The cycle of being overstressed and becoming ill became too obvious to ignore.
I’d let things build up, hold things inside, not talk to anybody, and pretend I was coping just fine. It always led to me being ill.
My illnesses consistently followed the same pattern, revolving around my throat. It would start with a sore throat, which progressed onto a throat infection (tonsillitis), which caused lots of other physical symptoms (cold sweats, fever, headache, neck ache, nausea, lack of energy) leaving me completely bed bound, normally for weeks at a time.
Not uncommon. I’ve known anxiety sufferers who have spent months at a time in bed. In an effort to protect themselves from the stress they’re trying to bury their bodies completely shut-down.
Some of them recognised their symptoms as being stress / anxiety related, and others lived in denial, like I used to - probably because like me, they saw being ill as a weakness, and didn’t want to face up to the reality that being bed bound was caused by anxiety / stress.
Why can’t I cope with the stress that life throws at me? Everybody else seems to manage it.
(Obviously not true, but that’s what you believe when you’re not feeling great.)
It’s a horrible cycle to be trapped in, but is it breakable. The key to breaking the cycle lies in regaining your balance.
Important question - because the answer is the key to a life with much less anxiety. A life where depression doesn’t count.
It’s easy to busy ourselves with big questions like ‘what makes me happy?’. Trouble is, we rarely know the answer.
A nice car?
It doesn’t take long before these things don’t count for much. The short-term fix of happiness they produce soon runs out.
Instead, a better, more focused question to ask yourself is ‘why do I do what I do?’. If you allow yourself to stop and think about the answer it will lead to the things that create true happiness.
True happiness comes with a lot less anxiety and stress, and depression will never make the equation.
What does BALANCE mean to you? How do you know when you’ve achieved it, and what’s the end goal?
These are all important questions, and to help answer them I’ve put together the Rebalance Scale.
SCALE 7: Panic
Panic – my best friend for many years! Obviously, I’m being sarcastic – there is nothing about panic that would ever make me class it as a friend. As a high-anxiety sufferer, I have no doubt you’ll know all about it. You’ll know that it sits at the top of the scale because it represents the most extreme form of anxiety and causes an array of unwanted symptoms, typically including sweating, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, shaking, numbness, tingling, chest pain and discomfort, loss of breath, a smothering or choking sensation, a dry mouth, a churning stomach, chills and hot flushes … and any other symptom the mind can muster.
At the height of my high anxiety, panic attacks were a daily occurrence. Some were caused by obvious triggers, such as going to the supermarket. (The supermarket was a particular struggle for me, and always induced panic.) At other times, a panic attack would creep up on me without warning. I could be doing something as trivial as watching TV, when all of sudden I’d start to feel disorientated and uncomfortable. Because nothing obvious was causing these feelings, I’d panic because I didn’t know what was going on.
It didn’t matter how many times I experienced panic attacks and got through them, each time I was convinced there was something more sinister going on. I really believed I was ill and had a serious medical condition. It was incredibly frustrating. I’d plead with the doctor: ‘Please diagnose me with something – anything – so I can stop this torment and move on.’ But, as in so many other cases of panic, that diagnosis never came.
Examples of panic
SCALE 6: High anxiety
High anxiety is best explained using the analogy of a swimming duck. Everything above water (on the outside) might appear calm, but underneath the water (on the inside) you’re frantically paddling, trying to hold things together. I spent most of the fifteen years I suffered living like this. I’d be sitting on my sofa watching TV, yet feel like I was at war on the frontline. From opening my eyes in the morning to going to bed at night, high anxiety ruled my life, and all my decisions were based around it.
Examples of high anxiety
SCALE 5: Above-normal anxiety
These symptoms are similar to those of high anxiety, but are less pervasive. You’re able to operate and cope in everyday life without anxiety dominating your decisions, but it still plays its part, manifesting itself through mild forms of anxiety-related disorders.
