In my battle against the anxiety I have amassed an arsenal of weapons.
I moderate my alcohol and caffeine consumption, try to eat and sleep well, practise mindfulness, exercise regularly, use 7/11 breathing techniques and try to schedule in time to rest.
But recently I noticed a new habit that is also having a big impact on the pull of anxious thoughts.
I am fairly well at the moment. The past six months have been some of the most stable and relaxed I have known in a while. I have managed to do many things that, even a year ago, would have seemed impossible for me to contemplate.
Take this week as an example. We have been staying in Wimbledon, house-sitting and enjoying a change of scenery. Yesterday we took a long tube journey to meet up with some friends in hot and busy central London, to eat at a place I had not suggested and did not know, after which we took another tube to spend the afternoon in Hyde Park.
And I was fine. In fact, it was fun.
This is major.
Matt Haig took to twitter this week to write:
I think anxiety is best understood as a condition you have to manage, like diabetes. You don’t get rid of it, but you can get on top of it.
He is right. Even though I am doing well, I have a tendency towards anxiety. Maybe when I am older and wiser I will reach a zen-like state and anxiety will have no hold on me, but for the time being it occasionally still does. I have a predisposition.
Feeling anxious is horrific. From this place of relative calm I can see just how ill I have been and how debilitating it has been, for me and my family.
Even now on days when I am doing something new, or in a situation I can’t control (especially when I am physically trapped for example on a boat, or on the underground), I need a few tricks, a few habits, to stop me spiralling, to keep the intrusive thoughts at bay.
And I have a new trick which has become unexpectedly useful, distracting and calming me: photography.
Earlier this year I decided to start to improve my photography skills. I have a good camera. I knew (I still know) I was not getting the best out of it.
I read a few tutorials and they all said the same thing: if you want to get better at taking photos, you have to take more photos, preferably every day. So I signed up to a daily photography challenge on instagram (#thebethadillychallenge). At first I took snaps on my phone, one every day which related to the given prompt, and posted them on instagram. Some early ones:
I quickly became was frustrated at the quality and variety my iPhone could achieve and I started to use my ‘proper’ camera. The photos got better. I started to learn how to shoot in manual mode. I learnt how to manipulate the field of focus and read articles about composition.
But as I took my camera out and about with me I realised something else was happening. I wasn’t just improving my photography skills. The act of picking up my camera and looking through the view finder also relaxed me.
By looking through the small window on the back of the camera I put a space between me and the never ending barrage of stimulation the day presented. It gave me a moment to pause, to separate myself from the action, to re-frame it.
Taking a photo takes my brain down another pathway, one that has nothing to do with my health or anxious thoughts. Instead of scanning the horizon for catastrophe, I have become a beauty-hunter. I am looking for good. Even on a miserable day, when the kids are ill or doing-my-head-in, I am looking for a way to capture the moment that is pleasing to the eye. It doesn’t change the reality of the situation but gives me a different way to see it.
It is also a reminder of the impermanence of everything, a way to time travel. A way to leave this anxious moment and fast forward into the future. I am taking this photo now, later I will be looking at it on my computer, the moment will be over and I will be looking back on it. It remind me that everything passes, the good and the bad.
Like this week when, while on holiday, my ten year old was sick and I took this photo.
As I did, I separated myself from the anxiety crouching at the door whispering that we would all now be ill, and instead I enjoyed the blue of her eyes and her nail varnish against the pink of the blanket. I remembered again what a privilege it is to be able to care for while she is poorly, to have the time and space to stay home and stroke her hair. I remembered she would soon be well again.
The other week we were in Anglesey and decided to go on a boat trip. Matt had been suggesting this as a potentially fun activity for as many years as we have been going to Anglesey (about seven). This year I ran out of excuses and agreed. Although due to the aforementioned improvement in my mental health it didn’t stress me out as it would have, it was still a bit of an ordeal. I had to have a few straight conversations with myself.
As we pulled away from the harbour on our way to ‘puffin island’ I could feel the familiar tide of anxiety rising within me. I started to feel trapped and hot. My stomach started swirling. But instead of panicking, instead of feeling unable to escape my thoughts, I picked up my camera. As I looked through the lens I felt I relief. I felt in control. I realised again I could choose how to see the world around me.
It was only later on, as I transferred the photos from my camera to my computer I realised it was picking up my camera that enabled me to divert my brain from the deluge of thoughts threatening to swamp me. I recognised it was this action that gave me a moment to pause. It was this action that distracted me, that reoriented me.
And, amongst a load of fairly ordinary pictures (because, honestly, editing out the crap shots is the joy of digital photography), I also took these photos:
In the battle with the unknown terror that is anxiety, new habits or practises give me back control. And as I compose a new photo I am reminded, there is always good waiting to be found.
Are you suffering with anxiety or depression at the moment? I’ve been there. I know what it is like.
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