Anxiety is such a weird and devastating beast. At my worst I was anxious about everything – leaving the house, talking to my friends, talking to strangers, buying coffee, when the sun was up, when the sun went down, of being alone, of being too social, of eating. You get the drift. It is extremely different from nerves and being nervous. Being nervous has a face on it — you can pinpoint why you feel that way. Anxiety is just a baseline of terror. Everywhere you turn, it is there, ready to take over the second you give it an inch. Over time, I have learned to accept it. And it has certainly backed off since I made the decision to look it in the eye and say, “hi. Who are you? Why are you? I am not running anymore.”
This is not a post about how I conquered my anxiety, and how I now live life free from its insidious grip. I feel like this isn’t really a thing. There are a lot of habits I can implement that improve my dances with anxiety, and warning signs that I have learned to keep an eye out for – unless I check myself, I shall wreck myself.
Now my relationship to it is different. I don’t spend my days with my hands over my eyes, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. This achieves nothing, but gives it fangs and horns. Anxiety thrives in denial and in the dark. Dragging it into the light of patience, love and of understanding has given me huge insight into why I am the way I am. And it has taught me to love myself, and my sweet little anxiety monster. In a way it has empowered me to take control of my life. Because at the end of the day, anxiety to me is a signal that something needs to change. And the longer I ignore it, the louder it will scream in my ear, until it sends me a signal I cannot ignore.
In my case this signal is panic attacks.
I spent a lot of time resolutely ignoring very real danger signs that I had a panic attack on the horizon. No stranger to them, I had previously chalked them up to being too underweight (which was definitely a factor for me, but not the whole story). Once I gained weight, I assumed I was free of them, and launched back into working as much as I always had. Little by little, small yells from my subconscious began bubbling up. After I had photoshoots for one month straight, I stopped sleeping. My husband was getting nightly calls from me in exotic locations, wired and scared, and unable to tell him why. After two months straight, I was full of a strange aggressive bravado, and irrationally emotional. I can count on one hand the number of times I drink alcohol in the year, but suddenly I was having too many tequilas once we wrapped a shoot. I began to have complete breakdowns when my husband dropped me off at the airport (or left the room), and suddenly I had this sense of impending doom. Then I ended up in a hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack and at the same time losing my mind.
It was a panic attack, but man it was a big one. My body tried to warn me with various signs I brushed aside, because I mistakenly believed myself to be “fixed” of that bug – my ego was taking center stage in my narrative.
But out of each crisis precipitates the solution. Whilst being underweight does have a huge impact on anxiety, that was only the tip of the iceberg. I have spent the past twelve years doing every single job that comes my way, because I am too scared to say no. I don’t want to let anyone I work with down (because there aren’t that many blonde models out there?). I chalk it up to being a people pleaser, a woman, or aware of my shelf life as a model. However, I just cannot move at that pace anymore. I was burned out, and I had projected so much onto being perceived as a “success” that I was completely negating any chance I had of living a full life.
Now I schedule time off after jobs that require travel. For the first time in my career I am choosing family holidays over jobs. After working full time for twelve years, I had my first ever full month off. I removed anyone and thing that wasn’t helpful to my peace of mind. And it was awesome.
But on the larger spectrum, I pay close attention to any emotional cues that come up. I don’t try to ignore my anxiety anymore. It is like a small, scared puppy that relies on me to tell it that everything is ok. Because it usually is. Whilst there is so much out of our control, we lose too much precious time worrying about these things. That is one of the beautiful parts of life – the random chances that take us places we never would have deemed possible. In a way my anxiety keeps me growing. By acknowledging and then challenging it I am choosing to live my life in the fullest. I am not foolish enough to say I am done with panic attacks and anxiety. But I would hope that my life is mindful enough to recognize moments that could lead me down the wrong path for my wellbeing.
Anxiety is different for everyone, so what works for me may not work for you. That said, I want to share a few habits that have helped me, just in case they might help you too. First off, meditate. You don’t have to get full yogi on this one. But 5-10 minutes each morning to connect with your breathe, and your place on the world does wonders for setting yourself up for the day. The second is to write. I kept a journal during the time of burn out, and reading back I can’t believe I didn’t see the signs. Every single entry is desperate, tired and brimming with nerves. I have never done the Dear Diary thing, nor those gratitude lists. I guess this is stream of consciousness – just write, try not to control, and see what comes out. It is usually pretty surprising. I also finally began to see a therapist, which made such a huge improvement in my mental wellbeing. Through this work I began to see the root cause of my anxiety and panic attacks, and to take charge of my story.
Anxiety is not to be feared. It is a part of a sensitive persons place in the world. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it and its effect on you. If treated with love and respect, we can really learn to harness it and exist easily alongside it. It is like learning to self soothe, but as an adult. And honestly? Out of my experiences of panic attacks, has come the most honest existence I could have ever asked for. It is an existence where I am not ashamed of asking for help when I need it. When my body throws up signs of being out of sync (like I stop sleeping) I know that I need to immediately stop what I am doing, and ask why. I know that it is time to touch base with people who I trust and who know me well. And that it is time to take a step back and focus on my wellness above all else. There is absolutely no shame in admitting that anxiety has a hold on you, and asking for help. It is in silence that anxiety has the chance to get its claws into you. But in the light of conversation we learn why, and grow from this knowledge. My anxiety has made me stronger.
That to me is a gift.
I dictate my road.
First published at teenvogue.com