I feel so lucky to have my friend and colleague Magdalena Bak-Mair doing a series on anxiety for us. I hope you enjoy.
My dear friend Anxiety: a personal journey towards understanding, managing and thriving in life.
Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhD
It comes like a dark cloud out of nowhere and before you know it your heart is going mad as your mind detects what seems like a pounding pulse. Perhaps you’re having nightmares or night sweats, hallucinations, you fear going mad and worry you may be having a nervous breakdown, you seem to pick up every bug, get hormone problems, are perpetually tired and drained, you begin to feel anxious about everything and the world slowly traps you in a box of what you feel you CAN and CAN’T handle. You work from a place of fewer choices and you make worse decisions. Deep inside you know something needs fixing but you lack hope, smarts, and motivation to face it. This is one face of anxiety.
I know a great deal about anxiety because I experience anxiety, manage it and work with other people that need to manage it as their coach. My first encounter with anxiety was back when I was doing my PhD though there were earlier signs I only now understand. One night during my PhD work, my body actually flipped and I ended up having to be rushed to the emergency room what to my rational mind looked like a heart attack. My grandfather died of a heart attack, in fact so did my other grandparents at a far too early age. My symptoms were compounded by a nasty thought and deep belief I was likely doomed to experience the same: a short life. A belief I recently decided to shed. At that time, I was in my early twenties and the fireman that responded to the emergency call were seriously thinking one thing: drugs. They couldn’t imagine how a twenty something could get into such a state through work and what on a surface had the appearance of a healthy lifestyle.
After an x-ray and other examinations I was discharged with that slightly unsatisfactory diagnosis for a person who clearly does not feel ‘ok’ – “We can’t find anything physically wrong with you.” It was unsatisfying to my rational and quick mind: which is how I got into anxiety trouble in the first place. Instead of listening to my emotions, I was listening solely to my mind and mostly my Ego. I remember walking home defeated and without hope at how I would ever get my body to behave again. It simply didn’t make sense.
Last week I took part in a week-long Ayurvedic healing retreat (http://www.essentialayurveda.co.uk/store/home.php) and learned lots through practice, reading and many stimulating conversations with the retreat leaders. It was like coming home after years of patient work reading, trying things out and carefully readjusting my lifestyle. This is why I strongly believe the best teachers are those with practical experience. They know where you’re coming from and they know what it feels like. The best ones can help you develop good habits and patience when what you may want is a quick fix and solution today! They can guide.
What the retreat helped me acknowledge is how far I’ve come along since those Pasadena CA days, when my body needed to take a massively drastic act – execute a complete shutdown – before I heard its voice and complaint about having more balance. Back then, the experience puzzled me and angered me in equal measure. I saw no reason why my body was in effect becoming an obstacle to my ambitious pursuits instead of being my friend. To my rational mind, I was there to do research. Sure, my studies were demanding and there was a lot of pressure to discover something worthwhile to merit those three magic letters – PhD. The experiments required early morning work, late night work, and weekend work. Some of them really did. Many, I chose or my ambition and ego chose in spite of knowing it was making deeply miserable. My mind reasons well however. Working hard and delaying fun times was a way to ‘get through it’ and come out at the other end. To say “I did it” and graduate. And I did and do love learning so it was hard to distinguish exactly why this was stressing me. Instead of enjoying the discovery however, constant worry ruled my world during the day and in sleep. I found it difficult to switch off thoughts until I learned mindfulness, presence, acceptance or patience. Today, working with others as a coach and therapist, I see in front of my eyes their own blindness to a life style that is out of balance just like mine was. Life that can’t possibly produce healthy lasting results. I am privileged that my experience, combined with my passion for working with people as a developer of others, helps me share what I learned and help others have more fun, enjoyable lives. So when asked to contribute this blog, I was delighted to write it.
It is easy after all to take life just a tad too seriously when we attach ourselves to something we want. Just as in my case, for many of the people I see in my coaching practice, joy, laughter, play, fun slowly but surely slip away like guests at a bad party. There’s often “no time”. Everything becomes goal-oriented and another task. “I just need to get done” we may hear the insistent voice say in our heads. Deeper wisdom is more difficult to hear. The Ego ridicules it or pulls many tricks to make one feel bad about having fun. A stressed person is often reduced to the bare basics such as sleep when their body literally crushes, food (though rarely anything healthy) and perhaps sex. Until even those activities begin to erode and further collapse occurs. Anxiety from not being able to control life moves in.
