We live in uncertain times and anxiety is on the rise. It can strike anyone and vary from a general feeling that everything is on top of you, to full blown panic attacks, self harm and even suicide. When you consider that men are less likely to share these feelings, or to be told to ‘pull yourself together’ if we do, then it’s no surprise that they’re having a widespread impact on mental health.
Author Aaron Gillies’s book ‘How To Survive The End Of The World (When It’s In Your Own Head)’ explores his own experiences with panic attacks: ‘The human equivalent of your computer freezing because you asked it to do too many things at once.’ These blighted his life and combined with depression and insomnia, causing him to self-medicate with drugs and booze, before he was finally diagnosed with severe anxiety, and embarked on a mission to find practical ways to live with it.
RSNG read his book, which uses humour to face his greatest mental challenges – here are some of Gillies insights into anxiety, together with his practical advice to help us all find more calm…
A New World Of Threat As Gillies says in his book, our brains are hardwired to flick into fight or flight mode when faced with a perceived threat. The brain’s amygdala has evolved to keep us alert, aware of our surroundings and act in an emergency. ‘It is an extremely important part of our anatomy’s, but like most things in life it can be a dick for no bloody reason,’ Gillies says, pointing out that the threats have evolved but the amygdala has not. ‘In a very short time we went from panicking about tiger attacks to panicking that our bank card would be refused.’
Now, standing in a packed underground train can generate the same emotional and physical reaction in our brains as a predator attack – the amygdala floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol, while the brain stops creating serotonin, depressing our moods. ‘We panic, we try our best to work out what the threat is, we get drenched in fear and this is what the root of anxiety is. It’s an evolutionary fuck-up, an overcompensation that once defined us as a dominant species but now makes it difficult for some of us to make eye contact with people.’
In the back of your mind you’ll feel calmer for having a plan B even if you don’t need one
How To Survive Anxiety… At Bedtime Gillies himself suffers from insomnia, which he says isn’t surprising because for the anxious mind, ‘bedtime isn’t time to power down and cool off before another hectic day, it’s the time to scrutinise, to carefully pick your life apart… The anxious brain is the enemy of sleep.’ This leads to an hyperactive mind that reruns past events to see if there was a way to make them less painful or disastrous. But this is just a coping mechanism, says Gillies, because in a fight or flight scenario you are most likely to react in the exact same way as you did before – you survived, didn’t you? And so the cycle repeats.
Gillies has some tried and tested tips to avoid circling the mental drain in this way. Firstly, caffeine is often the go to crutch for the insomniac but its long half-life mean you should avoid it in ten and coffee, as well as energy drinks, after midday. ‘Avoid energy drinks in general really. First, very few liquids that you force inside yourself should be luminous orange or bright green. Second they taste like someone blended a troll doll with some laundry detergent and one of those emoji cushions.’
Sticking to a routine also helps him: ‘We can all be fuckers for staying up until 2am for no reason, but try to get into bed at the same time every night; read, write, do something that doesn’t involve technology beforehand. Look after your noggin.’
…On Public Transport Most of Gillies panic attacks have occurred when travelling; on public transport or in airports and stations. ‘In essence, public transport is just a variety of different metal boxes on wheels that hurl you at your destination with little to no regard for your own personal space and with the added ingredient of other people… It’s a combination of social anxiety and being thrown into a situation over which I have no control.’
Part of the problem is that coping with a stressful commute depends on having a plan, and a routine, but other people’s routines can conflict with your own, as in when they play music out loud on their phones. ‘The people who do this usually play music that sounds like a ketamine-addled horse with a head injury causing a disturbance in a typewriter factory.’
Gillies recommends walking as the ultimate solution to commuting hell. ‘When you’re walking the variables are all under your control. You can avoid people, you can go at your own pace, it is one of those rare situations in which you can consider all the outcomes in a rational manner.’ Of course, walking isn’t always possible, but he does have tips for the anxious traveller, including proper preparation. Set off earlier than you need to, plan different routes and have backup plans. ‘You probably won’t need them but in the back of your mind you’ll feel calmer for having a plan B,’ he says.
Or, you can use simple exercises, such as breathing (in for four, pause for two, out for four), or tapping your index finger to your thumb in successions of four. Gillie even takes inspiration from Die Hard. ‘When you are on a flight and you are feeling anxious, you should make fists with your feet. I don’t know why it works, but if it’s good enough for John McClane it’s good enough for me.’
Get the hell out of there – go for a walk and get your brain out of that space
…At Work Anxiety sufferers tend to be, or become, more introverted than others, which can create challenges when attempting to make an impact working in a team, or even leading one, including ‘imposter syndrome’. ‘The anxious brain tends to lean towards being humble, unable to take compliments, apologising constantly and not bragging when you achieve,’ says Gillies. Parts of this behaviour are not necessarily a bad thing but Gillies has found that when anxiety threatens to have negative impacts at work, ‘turning off and one again’ mentally is required.
‘Get the hell out of there. Go for a walk or something and get your brain out of that space… this one genuinely helps me on a day to day basis. Put your headphones on, listen to a good podcast or a playlist and even a twenty minute walk will give your brain enough time to do a little reset.’
…On A Date Whether you are in a relationship or entering the dating scene, anxiety is clearly going to be a hindrance on date night. When you combine the social pressure and perhaps awkwardness of the situation with the irrational, anxious brain’s tendency to be its own worst critic, it can seem a safer bet to stay home alone with Netflix. The trick is, says Gillies, to give your rational brain the upper hand, not with the usual self-help cliche of, ‘repeating “I am valid” in the mirror three times a day’ but by remembering a simple rule of life: ‘Don’t be a dickhead, don’t think of yourself as a dickhead and don’t let anyone else treat you like a dickhead.’
He recommends some quick hacks to boost confidence on date night, including not agreeing to meet somewhere you don’t want to, treating yourself to new clothes and not feeling obligated to contribute to conversations: ‘If you’re feeling anxious and feel like you’re not talking enough, don’t worry. If you won’t stop talking, take a deep breath, count to four, release for four and see if that has helped… Talking too much can be a symptom of anxiety and often your own anecdotes can get away from you.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Angela Ceberano’s Ted Talk on embracing opportunities outside your comfort zone to become a warrior not a worrier…
How To Survive The End Of The World by Aaron Gillies is available on Amazon and iTunes now
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