Soothing Those Mean Reds

Holly Golightly said it best. “You know those days when you get the mean reds? Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?” 

I’ve felt anxiety budding in me lately, dense and sly as weeds in a neglected garden. Beginning small as a pinhead, they hide in the dark, damp spaces, but given the slightest hint of air and light, explode into full, malignant bloom.

I don’t struggle with anxiety very often (if you are a more frequent attendee, as many of those close to me are, you have my full sympathy). My common-law husband is the unruffled son of an esteemed psychotherapist (useful for putting worries in perspective) while my childhood fears of murderers beyond the windowpane and tragic plane crashes gradually morphed into a reliance on statistics and logic and a personal philosophy akin to what will be will be.

But I do struggle with it sometimes. It often begins with a rational worry before somersaulting into the entirely irrational realm. I might find myself feeling nervous about catching the tube in time or replying to a forgotten email and realise, hours or even days later, that my stomach stills feels twisted into knots despite the train having been long since caught, the email long since penned.

It’s as if my body becomes lodged in fight or flight mode, accustomed to the quiet hum of alarm bells ringing in the backstreets of my synapses, unable to locate an emergency exit. Perhaps you feel this sometimes, too? Something deep and dark becomes lodged in the untended spots and begins to flower, twisting its strong, dark roots around my brain. My own mind – usually such a sanctuary – becomes a holding room for the sorts of worst-case scenarios more commonly found in true crime podcasts and children’s nightmares.

I’m usually quite adept at nipping such wild worries in the bud (to carry on this ol’ gardening analogy) and preventing them flowering into their old pal, anxiety. But stopping myself from jumping when I feel myself teetering on the edge of the abyss isn’t always possible. Sometimes when my mind is tired, or my body weary, or simply for no reason at all, I fall.

That’s where I found myself last week: at the bottom, trapped in a gnawing spiral of whats ifs and maybes. Soon enough the racing heart and the gnawing, nagging sensation at the pit of my stomach arrived, my mind gifted a green light to sift endlessly through an array of gory, devastating outcomes. This was a particularly bad bout – so far rare for me – and it knocked me sideways. I hadn’t been expecting it. But as is so often the case with mental health, there it was.

Worry can be a useful emotion, as much as a part of the human experience as ravenous hunger or unbridled joy. The problem with worry, though, is how easily it can spill from helpful phenomenon into a crippling, unhealthy helix of doubt and discomfort. We’re all only a week away from madness, isn’t that what they say? That’s why I wanted write about it. Anxiety is, after all, far from just the common tropes: the ‘fragile flower’, the 19th century hysteric locked inside a silent sanatorium, or the chain-smoking Hollywood siren with shaking wrists and a stash of Valium in the glove compartment.

I’m sure anxiety has affected you or at least someone you know in the past. Perhaps it’s affecting you now. I’ve lost count of the amount of times a friend has confessed (in sadly hushed tones) their hidden dread or admitted to a more serious struggle with generalised anxiety. I wish it weren’t that way. Minds break just like bodies do. They need exercise and rest, just the same.

Some people say fear is their biggest motivator. Those disruptive thoughts, Golightly’s ‘mean reds’, spur them on and into action. That doesn’t work for me. I find untamed worry paralysing and struggle to concentrate on anything else. But in battling with my fears this past week, I recalled some useful coping strategies. What do you find helpful when the doubts hit? I’d love to know.

Name your thoughts. I find it helpful to recognise my frayed nerves and the thoughts they induce for what they are: electrochemical white noise, fleeting as a paper aeroplane. Give them a proper name, if it helps. Simon. Gertrude. Or just my misguided mind. When you catch your brain falling into old habits, feeding off the adrenaline that launches the butterflies in your stomach, call it out for what it is. Hey Simon, not necessary? Thanks, but no thanks, my old misguided mind. I know it sounds slightly kooky, but I find it really works, especially for anxiety triggered by self-doubt and insecurity. It makes me aware of my fears and separates them from my own (much-valued) sense of identity. You are not your anxiety.

Be honest. Tell people you’re struggling. It’s a truism for a reason: a problem shared is a problem halved. Sadly, there is still a stigma attached to mental health, but I know that most millennials (at least) are open-minded and have grown up in a more open atmosphere when it comes to voicing views on mental health. Sometimes we just feel poorly. A headache is a perfectly valid ailment and doesn’t mean you’ve got a brain tumour. Similarly, feeling fraught on occasion doesn’t always mean there’s something ‘wrong’ or that you have a more serious condition. Rest as you would if you had the flu. Take a day off if you can, sleep in, eat well and fill up your cup (preferably with tea, the cure-all for us Brits). Think of your mind as a garden – it’s not in a place to thrive without the necessary nutrients, a good watering and a long soak in the sun. 

