Resetting My Brain To Battle Anxiety.

When my anxiety becomes so chronic and debilitating that I can’t hold it together for a couple of hours, let alone a full shift, as happened last week, I retreat. 

For ten days I’ve hardly left the house. I did a supermarket shop, but used the ‘scan as you shop’ so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone. I did make it to Dancercise on Saturday, but drove there and back to minimise the potential social contact. I was glad I got there, it does me good mentally as well as physically. Other than that I’ve only spoken to my family and left the house to walk the dogs. Where I’ve had to communicate with people I’ve done it in writing.

The last few days I’ve felt slightly less anxious. Its come and gone, rather than the constant barrage of catastrophising thoughts they’ve ebbed and flowed. In the gaps between the anxiety there’s been nothing. Numbness, inertia, nothingness. 
Despite a million things to do I’ve struggled to move off the sofa. Getting dressed has seemed a monumental challenge that requires several hours of sofa-sitting before I can attempt it. While on the sofa its been hard to concentrate on anything. I’ve played repetitive games on my phone or spent time colouring (another of my many u-turns, I was convinced it was just a fad, then tried it and found it helpful.) I’ve thought about how thirsty I am but not managed to summon the energy to get to the kitchen to make a drink. 

I think this is my brain resetting itself. As if my subconscious has noticed the state I was in and decided the only way forward is a reboot. 

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Yesterday, after a morning of inertia and numbness, I suddenly felt alive. Like I needed to do something. I baked, I tidied, my daughter and I sorted out some clutter. I made a new meal and wrote a blog post. I didn’t feel anxious. 

Of course it’s not as simple as that. No magic fixes. If the secret to mental wellness was to reset your brain by taking a few days feeling numb, well, Britain wouldn’t have the epidemic of mental ill health we seem to at present. 

This morning I was numb and unable to motivate myself again. 

This afternoon I had to go out, and I had to speak to people. I was slightly afraid that I was only feeling a bit better (numb does feel a bit better than anxious) because of my voluntary isolation. What if I fell apart again the moment I got near people?

I did OK. 

The anxiety tried to make an appearance while I was shopping with my daughter (I refused to ask a sales assistant for help finding things) but I was able to overcome it (I did ask about a discount we’d heard we might be entitled to). 

It tried to appear again when on the way to my son’s youth club (we were running very early) but again I overcame it (better early than late, right?)

Anxiety tried to appear a third time when I got to the gym (everything had been moved around) and for a third time I overcame it (I want and asked when I couldn’t find one of the machines I wanted to use.)

So for today I’m beating anxiety, 3 – 0. 

Managing a few hours active a day is not the same as being recovered, but its a step in the right direction and I’m celebrating the achievement. Hopefully I can keep building on it. 

Trying new veggies: Pak Choi #NewcastleCan

My quest to eat helthier continues! This weeks veggie bag included another new to me veg, pak choi. This one I did at least recognise, but I’d never bought or cooked it before. Luckily a quick trawl of Pinterest turned up several recipes, and I decided to adapt this Stir Fry Pak Choi recipe.

I doubled up the ingredients, as we have 4 adults in our house. I was using what I had in, so substituted rapeseed oil for the sesame oil in the recipe. I also omitted the chillies, as both my son and I have no stamina when it comes to spicy food. As I was cooking a main meal rather than a side I added noodles too.

As the cooking time was really short I got myself organised and prepared everything before I started cooking. There wasn’t much to do, chop the garlic and ginger, separate the stems and leaves of the pak choi, and mix the soy oil.

All prepared!

Cooking was quick..

A couple of minutes for the garlic and ginger.
Another couple of minutes with the stems…
Add the leaves and carry on stirring for a couple of minutes more.

I added the noodles at the same time as the stock and soy oil and upped the amount of vegetable stock to 800mls. Let it bubble away for three or four minutes until most of it had absorbed. And voila.

Finished stir fry.

Quick and tasty. It used slightly more oil than most of the healthy recipes I’ve been trying, and because of the soy sauce slightly more salt too, but well within healthy limits. There was some initial reluctance from some of the family, due to the pak choi stems resembling celery. After establishing it didn’t taste like celery they got stuck in and pronounced it very tasty and definitely a recipe I should try again.


Newcastle Can is the project I’ve signed up to which is inspiring all my healthy eating and exercise. It aims to get the city healthier and help residents lose 100,000lbs over the year. To find out more click here

Pondering the week. And Manchester. 