Examples of above-normal anxiety
SCALE 4: BALANCE
Sitting comfortably within normal levels of anxiety and energy, BALANCE is the optimal place to be. You’re living an active and healthy lifestyle without anxiety and depression dictating your decisions and actions. Anxiety isn’t present in your immediate thoughts, and it only presents itself when genuinely needed. Until then, it sits quietly as your life companion, keeping you away from danger and helping you make sensible decisions (doing its job properly). You don’t feel tired or drained, and have enough mental and physical energy to cope with life’s usual daily challenges.
It’s likely you’ll be able to recall a time you felt like this, but if it’s been a while, let me remind you what it feels like.
What BALANCE feels like
Most importantly, BALANCE means FREEDOM. No hang-ups, no emotional ties, no psychological baggage – just you, living how you want to live.
SCALE 3: Below-normal energy
Because anxiety goes hand in hand with depression, it’s present at both ends of the scale. It will zap your positivity and happiness, and work with depression to lower your energy. The lower your energy, the greater your depression. Scale 3 represents lower than normal energy, which could be the early signs of a deeper depression.
Examples of below-normal energy
SCALE 2: Low energy
Scale 2 represents a deeper anxiety-induced depression and a lower level of unhappiness; you experience the same symptoms as with below-normal energy, but to a greater extent.
Examples of low energy
SCALE 1: Sleep
At the very bottom of the scale, sleep represents extreme depression, just as panic represents an extreme form of anxiety. I went through long periods of both. When I was deeply depressed, all I wanted to do was sleep all day. It felt as though my body was shutting down (like when you reboot your computer), and sleep was my only escape from the clutches of anxiety. On average, I would sleep sixteen hours a day – twice as long as the average adult needs. In the few hours I was awake, anxiety had a way of sucking any remaining bit of life out of me. My energy became non-existent, and I felt mentally and physically exhausted every waking second of every day. It made breaking the anxiety and depression cycle very difficult, because all I wanted to do was (you guessed it) sleep more.
At the other extreme, sleep deprivation (caused by high anxiety) was the worst symptom I experienced. I know exactly what it feels like to be a zombie on The Walking Dead. Three days of not sleeping properly, red-eyed with dribble running down my chin, unable to talk, was as bad as it got for me. This is a typical example of the continuous rigmarole I went through on a nightly basis:
As soon as my head hit the pillow I have racing thoughts about all the bills that need to be paid this month and the work I have left to do. I’m exhausted, but it doesn’t matter how tired I am, I just can’t fall asleep.
I lie there with my eyes wide open, just staring at the ceiling, until I’m so frustrated I decide to get up. I make myself a drink. I know going back to bed will be a waste of time so I lie down on the couch and put the television on. It keeps me company so I don’t feel so alone.
My eyes are heavy. I look at the clock. It’s the early hours of the morning and I start to panic – I’m desperate to sleep because I know I’m going to feel like a zombie at work the next day.
Eventually, panic subsides, and through pure exhaustion I fall asleep at around 4am. After a few hours I wake up on the couch, feeling like I haven’t slept at all. I immediately start to feel anxious, and I’m already worrying about how I’m going to get through the day.
I dread going to bed because I know it’s all going to happen again.
Eventually, with time and practice, I sorted my sleep out. If I hadn’t done this, I had no chance of overcoming anxiety and depression. That’s why I can’t stress enough how important it is to get it right. A strong pattern of sleep combined with the ability to relax is essential for achieving BALANCE.
If sleep is a problem for you (and I’m guessing it is), rest assured – we’ll look at how to combat it within Part 4, Ten Actions to Achieve BALANCE.
This was an excerpt taken from the book, Anxiety Rebalance by Carl Vernon.
On your journey of discovering BALANCE, you are going to have good and bad days (you need the bad ones to help you appreciate the good ones!). The bad days can make you feel like you’re going backwards, however, that’s normally far from the truth.
Seeing evidence of your progression on paper will help you realise that the bad days are just a small part of the bigger picture.
I found the easiest way to track my progression was using an excel sheet – here’s a template you can use.
