Last week, I had to give a presentation about rapid cancer diagnosis services at a conference.
As you may know, I managed to overcome my severe generalised anxiety about 10 years ago. But the thought of standing in front of hundreds of people presenting my work still triggers a hefty fear response.
Whenever I thought of it, my stomach knotted and an icy steel hand attempted to crush my throat.
For two weeks, I woke up at 3 am, endless thoughts whirling in my mind like deck-chairs in a hurricane.
What if I go blank and embarrass myself? Will more qualified people question my methods and I won’t have the answers? Will the audience discover that I don’t really know what I’m doing? And what if I burp? Or fall off the podium?
All hope for a restful night’s sleep was wrecked by my unproductive rumination. And my days grew darker as the incessant worries fed my apprehension. Mutating a simple 10-minute presentation into a confidence-eating, mood-killing monstrosity, out to destroy me.
I had a sadistic teacher in high school who mocked and ridiculed every pupil who dared to attract attention. I was petrified of needing the toilet during his lessons because I knew he would verbally abuse me for asking permission.
So, I worried about German lessons all day in advance. And my body reacted to my anxiety with an overwhelming urge to pee as soon as the lesson started.
I suffered through those 50 minutes, digging my finger nails into the palm of my hand, so the pain would distract me from my screaming bladder. But too often, I was forced to raise my hand and face his derision because I couldn’t hold on any longer.
It made me feel pathetic. Like my body betrayed me. Worked against me.
I started to mistrust myself and my ability to control my actions (and bladder). As a consequence, I developed toilet anxiety, which haunted me during my teens and all the way through my twenties. Whenever I had no immediate toilet access (for example when travelling in the car, in the cinema or on hikes), I needed to go every 15 minutes.
And it wasn’t just in my mind. I really desperately, urgently had to pee! Every time.
Ashamed of my irrepressible bodily reactions, I tried to hide my anxiety from everybody else. When I was out with other people, it took all my strength to keep it together. To stop my anxiety from swallowing me whole and my body from humiliating me. All while maintaining a composed exterior.
So nobody would know how weak I was. How inadequate. How much of a failure.
But my mind was consumed by worries about the nearest facility access, absorbed by suppressing the feelings of panic, overwhelmed by the almost impossible task to act “normal”. And every outing was torture.
So, I avoided activities that involved other people whenever I could. Locked myself into my small flat where it was safe. Where I wasn’t at risk of humiliating myself and my bladder behaved.
For many years, I missed out on life. I merely existed. Imprisoned by my anxiety. Suffering in silence and isolation.
Until one liberating (but terrifying) step changed it all.
Several years ago, I was part of a multidisciplinary team updating a national guideline for breast cancer detection and management.
I finished a presentation of the research plan to 20 leading oncologists and cancer geneticists, as one of them stood up, shook his head in disapproval and said:
“This is all wrong! We are dealing with an important issue here. People’s lives are at stake. We can’t have your inexperience screw this up. What are you? A student? This is not up to scratch.”
As you can imagine I was stunned. Hurt. And angry. We had worked hard on the research plan and it was good.
A sharp, burning feeling spread through my throat as I suppressed tears. I wanted to defend myself and my work. Tell him what an ignorant, arrogant idiot he was.
But instead, I mumbled: “Ok, we will revisit it until the next meeting”. And excused myself to cry in the toilet where nobody would see it.
At the time, his criticism crushed me. Made me doubt my abilities. For days I replayed the events in my mind. Overanalysed what had gone wrong, what I could have done better to avoid the inquisition. And beat myself up for stupid mistakes I made and for not standing up for myself.
If the same happened to me again now, I would react differently.
It wouldn’t offend and hurt me, or knock my confidence. Because I know 3 important truths about criticism today that could have spared me a lot of suffering, upset and heartache.
My husband recently acquired a new Christmas jumper. Yes, this is him modelling it in the picture! He wears it everywhere. Dropping little one off at school, to shopping, to the cinema, at restaurants. EVERYWHERE!
And not only is the jumper visually…well, let’s say flamboyant, the eyes also light up and it plays the Darth Vader theme. I kid you not!
A few years ago, I would have been mortified. Incapable of walking alongside him while his belly was trumpeting the Imperial March.
A few years ago, I would have been so embarrassed that I wanted to crawl and hide in a hole somewhere. My face would have been bright red with shame. I would have looked around anxiously, horrified of the judgement in the eyes of the passers-by.