Its been a strange week. I had a good weekend, exploring old favourites and finding new places at The Late Shows. 

Archer’s eye view of the Tyne. Late Shows visit to the castle.

On Monday I broke down, complete loss of control, anxiety off the chart, unable to tell rational thought from catastrophising paranoia. I dont know why. I was sent home from work, with much care and compassion.

Monday night I stayed up late, watching the news from Manchester unfold. One of my daughter’s friends was at the concert. Luckily my daughter was able to get in touch with her and find out she was safe really quickly, before it had even been confirmed that it was an explosion. But it was clear others weren’t so lucky.

Tuesday morning saw the extremes of celebrating my son’s birthday and hearing the details of the ongoing tragedy in Manchester, deaths announced, desperate appeals for the missing, ongoing investigations. It also saw the worst migraine I’ve had for months, which pretty much wiped me out for all of Wednesday.

Thursday saw me admitting that I’m not ready to go back to work yet, and that forcing myself back before I’m ready hasn’t been doing me any good. This wasn’t easy for me to admit, I hate letting people down and I hate feeling useless. Although in the interests of honesty I probably should admit there’s also a little bit of a self-centered belief that no one can manage without me fuelling that desire to go back too. The truth is I am not indispensable at work, if I keeled over tomorrow I dont doubt I’d be missed greatly, but the work would carry on. I am indispensable at home, and I need to look after myself to continue being here for my family.

So now its Friday. I’ve barely been out of the house all week. Hardly any exercise, much birthday cake, much sleep and much pondering. My busy brain just hasn’t stopped, try as I might to slow it down. So instead I’ve diverted it, from anxiety inducing practical problems to general pondering on the state of the world and my place in it. 

The thing I was most grateful for on Tuesday was that this image, from the wonderful Twisted Doodles who you really should check out, turned up in my Facebook feed just when I needed it:

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What happened in Manchester breaks my heart, I am horrified by the damage one person with evil intentions can inflict. But I am hopeful because of the millions of positive reactions that came out of it. They are everywhere, from the local driver who drove my daughter’s friend all the way back to Newcastle, to the hospital workers who rushed back to work, to the people offering beds for the night or tea to the emergency services… Millions of them. I was so moved by this man, one of many who wanted to give blood and was going to walk around and smile at people.

I know that there are many places in the world where terror, bombs and needless deaths are an everyday occurance. There are people who know only too well that children are often targeted. I have a friend from Syria and I remember her speaking, some time ago, about an attack on an ice-cream shop during Eid. A horrific act, designed to target families with young children, which never even made it into the mainstream news here in the UK. 

I think the contrast between our intense reporting and outpourings of emotion when it happens here, or in another western country, compared to whats ongoing in other countries, is down to a lack of imagination, not a lack of compassion. We can imagine how it feels for a sudden horrific event to turn our lives upside down. We can’t imagine how it feels to live that day in and day out, no certainty, just fear. We can’t imagine how it feels to be so desperate that you leave all you know behind and risk everything to get somewhere, anywhere safer. 

I hate that this can feed into the extremists agenda, that it’s used to imply that we (white westerners) only care about other people like us. I think we do care, we just don’t understand.

I am heartened to see a lot of people standing up to the Islamophobia that always follows something like this. I know very little about Islam. I grew up in an area that was not diverse by any stretch of the imagination. It will sound very ignorant when I admit that for a long time I thought Muslim women who wore the burka were the equivalent of Catholic nuns, I remember being very confused the first time I saw a group of them with pushchairs! That was many years ago, and I am a bit less ignorant now, mainly because I know people who are Muslims now. Nothing helps dispell unintentional prejudice like talking with people, getting to know them. 

We should not need reminding to see people as people first, unique human beings with a wealth of characteristics of their own, rather than lumping them together with labels. Even when it is a label they choose for themselves, it is not enough to know them by. But it seems sometimes we do need reminding of this. 

My heart breaks for everyone caught up in the disaster in Manchester, and for those elsewhere who live through tragedy daily. My heart breaks for everyone whose life is torn apart by hate. 

And I am hopeful. I am hopeful because I see many more acts of love than acts of hate. I am hopeful because communities are coming together and refusing to be divided. I am hopeful because people are speaking out against hate. And I am hopeful because I remember the previous Manchester bombing, of the Arndale Centre by the IRA in 1996. I remember feeling the fear that there could never be peace or safety. And I also remember Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sitting together, laughing, making peace. It is possible.

