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4 Things That *Actually* Helped Me Tackle My Crippling Anxiety

A few years ago, agoraphobia and a panic disorder meant Robyn Wilder could barely leave the house. This week she's speaking on stage in front of hundreds of people. Here's how she did it...

I have just spent an hour speaking on stage in front of 100 people, under stage lights so bright, the makeup melted makeup clean off my face.

Occasionally, my throat closed up with fear. But I did not cry. I did not vomit down my own top. I did not run out of words then just stare into space, white-faced and gently vibrating, certain that, underneath my clothes, I was soiling myself.

I did not do any of these things.

Tomorrow, I’m interviewing a celebrity in front of another audience. Next week, I’m speaking on one panel, and hosting another the week after. I’ve done a few of these events now, and every time I’m asked back, it takes me by surprise.

Because I always think the same thing: “Don’t they know I have crippling anxiety?”

A few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to attend these events, never mind speak at them. When I was 20 I developed a severe panic disorder that resulted in agoraphobia, and kept me housebound for four whole years. It was overwhelming, it derailed my life entirely, and came with an additional diagnosis of depression.

Today it's World Mental Health Day. Every year, when this week rolls around, I read inspirational stories about people overcame their mental health challenge and are now living full, satisfying lives. I’m happy for them, but what I rarely read – and what I would have given my right arm to read when I was at my lowest point – is HOW they beat it.

So – with the proviso that every struggle is different, and what worked for me may not work for you – this mental health awareness week, here is how I beat my personal challenges.

1. I found a therapist I could trust

I have run the gamut of therapists, from shamans who chanted over my prone body (not really my thing), to exhausted NHS psychiatrists who ate Boots sandwiches and tried not to doze off while I bore my soul to them (not really my thing, either). I won’t lie and say it can’t be disheartening. But it’s important to remember that, no matter how powerless you feel at the time, it is your right to request to see a different therapist if you don’t gel.

The test for me wasn’t whether I felt as though I could talk about my “stuff” (because I never really felt like I could; that’s part of the illness), but whether the idea of telling this particular person gave me pause. If I felt, even for a second, a bit stranger-danger about that particular therapist, I found a new one. I feel safe with my current counsellor, and as a result the therapy works really well.

2. I educated myself about my illness

At first, the idea of recovery was beyond me. The thought of me – tired, vulnerable, at my lowest point – going up against the panic, which felt monstrous and totally out of control, was unthinkable. It was as though I was having to fight a rabid bear, and my only weapon was positive thinking.

The thing is, the trick isn’t to fight the bear, but to understand it and, in understanding it, make it smaller. And the more I got my head around the chemistry, biology and psychology of my illness, the smaller it got, and that was the true beginning of my recovery.

3. I did the work, even while I wondered what the point was

In addition to talk-therapy, I did cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT); a specific desensitisation programme for overcoming agoraphobia. The idea was to start by challenging the things I found least terrifying, then work up to the bigger stuff.

My first task was to walk to the end of my front garden and back. Once a day. For a month. More than anxious, I just felt like a bloody lemon. What would my neighbours think? What precisely are the qualifications of whoever came up with this stupid therapy, I wondered. Is it the shaman, again?

But what I was doing, every day, was challenging my panic response – and reducing it. The next month, I walked to a bus stop and back. Then got on a bus, then a train, then went to a new town. This therapy took years to complete.

But my point is I recently got back from a holiday in Bali – and, more pertinently, I can go into a room that would previously have caused me to poo myself with fear – and then stand on a stage in that room, and talk, so I think it worked.

4. I took care of myself

The term “love yourself” has baffled me for years. How can you make yourself love yourself? It’s like pointing to a random man in the street and saying “Fall in love with that guy!” But I’ve realised that, really, the saying should be, “Treat yourself as though you are someone you love”. You don’t have to feel the love. You have to act the love. Take yourself out. Buy yourself something pretty. Pour yourself a glass of wine; run yourself a bath. Try to do all of this without repeating lists of your failures, because you wouldn’t do that to a friend.

My mental health challenges didn’t start and stop with anxiety and depression; more recently I’ve developed post-traumatic stress disorder and postnatal depression after a couple of wonky births – plus a shiny new diagnosis of adult ADHD – but adhering to these four tenets of mental health as closely as I can still seems to help me keep my head above water.

If you’re struggling, maybe you could benefit from giving these a go, too. Especially the last one. Even if you don’t think very highly of yourself at the moment, it makes sense to take care of yourself. After all, you’ve got a rabid bear to fight

Sign up to Grazia’s mental health campaign to make mental health first aiders compulsory in all workplaces

This week, we went to Downing Street to deliver our petition to Theresa May, calling for mental health first aiders to be made compulsory in the workplace. Joining us were supporters of our Where’s Your Head At? campaign, including writer Bryony Gordon, Labour MP Luciana Berger and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley. The petition has more than 200,000 signatures and support from celebrities and big businesses. We know how important talking about mental health at work is, but we need your help to get the law changed. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, you can still do it online. And don’t forget to email or tweet your local MP and tell them why this law change is so important to you.

For details, visit wheresyourheadat.org

World Mental Health Day is on 10 October. Visit mind.org.uk for information