Scuba diving: a lesson on facing your fears

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If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning, you might know that last year, I received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety triggered by OCD. I basically couldn’t control the negative intrusive thoughts coming into my head and it escalated to the point that each day I convinced myself I would be burgled, pushed in front of a train, stabbed in the street etc, purely because the image in my head was so real and relentless.It was such a horrible phase and I’m so glad therapy made it a relatively short one. I never used to be the sort of person who was scared to take risks. I have always been fairly happy-go-lucky and carefree. I had moments last year where I was too scared and anxious to leave the house for fear of something terrible happening, and I never, ever want to feel like that again. I desperately want my experience, and the fact CBT worked so well for me, to help other people going through a similar thing.

Anxiety disorders are so common and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It can 100% be controlled with time and patience. It will always be a quiet battle at the back of my mind, but learning to scuba dive was the final push for me to face my fears.

I have always dreamed of travelling. I had planned to travel by a certain age, and that age was fast approaching. How was I suppose to head off around the world and face the unknown when I felt scared every time the doorbell went? Enough was enough. I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of a dream I had held close for so long, so I set about facing my fears one step at a time. It started with learning to ignore my own thoughts, which is pretty difficult when you feel like your negative thoughts are the only thing keeping you safe, and it finished with deliberately doing things I am terrified of. The biggest so far? Scuba diving. I decided to do my open-water course in Koh Lanta a week into my travels.

For those of you who have never been scuba diving, there’s a fair bit of theory behind it you have to learn for your own safety, with an exam at the end of the 4-day course. I was basically given a massive book that told me in every other paragraph how I’d get decompression sickness, drown or sink if I did something wrong. Or that my lungs would explode if I accidentally ascended too quickly. Throw in the fear of being eaten by a shark or stung by poisonous fish and there’s quite a lot to think about whilst your submerged 18m under water. There’s also the fear of looking ridiculous in your wetsuit, or forgetting how to prepare the equipment. Throughout the course however, my biggest fear became my greatest ally; the fear of embarrassing myself. I was diving with strangers, and the idea of them knowing how I felt inside was even more terrifying than all the above, which actually worked in my favour because I had no choice but to just get on with it.

On my first proper ‘fun dive’ a giant sea turtle swam gracefully past me, amongst hundreds of exotic fish, and I had a quiet moment of celebration to myself. It had all been worth it. Because, the truth is, you just aren’t living if you don’t take risks, and you will never see the truly beautiful if you don’t make sacrifices somewhere along the way. It won’t be easy, but that’s what makes it worth it. I hope anyone reading this can have the courage to believe in themselves just a fraction more, because if I can learn to scuba dive, you can face your fears too.

Dive & Relax, Koh Lanta

Learning to dive wasn’t a spontaneous decision. It was something I’d been desperate to learn as a teenager, and something that was edging further and further away from me the more I thought about the risks. I would have been so annoyed with myself if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to do it whilst in Koh Lanta, which has a great reputation for dive centres.

‘Dive & Relax’, based on Long Beach, was perfect for me. They promise small groups and a personal service. You are effectively trusting your instructor with your life in some ways so it’s important to learn somewhere quiet if you’re a bit nervous. The 4-day course cost around £300, which included a day of theory, a shore dive, 4 boat dives, an exam, lunch and drinks.

If you would like any more information on CBT or scuba diving (or anything else I’ve covered) please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Lesson 18: feeling normal

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Growing up can be a lonely experience. Gradually, it becomes more and more inappropriate to share our weird and wonderful traits with people the way we might have at school or uni. We become more proper and more private with age. Having touched on mental health issues and with it being Mental Health Awareness week, I’ve been thinking about the things that put us at ease, starting with confession. After I posted about my anxiety, I received so many lovely, reassuring messages from people simply saying ‘hey, I feel like that too sometimes’. So not only was confessing to receiving CBT a way of unloading my issues, it seemed to benefit other people just as much to hear it. One of the most heart-warming things we can experience is a collective emotion. Connecting with people about a negative experience often equates to a positive outcome. For this reason, I’ve decided to list all the ‘abnormal’ things I do but wouldn’t usually talk about. Chances are I’m not alone in doing them, and it might make you feel less lonely too.

