tools of journalling, mindfulness and meditation. They will help you identify your unhelpful beliefs and thought patterns, and help you learn to BE with yourself, no matter what.
  7. Consider also joining a support group, where you can meet others who are experiencing similar symptoms.

And when you're ready and strong enough, perhaps you'll feel inspired to share your story like I have. It's a great way to normalise talking about mental health, and let all those people suffering in silence know that they're not alone. It's common. It's OK. It's nothing to be ashamed of. You are worthy of love and belonging. You deserve to enjoy life. You deserve mental health!

Finally, here are just a few of the books I have found helpful:

  • The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson Ph.D (neuroscience practically explains emotions and mindfulness!)
  • Shame & Guilt by Jane Middleton-Moz (probably have to buy this second-hand, but it is a small and amazing book that explains the origins of shame and guilt - and also frees you from self-blame about it!)
  • The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (get to know yourself through a deep journalling practice)
  • Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life (The New Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) by Stephen C. Hayes Ph.D (accepting and not running away from your thoughts with helpful exercises!)
  • The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (where perfection comes from, being vulnerable and real!)
  • The Hero Within , Six Archetypes We Live By by Carol S. Pearson Ph.D (common archetypes for life's journey - Joseph Campbell type stuff, but more inclusive of women and more contemporary)
    NOTE: I actually love, prefer and still read the more detailed version of this book, "Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World" but it is a lot to take in, so I recommend starting with just the six archetypes!)
  • Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D (stories of women's strength, what fairy tales are really supposed to teach us about inner transformation and more!)
  • The Voice of Knowledge by Don Miguel Ruiz (learning about the inner critic, how we see ourselves and how others see us)
  • Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder by Dr. Gabor Mate (a beautiful take on ADD that helped me forgive myself for being so horrendously forgetful!)

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18 Comments

  1. Alison

    Thank you for sharing your story, Emma-Louise. You have accomplished SO much, armed with your courage and determination. You can be really PROUD of yourself!

    Reply
  2. Olivia

    Well done !! What a journey. Thank you for sharing. We all have things to deal with and it is always heart warming to see that we are not alone and that with some work, patience and love things can change for the best πŸ™‚

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Olivia, it is so common for people to have anxiety, depression and more! If only we talked about it more. And yes, things can definitely improve with work - but it does take longer than we would like sometimes πŸ™‚ Thank-you for your kind words. Warmly, Emma-Louise

      Reply
  3. Gillian

    A thoughtful, honest and inspiring article. Thank you for sharing your healing journey with us.

    Reply
  4. Lynda Monk

    Hi Emma, thank you for sharing your growth story. You are always an inspiration - both personally and professionally. Know you are loved, cared for and respected very much. To fierce kindness, in you, in the world. With friendship, Lynda

    Reply
    • Emma-Louise

      Dear Lynda, thank-you for your kind words! You continue to inspire me with your authentic and beautiful approach to the world! Em xxx

      Reply
  5. Ben Rodriguez

    Awesome article, your openness and transparency are very well appreciated. I trained my mind to not care about anxiety and not make it matter on any level and/or from any angle it came from and it has made a tremendous different in my life. I some times encounter the onset of anxiety and simply remind myself that I still don't care and it still doesn't matter cause it no longer has a negative affect I me and immediately kill it off. It take several weeks of meditating on that until that voice became louder then anxieties voice. The mind will eventually believe whatever you consistently tell it within reason and the realm of possibility. Again thanks for sharing and God bless!

    Reply
  6. Wendy Buckingham

    What an inspirational and moving story. Thank you for sharing. It's so important to know that we are not alone, and there is nothing to be ashamed of when the swamp of anxiety comes in and to have strategies for self care in handling it. xx

    Reply
  7. Lisa Honold

    What a beautiful story, Emma-Louise. Your willingness to share about a topic like this will help so many people who have been taught to feel ashamed. You're brave and authentic πŸ™‚ Thank you for being you! On a related topic, Brene Brown talks about the importance of recognizing when we're lonely (and so many times we isolate ourselves when we feel anxious or afraid) --she has statistics in "Braving the Wilderness" that show living with loneliness increases our odds of dying early by 45%...that's more than air pollution, excessive drinking and obesity. The power of connecting with another human, even smiling or making eye contact with a strange, cannot be overstated.

    Reply

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