'I've been ill'', he said, pouring me a cup of Green Tea.
''But don't worry, you won't catch anything'', he said, forcing a smile.
Martin finished pouring and placed the teapot on the table. He paused, exhaling deeply before tapping his temple twice with his index finger, indicating the source of his illness.
Martin (not his real name) is a friend of mine. He's a kind and bubbly chap, well known and liked locally. He has one of those warm smiles you can't help but reciprocate. Recently, he's been having to force his smile. Martin has been suffering from Anxiety.
This is the story of our conversation. It was a beautifully vulnerable, rare, raw and real conversation, one I will always remember. I share this in the hope our experience can serve others living with Anxiety, can help other friends out there. After all, as William Butler Yeats wrote
''There are no strangers here; only friends you have not yet met''.
At first, I could tell Martin was apprehensive to open up fully to me about his struggles. But hey, I know what it's like.
The niggling fearful voice that whispers ''Is this person going to understand''? and ''What if they just think I'm crazy''?
After all, although the conversation surrounding mental health is improving, there is still a lot of ignorance out there.
Sensing his apprehension, I gave Martin a gentle and understanding look that communicated non-verbally, 'Friend, this is a totally safe space to talk about how you feel'.
I took a sip of Green Tea before inviting Martin to tell me more.
He'd been signed off from work by the Dr a few days before my visit. Martin had some panic attacks the night before he was due to present at a speaking engagement. Telling me this story, Martin painted a picture of a restless night of worrying, ruminating and panic.
I empathized greatly with him, as I know all too well how such nights go. Although my instinct was to say straight away ''I've had those nights too'', I kept silent. I listened. This was Martin's time to be heard. I didn't want to take anything away from his experience by suddenly shifting the focus to me. So I listened, holding a space for Martin to express how he was feeling.
As Martin talked and as I listened, I noticed the energy in the room go from heavy to light and I noticed Martin's gaze grow softer, the longer he spoke.
As my mum says- a problem shared is a problem halved.
Martin told me the huge relief he felt after talking to his Boss about his reasons for not coming to work.
''At first'', Martin said, ''my plan was to pick up the phone and tell her I'd been signed off with *cough cough* 'tummy trouble''. He laughed. ''Everyone understands toilet-related illness, not everyone understands mental illness''.
To his relief, his Boss was extremely understanding and supportive of Martin taking time off. I told him he was fortunate, I've heard horror stories of Bosses responding with a complete lack of understanding and support for their staff's mental well being.
We'd been speaking for 40 minutes, and were now on our second cup of Green Tea.
Martin looked at me and smiling said ''I'm feeling better for talking with you, thank you for listening''.
I told him he was welcome and thanked him from the heart for trusting me enough to share. Sensing now was the right time to share my experience, I shared my past struggles with Anxiety.
I shared stories of similar sleepless nights, stirring in the darkness on sweaty bed sheets. I told Martin of our mutual fear of opening up to my parents, colleagues and friends, for fear of being judged. I spoke of the deep dread I would feel in the pit of my stomach at the thought of going to work and entering unfamiliar social situations.
Martin wore a mixed expression on his face, comfort and surprise. He had received comfort in hearing my story, knowing he wasn't alone, but surprise in knowing I had lived with Anxiety too.
''I had no idea you have suffered from Anxiety too Will, you're so confident, you never struck me as someone who would have experienced Anxiety too''.
I chuckled, ''Honestly, there was a time I would've never expected to either, but the truth is we ALL have Mental Health, meaning no one is immune from suffering with mental health issues''.
''Very true'', Martin replied.
We sat in silence for a few moments. Nothing needed to be said at this time, we understood each other.
Martin broke the silence by asking, ''What helped you, Will, I mean, what helped you to get better''?
These are 5 pieces of advice I offered my friend with Anxiety.
1. Keep talking about how you're feeling
At first, I kept my lips sealed about my anxiety. In fact, for several months I did my best to keep my Anxiety a secret.
I felt that somehow my anxiety was my problem to fix and I needed to do this alone, to ask for help and to open up showed Weakness.
I also trembled thinking about how my secret would be received. Sooner or later, as my Anxiety become stronger, I had to start talking. I can not explain just how freeing it felt to finally spill the beans on what was going on inside of my head.
The weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders as I spoke to those around me about my struggles. I feared judgement when in reality I was supported. Martin feared judgement too originally but told me with each person he confided in, it was easy to talk.
2. Regular Exercise
'An Anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body' - Edmund Jacobson.
I shared with Martin that at the peak of my Anxiety, I developed the habit of nightly walks. After work, I would walk for hours on end, often alone, sometimes with friends. By the time I got home, I would be physically tired and ready for bed, so I felt I had in some way 'burned off' the excess anxious energy. Whether it's Yoga, Walking, Running, or Swimming, there are believed to be positive benefits of regular exercise for our mental health.
The third piece of advice I shared with Martin was to develop a daily meditation practice, if only for 5 minutes per day. I used to find myself so lost in my thoughts that they felt powerful, and I was at the mercy of them.
Through Meditation, observing my thoughts in a non-judgmental way, I was slowly able to create some space between myself and my thoughts.
In doing so, I become the observer instead of the victim.
''Imagine this cup is full of pure water'', I said to Martin, pointing at my cup of Green Tea.
''If a single drop of ink were to enter the cup, it would turn the water inky. This is what our negative thoughts do when they consume our mind''.
''Imagine, however, if instead of a cup full of water, we had a larger container, like a bathtub full of water, the ink would have less impact on the purity of the water''.
Through meditation, we are creating a bigger container for our thoughts, creating greater distance between them and us, so the negative thoughts lose their power.
4. Challenge your Fears
Stephen Briers writes in his book Cognitive behavioural therapy 'every time you act in a way that is consistent with your negative thoughts you are unconsciously reinforcing the notion that they must be true'!
One of the scenarios I would sometimes find myself in, which caused the most Anxiety, was being in the Supermarket and bumping into someone I know unexpectedly and having to make dreaded small talk.
The anxiety centred around having nothing to say, being awkward, and ending up blushing and making the person feel uncomfortable. Realizing this was a scenario that I felt anxious about and knowing too, every time I avoided such a scenario I unconsciously reinforce the fear as real, I began to visit the Supermarket more frequently. Very soon, my anxiety levels become lower and lower as I challenged my fears head on instead of avoiding them.
It wasn't easy, I was awkward, I blushed time and time again but eventually, I was comfortable meeting people in the supermarket. My anxiety got the message that 'Life goes on' after scenarios like this. I suggested Martin to gradually expose himself to the scenarios that make him feel anxious, such as speaking publically and trust over time his fears will wane.
5. Show Compassion toward yourself
Anxiety, panic attacks, living in a state of Fear, are exhausting; physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I shared with Martin the importance of responding with Compassion towards ourselves when anxious feelings arise.
When we respond to our anxiety with resistance, anger, shame - beating ourselves up in some form or another - it doesn't serve us. What we need most in those moments, like any child in distress will tell you, is reassurance, tenderness, compassion and understanding.
I told Martin, my anxiety got more manageable when I began to change how I responded to it. Compassion is the way forward.
When I arrived at Martin's apartment on this afternoon, I had no idea we would have this conversation.
However, I'm glad we did. I feel we know each other on a deeper level than before. Simply by speaking our truths with open hearts and listening to one another with open ears- we were able to let one another know- it's Ok not to feel Ok and at any time in the future, we'll be there for one another once again.
Thank you for reading,
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