  1. Very few people know this about me, but I have trichotillomania. Without meaning to or really realising, I compulsively pull out my own hair when I’m tired or nervous. It’s generally my eyelashes but often my eyebrows and the hairs from my head as well. You know that satisfying feeling of picking off clumpy old mascara? Usually, it’s just that. But when I’m a feeling a bit anxious, it leads to physical pulling. It’s no different to biting your nails or cracking your knuckles, and yet nobody really talks about it. We all have weird bodily impulses from time to time. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
  1. I have a tendency to conjure up the worst-case scenario in my head. If someone is knocking at the door, it’s never the postman, it’s a burglar. I catch myself physically hiding from the postman. Which sounds funny now, but it’s not exactly ‘normal’.
  1. I have days where I hate the way I look more than anything else on Earth. I have a strong belief that 99% of people do. Everyone thinks other people are so happy and comfortable with themselves, when really we’re all intimidated by each other. People with straight hair would do anything for natural waves and people with curly hair gaze wistfully at poker-straight locks. We all want what we can’t have and we all choose to see people the way we want to. Just remember, nobody is as critical of you as you. Nobody notices the spots you obsess over, or the fact you’ve worn the same shoes every day for two weeks. People tend to focus on the things you have that they want.
  1. My boyfriend and I practically have a language of our own, speaking in weird voices with even weirder made-up words. If anyone ever overheard us they would probably mistake us for aliens. Or think we’ve been exposed to vast amounts of radiation. We also dance around the kitchen far more than is necessary.
  1. I never, ever wash my duvet cover once a week. Life is too short for that nonsense. However, anything less than once a month is nothing to be proud of. For someone with OCD tendencies, I never obsess over cleanliness. Not showering at a four-day festival is something I welcome with open arms. Gross, I know.
  1. I look back at old photos of myself on Facebook and Instagram and try to imagine them from other people’s point of view. Have I got better or worse with age? Were my eyebrows really that bad? Was I that uncool? Or that drunk? The truth is, of course, nobody cares.
  1. I sometimes convince myself that people are annoyed with me for no apparent reason. They only put one kiss at the end of a text, they forgot my birthday, they didn’t go to an event I organised. In reality, they were in a rush, forgot the date and had 10 other things to do that day.
  1. I feel anxious speaking on the phone. I’ve never really enjoyed ridiculously long phone calls and tend to let my phone go to answer phone when someone rings me out of the blue. I have to be in the right frame of mind for a phone call, whoever it is. I usually tell myself off and ring people back straight away, but my natural reaction is to ignore my phone. God knows why.
  1. I used to have a weird obsession with balancing out food groups. No carb-on-carb or meat-on-meat action for example. Rice in a wrap or a bacon AND sausage bap were literally my worst nightmare. I also know how many calories are in almost everything, even though I don’t calorie count.
  1. I can’t throw things away. My sister once asked why I’d kept one earring after I’d lost the other one, to which I replied ‘I might need it one day’. I’m overly sentimental and have boxes and boxes of ‘memories’. I’m paranoid I’ll forget or lose something import. Joe is the complete opposite. I don’t think he owns a single photograph and that panics me slightly. He says all his memories are in his head. The irony is that I’m incredibly scatty and constantly misplace everything I own. I’ve never had the same phone for longer than a year.

Although it’s important not to let your struggles become your sole identity, I hope my weird confessions encourage you to embrace what makes you you. I would love to know if you can relate to any of the above. Who wants to be normal anyway?

 

Lesson 8: controlling anxiety

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Everyone feels self-conscious. It’s the price we pay for being intelligent human beings. We’re acutely aware of what we look like, what we say, how we feel, who we are and how we interact with everything around us. The challenge arises when this awareness becomes overly critical, obsessive, worried, controlling. How many of us worry on a daily basis about something we just said, something we used to wear, that hair cut we once had, whether someone likes us or not, whether you’re supposed to like something or not? Like many of us, over-thinking and over-analysing everything has always been a part of my personality. I’m as self-conscious as they come.

I’m going to put something out there that you might not agree with. For me, self-consciousness is not a weakness. In some ways, self-consciousness is one of my greatest strengths. Confused? I’m going to explain how it’s possible to turn anxiety into something positive, rather than something that gnaws away at your soul. Anxiety is a difficult thing to live with, and it’s more common than you might think. I’m not going to define what anxiety is or feels like in this post. It’s incredibly complicated and everyone is very different. For now, let’s just think of it in the context of feeling self-conscious, which is something we can all relate to.

Somebody once said to me:

‘You’ve gone downhill.’

Meaning, I’ve let myself go, I’ve reached my peak, I will forever be less attractive than I once was. This is both one of the most upsetting and prominent things that was said to me in my late teens – a direct insult to both my appearance and my ability to recognise my apparent deterioration. Not only did I feel ugly, I felt stupid for not realising how ugly I was. It didn’t matter that this was simply one person’s unwarranted opinion, all that mattered at that moment was that someone thought that about me. The bitter and honest truth was that although there will never be any justification for someone saying something so cruel, I was forced to face the fact that I had stopped making an effort with my appearance. I had done strange things to my hair, I had stopped eating healthily, and I was partying a lot. I was the least self-conscious I have ever been, but I didn’t feel much like me at all. I hated that person for saying that to me, and for years those words ate away at my confidence, causing me to second guess how attractive I was and how well I understood myself. It’s not healthy to obsess about the way you look, but before this comment I had started to go the other way. I had started to not care that much at all. And that’s just not the sort of person I am. These horrible words reminded me of that. In a kind of messed-up way, they did me a massive favour.

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You can argue that the reason I started taking better care of myself was to prove that person wrong, letting them define me, but I simply wanted to look and feel like myself again. I am the sort of person who wears makeup every single day. It isn’t because I feel societal pressures to do so, I just enjoy the act of getting ready, of being polished, of being well-dressed. There’s a quote you’ve probably heard: ‘being well-dressed is a beautiful form of politeness’, and I really believe that. If I don’t make an effort I end up feeling lazy, and subsequently end up being lazy. If I felt comfortable going barefaced and wearing any old thing (and I do sometimes envy people who are), it would be a different story all together, but that’s just not me.

