Tick, tock, I open my eyes and see dark—the enemy has come to his night visit again. I turn to my phone to check the time, anxiety settling in, crossing my fingers in hope it’s close to sunrise, which means I won’t be tossing and turning in bed for too long. Disappointed, I take a few deep breaths in and out trying to convince one hundred billion brain cells that 1AM is no time for a party. I continue with the pranayama breathing, I don’t know for how long, but my neurones are fired up.
I try all my repertoire of techniques for insomnia and wait for sleep to take me but nothing happens. I open my eyes again, the dark seems darker. I don’t feel tired but have no strength to get up and do something else—I cling to the hope that sleep will descend. Sometimes it does. Other times I fall into that state between sleep and wakefulness. That’s when I dream that I’m dozing off but my mind breaks the stillness of the moment and I’m again starring at the ceiling
This time I don’t dare to check the time or I’ll start to panic—how am I going to cope with the day ahead when my brain only had three hours of rest?! Paranoia starts to creep in, anticipating the non-alcoholic hangover. But after 18 months of suffering on and off from insomnia I’ve learnt the drill, I know that heroically I’ll survive the next day with the help of one or two doses of coffee. So, I surrender. I accept defeat and let go of the struggle with my mind. I just lie in bed with my eyes shut, doing a few rounds of meditation to keep the anxiety of the moment at bay.
When the dark is no longer as dark, I get up. Tonight I’ll sleep better, I tell myself. I change into my workout clothes and promise to run an extra kilometre hoping this might add a few hours to my sleep—although I know this equation doesn’t work. I open the door and see the sun rising in the horizon and I start running from the troubles of my life. The pounding on the pavement seems to finally calm my brain cells.
I see a lot of people living with fear, including me. But our culture tells us that this is a weakness of our personalities, we have to be strong and say no to fear to be a winner: “Say I have no fear, be a hero”. I’ve tried to be a hero. It didn’t work. For people living with anxiety or depression, being optimistic, reciting positive affirmations or trying to be the resilient person we want to be does not change our diagnose. What has worked for me was to accept that to have fear is part of being human and can be managed but not all fears are created equal – some minds create nameless, unreasoning, unjustified distress that can be paralysing and insurmountable if professional help doesn’t come to the rescue.
When your neurotransmitters are not doing their job well and emotions have highjacked your brain they create fears that would be unthinkable for a ‘normal’ person. For example, a person who does not have a health anxiety won’t feel as threatened by the fact that 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85.
And it can get worse. If you have a generalised anxiety, you don’t even need a trigger or a cause, you simply live in a constant state of worry and fear. You feel scared and you know that what you are feeling is irrational but you cannot help it and putting a brave face does not make dread go away.
When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety eight years ago, fear of dying of cancer ruled my life. For three months I had this all-consuming terror that stayed with me every waking moment and sometimes sleeping moments too as I woke up in the middle of the night in panic.
What I’ve learnt from my experience is that once you understand what anxiety is you can use a combination of tools to manage how to live with your fears. In my case, it made sense to start with medication to make the neurotransmitters do their work properly and reduce the chemical imbalance and the war raging in my brain. Once my mind became a bit calmer I was able to incorporate therapy, meditation and yoga as part of my tool kit.
Unfortunately, no amount of coping mechanisms can change the fact no one is immune to health and mental illnesses and other tragedies of life. So, fear still pokes its ugly head. When that happens I pull the welcome mat (as well as the yoga mat) and let it exist. The simple fact of acknowledging it makes me feel better. I experienced this when my sister was being treated for breast cancer. Fear walked by my side during that period but thankfully I wasn’t paralysed by it. But if it wasn’t for the teachings of mindfulness meditation I’m not sure I would have coped as well.
I didn’t get to where I am overnight and some days are easier to manage than others. Sometimes I don’t even think I have anxiety but other times it’s clear that I do. I started sharing my story so that people leaving with fear know that they are not alone and that there is treatment.
I hope your fears are not so great but if they are seek help, the journey is not easy and it won’t turn you into a fearless super hero – but you will come out on the other side as a much stronger human being.