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Admitting I’m wrong. #NewcastleCan

So far it seems my journey to becoming physically healthier and losing weight has featured more u-turns than government politics. 

I was adamant I didn’t want to have to write down everything I eat, then I realised without doing that I was letting too many snacks sneak through. I monitored my eating for several weeks, until I had a good idea of what calories the things I eat most often contain. I’m not recording everything I eat now, but I am checking calories when I eat something new and keeping a checklist of any unhealthy snacks, aiming to just have one a week. 

I was certain that exercise classes weren’t for me, then I went to a NewcastleCan Dancercise taster session and ended up signing up for a weekly class. Despite my lack of coordination, my fear of being seen exercising in public, and the many, many years since I last did any aerobic exercise I’m enjoying it. Each week I see an improvement in what I can do. 

As recently as the beginning of April I was absolutely sure that gyms weren’t for me, that I could get enough exercise by increasing the impact of my regular walks. The NewcastleCan open day got me through the gym doors, which made me realise how much of my body didn’t get a work out through walking. So the latest u-turn is that I’ve joined a gym! I’m working mostly on cardio and including some resistance. I’ve found my legs are strong, but my shoulders and arms are a long way behind. I can only get to the gym once a week, but even that is helping, every week I can do a little bit more than the week before. 

Why so many u-turns? Over years of inactivity I’d built up a web of logical excuses for not exercising or losing weight. I’m too busy; my tablets increase my appetite; exercising in public isn’t for me etc. I’ve wanted to get healthier, I’ve known what I needed to do to make it happen, but I’ve kept making these excuses many of which are just covering up more complicated reasons for my inertia. I find change to my routine challenging; new places make me anxious; I’m scared I’ll be the only middle aged fat woman in a room full of young, lean, healthy types etc. 

I needed support to get out of that rut. I needed to be shown I could do it. I was lucky that the NewcastleCan project started up when I needed it and is giving me the opportunity to challenge all those excuses I’d made. Without the open day I’d never have tried an exercise class or gone to a gym. 

The exercise added to the healthier eating is working. My body shape is gradually changing, to the extent people are noticing now, and I may have to go clothes shopping soon as many things are too big for me now. My weight loss has slowed, but I’m less worried about that than I would have been earlier as I feel healthier, I know I’m improving even in the weeks when the scales don’t budge. And the more I do the better I feel. 

It’s not easy to admit I’m wrong, to challenge the excuses I’ve believed for so long. But each time I do, and it works, it makes it easier to challenge the next excuse, and keep on moving in the right direction.

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More about my u-turns.

  • I wrote about deciding to keep a food diary here
  • My post from 5 April, declaring gyms weren’t for me, is here
  • My review of the activity day which included the gym and exercise class taster sessions here.

In praise of occasional randomness

It’s getting towards pay day, that last week of eking out the remaining pennies and supplies and hoping nothing expensive happens. It’s in these circumstances that some of my best culinary creations occur, like the fried rice in Tanking the Takeaway. My family look forward to such delights as “almost payday pasta” and “almost payday pancakes”, meals made of whatever’s to hand without a recipe in sight. 

It’s a skill to just throw what’s left in the fridge together and get something that tastes like a meal, rather than something that tastes like you just threw what was left in the fridge together. It’s a skill I’ve developed over time, although it can be a bit hit and miss. Since I signed up to the organic veg scheme (of which more here) I have a lot more fresh fruit and veg to play with than in previous months, which helps. 

My trawl of the cupboards turned up just 200g of pasta. Before I signed up to Newcastle Can and started eating more healthily I would have given up at this point, certain that you can’t feed four adults (or two adults and two adult sized teenagers) with so little. Now I know better. 

The fridge was better stocked than the cupboards, yielding some bacon, two onions, a courgette, half a bag of spinach, one pepper, a small cabbage and some feta cheese. 

The basic technique of my random meals is to chop everything then cook it all together, nothing complicated! So while the pasta was cooking I chopped everything except the spinach. I cooked the bacon first, adding the onion and pepper after a couple of minutes. Next went in the courgette, followed by the chopped cabbage and the spinach. When it was almost ready I added the chopped feta and stirred til it had melted into the sauce. I didn’t need to add any liquid, plenty had come off the veg. Then stir in the pasta.

