What a glorious day it’s been today. And actually, apart from yesterday’s rain June is setting itself up to be a lot brighter than May was – and for me not just because of the sun.
It’s been a long time since I blogged, after all, there hasn’t really been loads to talk about. I wasn’t really sure whether to write about this or not but after speaking to a couple of friends I’ve decided to as they quite rightly pointed out if there’s just one person who will take advantage of what I’m about to share then it’s worthwhile.
I’ve had anxiety. For the first time in my life.
In some of my previous writings I’ve mentioned that I didn’t have the best of lockdowns – I had strange experiences, strange dreams, a host of things that ultimately culminated in a ‘severe panic attack’ in November 2020. I had some time out at the start of this year, but I was really struggling. I kept having chest pains and had convinced myself I was constantly on the way to having a heart attack. I cut out alcohol for over five weeks (no mean feat for me), started exercising again and just chilled out. But it wasn’t helping. I lost my lockdown weight, which was great, but I still just lived constantly with these pains, I was nervous about going out, I dreaded Teams calls with clients. So, I phoned my doctor. When I explained what was happening, he said – without even seeing me – that this wasn’t about my heart or any other physical medical condition, I had anxiety.
In some ways it felt a relief that I’d been told that, but I’ve never had it before and the experiences I was having were literally quite terrifying.
I was advised to self-register for the NHS’ online IAPT programme.
I was a bit sceptical of this programme. It started with a 10-minute introduction call and then a 30-minute call with a counsellor the next day. I was then enrolled onto the online ‘SilverCloud’ programme through Lewisham Hospital. Online? Counselling? I still think I’m having a heart attack! To the point I said to my counsellor that all I wanted was a full health check from Bupa. But I put my scepticism to one side. I’m in new territory, so I may as well accept a new way of thinking.
My counsellor Alice told me that I need to complete two modules each fortnight and within eight weeks I should be in a better position – if I ever felt anxiety, it was then, what? I’d be cured in 8 weeks? Then she said that every fortnight she would review my comments on the online app and make recommendations. Yes, even though it’s online my counsellor is a real person.
Hitting the Modules
I’m not going to go into detail about what I shared with my counsellor, I acknowledge that everything I’m about to say is very high level – I think if I was to share with you all of my experiences it would come to life so much more, but I don’t want to do that, they’re my experiences and my thoughts – I hope you understand, but the modules went like this:
Module 1: Getting Started
On this module you’re asked a lot of questions about how you’re feeling, past history, key moments in your life that have had an impact etc. I don’t know, there’s something about writing / typing it all down online to someone you’ll never meet but who is real that just feels easier than telling someone. And in that module, I wrote things down that I have never voiced out loud to anybody. And just with that 30-minute session I seemed to wake up to some things that I had never addressed which was having an impact on this hell of a lockdown I was in.
Module 2: Understanding Anxiety
As it says on the tin. This module brings to life why anxiety arises. I found that the day after I did this module, I was really low. It was like everything I had written had just brought it all to life, why I was sad, why I was unhappy. I got really upset.
Module 3: Noticing Feelings
This module helped me to recognise my own personal signs of anxiety. For me it’s always a physical sensation, usually pains in my chest, an uneasiness in my whole being, nausea, a disconnection from what is in my head to what I’m trying to say, and a real heaviness of my eyelids – I’m not tired but my eyes feel so heavy. People have different feelings, but these are mine. Recognising the signs is the first step to knowing something may happen so you can prepare for it.
Module 4: Facing Your Fears
On this module you are asked to write down what your fears are – however daft they sound. And believe me some of mine sound really daft. Once you’ve listed them you then have to create a ‘ladder’ the small steps that help you face the fears. The steps can be really small, and some of mine were but as I took the small steps I listed I felt like I was achieving something and gradually my fears started to go away.
Module 5: Spotting Thoughts
My issue is that because I always had a ‘physical sensation’ was that my thoughts would always lead to the worst-case scenario. I’m having a heart attack, I’m going to collapse on a treadmill, I’m going to crash my car, who will look after my dog if this happens, who will find me? This module gets you to think about the thoughts that are in your head when you’re feeling anxious.
Module 6: Challenging Thoughts
This module helped you to challenge the thoughts in your head. It used a ‘decision tree’ system, is the thought an issue right now, can you do anything about it? Is it real, is it hypothetical? And when it’s hypothetical you can just ‘throw it away’. When it’s ‘real’, the tree just keeps growing – and ultimately, it’s rarely real and if it is the tool makes you write options to sort it. When you have solutions it’s all easier.
Module 7: Managing Worry
We all worry about things, right? You don’t have to have anxiety to worry about things. On this module you’re encouraged to have ‘worry time’. 10 minutes once or twice a day to write down what’s troubling you. Once it’s out of your head it usually feels better.
Module 8: Bringing It All Together
Again, as it says on the tin. This was about sharing what you learned over the past few weeks.
The online version of this programme has an app with some great tools – a mood monitor, journal entries, CBT cycles, questionnaires (which you also have to complete after your counsellor’s review), access to your counsellor if for some reason it’s a particularly bad day, and you can click into any of the other tools that each module provides (the decision trees for example.)
So, how do I feel now?
Well, as I said I was very sceptical at the start. But I really wish I had found this IAPT programme sooner. Now I recognise my signs but instead of thinking I’m about to die (dramatic I know!) I know how to handle the signs. Hey I have anxiety, it’s ok! I use my ‘Mood Monitor’ every day at 5pm to reflect how I’ve been that day. Don’t get me wrong, not every day is good, but I record why it wasn’t or indeed why it was good. The feelings don’t go away just like that, for example for my birthday lunch I felt I was going into a full-blown panic attack, but I recognised what was happening and I dealt with it.
I’ve found that ‘facing my fears’ through listing steps on a ladder has been incredible.
I think when I’ve shared this with close friends, they have been surprised I’ve gone though this. Some feel a little guilty because they had no idea, they don’t need to be guilty, I had no idea what was happening either and I’ve never really been one to share when I’m not well – I’m usually the resilient one, the strong one. Years ago, one of my best friends and I learned about ‘graceful retreat’ when you have to take a step back to deal with your own sh**. This programme has enabled me to deal with my own sh** whilst also opening up and looking after other people too. My mind feels clearer. This has been very powerful for my state of mind.
In addition, I can also recognise signs in other people, people who don’t know that actually they have anxiety. I have started to ask the right questions of them and importantly just listen.
I would however like to mention my counsellor Alice, she’ll probably never read this, but she was awesome. She read every single thing that I wrote and offered guidance and encouragement on everything.
Passing It On
It’s all very well that the world is reopening but after the last 18 months we’ve all changed, and we may not be the people that we were when the pandemic started. If you’re feeling odd, weird, if you’re experiencing physical or mental sensations that you never had before you may have anxiety.
And if you have, or think you could have, there’s this amazing FREE programme on the NHS called IAPT. Just Google it or click on this link and self-enrol. It will take about six weeks for your first appointment but after that it will move very quickly. You may not be put onto the online programme that I was, you may have physical conversations, it depends on the level of anxiety that you have. But I can honestly say that my whole sense of being has improved over the last eight weeks and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And back to my original point. If just one person has been feeling a little out of sorts and now learns about this great programme then this blog was worth writing.