"Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness": Steph's battle with anxiety

8 May 2014

Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.

So I’ve always had a natural tendency to be on edge, extremely aware of my surroundings and alert all the time and, although a predisposition to being quite observant is great for your career, it isn’t always the best for your personal relationships. As a writer your job is to see the things that other people don’t necessarily see. It’s because of your ability to notice anything and everything that you are able to draw conclusions, notice trends or comment on various social phenomena.

I was very fortunate to have a brilliant upbringing and a really supportive family, but mum and dad were in the process of getting divorced when I went off to university. I was worried about putting on weight and all this domestic stuff was going on at home so I’d spend a lot of time at the gym working it out of my system. Seeing the results [weight loss], I’d feel the need to do it a bit more, then a bit more and a bit... I’m a perfectionist, so if I was going to do something I was going to do it well! It never got to the stage where I was hospitalised but I was very well aware that my behaviour was not normal.

Mum and dad in their different ways could see what was happening and they were very supportive of me going to see a psychologist. When I got the diagnosis - anorexia nervosa/bulimia nervosa with mild anxiety disorder - it was a shock. Even then I didn’t recognise anxiety as the main thing even though it was feeding into the eating disorder and that was the symptom.

The psychologist used CBT. Good old CBT – it works every time! I’m a big champion of it. The best things for me are the techniques that allow me to separate the emotions from the thought; to realise that what I’m feeling inside isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of what’s going on. So if I’m feeling stressed out of my mind, I take a step back and notice that I’m feeling stressed, then take another step back and notice that I’m having the thought of feeling stressed. That simple dissociation between “I think, therefore I am” really helps.

My anxiety lasted for about a year before I got into the CBT then within 6 months I got back to being more like myself. The central issue is control; more specifically the lack of control is what precipitates anxiety. It definitely flares up when I’m stressed. People deal with anxiety in different ways. For some it’s addiction; mine is an eating disorder. Your weight and your intake is something that will never be out of your control – that’s why you find comfort with it. It will never completely go away, it is part of my chemistry, but doing the CBT helped me stop going too far, over-thinking things. It helped me acknowledge that a thought is simply a thought rather than the truth.

I’ve had a couple of years where I’ve been more mindful and observe myself from a birds-eye perspective. I know what my limits are now. [Having moved to London] there were definitely times last year when I fell back into the old patterns of thinking because I was chronically stressed about my job and repressing all those feeling of loneliness, missing the creature comforts and yet wanting to be this strong person. I was probably too proud to acknowledge that I was having a tough time. I’d never really admit to friends how I was feeling deep down because then I’d have to admit to myself that I had a problem again. So I went home and had a booster session with my counsellor.

I can gauge where I am in my overall wellbeing by my drive to watch what I eat or how I exercise. Now, if I have dessert, that’s OK. The more that food or weight are in the forefront of my mind I know that I need to change something in my life that is causing me that stress. But I can’t have coffee anymore, which is devastating, because I get confused by the increase in heart rate and I think that I’m worried about something when really I’m not – I’m just hyper-sensitive to it.

I used to repress everything to the point where I would become overwhelmed with emotion, I would cut off, but that doesn’t ever help because you explode - it has to come out at some stage. Now I can allow myself to feel that way for a little period because I know that ultimately it will subside; let it wash over me, but then stop it because I know that the body can’t be in a state of stress for that long and will eventually calm down.

Steph shared her experience as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2014, which asks 'Are you Anxiety Aware?'