The attrition is slow and often difficult to notice. Excuses are made about how it’s only for a short while, the next results, promotion, 10Lbs lost etc. But better times never come from this sort of thinking and lifestyle. Instead, the mind or the part of the mind that desperately wants to retain control (the Ego) takes the rains and takes the rest of our being way, way off balance. What made things worse in my case during my PhD was the fact that I was supported and loved by a wonderful partner, my home life was generally happy, we had a cheerful happy dog and so my mind saw no ‘logical’ reason for me to be stressed! And yet underneath it all, I was being stressed massively. If I stayed with the feeling for any length of time, something one does in Gestalt therapy for example, I felt the presence of this invisible unacknowledged force: fear that I was self deceiving. The long working hours, perpetual worry of when results would appear, massive need and drive to succeed, unhealthy work environment and rivalry typical of high-performance, overachiever environments, and deep unacknowledged dissatisfaction and grief was in fact bubbling to the surface from a deeply buried realization that what I was doing wasn’t even something I really wanted to do! That it was taking too much out of me. The creative, fun, light spirit was disappearing and I was grieving its departure. I undertook the PhD because I wanted to understand how the brain worked so I could help people get better. I wanted to heal. And, I wanted to prove I was good enough. And here I was making myself sick with anxiety for it. I was making myself sick with thoughts that caused anxiety although I didn’t know why. I was learning and discovering great mind mysteries where the greatest mystery – happiness of our spirit – was teaching me a lesson I was refusing to learn.
Now I know that anxiety is mainly a resistance to accept things as they are or to face deep truths and work through them. My life experience thought me that being able to acknowledge and work with our truth, having patience, gratitude and being able to manage our thinking so that we can balanced is the only healthy way of being. This is why I am a big supporter of therapy, counseling and people work in general and real, authentic connection and honest conversations whether at work , with our nearest and dearest or with ourselves. This is best done when we’re not in crisis but it does require courage. The price we get for investing time in personal development however is well worth it: our mental, physical, spiritual and emotional health. You see, I strongly believe that our minds are wonderful healers when we let them speak to us from our deeper wisdom. This wisdom requires that we can connect with our hearts and our spirit. Under those healthy circumstances, our minds produce wonderful, empowering and healthy thoughts. We enjoy the present instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. All we have to do is stay present. But when we lose that connection and get entrapped in unhealthy Ego driven thought we go off course and risk spiraling into anxiety.
In this series I hope to share with you my journey through anxiety. I will be sharing with you what I learned through my own experience and need to deal with it, my studies into it as a mind health professional helping others manage success and difficulties, and the practical techniques and tools that I tried and designed including useful resources and books I came across along the way.
You may be reading this blog because you are dealing with anxiety. But I hope these articles will also help you avoid anxiety if you have not yet experienced it. So, do share this info with others and get involved in our conversation. Personally, I can’t say I am without anxiety now. It would be like saying I am without an Ego. However, I have learned a great deal about it and I feel better equipped to be able to ‘manage it’ for that is all I can really do. Strangely the journey has taken me into a deep philosophy of living and being that is in complete harmony with my inner heart and why others seek my out. I am convinced that we can all tap into our true potential and thrive beautifully when we are in peace and harmony that arises when our heart and mind work together: an idea I got invited to share at a TEDx event earlier this year.
Today, I am working with people 1:1 and in groups to help them create healthy, balanced and successful lives. I am delighted that more and more people come and see me when they are doing well. and I’m designing tools to support that. So what happened to the achiever mindset you may wonder that helped me meet anxiety? It’s still here. Always present. But these days, even that part of me enjoys the balance, the present moment and celebrates what is.
You see, I do think anxiety is really our friend. It is a healthy mechanism our minds use to help us cope with our environment. All we have to do is engage with it instead of running away from it.
This invited blog will address the following areas:
Part 1 – common signs/symptoms of anxiety, how to track them and what to do when they show up
Part 2 – the deeper root causes and methods I have tested that are effective at helping lower anxiety
Part 3 – other negative consequences of having anxiety and effective ways to ‘manage’ anxiety in your life to prevent them
Part 4 – my theory about anxiety as your dear friend that tells you “you’re not letting your spirit live through you”
Part 5 – holistic productivity: an approach for anyone wanting to lead a balanced, productive and happy life.
I hope you will join in and share your stories and views. You can do this by leaving us your comments on this blog or my blog. We learn most from talking with one another and sharing our experiences.
Coach, mind guide and personal development facilitator
Magdalena’s first book Get Productive, published by Wiley Capstone is available at £12.99 through Amazon and bookshops.
Magdalena is running an evening workshop Get productive! in London on October 7th and November 19 focused on having more fun and learning how to smooth sail through work. Don’t miss these insightful events and learn to look after yourself. Book at www.eventbrite.co.uk (https://t.co/gmEyFYq7Yq)