Lowering Your Anxiety

...Or at Least How I Try and Do It

Image: Richard Brind 

I’m on a train as I write this. On my way back from Sheffield, to my current place of residence, Salisbury. The sun is shining and we’ve just come out of the Bank Holiday weekend. Everything seems fine. Or does it? Well, I thought it was time I aired some of my feelings to VOCAL’S PYSCHE subsection, it always feels just as good to write as it does to talk.

The last few weeks for me have been a culmination of my anxiety and depression and I’ve really been through some experiences. I’m going to share my thoughts here, during Mental Illness Awareness Week. The catalyst for me really, and an outstanding source of negative energy in my life lately, has been my experience with (attempting) to learn to drive. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, a square peg with relation to the fact I can’t drive. It’s the almost universal symbol for freedom and convenience it would seem. Granted, it’s hardly that impressive and envy-inducing once you reach the age where practically everyone you know can drive but that has, at times, made me feel inadequate. Definitely that I’m one crucial step behind.

Lots of things would be so much easier if I could drive; going away for a day or two, playing gigs wherever I like with whatever equipment I like in tow, loading up the car with a big shop, giving private music lessons, visiting Sheffield, or friends and acquaintances anywhere. And in September last year, after much settling in Salisbury, I found an instructor and decided it was indeed time. I started off about as well as could be expected for a first lesson, showing some praiseworthy understanding of clutch control so it would seem.

As time went on a few things fell into place, I never expected it to be a quick process at all, not something that one can at all rush, or wing it. I got on with my instructor relatively well, he was always blunt and direct about the mistakes I was making and their consequences. I understand he has to push me and put the fear of God into me to some extent, but this became a problem once my anxiety started to resurface. My steering did not improve. My braking did not improve. Nor did my hazard perception. Nor did my ability to act on my own initiative and assess the situation of the road. I became easily flustered. Panicked. Shorter of breath. Shorter of reasons and explanations why I was making mistakes, many of which I had not made up until that point (such as giving incorrect signals).

After Christmas, there was a brief period of improvement but not enough for me to feel less worried behind the wheel, and also not enough to stop me feeling as if I wasn’t doing enough revision, theory, highway code, hazard perception, or just thinking like a driver. I felt some fatigue at work. I was less inspired to make music. Or felt I couldn’t and shouldn’t because: “I can make all the music I want after I learn to drive and have somewhere to take it” and “It’ll give you a better quality of life.”

But it didn’t. No matter how much I told myself it would in the long term and that it was worth it, it was only a growing detriment in the short term. Increasingly more convinced I couldn’t do it, and believing I was merely under obligation to an instructor who thought I could (a belief he possibly felt he had to have as a mentor and a businessman too, after all), I continued with my lessons by cramming one in after work, to get one out of the way to enjoy the coming weekend. I don’t mind telling the truth here: the lesson was aborted. Fifteen minutes in, I was acting too slowly and cautiously when moving off, meeting, and approaching traffic in a completely haphazard way, and when I parked far too close to another learner in front, this riled my instructor, whose impatience with me I am convinced had been growing.

I burst into tears. “I can’t do it. There’s something wrong with me. I know what I need to do but I just can’t do it.” These are all things I said to him and very much big, key phrases where anxiety is concerned. How many times do we tell ourselves under anxiety that we can whatever it is we’re trying to do? How many times have we told ourselves that we’re “different” that there’s “something wrong with us” if we are unable to do it? And how many times do we tell ourselves that we have to do what we’re trying to do? That it is imperative.

Bizarrely enough, I did take another lesson a week after. But it was no improvement. I certainly didn’t feel any better and came to the conclusion that while my instructor was advising me to step up my routine and take on more lessons, I was thinking of doing just the opposite. So I did. I have taken no more driving lessons. I have not contacted him and have felt no obligation to do so. He has students. I don’t owe him my time, and as it happened I had not booked any further lessons so there was no chance that he would be waiting outside my door one morning wondering where I was.

The point I’m making here is all about minimising and reducing stress and anxiety. Yeah, you could call me a weakling. A wuss. Someone who chickens out of something difficult rather than sticking with it and the same could be said for you—by other people—if you are facing a similar decision. And you know what. Fuck them. Nothing is so imperative in life that you should sacrifice your mental health and happiness. An acquaintance of mine once asked a good friend of mine if they were happy having quit their place of work, despite their current unemployment. My friend said “Yes,” at which point another acquaintance interjected with “No, that’s the point,” thinking he was being smart and high and mighty from what I recall. 

I think back to that now and say “Well it kind of is the point really.” You don’t live to work. You don’t work to overwork. And you especially don’t, like me, hand over your evening and weekend time to something that is stressing you the fuck out because you’re more convinced of the long-term benefits than the short-term effects.

Don’t push yourself; at least not to a breaking point. I’m not saying you shouldn’t strive to succeed and better yourself. But understand who you are, what you are, what you’ve done and what you can do. A stress-free life is impossible. But what can you do to reduce stress. I practice mindfulness. I practice yoga. Calm myself with some breathing exercises when I catch myself in physical or mental pain. Think of what you can do to reduce anxiety and it’s often by not doing something that you do because other people tell you to do.

I’ve advised friends to meditate. And maybe they won’t. But if it causes them anxiety because they don’t then I would—first advise them that you should always meditate or practice yoga without fear of being judged, it works best for me as a solo activity—and secondly, tell them to just do what works. I took some yoga classes but stopped because I am a person who does fear being judged and watched.

So cut it out. If you can pinpoint the thing that gives you the most or maybe even all of your anxiety, then cut it out and move on. I haven’t sworn off driving lessons forever. Now is not the right time for me to learn. Now might not be the right time for you to do something because of the worry it causes you. Because as you’ll see from my next post (yes, it’s in two parts, folks) to say this caused all of my anxiety might not be an exaggeration.

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Lowering Your Anxiety
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