25 Feb Medication-free control of anxiety
In this client story, learn how I was able to help Will – a 33 year old Financial analyst who had been struggling with feelings of anxiety on and off for about 8 years.
“I just don’t know what to do about my anxiety anymore. Previously, I would only be set off by specific triggers, like doing a presentation, budget stress or those kinds of things. But nowadays, almost anything trips me up. I just want to feel normal again.”
This is Will*. When we first met over coffee, you wouldn’t have pegged him as the anxious type: His posture was open and relaxed, with a smile, an inviting expression, clear eye contact and a firm handshake. He projected the image of confidence I have come to expect from American businessmen. Happily married with 2 preschool boys, this 33-year-old Financial analyst lead a well-balanced life. An avid cyclist and outdoor enthusiast, Will also maintained an excellent level of fitness, and would pass any mental and physical health assessment with flying colours. For now.
He is not the exception. Just because you clear your health-check at your GP, and your assessment at the psychiatrist, doesn’t mean that you are not at risk. The pace and intensity of urban life is a breeding ground for anxiety, depression, stress and just about any mental health challenge you can imagine. We are all affected by it, unless we learn to adapt and self-manage.
Will’s Relationship with his Anxiety
“I want to get this sorted out. I am motivated to do the work that’s necessary, but I want this thing under control once and for all.”
When we started working together, Will had been struggling with feelings of anxiety on and off for about 8 years. By the time he came to see me, he was ready and committed to do the work towards improvement. Without his active participation outside our sessions, he would not have made as much progress as he had.
With his language, Will painted the self-portrait of a problem-solver. He was the type of person who likes to plan ahead and who thrives in a well-organized environment. He was not one for taking risks. These traits made him a tremendous asset to his company, as his role required a high level of diligence and structure. At the same time, though, these same traits created some internal conflicts for him – especially when it came to aspects of life that were unknown and unpredictable.
“The other day, my head started spinning out of control again. It’s so weird: I was watching a movie about people who were made redundant. It struck me how completely unexpected it happened – no one saw It coming. The next thing, my mind starts imagining how it could happen to me. Before long, I was forecasting how we would start living on the street, and thinking that I would need to busk just to feed my boys and my wife. I was basically mentally roleplaying the worst-case scenario. This is how my anxiety kicks off. I know It’s completely irrational, but my head just goes there.”
When his anxiety was at its worst, Will would take anti-anxiety medication to relieve his symptoms, although these days would only come around about once or twice per month. Part of his goals in our coaching, was to manage his anxiety well enough, so he wouldn’t feel the need to take medication.
The Action Plan
There are no one-size-fits-all plans when it comes to managing anxiety. Humans are too complex to be reduced to a standardized 5-step process. There are, however, well-tested tools that can transform almost any challenging emotions. It’s about finding the right combination of tools, and allowing yourself the time and space to apply these practices.
When we started working together, I had to make sure to pace with Will’s capacity and willingness to make changes. Many people make the error of wanting to change too many things too soon. This can be overwhelming. When we want to better ourselves, we tend to aim too high, or too low. If we take on too much, we risk failing, and give up before we make any progress. If we take on too little, we cannot create enough momentum to grow and change. It takes some trial and error to discover what works, and how fast certain changes can happen.
In Will’s case, our coaching process lasted 8 months, with an hour session every 4 – 6 weeks. In the first 2 sessions, we explored the nature of his anxiety, before making any changes. As we delved deeper, he developed a better understanding of his triggers, and the physical mental, emotional and relational perspectives. Then we developed some practices to help him manage his anxiety.
At the start of the process, we used the following tools:
In this journal, Will would score his anxiety out of 10, with 10 being unmanageable, and 0 being ‘cool as a cucumber’.
Regular mindfulness meditation practice
We agreed to a minimum of 3-4 sessions per week, using the Headspace App. Part of his practice, was to notice if, and how meditation affected his anxiety levels.
This is a practice we added later in the process, when Will discovered that much of his anxiety is fuelled by negative thinking. This structured journaling enabled him to rewire some of his thinking, and offered him a more balanced perspective on life.
During the course of the 8 months, Will had a series of key discoveries about his relationship to himself and the world around him. This expansion of his awareness is key to him growing and transforming old, unhelpful thoughts, behaviours and actions. Some of these include:
He recognized that his thinking tends to be very negative
This ‘glass-half-empty’ approach to life, ensures that he can protect himself from any potential risks. The flip-side, though, is that he also struggled to notice and enjoy the positives in life, often responding to them with a “yes, but…” We worked on this by practicing perspective shifts, and making him more aware of the up-sides, creating a more balanced, calm view of his circumstances.
He changed some of his old habits, that would simply escalate his anxiety
This includes cutting down on social media; switching off his phone when he was with his family; implementing a regular sleep-routine; meditating more regularly.
He rediscovered his old self
About half-way through the process, he mentioned how his family said: “It looks like Fun Will is back.” This observation made him realize that he had the capacity to change gears on his mood and behaviour: in fact, he used to be a lot more carefree when he was younger. By taking control of what he could, and learning to accept the elements that were out of his control, his average anxiety-levels decreased dramatically.
“I feel like my old self again. In some ways, it’s a bit strange: The other day, I had to drive the kids to their grandparents by myself. It’s a long drive, and normally, it would stress me out. This time, though, even when the boys were getting fidgety in the back, I could just calmly tell them to behave, and reason with them. It was so weird. As if I had this emotional buffer, and I wasn’t affected by their naughtiness. And you know what? I think they fed off my calm energy: I only had to be stern with them once, and it was like my calmness clamed them down.”
At the end of our process, Will had a much clearer picture of his personal universe. He feels more energized, and has a closer connection with his kids and wife. Even when he gets hooked by external triggers or internal thoughts, he now has strategies to get himself back to a space of calm.
And the anxiety medication? I have stayed in contact after our coaching process ended, to check-in on him, and 1 year after our coaching process started, he was still managing his emotions well, with no need for medication.
*Names and details have been altered to honour client confidentiality.
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