I’ve spent pretty much all my life skirting around the fact I’m an incredibly anxious person. I hide behind calling myself a worry wart, a control freak, a Monica-from-Friends and most commonly an over thinker. It’s a relief that nowadays anxiety is better understood and widely discussed. However, that doesn’t mean I’m anymore comfortable with it being a dominating part of my personality and an exhausting presence within most of my decisions, desires and dreams. I’ve mostly dealt with my anxiety using two methods; denial and flooding. Denial is the veneer of confidence, togetherness and surface level cool-cucumber I attempt to fool the world with, whilst silently wringing my hands under my desk at work or laying awake at night re-running conversations and analysing them into oblivion. Flooding is when I force situations onto myself such as backpacking around Latin America or moving my life to another country where my anxiety almost implodes with possible scenarios to fret about, and for a short time I’m left with the type of calm that potentially most people live with all the time.
I was a teenager when I was first diagnosed with a heart condition. It was an excruciating time to suffer the symptoms I initially had; palpitations and fainting. At the age of sixteen, where all I wanted to do was melt into the background and avoid the judgement of my peers, I felt like the world’s biggest attention seeker. My condition was quickly under control with medication and I have lived without any real impact on my life, other than the fact I can’t take drugs and I can’t ride rollercoasters; which let’s face it, is an over-thinkers dream existence anyway. When I arrived in America, I started getting some new and alarming symptoms which led to getting a fancy Beverly Hills cardiologist and an ultrasound of my heart. The scan was a far more emotional experience than I expected; it felt like a privilege to get up close and personal with the organ that enables me to live this huge life. And boy, was it NOISY. I can only compare it to listening to a full orchestra. The obvious comparison is the persistent and booming drum beat which you’d expect. What I wasn’t expecting was the reedy, wind-section whistling of the valves or the high pitched sinewy string-section.
Shortly after, my cardiologist shed a little light on my heart-life. Firstly, the ‘condition’ I thought I had been diagnosed with as a teen, was actually just the name of my symptoms (tachycardia) and not the cause. Secondly, he could clearly diagnose that I had Mitral Valve Prolapse. The marvellous mitral valve sits between the left atrium and the left ventricle and helps control the flow of blood as it passes from the left atrium into the left ventricle. The valve has two flaps of tissue — known as leaflets — that open and close together like a pair of swinging doors. Each time the heart beats, the left ventricle pumps blood out to the body and the flaps of the mitral valve swing shut to prevent the blood in the ventricle from flowing backward into the left atrium. In my case, one of the leaflets is oversized; causing it to occasionally ‘stick’ in the incorrect position and causing the (as you’d expect) frightening sensation that something is very wrong in the ticker department.
The sensation is always (always!) corrected by the heart and only lasts seconds, so I am extremely fortunate as it’s a completely safe and common condition, and more of an inconvenience than anything to be concerned by. The reason I am telling you this; is that the diagnosis was instantly followed up by him asking if I would consider myself an anxious person. I was totally bemused and my ‘denial’ brain was on the cusp of absolute outrage and the million reasons I am absolutely together and cool, calm, collected thank you very much. But instead I was honest, and explained that anxious is basically my default setting. He explained that he’d actually been part of a study where they investigated the link between MVP and anxiety and found it to be disproportionately high; the reason being that the condition keeps your body in a daily state of physical anxiety. This explanation was followed up with the advice to avoid stress, to reduce the symptoms. (lol)
So, after a life of denial and flooding; two very short term solutions for being anxious; this was the nudge I needed to stop being so passive about my constant over-thinking. I’m finally investing some time and effort into a journey that will see my brain grow out of those bad habits and cycles I find myself in. I’m having faith that perhaps I’m way more in control over the way I respond to situations than I have previously thought, and that I don’t just have to accept this as my forever-state. I took a month to actively reduce the time I spent on my phone, the time I spent communicating with others and the boundaries I needed to just to give myself space to stop, and re-start. I’ve found Start Where You Are by Meera Lee Patel a great source of plots + plans for areas to focus on both short and long term. I’m finding the 52 List for Happiness Journal a great way to mark my progress each week. I’ve also discovered bottomless mimosa brunches with my friend Karolina, where we seem to be able to put the entire world to rights by the time we reach number 5. It’s felt like I am getting to know an entirely new part of myself (peace sign emoji!) which is unexpected at the age of 33. One of the top recommendations from, well, everywhere has been meditation.
I signed up for Headspace and started the ‘Take 10’ programme in earnest. Firstly I was horrified by my prioritising of time. Why oh why do I think it’s acceptable to spend hours scrolling through Instagram, or logging onto my work emails at the crack of dawn, or snoozing for an extra twenty minutes, or vanishing down a conspiracy theory about Avril Lavigne; but claim I cannot find ten minutes each morning to meditate? I’m an idiot. It’s really taught me a lot in how I place value on my time and how ten minutes should not feel like such an impossible daily hurdle.
The next issue was that when I am meditating I just don’t know how to stop thinking! The nice Headspace man starts chatting and I feel totally committed to listening to him for oooh about twenty seconds, before my chain of thought goes something like:
“OK! Listen to my surroundings. Well I can hear my neighbour stomping about and Buttercup whining because I have closed the bedroom door. Maybe this would be better if I was somewhere relaxing like the beach. Then I would just hear the sea. Except the closest beach is so close to the road. And LAX. So then I’d just hear the aeroplanes too. When am I next going back to LAX anyway? Oh Kerry’s visit is soon, I can’t wait for that. I need to prepare the itinerary though. I wonder if we can get a reservation at Mama Shelter. What even is Mama Shelter? I’ve just heard lots of people talking about it but I don’t know if it’s food or drink or what. So maybe we should go somewhere I have actually been and know is good. But maybe it’s fun to try somewhere new? etc ETC ETCCCC!”
By which point, I’ve totally tuned out every tip, tactic and instruction that Headspace man is telling me. I find the Headspace blog really insightful and interesting, and their recent How to stop overthinking and start living article was great, but not specific to the meditating process.
Do you meditate and are you an over thinker? Is there hope for me yet? It feels like a key to unlocking some better brain behaviour; but at the same time it provides the perfect un-distracted space for my thoughts to run riot.