And I would have been furious with my husband for putting me through it all. Intentionally! I would have blamed him and resented him for my suffering.
But today, I think it’s hilarious. I am actually considering getting one for myself. Because I learned two crucial truths in the past 10 years that made all the difference.
In 2003, my life had shrunk to the size of my one-bedroom flat. I was stuck in a prison of my own making. Paralysed by fear, insecurity and anxiety.
I felt like life was running away from me. As if I was standing behind a giant window, a one-way mirror, watching other people move by. I witnessed their adventures, failures and successes. I saw them laugh, cry, love and grow.
They had happiness and fulfilment. They had fun, enjoyment, freedom. They lived.
They were oblivious of the pathetic, shivering creature observing them from the dark back room. The terrified bundle of misery that envied them, wondered how they did it. How they could be so care-free, light and joyful.
To me, every aspect of life was a threat. I was traumatised by the past, horrified by the present and petrified of an uncertain future. Fear, anxiety and panic determined my every move. And I knew it had to change. I had to reclaim my life.
I suffered from crippling anxiety for over 10 years. I was stuck in a prison of my own making. Watching other people live, laugh, love and grow but too scared to participate.
I was terrified by every aspect of life. Horrified that the traumas of my past would catch up with me, petrified by the terrors lurking in the present and dreading an unknown future.
I was a mere shadow of my former self. I felt pathetic, weak and worthless. My quality of life was terrible and sometimes life as it was didn’t feel worth living.
But I managed to work through it. Panic and anxiety are no longer parts of my life. I am free to make my own choices without compromise. I am free.
And today I want to share with you my most beloved exercise. It was the first and fundamental step in my escape from the clutches of fear. If you only did one thing to overcome your anxiety, this is the one I’d recommend!
Simply because it breaks the “cycle of fear”. I’ll explain…
I am not generally scared of the dentist. Which is surprising considering that, throughout my life, I feared almost everything at some point.
But last week, two of my fillings had to be replaced. My dentist insisted on an anaesthetic injection. Which I hate! The entire left side of my face was numb, including my nose and eye!
And then the procedure started. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Two people were pressing against me from each side. They inserted countless instruments into my mouth and manhandled my teeth. All to the tune of Little Mix on the radio.
When I opened my eyes, the bright surgical light above my face blinded me and I saw colourful sparkles as I shut them again. I felt a slight bout of claustrophobia gripping me and fought it down.
And then out came the drill. It makes all your hairs stand up if you hear it while you’re in the waiting room. And close up, the shrill screeching in combination with the unpleasant pressure against the affected teeth is terrifying.
I could feel my whole body tense up. My finger nails were digging into my thighs. Panic crept up, adrenaline accelerated my heart rate and all I wanted was to get out of there.
I wanted to scream, remove those utensils from my mouth, jump up and escape the awful situation so I could breathe again.
I was about to bounce out of that dentist chair, when I realised that I wasn’t in danger. But I wasn’t overreacting either! My panic resulted from 3 common triggers that we often mistake for fear. Even without a real threat.
By the autumn of 1999, my life was soul-sucking misery. I had suffered from social anxiety, an overreactive bladder and irritable bowel syndrome for many years. But I coped. Life wasn’t a blast, but I was ok.
All changed when I moved to Vienna. I chose a University further from home to escape the rejection, heart-ache and bullying of my school days. But it left me alone in the city, depending on nobody but myself for the first time in my life. And I was terrified.
Everything had changed. My emotions were in turmoil and I resisted the new situation, unwilling to adapt. I felt forlorn, helpless, vulnerable.
Even little things, such as popping over to the shop across the road, became unsurmountable challenges and triggered frequent panic attacks. I existed with a constant baseline level of fear. The sick butterfly feeling in my stomach accompanied me from dawn until dusk and then turned into full-blown terror at night. Every unfamiliar sound sent sharp shocks through my chest. My heart was racing all night and I laboured hard to force air into my lungs.
Between lectures, I sat alone while others had already formed friendships. I watched them chatting and laughing. But I couldn’t get myself to start a conversation, to just say hello and see what happened. Maybe I was scared of being rejected again. Maybe I thought I would make a fool of myself. But I was lonely and isolated and I remember that I cried a lot.
But all changed when I read the book that saved my life…