Negative comments are always difficult to digest, especially when there is an element of truth in them. These comments don’t have to come from someone you know, it could be that you talk yourself down on a daily basis. The secret to rising above it? Be the best person you can be. Challenge yourself to that. Anything negative that comes your way can simply do one, because if you are yourself and you are trying your hardest in life, nobody is allowed to critique that, not even you. And I don’t mean the best looking, either.  I am critical of myself, but I use that feeling to try and do good things. When I have achieved something, I leave myself alone. If I wake up with a huge spot in the middle of my face (something I’m often confronted with), my natural reaction is to hide in a dark room and cry a little bit. Then I think about all the inspiring people in the world who would do anything to actually be able to SEE their own faces, to have the gift of sight. I really believe you can draw on the energy anxiety can give you and turn it into positive rather than negative energy – which is exactly what this blog post is a product of.

I hope talking a bit about anxiety allows you to confront your insecurities. Feeling constantly self-conscious is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s very hard to control, but it can be controlled. Just remember that self-worth and confidence aren’t gifts from other people, they come from within. And similarly, other people can’t take them from you. They might get damaged, but that merely allows you to build something bigger and better each and every time they do.

Lesson 4: coping with change

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I hate change. Always have, always will. I am also very easily bored, which makes me a walking contradiction of the worst kind. I always picture how things are supposed to go in my head, whether it’s a night out, a holiday, a relationship, or meeting someone for the first time. When things don’t go to plan, and are completely different to how I imagined they would be, I find it very unnerving. So you can imagine how I would feel if something constant in my life was turned completely upside down, changing beyond the point of recognition.

In parallel to this, I am always desperate to try new things, to improve, to expand my horizons, to challenge my brain and test my capacity to learn. You’d think I would get used to things not going to plan, but, in all honesty, I don’t. It comes from being a perfectionist. Is there anything wrong with wanting things to be as they should be, all the time? No, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like that, but there would be something wrong with the world if we actually lived perfect lives. Here’s why…

Simply, if nothing ever went wrong, we would live in a state of indifference. There would be no anticipation, no excitement, no sense of unknowing. Imagine we all had complete control of our lives. We wouldn’t be living at all. There would be no adrenaline, no butterflies, no surprises, no second chances, no need to try at all. Our lives would be lived for us. We would never learn, never grow, never feel the need to understand. Things change because we have to change. If we didn’t change, we’d have the same outlook on life we had at 14. And I’m pretty bloody glad I don’t think like my 14-year-old self. Teenagers are (in general) self-centred, hyper-emotional narcissists who can’t absorb much of the world because their heads are too fucked. It doesn’t last, but imagine if it did. If we didn’t change and grow because life forced us to, we’d all be thinking that the world owed us. It doesn’t.

Without change, we wouldn’t be able to sympathise with other people’s situations. If I lived one type of life, all my life, I would never fully be able to understand what other people go through. I’m glad I know how it feels to be poor, to grieve, to feel insecure, because without those feelings, I would never ever be able to fully appreciate wealth, love and inner peace. Change teaches us about ourselves. And do you know what, if something horrendous happens to you, and you want to be ok, you will be. The only problem comes when you don’t want to grow as a person, or rise above the uncontrollable things that have happened to you. Bad things happen to pretty much everyone. And if they don’t, then these are the only people on Earth who will never fully appreciate the good things. If you feel like you can’t cope with the changes in your life, take a look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’ve learnt, what’s next and how your experience can benefit other people in some way. We are all stronger than we think, but only change will show you just how strong you are. Who knows whether change is good or bad? Time, and time only.

Joe told me about this parable a few years ago, and it’s a great way to put your mind back on the right track when you’ve suffered a bit of a blow in life:

“A poor farmer in ancient China works on a small plot of land with his teenage son. At this time, horses were considered a sign of wealth; the richest person in the province owned no more than a few of them. One day, a wild horse jumped the poor farmer’s fence and began grazing on his land. According to local law, this meant that the horse now rightfully belonged to him and his family. The son could hardly contain his joy, but the father put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the horse made its escape back to the mountains and the boy was heartbroken. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” his father said again.  On the third day, the horse returned with a dozen wild horses following.  “We’re rich!” the son cried, to which the father again replied, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” On the fourth day, the boy climbed on one of the wild horses and was thrown off, breaking his leg. His father ran to get the doctor; soon both of them were attending to the boy, who was upset and in a great deal of pain. The old farmer looked deeply into his son’s eyes, and said, “My son, who knows what’s good or bad?” And on the fifth day the province went to war.  Army recruiters came through the town and took all the eligible young men to fight in the war – all except for the young man with the broken leg.”

Just remember, a hurdle is only as big or small as the person who faces it sees it. Be open to change and what it teaches you; and you can overcome anything.