Tadah! A healthy, tasty, colourful meal made in minutes. 

Although I was so busy chopping and stirring that I almost forgot to take a photo for the blog!

I think it’s important to embrace randomness occasionally. I tend to get stuck in a routine, unable to easily leave my comfort zone, especially when I’m struggling with my anxiety. I’ll seem fine while doing my usual stuff, but throw something unplanned at me and I completely unravel. So I need to remind myself now and then that random can be fun; just throwing things in a pan can be tasty; that sometimes it will go wrong, and that’s OK.

Tonight, on the spur of the moment, I tried an alternative route home from work. I ended up stuck for ages at one of those junctions where the traffic lights seem slightly out of synch, so only on every third green light could any traffic from my lane move. Sometimes random things don’t work. Rather than get frustrated at being delayed I turned the radio up and sang along, enjoying a few minutes with nowhere to go (and possibly startling passing pedestrians, my singing has more enthusiasm and volume than tunefulness!) Despite the delay I had a good journey. 

So, here’s to occasional randomness. 

Not too much randomness though, chaos would just cause more stress! 

Dancing, Memories, Exploration, Cooking – a good weekend.

Saturday morning was my fourth Dancercise session. It seems I can still get either my legs or my arms moving in time, never both. Despite that I am improving. Certainly I’m managing more of the high impact moves now, and feeling confident enough to sing along. Its doing me good at many levels.

After a shower and change my partner and I headed off across the Pennines for a night away, a much needed break. Our destination was chosen because I wanted to visit my dad’s memorial bench and the place we scattered his ashes. 

I like to think I’m all scientific and logical, I know he isn’t really there. I believe he’s still alive in our hearts and memories more than in the place we left his physical remains, but science and logic can only get you so far. Sometimes I need to be in a place he loved, to take a few moments to be quiet and remember him, away from the busy, challenging turmoil of everyday life. 

It’s changed, but everything changes. His bench had been revarnished and repositioned to face the meadow where his ashes were scattered.

The view from dad’s bench.

The tree that used to stand in the meadow is long gone, but a darker patch of grass showed me where it had been, and closer examination revealed some remaining bits of tree stump. I felt a connection to how it had been when my dad knew it, despite the changes. The bee hives were busy, the sun shining, the gardens beautiful. It was evening and felt like summer. I was glad I’d gone.

We had dinner in a local pub. My tactic to try and eat healthily when eating out is to go for either fish or salad, and the red snapper was delicious, but the meal was considerably less healthy than it could have been due to the marvellous dessert! We had a long walk through the town, possibly confusing the folk outside the local pubs as we walked through the market square several times in an hour, from every possible direction. 

The following morning we decided to set off early but stop and explore Kendal on the way back. Despite confusing signage (one signpost directed us down a back alley at the end of which was the river and no further directions!) we eventually reached the castle, glorious in the sunshine and well worth the climb up the hill. We could see for miles.

Kendal Castle.

Home and back to reality. Dogs to walk, family to feed, all the everyday things to do. I didn’t want to spend a long time making tea, and after the indulgences of the weekend I definitely wanted it to be healthy. Our veg bag this week included cabbage, so I decided to have another go at this Garlicky White Beans and Greens Pasta recipe. Last time I tried it I hadn’t cut the greens small enough, so it had a slight raw cabbage vibe which wasnt exactly appealing. This time I was without beans, which I replaced with chickpeas, and rosemary, which I replaced with oregano (that and mint seem to be the only herbs flourishing in the garden at the moment.) It turned out well, definitely better than my last attempt and I’ll certainly be using the recipe again. 

All in all a good weekend. If I could only have stopped my anxious mind worrying about the week ahead it would have been perfect. Howeve there were times over the weekend when my brain was still, and that’s an improvement on recent weeks, so I’ll take it. 

My Anxious Mind. #MHAW17

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme Surviving or Thriving? I’d recommend visiting the Mental Health Foundation‘s website to find out more.

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Ironically this week I have struggled to find words to talk about mental health, because I’m struggling with my mental health. I’m in a better place than I was a few weeks ago, but I’m zigzagging between not too bad and barely coping at a rate that’s leaving me exhausted. Usually my mental health, while not great, is relatively consistent. I’m OK for a few days/weeks/months, then bad for a few days/weeks/months, and so on. Just now I can go from OK to crying and unable to carry on several times a day. I’m hoping it’s down to the change in medication a couple of weeks ago, and that it will settle down. I’ve been speaking to my GP to plan what to do if it doesn’t. 

