Sailing the rocking anxiety boat.

How I stay afloat with anxiety.

by Shaun Kay

As I

crawled up into a fetal like ball on the creaky wooden floors of my family home, I sobbed uncontrollably. It was like violent waves smashing against a rugged shoreline. Only it wasn’t the shoreline that was feeling the wrath – it was the waves of emotions splashing against my soul, erupting into tears as they left my eyes and poured down my face.

I did swimming lessons every summer as a kid.  I was a strong swimmer – I had my bronze medallion – and I had spent countless days in the ocean, baring it even in the harshest months. Yet nothing had prepared me for this feeling of drowning. Drowning in fear, worry, anger, pain and sadness. Trying to stay afloat when self-doubt, vulnerability and loneliness had pierced me through, like a thousand pin holes in the only life jacket I had to keep me alive. My vessel was broken, my soul was crushed and I was lost in a sea larger than I could comprehend. I wasn’t sure I would survive.

This fateful day was the start of the most challenging time of my life.  I lay there,  paralysed by an overwhelming barrage of thoughts that had my synapses exploding like cannons on a pirate ship. I realised I lacked a compass or map to navigate me away from what I felt as a never-ending storm of destruction. What are your options when you’re lost at sea, when you don’t have a plan and you can’t see the safety of the shore on the horizon?

You just have to stay afloat, keep your head above water and keep on swimming.

This harrowing time I recall as still the most frightening and emotional time of my life. I would not wish it upon anybody, but ultimately, I am grateful for it. Learning how to swim was easy, learning how to surf was hard, but learning how to ride the waves of life is transformational. The dips, the troughs, the breaks, the swell, the winds and the currents are all capable of destroying gigantic vessels, ripping apart continents and taking lives in the blink of an eye. Stress, guilt, sleep deprivation, fatigue, self-doubt, worry and fear are just waiting to pull you under and hold you there awhile… when you ignore them and fail to patch those holes that appear in your vessel.

These emotions are always there. Just like water surrounding a ship, they follow you everywhere you go. Those little voices in your head, the lump in your chest,  high heart rate, shallow breathing, self-doubt, negative thinking, being judgmental, cursing, aggression and plenty more… they are there just waiting to puncture your hull, and you want to pray you have the right tools to patch it before you sink. When we become tired, stressed and burnt out these emotions start to rear their ugly little heads and the longer we continue without a battle plan the sooner we sink.

That was me… drowning in my own emotions. Crippled with the fear, self-doubt and irrational thinking that comes with anxiety.

As I lay there on the floor I had a decision to make. I could keep letting these negative emotions creep in,  causing me to self-implode, where I pushed everybody away, where I compartmentalized everything and completely ignored why this was happening to me or acknowledge I wasn’t okay, or I could reach out for some lifesaving support and safely plot myself on a path of least resistance.

I think you can guess what I chose. I chose to be the captain of the ship. I chose to own my anxiety. I chose to see the sunshine in a world full of rain clouds. This decision may seem straight forward to anybody who doesn’t understand anxiety. Although most of the general population will suffer from it many times during their lifetime.

I have no idea how long I laid there on the floor. Long enough to empty the ocean and drain my entire system of any liquid I am sure. I eventually picked myself up and slowly made my way outside Here I safely sat on solid ground and ,as the sun shined down on my beautiful bald head, I told myself that now was the time to deploy a rescue mission and retrieve every little bit of my crushed soul.

As many of you will know, anxiety is not a quick fix – it doesn’t just disappear and never return. As mentioned previously, it is around us all the time. Our minds are programmed to protect us, to initiate the fight-or-flight response whenever we are threatened or in danger. This is despite the fact that, most often, the threat is perceived rather than actual (like a giant Octopus trying to destroy our ship).

In writing this, I can think of thousands of ways to try and paint a picture for you of how I started to rebuild myself and surge towards happiness and health. So instead of taking you on a bumpy ride through the Bermuda triangle (where we may never come back), I will help you circumnavigate the globe and sail the seven seas together. After all, it takes a whole crew to safely sail a ship through the eye of a storm.

I have encapsulated my top 7 strategies for someone who experiences anxiety. These 7 strategies have been essential to my success and ability to now live in a more mindful, present and healthy manner, while still managing my anxiety. It has been 5 months now without medication, and I safely manage my anxiety with these strategies (and a few other little tools I have put in my puncture repair kit), saving me from another sinking disaster thanks to a meltdown.

7 strategies for smooth sailing:

1.MOVE

Ever since the day I started therapy and worked consistently to manage my emotions I have attributed movement to managing anxiety. Our bodies and minds are connected and by moving we produce feel good hormones, pheromones and other neurological benefits, but most importantly, the way our body is moving in space sends direct messages to our brain telling it that we are okay, alive and well.

I am comfortably at a point now where I can sense and feel when I need to get up and move. Depending on the way I feel it may be as simple as standing for a minute or two rather than being seated, when I wake up every morning, rather than lying in bed with a lump in my chest, stuck and paralyzed, I force myself to get up and go for a short walk.

I make sure I go to the gym 3-4 times a week and practice yoga 3-4 times a week. I have found the balance between strength and stretch to be critical in helping me find a balance. Too much of one and not the other, leaves me feeling uneasy and up and down like yo-yo.

Find what works for you and program movement in to your routine. Don’t negotiate it either, your time to move is just as important as breathing in oxygen. Do it regularly.

2. YOGA

Hands down the greatest personal discovery I have ever made. Learning to flow. I credit much of my transformation and arrival out of anxiety to yoga and the incredible journey I have been on with myself. If you had of told me 5 years ago that I would now be finding myself in cat-cow, downward dog or trikonasana for an hour, up to 5 times a week. I would of said both you and I had lost our minds.

