I’ve been having strange symptoms for six months. Doctors are confused, I’m struggling to sleep and my anxiety is through the roof. Honestly, you should see the state of my 2am Googles. Normal, healthy searches, eg “Petite Lithuanian supply teacher tells you you’re failing” has been replaced by “Are palpitations a sign of a heart attack?” and “When is a skin rash definitely cancer?” Anxiety feels like being in a constant state of fear, and that’s tiring. If only I could sleep. In addition to health worry there is the what-if-I-can’t-pay-my-bills worry, relationships worry, does-everyone-hate-me worry, have-I-failed-at-life worry. I tell them to wait in line, I’ll get to them all.

I don’t get this from my mother. She is a dreamer who doesn’t worry about a thing, whose mantra is “go with the flow!” More likely it’s from my late father – a man who believed whatever “go” was, it was flowing towards ruin. I have memories of him moving tiny amounts of money around every day, taking out every insurance policy he could, controlling his diet with rigour. Like him, I am convinced that around every corner hides a catastrophe. Unlike him, I take no practical steps to meet it, so I suppose I’m an unfortunate combination of them both.

There’s no shortage of advice on what to do about anxiety. The last decade has seen an explosion in mental health books, podcasts and self-care articles. Yet it’s hard to overstate how irrelevant all of this feels in the jaws of an anxiety attack. You have to find a way to access sense within panic, and think about your thinking. This requires discipline, and immense self-motivation. When your chest feels crushed and your heart is hammering, no one can breathe for you.

Exercise does help … but Rhik Samadder still finds himself opting not to go for a run. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

I have tried CBT. Many people are put off, anticipating a long waiting list. I found the NHS was good at staying in touch during the wait, though, recommending drop-in groups and reading material. Reading is good in a spiral, because it forces you to slow down and focus. Manage Your Mind by Gillian Butler, Nick Grey and Tony Hope taught me to identify the biases that characterise anxiety. Their “crooked thinking” list includes such gems as catastrophising, overgeneralising, mind reading, fortune telling AKA predicting the future, black-and-white thinking, taking things personally, taking the blame, emotional reasoning, and wishful thinking. Sound familiar? Mind reading and fortune telling may seem like carnival options, but are actually the worst fun.

There is a psychological technique known as “distancing” that I also find helpful. It is any way of looking at your situation more objectively , putting your problems into perspective. It is the reason that being told “you’ll laugh about this one day”, or “no one cares about you, they have their own problems” or “in 100 years it won’t matter” are oddly reassuring. Our crises are local and ultimately trivial. The terrors we rehearse don’t happen, and even if they do, this too shall pass.

Apart from CBT, the usual practical stuff works. Nutritious food, regular sleep and exercise; seeing friends, tidying up, doing things I’m good at. Yada, yada, yada. But the shameful thing is that I frequently find myself not going for a run and still failing to feed myself properly. Why am I sluggish to take steps I know will help? The thing is, when you’re exhausted, trapped by intrusive, repetitive worry, it is hard to julienne a carrot. It doesn’t feel necessary for survival in the moment.

The only answer I’ve found is to set the bar ridiculously low. Just as when I’m faced with the anxiety of a blank page, and tell myself I need only write 200 words. That’s easy, and there’s always 200 more behind those. I need a low barrier of entry, and a sense of achievement. I know it is a good idea to leave the house every day, but what if I’m too stressed? I have a rule that I will at least go downstairs to check the post, and open the front door. Once there it is more than likely I’ll walk to the park, but that’s not the threshold of success. It is opening the door, or 200 words, or eating one green thing.

Setting the bar low … the first 200 words is the hardest.
Setting the bar low … the first 200 words is the hardest. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Social anxiety is a stickier one, but even here it is possible to take the pressure off. When attending parties, I remind myself for what and whom I’m going – usually the person who invited me. It’s not my job to be scintillating, simply to show that person I care enough to make an effort. They are always grateful for the numbers. Have you got a hot date, but forgotten how to hold a human conversation? Try admitting your worry out loud. It’s probable the other person will relate, and you’ll both relax. Two nervous lizard people just trying to get by. We’re all a mess.

Baby steps help us to stay motivated. That’s why Couch to 5K is so popular. I ran some impressive times during the first lockdown, but by the third was sedentary, having individual biscuits delivered to my door. This trajectory – which I call “5K to couch” – was dispiriting and made me give up, in a fit of all-or-nothing pique. But I’ve taken the pressure off myself now.

Perhaps my low-pressure, micro-goals philosophy is laughable to people who self-motivate in cold showers at dawn. More power to them. We all start from where we are. I know how easy it is for self-care to become another thing to fail at. If I can’t run today because of my heart, I’ll walk. It’s still moving my body, still showing up and doing my best.

Mostly though, avoid the late-night Googles. There’s nothing healthy on the internet at 2am.

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