The Power of Self Belief and Self Care; and the Scourge of Anxiety

by Aug 26, 2019Brain Health, Kat5 comments

A couple of months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel discussion on the Power of Self Belief and Self Care.

Below are seven factors that help empower me:

  1. Get to know and like who you are
  2. Be accountable for your actions
  3. Set clear boundaries that are aligned with your values
  4. Believe you are worthy of and entitled to love and respect (and know this first and foremost comes from within)
  5. Invest time, effort and space to continuously grow and improve
  6. Be able to ask for help and seek guidance
  7. Have the confidence to say no respectfully and without guilt

It was such a privilege to be invited to be on the panel, in a corporate environment, a setting I’ve been removed from for 9 years. I wanted to share some insights on how being my husband’s advocate when he was sick was the catalyst that helped me realise that I had the capability to apply the same amount of determination, persistence and strength to myself.

However, it was an invitation I declined. The mere thought of speaking in public triggered an immediate visceral response of dread.

And now as I prepare for my last week at my work of eight years to focus on my health, the uncertainty of not knowing where I will be after my ‘sabbatical’, does not bring on a feeling of such dread.

I have experienced pain, muscular spasm and have had restricted movement for over 8 months (since having minor surgery). A battery of tests and scans reveal nothing sinister, the pain unexplained. But eliminating the physical pain is a secondary focus to taking time out. My primary objective is to address a chronic condition I’ve had since I was 20, which resurfaced 18 months ago – Anxiety.

For me, Anxiety is a multi-layered, crippling and insidious beast. And while the condition (and other mental health issues) is now widely recognised and openly discussed, there is still little understanding, in part because of the different ways it presents itself in individuals. I get frustrated when people make incorrect assumptions and generalisations about the vagaries of my condition.

My Anxiety does not affect my ability to be fully functional and focused in my professional environment. My clients place a huge amount of trust in me. I am the person who takes charge in a crisis, being able to act immediately, calmly and methodically. But when quips are made to me, about not driving a car or why I avoid social gatherings, preferring to spend my downtime alone – these benign remarks can send me into a crippling tailspin of defensive distress.

It is important for me to differentiate my Anxiety from a normal response to Stress. We are all equipped for dealing with Stress without it becoming detrimental to our health. I did not experience Anxiety during the period of my husband’s surgery, rehab, and radiation, despite experiencing Shock at seeing him being treated in a code blue emergency situation, and Fear, when two weeks later he fell and hit his already traumatised head.

Part of my work involves treating people who are chronically ill, and at times some who are dying. Six months after Steve’s radiotherapy, I had three clients die within a 12 week period. Two of them I’d seen three days prior to their deaths. It’s fair to say that I experienced an element of Survivor’s Guilt, while I was still learning to adapt to my husband’s ‘new normal’ in the aftermath of his brain tumour. My mother has also been in hospital eight times in two years. So, I acknowledge the Chronic Stress I’ve been exposed to over the past three years has a played a role in my Anxiety rearing its head again. But my physiological reaction to Anxiety is very different to the way I respond under Stress.

My condition manifests itself in a couple of different ways. Here is how I can best describe what one element feels like:

I get an all-encompassing feeling that my skin is suffocatingly too tight for my body. It sends a painful shiver down my spine in a series of electric shocks, and it feels like a thousand bugs are crawling across my skin. Noise and small talk shrouds me in a veil of irritation and despair. My heart feels as though it will leap out of my chest. My stomach feels as though it’s being struck with a sledge hammer. My head pounds in increasing ferocity. And at times, I wish the sledge hammer was real to knock me out, to stop the feeling. It is completely overwhelming, debilitating and exhausting.

The ripple effect of my Anxiety has an enormous impact on my husband, Steve. I know he feels helpless when I am trapped in the eye of my internal storm, unable to penetrate the invisible barrier. He is the one who witnesses the raw brutality of my condition. Recently, Steve asked whether I could try and say this phrase aloud, “I WILL get through this”. I know it’s difficult for him to see me go through periods of darkness. 14 years ago, before we were married, there was a period when he would travel 20kms from the northern beaches to the inner west at 3am, 4am and 5am to comfort me. I’ve only recently acknowledged the courage he showed back then, becoming my secure base.

‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’ is a widely used metaphor to describe the importance of Rest and Self-Care. I average 7-8 hours of sleep a night, exercise daily, eat well, and love my work. But when my Anxiety is at its worst, my emotional energy levels become compromised. At the moment in time when I find myself trapped in an emotional vortex, if I was offered the choice, I would opt out. But I need to make a distinction that I’ve only recently identified, that MY choice IS a different one. I also know that when I tried to opt out at the age of 21, I did not have the maturity or the tools to confront what I was experiencing, and it seemed like an easier option. This is what my (emotional) Empty looks like.

I have studied biology at various times over the past 30 years, as well as psychology, neuroplasticity and mindfulness. I probably have a greater knowledge of the biomechanics and pathophysiology of Stress than many people. But even with an understanding of the mechanics of Anxiety – it does not lessen the severity or intensity when it hits in full force. But over the years, by developing greater Self-Awareness, with the guidance from my psychologist, and support from my husband, I am learning to minimise the duration of these incidents. This has taken years of hard work, commitment and trust.

When Steve was diagnosed with his brain tumour, I took six weeks off work to support and focus on him. I knew I was unable to give 100% of my attention to my clients when my husband was at home preparing for and undergoing what was to be 15 hour surgery. There was no guilt associated with being unavailable for my clients. I was also mindful of the importance of Self-Care during that time. I ate well, averaged 4-6 hours sleep a night, reached out to friends when I was upset, scared, and angry, and I walked every day.

Becoming a strong advocate for Steve when he was at his most vulnerable came easily – my mantra, “whatever it takes”. Returning to work when he was transferred to a Rehabilitation Hospital was a joyous occasion, it made me realise how much I love what I do. I adapted to my extended schedule of work and hospital commitments. But I was soon to become completely drained of energy, resourcefulness and resolve when Steve fell and hit his head. While thankfully, there was no fracture or cerebral haemorrhage, it was the first time in the two months since the diagnosis that I’d considered the possibility that he could die. I realised I was not coping with the Stress and Fear that I was associating with the hospital. So, for the first time in my life, I asked for help. The gratitude and relief I felt at being able to take time out to re-energise, refocus and recalibrate when our friends immediately stepped into help, was also liberating when I realised it was okay to reach out to others. It represented a significant turning point in my life.

Which brings me back to the Power of Self Belief and Self Care. Being able to share a part of me that I tried to hide for 25 years has come as a result of developing a good relationship with myself, and learning to be comfortable with who I am. It has brought me to this stage in my life where I feel confident to take the time and space to restore my Equilibrium. The energetic, optimistic, compassionate Me that people see every day is Who I Am. And so too, is the lesser known side of Me, the one who experiences Anxiety. ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

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26 August 2019 7:37 PM

Kat , Your capacity for such rawness and your enviable courage in publishing this article is simply phenomenal and a testament to your compassion for others…as I am sure that you wrote this in order to help others….I see you .. Love you lots Jack x

27 August 2019 8:18 AM
Reply to  Jackie

Thank you, my dear friend. You are one of my treasured and trusted confidantes who truly ‘sees me’ x

31 August 2019 8:26 AM

Everyone has mental health issues as our behaviour so clearly reveals, there is no such thing as “normal” and perhaps this is nowhere more obvious than in our unwell first world culture. Very few even recognise their own “issues”, let alone open up about them to others, as you have done so bravely. The sooner we each realise that change is only possible with honesty, the more healing our world will become. Your vulnerability is so beautiful and so encouraging. Brene Brown is so right. Thanks for lighting the way, Kat.

31 August 2019 5:19 PM
Reply to  Chris

Thanks Chris, my hope in writing this is that the ‘vulnerability’ is received/perceived in the way Brene Brown describes it, “the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
And yes, we all need to invest as much time and attention into our mental wellbeing as we do into our physical wellbeing.

22 October 2019 10:54 AM

Thanks, Kat, for illuminating your inner world so clearly. You are courageous. And wise.