Recovering from my big “shipwreck” catastrophe required me to rebuild myself, to regenerate my soul and really connect with who I was and who I wanted to become. I have learned to love myself through yoga. Whether it has been letting go of the “ego”, connecting with the breath or just learning to appreciate myself… I attribute much of this self-love and compassion to yoga.

There are some incredible instructors here in Perth and abroad who I have connected with. In their own special way they have touched my life and help me grow into the person I am. I am forever grateful to my yogis and continue to appreciate all that they day.

Yoga helps you to connect to your breath and as one instructor pointed out recently “if you take short shallow breaths you will live a short life. If you take long deep breaths, you will live a long life.

Breathing is so powerful, it helps us to reset and reconnect with our mind, making us calmer and feeling in control.

I started with an app called Smiling Minds and have since discovered Calm Mind Project, Brain Gym and The Breath Project. Just spending a few minutes listening to a guided exercise significantly helps to manage my emotions and you can do the same!

Completing my yoga teacher training is on my list for 2019!

3. FOOD IS FUEL

It doesn’t take a story like this, a news report or a good teacher to tell you that the food you eat is so important for your wellbeing. One big thing I have learnt with anxiety and stress is that my appetite disappears and when I have suffered significant bouts of stress or worry, I don’t eat as much. I lose weight and energy along with it.

After studying partly nutrition at University I sometimes get in my own head and overcomplicate what I eat. The most valuable lesson I have for you here is, as I have stated already “YOU ARE THE CAPTAIN”, you are responsible for your vessel and what fuel you put in it. Eating rubbish may give you a short term buzz of pleasure, but it doesn’t provide your body with the nutrients it needs to produce the right hormones. I am not saying turn vegan (yet), but it is imperative that you “consciously eat”.

This means being mindful when you eat. Understand what you are putting into your mouth, make time to prepare fresh food with a balance of all food groups and when you are eating it, please focus on eating, chew your food and actually enjoy it. Most of us mindlessly eat, scoffing food down and then wonder why an hour later we have got heart burn or indigestion.

4. “ME” TIME

This is your time and your time only. I have it programmed into my schedule, diary and phone that for at least an hour a day you dedicate this time to yourself. Do something that nourishes your soul and makes you feel great as you switch off and reflect.

I like to get up at 5:30am and spend the first hour priming myself for the day ahead. A barefoot walk in the park, swim in the ocean or solid jog, followed by 15-20mins of meditation, writing down daily gratitude, make some turmeric tea, cook a nutritious breakfast and then dial in on my to do list for the day, before switching any technology on.

However, you like to relax and unwind just be sure to set aside one hour, leave the phone away or turned off and simply enjoy your own company.

Solitude is so important when cultivating self-love and resilience.

5. LEARNING

When was the last time you learnt something new? Most people struggle to answer this question. When was the last time you were actually bewildered and wondered “how on earth did that happen”?

When suffering from anxiety and mental illness, I could have thought about all kinds of ways to repair the tiny problems that were draining all my energy and crushing my soul. Instead, I decided to educate myself on the whole problem and then work towards finding my own solutions to why I was feeling this way.

I used my therapy sessions as learning sessions as well, where in between the tears and deep breaths I would take notes, questions and inquire about why I was the way I was. I studied articles, read books, listened to podcasts and began learning more about mental health.

I am not saying you have to become an expert in psychology, but please think of something that interests you and start learning about it. It could be a new language, art, music or woodwork, anything to get your creative juices flowing is scientifically proven to help you create new brain connections.

6. COMMUNICATE

The most powerful changes to my mindset and outlook all came as a result of opening up and owning that I struggled with anxiety. I encourage you to open up and let your support network know what you’re going through. Whether it be family, friends, colleagues, a boss, coach etc. disclosing what you’re going through not only gets it off your chest, it promotes support and care from the people that really do want to see you smiling.

The most liberating experience I have ever had was when after a 2 hour yoga session designed to flush the body’s lymphatic system and cleanse our soul, I was seated in a room with approx. 20 other beautiful people who had just been on the same journey with me. We each spoke about what the class brought up for us internally and emotionally. I listened to each person’s challenges and struggles that rose during the class, each of which resonated with me. When it was my turn, with tears pouring down my face, I openly explained my battles, feelings and insecurities… I felt so strong and powerful in that moment.

Open your heart and talk with your mouth, people will listen and people care about you.

7. OWN IT

I love who I am. Follicle lacking, bald Buddha… I embrace who I am, what I look like and to be honest I no longer care what people think of me. My family and friend’s opinion will always be valued, but not necessarily taken to heart.

Owning the rocking boat, I was on, made the storm in a teacup seem much more manageable. I had ignored the warning signs and failed to prepare for the storm ahead as I attempted a solo crossing of a wild sea. When I recruited support and wore my anxiety like a badge of honor, the real growth started.

My crew of amazing people were the catalyst for my recovery, the more I opened up and reached out to friends and family the better I felt. It took weeks to start feeling better about myself, but with every wave of anxiety I rode it had highs and lows and eventually dissipated back to a calm sea.

But, this final piece of advice is essential… OWN YOUR ANXIETY… don’t let it own you.

Finding the safety of a shoreline may seem impossible when you are in the eye of a storm, but after every storm the sun will shine and just like every day you are faced with another opportunity to live your life.

When the going gets tough and your struggling to stay afloat, I hope these 7 strategies and my story give you the strength and courage you need to arrive safely on a paradise island. Remember, you are never alone, you are loved and you are important.

You are the captain of your fate, you are the master of your soul.