I’m holding on to the fact that I am better than I was a few weeks ago, that there is progress. To illustrate I wanted to share two similar experiences I had a few weeks apart, vastly different in how my brain interpreted them. 

Last week, my first week back at work, I had to drive to Gateshead for some training. I don’t often drive south of the Tyne except on motorways, and the Gateshead town centre is unfamiliar to me, but I had directions, my trusty sat-nav, advice from colleagues and, as it turned out, an optimistically naïve faith in towns always well signposting their public parking. 

I’m not sure if the car park I was heading for was completely unsignposted from the main road, or if the sign was obscured by the roadworks and temporary traffic lights, but I didn’t see the turn off until I was passing it. I was then sucked into Gateshead’s one-way system where I tried to follow the occiaisional parking signs but ended up hopelessly lost and doing a u-turn to avoid a sudden (unsigned) bus only lane, much to the consternation of several bus drivers (I don’t think my mouthed apology and panicked wave appeased them). The inexplicable system continued to chew me up until I was finally spat out on a bit of bypass I recognised and was able to head to the quayside. 

Its fair to say I was frazzled, definitely stressed, but I knew the walk from the Quayside into Gateshead was mostly a pleasant one and would give me time to calm down. I emerged from the car cursing the town planners, sign buyers and road builders of Gateshead and stomped up the hill perfectly fine to take part in the training (after a medicinal cuppa.)

Not a bad place for an unscheduled walk.

Rewind a few weeks…

I am driving through an unfamiliar part of the city, following my trusty sat nav, to find my way home from an unfamiliar branch of my vets, the only one that could fit my accident prone greyhound in this morning. Spotting a gap in the traffic ahead I mirror, signal, manouver and overtake a cyclist.

Its only after I pull ahead of him that I realise there is unexpected traffic calming there, and my manouver has prevented him from pulling out past it. This I figure out while watching his angry hand gestures in my mirror as the traffic behind me slows to accommodate him.

I don’t know if there was no sign, or if it was hidden behind the van parked at the side of the road. 

I am a terrible person, I have nearly caused an accident, I could have killed that man, I shouldn’t be in charge of a car. 

He is justifiably angry. What if he reports me to the police? I’ll be arrested for driving dangerously. If I can’t drive I can’t work. What if I’m sent to jail? I’ll lose my house, my kids. 

What if he’s a criminal and follows me or finds me out from my numberplate? What if he targets my family for revenge? I’ve put my children in danger. I’m a terrible mother, I shouldn’t be allowed to have children, they’d be better off without me because I can’t keep them safe.

Is the car behind following me? Have they witnessed it, do they want to report it or just lose their temper with me? What will I do if they yell at me? I can’t defend myself, I nearly killed that man, I deserve whatever I get. 

This continues, not just through the day when I expect every knock on the door to be either the police, an angry motorist or cyclist out for revenge, but every night that week when I’m trying to get to sleep. What if he’d fallen off the bike? What if the car behind had hit him? I’d not just be responsible for the cyclist’s injuries or death, but also for the trauma of the driver who hit him. I am a terrible person. And so on…

That’s what anxiety does to me, the difference between an OK day and a bad one. The catastrophizing isn’t rational and it isn’t proportionate, although it feels it at the time. It doesn’t have to be a situation with a real fault or error on my part, my brain does just the same faced with something very minor, e.g. someone forgetting something I remember (“Should I remind them? They’ll think I’m bossy, they’ll think I’m interfering, they’ll think I don’t trust them, I must be a bad person to make them feel so bad”).

There’s a strange contradiction in my anxiety, one I can’t notice at the time and can’t explain. How can I feel simultaneously worthless, useless and unnecessary and also be so completely selfishly convinced that only I am responsible for everything? There was no thought in the second example of blaming the planners, sign writers or even the person who’d parked their van so inconsiderately. It could only be my fault. Nothing else and no one else gets in. 

At my worst my mental health problems are visible, perhaps I’m jittery or I can’t make eye contact, but usually they’re hidden. Many people who know me have no idea about it. And that’s true of so many people. 

The idea that everyone is fighting  battle you can’t see is becoming a cliché, which doesn’t stop it being mostly true. Far more people have mental health problems than speak about it. I’m getting help. If you’re struggling please seek help too.