I remember being 4 years old at a wedding reception feeling like a ladybird surrounded by giant, cheek pinching hands, ready to ruin my wings, and my mum saying that she needed to speak to someone but to stay right where I was, she’d “be right back”. There was a terrifying crushing in my chest that felt like a bad tummy ache; I fixed my eyes on my wonky reflection in my red patent leather shoes; my chin started to wobble. I had never had such an intense feeling before and never wanted to feel it again. It strangely disappeared when the familiar smell of my mum’s Estee Lauder Youth Dew wafted towards me and I was engulfed in a wave of relief. That sensation came back to me intermittently over the years as it would for any reserved individual, and it would leave me as it came, maybe not as rapidly each time, but the welcome hug of comfort would still be experienced at some point.
That same sensation came to me day, after day, after day, after day when I hit 45 and there wasn’t a whiff of Estee Lauder Youth Dew that would resolve it. Absolutely nothing would resolve it. Its shadow lurked in every corner, successfully wrapping its darkness around my throat; throwing its weight against my chest. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that feeling was anxiety and I was intensely experiencing one of the most common symptoms of perimenopause.
Now, let’s break down an anxiety disorder for those who still think it just means that you’re a worry wart, that you can just “snap out of it”, that it will pass, that it’s not an illness. The NHS defines General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. Not really just worrying then is it; not really easy to snap out of it; it won’t just pass will it. GAD is one of the most common mental health symptoms of perimenopause and menopause and it is debilitating for millions of women.
If I woke up in the morning and didn’t sense that familiar feeling of slight panic when I opened my eyes, it would pounce, knife aloft and thrust its weapon into my chest. My anxiety meant that I struggled to function at work; I struggled to calmly support my daughter through her GCSEs; I inwardly struggled to cope with the many trips to hospital that I had to make with my mum. I was functioning in a fog, through a fog, and never left the fog.
I’m talking about this in the past tense because as a result of taking HRT, coupled with the use of a few strategies, I now, once again, experience anxiety with the same frequency as my four year old self. The HRT turned the volume down from a constant high to a regular low with an intermittent medium. It meant that I was at the level where I could manage everyday stress. The strategies I learned helped me to block the shadow when it came to pounce. The techniques I used to build up this armour are listed below. They didn’t consistently work but with practice they would offer some resistance against the dark forces threatening to overwhelm me.
7-8 breathing technique – this has been used by many to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and can also help people to sleep.
Empty the lungs of air, breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds expanding your stomach as you do so (don’t breathe into the chest, breathe into the stomach), hold your breath for a count of 7, exhale forcefully through the mouth, pressing on the lips making a whoosh sound for a count of 8, repeat cycle up to 4 times.
Relax your tongue. When we’re stressed we sometimes have a habit of pushing the tongue to the roof of our mouth. Check if you are doing this and if so consciously relax your tongue. Focusing your thoughts on rectifying this is a form of relaxation.
Take a mini break. No matter how urgent a task is, if we continue to focus on it during stress we won’t be able to move it on efficiently and will start to lose focus. Leave your task and go for a quick walk, maybe get a drink. When you come back to your task if you are feeling more relaxed you will be surprised at how much quicker you may be able to execute it.
Try to go outside even if it’s just for 5 minutes. The power of natural light should not be underestimated and we need this for our mental health. Even on a cloudy day it is more than 10 times more effective than the light we get through the windows in the house or the office.
Count windows. If you are feeling particularly anxious your emotional brain is heightened. It’s therefore important to try to move more towards your logical brain. One way to do this is to count something physical like windows or bricks or even the keys on your keyboard; just count anything as long as you are physically looking at something and counting it. The act of focusing on something and counting it can be effective in starting to switch off the emotional side of your brain.
One of the most powerful tools to help to alleviate the grip that mental health symptoms have on you though is the empathy of others. When you’re not wearing a bandage; not limping in pain; you have no visible evidence of your inner pain, you can feel judged, criticised, unsupported. The power of someone actively listening, demonstrating compassion, echoing how tough it must be for you can feel like a healing ointment on an open wound. It isn’t a cure, but it is a crutch, a plaster, a massage and it helps, it really helps. Let’s keep supporting each other and keep educating others on how to show empathy and how to stretch that hand of compassion to that 4 year old, staring at her red patent shoes, wishing the feeling would go away.
What are your experiences with anxiety and what strategies have you found to be successful in reducing it? Please share your stories and experiences here and/or in our Hot and Moody community on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.