If I could choose one superpower, it would be the ability to relax. Yes, it’s my old friend anxiety again, which I’ve written about before, I know, but sadly that doesn’t make it go away. It’s an organic part of me, has grown up with me and will probably grow old with me. Trying to suppress it is as futile as a game of Whack-a-Mole – bash it down over there, it pops back up over here.
The mind seems endlessly inventive in its pursuit of new things to be anxious about, which reminds me that, like depression, anxiety isn’t really about anything, it just is. I can fixate on a problem, only to solve it and move seamlessly on to a new one, as if the anxiety is feeding itself, needing only occasional new titbits to survive.
At the moment I am probably stirred up in part by new work projects, but it’s pointless to try to pin this on anything tangible or rational, like fear of bad reviews, or the worry that no one will even care or notice. It’s a generalised mindset, in which anxiety and excitement can sometimes feel like the same thing, anticipation shading into panic, and then back again. In fact, a better word for anxiety is fear. And you know how horrible being afraid feels.
I came across a brilliant description in Nathan Hill’s novel The Nix last year, where a character tries to describe her frustration at having to practise relaxation strategies:
When I start my breathing techniques the first thing I feel is shame. I feel ashamed right off the bat that I have to practise breathing. Like, you know, like I can’t even do the simplest most fundamental thing right. Like it’s one more thing I’m failing at… And then when I start to do the actual breathing I’ll start worrying that I’m not doing it right… And the more I think about how to breathe, the more difficult the breathing becomes, until I feel like, you know, I’m going to hyperventilate or pass out or something.
Lord, how I identified with that.
The only thing that has changed, after a certain amount of therapy, is my attitude towards my own mental state. I try not to rage against it, but instead to make my peace with it. “Acceptance not change” has become my mantra. And I still have occasional moments of fresh awareness, when I realise something specific that seems illuminating.
Like many people, my anxiety often swirls around health issues, and I think that for me there is a strong correlation between hospital and school. I respond to doctors the way I responded to teachers – often being frightened of their authority. An appointment is like being summoned to the head’s office. And then there’s an examination, which can lead to further tests. See what I mean? I worry about results, in part because they remind me of that moment of finding out whether you’ve passed or failed.
At school I always wanted to do well, so I often cannot help irrationally equating illness with failure. A “bad” test result feels to me like a poor piece of homework, like I haven’t done my best, and so there is self-blame involved, just when there ought to be self-love and sympathy.
Anyway, my latest strategy is that I am trying yoga. Yes, first to everything, that’s me. At the same time I’m reading Claire Dederer’s book Poser, which begins with these words – “Taking up yoga in the middle of your life is like having someone hand you a dossier about yourself. A dossier full of information you’re not really sure you want.”
So far I am sure I want this new experience, as it’s making me feel good. I’m not going to a class, but am following the YouTube series Yoga with Adriene.
Adriene is a delight – a cheerful and forgiving teacher, motivational in the best way in that she discourages all self-rebuke, all tendency towards feeling a failure. Listening to her talk is comforting in itself, I am soothed by her voice in the room.
“Mess about,” she says. “Do what feels good, stay bright.” And when she wants us to stop hunching, she says something that makes me stand a little taller and feel a little better: “Lift your heart,” she says. “Lift your heart.” And you know what? It actually does.
This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power