In 2022 beauty podcaster Nicola was plunged deep into an anxiety disorder. She’s been charting her recovery journey here and shares the daily tools that keep her anxiety in check
It’s been a long time since I wrote about my mental health in any depth. In some ways, I was worried that it would trigger my anxiety. It’s been a year since what I can only describe as my ‘breakdown’. I had such acute anxiety that I sometimes couldn’t take my children to school or even come downstairs to make them breakfast. Although I tried to get out most days, often it was impossible without feeling a deep sense of panic and terror. I would feel dissociated, as though I wasn’t really in my own body, which is one of the scariest and little-known symptoms of anxiety.
One day I forced myself to go for a walk and tuned into a podcast hosted by someone who had recovered from anxiety (don’t ask me which one… I listened to so many at that time). I remember thinking that would never be me. I couldn’t imagine a time when I would feel normal and well again when I’d ever be able to get on the Tube or have something as simple as a face-to-face meeting or a meal with friends.
I was absolutely certain that my life would now consist of waking up at 5 am with racing thoughts and my heart beating loudly in my chest.
I have had a diagnosed anxiety disorder that has come and gone since my teens. In lockdown, it exploded (you can read about my story The Panic Diaries here.
Although I’m not where I want to be yet, things seem to be getting better every day. I’m writing this in central London, in an office. I’ve travelled here, as I now do three days a week, on the Tube and I enjoy bouncing ideas off the people around me. I sleep well and wake up in a positive mood with the kids. I feel like I’m in my body rather than looking at myself from the outside. I’m living my life. I’ve most definitely reached a place that I could only have dreamed of a year ago.
When I do get anxious, I don’t react with the fear that used to overwhelm me. I know it’s not going to kill me or make me go mad. I have learned that, in the midst of an anxiety attack, your sympathetic nervous system comes into play to save you from what it perceives to be a genuine threat and you can’t think straight – you are programmed not to think but to run. Part of my recovery has been understanding that when you are feeling panicky, you may feel forgetful or unclear and that’s normal. It’s not that you are being controlled by an alien force that could kill you.
With the help of many experts, I’ve developed the tools to know when my thoughts are running away with me and to intercept them. I use breathwork and meditation to get myself into my parasympathetic nervous system, so I can speak sense to myself.
It’s taken a year of really hard work, with a great psychologist who gives me coping strategies and a psychiatrist who monitors my medication. I’ve had to face my fears head on, do things that I think are the last things I’d want to do, such as going one stop on the Tube and trusting that things will get better. My psychiatrist promised that there would be a point where I wouldn’t remember how bad it was. I’m still traumatized to a degree by my breakdown, but I’m learning to leave it behind.
So, the million-dollar question is how do you get over acute anxiety and how do you get yourself out of a place that is darker and scarier than you ever imagined possible?
There are unfortunately no clear answers, and each journey is very personal. However, I do believe that there are some universal things that CAN help, and I wanted to list the ones that worked for me here.
One caveat: these are tools but not crutches. They are part of a mental health training regime, if you like. If you use something as a crutch, you are telling yourself that there is danger. The irony of anxiety is that there is actually no danger, it’s just your thoughts spiraling. The anxiety lies in the fight – the fight with your thoughts, a battle you can choose to engage with or not. If you can allow your scary thoughts to just drift, and not give them any attention, then it should pass. Anxiety Josh, a therapist who I discovered early on, says that “recovery is the willful tolerance of discomfort,” and that’s been a powerful message for me. I can have the same thoughts and feelings now that I had when I had my breakdown, but the difference is I can tolerate them better and not let them take me over. Life is full of discomforts; I just need the tools to manage how I respond them.
1. See your GP
How bad is your anxiety? Is it stopping you from living life as normal? If so, I think it’s important to see your GP. Be open to talking about medication and therapy. Seeing my GP, who understood anxiety, started my journey of recovery. She was the first person to help me realise that I wasn’t going mad. She saw lots of other people like me, she said. One of my main symptoms was depersonalisation, being removed from reality. You feel like you have completely lost your mind. Simply by being told by a therapist that it was normal, that lots of people experience it, took away a bit of the fear.
2. Try cold showers.
They are brilliant for reducing anxiety and for stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. When you are in a highly anxious state, your sympathetic nervous system takes over. It is responsible for fight or flight, that feeling of needing to escape. For me a cold shower is a daily practice that calms me down. I do it at the end of my normal hot shower for as long as I can stand it: a minute if I can. It really makes you breathe deeply. Which brings me on to…
3. Retrain your breathing.
Are you breathing correctly? One of the best things that I’ve done is to see a physiotherapist who specialises in breathing. It turns out that I spend most of my time shallow breathing without realising. When I start to panic, I forget to use my diaphragm and my ribs, I breathe into my chest, and that has somehow become my habitual breath pattern. Fortunately, it’s also something that I can easily correct.
Breathing deeply using mainly my diaphragm and my ribs helps me regulate my system when anxious feelings start and nips things in the bud. It’s been so useful to have someone teach me how to breathe from scratch. I make sure that my diaphragm is going down (I’m not holding the belly in) when I breathe in, and my ribs are going out. I use the Calm app every day if I can to stay in good breathing habits. I find one breath exercise on it called Balance really handy if I’m starting to panic.
