Getting a Handle on Anxiety: an excerpt from self-help book ‘You Take Care’
Laura Henshaw and Steph Claire Smith are businesswomen, best of friends, and cofounders of global health and lifestyle brand Keep It Cleaner. Most of all, they are great supporters of each other, with a mission to help other young women build confidence and to embrace inner and outer health. This is an excerpt from their new book, You Take Care.
Laura: When we feel anxious, we can’t tell the difference between perceived and actual risk. We convince ourselves that what we perceive is true, and then we spiral from there. And once the perceived threat/ stressor is gone, the anxiety can still be persistent and ongoing. For example, I have a friend who gets anxious every month that she might be pregnant, even though she uses condoms and is also on the pill. Even so, she worries and worries even before her period is due. I tell her she shouldn’t worry because, as an anxious person myself, this is something that I have never worried about – at least not since I found out that the percentage of this happening when two forms of protection are used is very low. When I consider the actual risk, I don’t see the point in her worrying. But man, oh man, if I’m home alone, I am 100 per cent convinced that I will be robbed, tied up and hurt. It doesn’t matter that the chances of this actually happening to me are very low. She is worried that the life she loves might change forever while I fear losing my autonomy and safety. Anxiety shows up very differently in people.
Beyond Blue reports that one in four people in Australia will experience anxiety in their lifetime. That is a 25 per cent chance, and if you identify as a woman, that increases to 33 per cent. Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, and Dr Jodie Lowinger is an amazing expert working in the anxiety arena. She runs an anxiety clinic in Sydney and has written a fantastic book about anxiety, The Mind Strength Method. Dr Jodie has a beautiful view on anxiety: You care because you care. I remind myself of her words and use her strategies (pages 66–69) whenever I feel limited by my anxious thoughts. Experiencing anxiety doesn’t make someone flawed or ‘less worthy’; it simply means they really care. This thinking provides me with calm in times of worry, and I hope it does for you, too.
This is one of my least favourite types of anxiety (not that any are winners). It comes up for me when I’m in social situations. I find myself worrying about everything I say and do. There’s so much fear: fear that people will not like me, that I will be too loud, talk too much or just be ‘too much’ in general. There’s fear people will not like the way I’ve dressed and will judge my style.
I worry that my jokes won’t be funny or that I’ll say the wrong things. I fear that people will not find me interesting and won’t want to invite me back. And, if I’m exhausted and want to leave early, I worry that everyone will be mad at me for leaving.
If any of this resonates with you, you are not alone. I’ve had conversations with many young women and learned that fear of rejection within social situations is incredibly common. One woman told me that she only books things with her friends when she knows they definitely don’t have anything better to do because she has such a big fear of rejection. Another woman recalled constantly reminding everyone at her birthday party that they could leave whenever they wanted and that they shouldn’t feel like they had to stay because she was so worried they all wanted to leave. Another woman’s fear of abandonment stopped her from ever speaking up in relationships for what she needed. If her feelings were hurt, she would be so scared of losing the person that she’d say nothing. Another felt she could never speak her true opinion unless it was one shared by everyone around her as she never wanted to make anyone feel uncomfortable.
Laura: This type of anxiety has been the most debilitating for me. It’s why I get two skin checks a year, at different clinics, just in case one misses something. It’s why I spend nights lying wide awake wondering how I will tell my partner I have cancer (diagnosed by Dr Google). It’s the reason I spent years not eating on planes because of my nut allergy. In the case of nuts, my anxiety wasn’t unwarranted; I’m anaphylactic, which means nuts can be life-threatening for me if I don’t get adrenaline/treatment quick enough.
It’s true that a serious allergy like mine absolutely warrants a level of worry, and risk mitigation is important, but in my mid-twenties, my worrying became all-consuming. Flying became overwhelming because I was unable to eat anything on the plane except fruit (and only when I could be completely sure it hadn’t touched nuts).
It got to the point where I stopped eating things I’d eaten my whole life that I knew didn’t contain nuts. If someone was eating nuts around me, I’d convince myself I was going to have an anaphylactic reaction, and I’d escape to a bathroom for an awfully long time to breathe through it and get away from the risk. In those situations, the risk to my health probably wasn’t that great, but the risk I perceived was 99.9 per cent.
Cancer, unlike my allergy worries, was something I had anxiety about but no history of. I used to think my worries about having cancer came from previously working as a ward clerk in a hospital oncology ward. In that job, I saw people with cancer every day, and because of that, I perceived that my risk of having it was higher. In 2004, the year I learned about meningococcal disease, I thought it was pretty normal to wake up daily and check myself for it. Was my neck sore? To this day, I press down on any rash I have with the side of a glass to check if my spots stay visible when pressed (this was the test we learned at school to check for meningococcal).
What I try to do in these situations that can help (sometimes) is saying the worst possible thing that could happen out loud. Then I say out loud what I think the chances are of that actually happening, then I google to find the actual chances and then I say that out loud too.
If I can’t say it out loud (because of where I am), I will write it out in a text to someone close to me (usually Dalton or Steph) and they will often call or send me back a text confirming for me how small the actual risk is, which helps confirm the fear is just in my head.
KIC: Procrastination can be one of the biggest causes of anxiety. The anxiety about failing or that a task will be hard or boring prevents us from doing the thing in the first place, which in turn causes us more anxiety because the thing is not done. It’s a trap that many of us fall into, but don’t get it mixed up with being lazy. Procrastination is an active process where you simply choose to complete a more enjoyable task over the one you’ve been dreading. Sound familiar? The thing is, more often than not, when we procrastinate the task is actually taking up a higher mental load than it would if we simply got the job done. Whether it’s life admin or a task at work, think about the niggly things that get transferred from one to-do list to another, you know it needs to be done, but you keep putting it off. Those tasks will literally linger in the back of your mind until you physically complete them.
In order to manage your procrastination, you need to understand why you’re procrastinating. It could be down to avoiding anxiety, craving perfectionism, fear of failure or simply poor time management. We spoke about shame earlier, and now it’s time to let go of any shame you have around procrastination. You’re only human, and everyone procrastinates to some extent. Whatever task you’re putting off, try breaking that larger task into smaller ones. For example, instead of writing ‘marketing strategy’ on your to-do list, break it down into specifics: marketing objectives, marketing channels, marketing tactics, etc. Then focus on completing one small step at a time.
Try setting yourself rewards as you complete each smaller task. The reward might be 15 minutes on your phone, a hot cup of coffee or a walk around the block. Find something that motivates you to get stuck in. And remind yourself how amazing it feels to cross something off your list. Once it’s done and dusted, you can forget about it and move on. If you’ve been putting something off, use this as your reminder to chunk it up into smaller tasks, take a breath and GET IT DONE.
Text from ‘You Take Care’ by Laura Henshaw and Steph Claire Smith. Murdoch Books RRP $36.99. Author photography by Marten Ascenzo.
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