I’ve grappled with anxiety ever since my first panic attack six years ago, during an otherwise inconsequential day in June. Driving from my house to the supermarket, I felt my tongue dry up, then my mouth. It happened slowly, as if I were swallowing sand. My throat dried out too. A guttural sense of fear boiled up from my stomach and the two feelings collided in my chest, sending adrenaline coursing through my body. Gasping for air I slammed on the brakes, hands scrabbling for the door, and flung myself out.
A frantic phone call to 999 and a trip to the hospital later, I learned I was not dying (though I had proclaimed it loudly, and incessantly, to the nurse) but having a panic attack. Their prescription? Diazepam. But after just a few weeks on the medication I could no longer cope with the debilitating nausea, headaches, dizziness and peculiar sensation of grief that I felt. I know that for many, medication (more specifically: antidepressants – which I wasn't offered) has and will always be a lifeline. I have several friends for whom medication has immeasurably enriched their lives, but for me it just never seemed to mesh.
At this point, anxiety was costing me my social life, my job and my sanity and the diazepam (which, FYI, is not meant to be taken for longer than four weeks) seemed to be doing the same. I had to do something else. And so I did. Forty-seven things in fact. Over the past six years, I tried everything and anything in a bid to gain control over the disorder that, like a vine, had taken root in my mind and was slowly unfurling through my body.
Some approaches were life-changing, some empowering, some bizarre and some downright useless. I looked to scientifically backed solutions advocated by the NHS and further afield, to more holistic approaches.
I started with the more conventional methods recommended by my GP, things like cognitive behavioural therapy (available freely on the NHS) and mindfulness; an eight-week mindfulness course to be precise (I opted to do it through The Mindfulness Project for £325), where one entire hour was taken up by eating a raisin ("smell the raisin, rub the raisin between your fingers, roll it on your tongue"). For a while, I practised being mindful for 45 minutes daily – but it became a chore and so I turned to mindfulness apps to help give me a focus. If you haven’t tried it, Happy Not Perfect (£38 for six months) is the best app I’ve found so far. It’s light-hearted, engaging and encourages manageable habits.
I still use lots of the coping strategies I was taught during my CBT sessions. Practised often, they help to rewire the way your brain works and create new neurolingual pathways and in turn, new, calmer habits.
After much research online, I tried alternative therapies like seeing a naturopath, EFT (emotional freedom technique), hypnotherapy and Qi. If you’ve never heard of Qi, it’s a part of Chinese traditional medicine and means 'life energy'. It’s the understanding that we are the sum of our energy and so clearing 'blocks' helps our bodies and minds return to a natural equilibrium. It's important to note that many therapies termed 'alternative', 'complementary' or 'holistic' can be lacking in in-depth scientific research so it's always best to read up about any alternative therapies on the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) website and to make your own decision about pursuing before handing over any cash.
Many of my 47 things weren't cheap so my decision to spend money on them was a conscious decision to spend less elsewhere. I wanted to prioritise my mental health and felt that, even if the thing I tried out didn’t work, I wouldn’t miss another dress from & Other Stories or an extra few takeaways. I simply put my card down and accepted that I’d made the decision.
The one I get asked about the most is F**k It therapy. People like the idea of it because being able to call a profanity 'therapy' feels thrilling. I came to it after a friend recommended John C. Parkin's book F**k It Therapy: The Profane Way to Profound Happiness, and unlike traditional therapy it doesn’t involve sitting on a sofa, talking about your feelings.
It’s about realising that what you're worrying about doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things and that this attitude to life helps free us from anxiety. The book compels us to adopt a 'f**k it' attitude and let go where we might once have clung harder. Of course, I am simplifying it but it’s an incredibly liberating way to live if you fully (or even partly) embrace it. Try it now, think of something that’s causing you stress and then firmly declare "f**k it". Spit it out, shout it even, push that 'f' out with force. How do you feel?
Finally, there were the methods I discovered intuitively, like dancing to '90s music in the morning. I lock myself in the bathroom, put on a playlist and just move in whatever way feels right. Sometimes this means haphazardly shaking my limbs, sometimes it means twirling from wash basket to basin and sometimes it means gyrating my hips. It is as if I’m literally shaking the anxiety out and replacing it with endorphins. Plus, it makes me laugh, and laughing is always a brilliant antidote to anxiety.
Without a doubt, the best thing I tried was the NHS-approved Alpha Stim AID which is expensive to buy outright but can be tried for free for 30 days first. At first it felt ominously like a Black Mirror prop but soon became my go-to. This cranial electrotherapy stimulation device relieves symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and depression by transmitting an electrical waveform to your cells to help them regain equilibrium. You attach a clip to each ear and wear it around your neck for up to an hour each day. The results aren’t instant, but within a week I felt more in control – I slept better, I no longer woke feeling hollow with fear, and making it through a meal in a busy pub seemed increasingly palatable. I wore it every day for six weeks and now use it three or four times a week.
There were methods that I found to be less effective; in fact, some left me feeling more anxious than before. Flotation tanks, pitched to me by a friend as an ethereal experience of weightlessness, actually felt like being trapped in a vat of water. At £50 a pop I felt I would have benefited more from sitting in a bath at home alongside several £10 notes. Similarly, I found little solace in Kundalini breathing. It mainly stirred up a feeling that I was hyperventilating and the two times I tried it forced me back into a darkened room.
So what has trying 47 things to get over my anxiety taught me?
First of all, it’s that the aim is not to 'get over it' but to manage it, lovingly and respectfully, like you would a child who is fearful. This is followed closely by the fact that throwing money at something doesn’t guarantee it will work. Yes, I use a £500 machine but I also practise completely free breathing techniques every day. Of course, it's important to remember that what worked for me may not work for others and vice versa. And my first port of call would always be to visit your GP and have a conversation with them about the best way to approach your treatment.
But I think my biggest, and most encouraging, takeaway is that people are tackling anxiety in a million different ways. You have never, ever run out of options even when it seems like it, and there is always, always light at the end of the tunnel – you just might not have found the right tunnel yet.
So keep trying, keep experimenting, because somewhere out there is a missing piece of your jigsaw that will help you, finally, see the bigger picture again.
If you are struggling with your mental health, please contact your GP or reach out to mental health charity Mind via email, their helpline 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri 9-6) or text 86463.
The 47 things I tried to help with my anxiety
F**k it therapy
Eight-week mindfulness course
Happy Not Perfect app
Cutting out social arrangements
Narrowing down my workload
Cutting out social media
Reading in the morning
Pulse point essential oils
Dancing (in my bedroom, naked)
Mental health documentaries
Speaking to others with anxiety
Getting out of the city
Reading self-help books. My most recommended: First We Make The Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson
Cutting out sugar
Creating tranquil playlists on Spotify
Drinking holy basil tea (Pukka does a fabulous one called Three Tulsi)
CBD oil and jelly beans