For the next few weeks, write down the date, day, a rating from 1-10 (where 1 is absolutely abysmal, and 10 is the best day you’ve ever had), and a short note highlighting what you did on that day (like a diary entry).
After a few weeks, take a look at your results.
Were there particular days that scored well, or badly? What were you doing?
Did you feel better on Wednesdays because you’d been to the gym?
Did you feel bad on Sundays because you had nothing to do?
Ask yourself questions based on your results and look for clues.
By writing down the reasons behind your moods, you can make the changes needed. For example, if on Monday you felt particularly anxious, write down what you were doing (or not doing) on that day. Do the same if you were feeling particularly good on Thursday.
When you track what you’re doing, the facts speak for themselves. Those bad days that make you think you’ve gone backwards are easily contradicted by actual results. You might be pleasantly surprised by your progress.
It doesn’t matter what your sheet looks like. The only thing that counts is that you see progress. If you don’t, keep looking for those clues. If you can’t find them, look harder – they’re definitely there. They hold the key to your change.
If you need to, go back to the ten actions to achieve BALANCE (in the book Anxiety Rebalance), and keep taking action. Positive change will come.
I’ve mapped out a daily routine which I found ideal – and easy to follow – over the first three-month rebalancing period. I understand that, due to work/life commitments, you will have to make some modifications (such as when you start work), but try to stick to the core activity as much as possible – the more closely you can follow it, the better.
By following these few simple instructions you will instantly begin to feel more energetic, vibrant, motivated, positive and enthusiastic – key ingredients needed for BALANCE. Over time, the routine will become easier to follow, eventually becoming second nature. Keep it up, and you’ll be rewarded with a lifetime of change.
Gaps in the routine should be filled by work or a focused activity or hobby.
6.30 am: Get out of bed
6.45 am: Exercise
7.45 am: Shower
8 am: Healthy breakfast (no caffeine)
10.30 am: Snack
12.30 pm: Healthy lunch
3 pm: Snack
6 pm: Healthy dinner
6.30 pm: Plan for the next day
7 pm: Wind down and relax until bedtime
10–11 pm: Go to bed.
Get out of bed as soon as you wake up
Start your day as you mean to go on. As soon as your alarm goes off or you wake up naturally, get out of bed. Don’t lie in bed procrastinating – it allows anxious thoughts to creep in. Concentrate on the plan you made yesterday and go for it.
I find that exercising in the morning before I eat breakfast gives me the best results. It also sets me up for the day by keeping me energised.
Shower every day. It’s not only important for hygienic reasons, but it will refresh you and help wake you up, ready for your day.
Keep your energy levels up throughout the day by snacking regularly on fruit (a banana is ideal) and nuts. If it helps you to stay organised, set your alarm or set an alert on your mobile phone when a snack is due.
Plan for the next day
You already know how important it is to have focus, and planning for the next day is the most effective method of getting it right. If the next day is a work day, plan what you need to do. If you’re not at work, plan your activities in advance. Book something (if possible) and commit to it.
Find time to relax
In a busy schedule that includes family and work, it can be very easy to forget about your own needs, only to regret it later when you’re overstressed and exhausted. Even if it’s only half an hour, take time to relax every day. Put your feet up, make yourself a hot drink (no caffeine!), and shut yourself off from the world. Read a book, or do something that allows you to wind down. If it helps, close your eyes – and if you doze off, so be it!
Go to bed at a reasonable time
Aim to get eight hours of sleep every night. Some people need more, some less. Establish what you need by how you feel when you wake up, and aim to get that amount of sleep daily.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always happy to hear about foods that can enhance my mood.
Low levels of folic acid has been linked to depression, and the good news is asparagus has plenty of folic acid, which means asparagus could be good for depression and lifting your mood.
Apparently, asparagus is also good for increasing libido (I’ll leave that with you).
Instead of using bread as dipping soldiers for your egg, use asparagus.