Get outdoors. Nature in all its forms – coast, hilltop, hedgerow, field – is a tonic. Lungfuls of fresh air, tired legs and locks whipped by the wind are such a balm and daylight is proven by science to be good for your brain chemistry.

Do something creative. Knitting is my drug of choice. Using my hands to make something tangible is rewarding and thought to stimulate the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. The repetitive nature of stitching the wool back and forth is very soothing and, like other creative pursuits (painting, calligraphy or sewing, perhaps?), can provide just the right mix of distraction and serenity.  Plus, you can never have too many scarves, right?

Cook. It’s not just confined to knitting: working with my hands in any shape or form is something I find genuinely helpful when I’m struggling to calm a galloping mind. The mechanical nature of cooking – slicing, dicing, stirring, seasoning – is incredibly comforting and helps to focus the mind’s frantic efforts elsewhere. Bonus points for ending up with a hearty meal at the end of it.

Exercise. For me, it’s a swim, always a swim. The scrubbed-clean air and the gentle lap of water against the high sides of the pool are the very opposite of an anxiety trigger for me. I find the clockwork nature of swimming immediately soothing. I always leave the pool with a feeling of having unknotted my neurons – the psychological equivalent of a massage!

Put your fingers in the earth. Finding myself elbows-deep in crumbly soil with dirt beneath my fingernails and leaves in my hair is one of the greatest therapies, at least for me. I suppose plants, as living organisms, are a really apt metaphor for human life. As gardeners we have to deal with problems we can’t always foresee or control and find the patience to wait out the storm. Being outdoors in the wind tops up my soul. If you don’t have a garden, perch a pot on your windowsill and get digging – or contact your local Soil Association or allotments to find out how you might get involved.

Write it down. Funnily, for someone who works with words and aspires to be a ‘proper’ writer, I’m not always very good at following through on this one. But I know that when I used to write a regular diary as a teenager, I was able look at my problems or concerns in a more detached and level-headed way. The act of writing it all down is cathartic in itself, but it can also help to unearth new ways of looking at your worries and acknowledge them as entities outside of yourself. 

Borrow, beg (or steal) a pet. A kitten has been visiting our garden (and bed, oops!) lately – sooty-nosed and endlessly curious, he must be watched hawkishly given his propensity for toddler-esque mischief-making. I’ve noticed how completely present I feel when playing with him, dragged very much into the moment by his playfulness and unceasing enthusiasm for a ball of wool. Animals by their very nature live in the moment and it’s really freeing to watch and learn. If you can, spend a few hours with a domesticated (!) animal or even a friend’s babe. 

Try not to feel ashamed. Approaching my mental health in an accepting, non-judgemental way is one of the most revolutionary things that has ever happened to me. Simply accepting who I am and acknowleding my disappointments, frustrations, joy and sadness without critique has allowed me to accept who I am without wishing my emotions away. In the past, a weepy moment might have sent me into a spiral of self-doubt and loathing. As a privileged member of a western society, it’s easy to feel ungrateful when you’re feeling down. Because we really have it all, don’t we? But that’s not useful. If you’re feeling it, it’s valid. Now I just accept my sadness and, once I’ve soaked it in, I move on, the same way I would with a nettle sting or a passing toothache. 

I hope you haven’t been feeling as fraught as me lately, but if you have, I’m sending you a big virtual hug (email me if you’d just like to chat). I’ve spent the weekend indulging in family time, sleep, nourishing food, energising runs and generally giving myself a break and it’s made a world of difference and given me a healthy dose of perspective. In fact, I feel back to my usual carefree(ish) Lu.

Postscript: It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: if you’re struggling, contact any one of the amazing organisations designed to help people in need such as Mind, the NHS or Samaritans (ring them for free any time in the UK on 116 123). I’m not a medical professional or an expert and can only speak from my (gratefully limited) personal experiences. There should be no shame in seeking professional help – 1 in 4 people a year in this country experience some sort of mental health problem, which – figures wise – means that they’re likely among those you commute, work or play with.  Take care and please look after yourself if you’re struggling. xx