4. Tackle your anxiety daily, not just when you are feeling anxious.
My psychologist has taught me that it’s important that we don’t just deal with anxiety when it strikes. We need to be in constant training like an athlete so that when it does strike we are equipped to handle it. Daily meditation, mindfulness and breathwork can help and apps such as Calm and Headspace are really useful. Think of it like doing your pelvic floor exercises when you’re in the car waiting at the traffic lights, make it something that you do at the same time and place every day, so it becomes a habit.
I check in with my breathing when I’m walking to the Tube and when I’m about to do my makeup. Standing in the bathroom in front of my mirror, I put my hands on my ribs, I focus on letting my stomach expand (which means my diaphragm is working properly). I put my hands on my ribs and press a little so I can feel them expanding. That’s a really good sign that I am breathing properly. Headspace has a progressive muscle relaxing exercise that is a really good way of relaxing the entire body which I do lying down.
5. Get a Sensate vagal toning device
The Sensate is a pebble-shaped device that you put on your chest and link up with your phone via Bluetooth. It helps put you in a meditative state and if, like me, you find meditating tricky, this is a pretty foolproof way to do it. It can also send you to sleep.
It vibrates in time to soundtracks on the Sensate app and stimulates your vagus nerve, which in turn can help to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and help to keep you calm.
If I use it every night, I can see a difference. Over the Christmas holidays, I used it the whole time and I was so much better from an anxiety point of view. I do the ten-minute routine with birdsong before I go to sleep and often drift off with it on. (Get £20 off with code GETTHEGLOSS here).
6. Make your beauty routine me-time
My beauty routines and rituals definitely help to calm me down and give me moments of much-needed daily escapism. I adore putting my makeup on and find that it clears any anxious internal dialogues. I also love massaging my face with beautiful smelling balms and oils as I cleanse. Emma Hardie Moringa Cleansing Balm, £47, and MV Skin Therapy Rose Plus, Booster, £77.60 (it’s pricey but lasts forever – you only need two drops and the smell is so nurturing) have been so useful. Baths have also helped me, filled with Aromatherapy Associates bath and shower oils (Ultimate set £45 worth £110).
I am a huge lover of the Australian ayurvedic and aromatherapy brand Subtle Energies – I love the elevated intention behind the products (the founder Faria Irani has run a clinic in Sydney since 1993) to nurture your skin and shift your mood. There’s something really special about them. I always carry the Pure Indian Rose Hydrosol face mist, £34 with me. Having something cold on your face can snap me out of a stressful situation. Facial mists are amazing for this.
7. Fake it til you make it
You need to do anything that you can to distance yourself from your anxiety and live as normal, even if you don’t feel it. When I was at my worst, I had a (scary) long car journey ahead of me. A therapist asked me to describe how I would behave in a situation like that. I would be hunched forward, I wouldn’t speak to anyone, I’d just be thinking about my anxiety. She told me to fake it til you make it: shoulders back, smile, chat. Sometimes you can trick your brain with your body language and posture. Inside you may be struggling but keep doing it and you will tell your brain that you are safe, and the anxiety will start to dissipate. If you act anxious, then that is a sign to your brain that there is danger. However, if you act confident and calm even if you don’t feel it your system will receive that as a message that there’s no danger.
8. Use the 4-3-2-1 technique
When you are stuck in your anxious head, as I was, it’s difficult to get out of it. You feel as though you are going to be stuck there for life and it’s a really scary thing. The 4-3-2-1 technique can help bring me out of it (but not always, as I said it’s important to have a few tools to draw on). Here’s how.
- 4 things that you can see
- 3 things that you can hear
- 2 things that you can smell
- 1 thing that you can touch
9. Call anxiety’s bluff.
You might feel like you’re going crazy that you’re losing control, but these are all symptoms of anxiety. Nothing bad will happen. Anxiety cannot hurt you; it just makes you feel awful.
I read somewhere that one trick is to dare your anxiety to do its worst, to call its bluff. I sometimes say when I’m spiraling, “Come on, what have you got for me?!”. Often the feelings then start to dissipate when I take back control and don’t engage in the fight. Because anxiety feeds off the fight. It sounds paradoxical, but when you stop fighting, the danger passes. You are no longer fighting the lion, you’re saying “come on, do your worst (it never does). If not, come in and have a stroke”. Turn your scary lion into a pussycat!
10. Find a therapist form a reputable source
Finally, I really recommend steering clear of people on social media who offer quick and easy solutions (usually for £500!). If you are someone who looks at anxiety and mental health content as I do, the algorithm feeds you so-called ‘specialists’ and courses to ‘fix’ you. When you feel desperate, it’s easy to throw money at the problem in the hope that it will go away but this will just add extra stress in the long run. My best recommendation came in-person from my psychiatrist, who knew a good psychologist.
If you try a new person and they are not right, don’t be afraid to fire them and find someone better. It took me several tries to find the right therapist. I see a psychiatrist every month or two (a doctor who manages my medication – read more about my medication journey here) and a psychologist every two weeks who helps me manage behaviour patterns and gives me practical tools.
Nicola Bonn hosts The Outspoken Beauty Podcast. Hear her talking about her mental health journey with Get the Gloss Editorial Director Victoria Woodhall here.
Nicola also talks openly about her mental health on Instagram @outspokenbeautynicola