Here’s a recipe from Jamie Oliver: Dippy Eggs & Asparagus Soldiers
Blueberries might just be the stress buster you’re looking for…
Blueberries are full of vitamin C, and we need vitamin C when we’re stressed because it helps repair our cells. They’re also packed with antioxidants that help repair and protect our cells.
I particularly like blueberries at breakfast with yogurt and granola. They’re a versatile fruit that you can have at any time of the day, so when and where can you fit them in your diet?
If you freeze blueberries you can have them as a cold snack.
I’ve recently returned from a promotional trip to America, and there was something significant that stood out to me about their culture.
That something is: OPENNESS
It’s hard not to admire how open and frank the American culture is towards mental health, especially compared to here in the UK. Therapy (whether it’s for anxiety or depression) is the done thing in the US. If you’ve got a problem, you talk about it. You don’t worry about what people might think – you go straight to a professional and talk about it.
One of the big talking points, while I was out there, was the fact that I’d been able to cover up my anxiety and depression for so long, without even the closest people to me knowing. As one of the guys said: ‘I internalized my anxiety.’ (Spelt with a z on purpose.) I’d never heard that term used in the UK, but I liked it – it summed it up perfectly.
Part of our problem here in the UK is a lot of us still think that mental health issues are a weakness, and therefore, going to a counsellor is a sign that you’re not coping. I know I was guilty of this – which is why I covered up my anxiety and lived in denial for over 10 years!
That’s simply not true, and the American’s are smart enough to know this, which is why therapy is a solid part of their culture. They know that going to a counsellor isn’t a sign of weakness. They see it as a sign of strength – a way of dealing with your issues so you don’t have to suffer alone.
If you’ve bottled things inside, take a lesson from America. Start talking!
A: Losing weight (and gaining weight) is a very common symptom of anxiety. I personally lost over a stone in four weeks, because, like you, I struggled to eat due to stress and anxiety.
Let's focus on what’s important: getting you eating again. Forget about your weight for now - the only thing that matters is getting you back to a place where you want to eat again. When you’re at this stage, you’ll naturally get back to a comfortable weight.
It’s important to get you eating again because food is fuel, and fuel is energy. You can’t do anything without energy, and even the healthiest of mind will struggle to cope with anxiety and stress if energy levels are too low. The only way to get your energy levels back up to where they need to be is by eating properly, which will give your mind and body the fuel it needs to deal with your excessive stress and anxiety.
I know at times, particularly when you feel sick, anxious, and depressed, eating is probably the last thing you want to do, so I have a solution for you: Protein Shakes.
When I couldn’t stomach food, or even look at it due to feeling anxious and depressed, I stopped my weight loss and increased my energy by drinking protein shakes. They’re not just made for vein-popping weightlifters – it’s a big market, and some are made as diet supplements / replacements.
It’s not a long-term solution, and eating should always be your goal. If you can eat anything, you should eat fruit and vegetables (because there isn’t any substitute for them). If you’re really struggling to eat, protein shakes will help give you the boost of energy you need to get you back to the stage where you want to eat again and give you the fuel you need to overcome your anxiety.
Action for Change
Go online / to your local supermarket and look for protein shakes designed as meal replacement / supplements. Find a flavour you like and have a protein shake at times in the day you normally eat (breakfast / lunch / dinner). If you can stomach any food make sure it’s fresh and healthy, including fruit and vegetables.
Remember: this is only a very short-term option, and you should only use protein shakes to get you through the very low periods (when you can’t stomach or look at food).
Given a little time, when your energy levels are up (which will naturally boost your mood), you will start eating properly again. And when you start eating properly again, you’ll be ready to face and overcome your high anxiety.
When you’re feeling down and depressed, wondering why things aren’t going your way, why you don’t fit in, or beating yourself up because you think you’re not good enough, there is no better inspiration than Nick Vujicic.
Nick was born without limbs, but he’s lived a more active and fulfilling life than most. He’s a true inspiration for us all.
The best way to connect with Carl and join the discussion is on his Facebook page