Riding Out My Anxiety

I write this piece having just had an anxiety attack. A kind man invited me to his eco-village and gave me a lift up into the mountains with the promise that he’d drive me back down again a day or two later. Being completely reliant on this other person, I soon felt trapped, and the feeling of distress was nearly overwhelming.

I started this journey saying I would write openly about my stress-induced health challenges. Well, I’ve been putting it off, but it’s about time I confront the one that’s the most difficult to talk about, perhaps because it’s the most misunderstood and stigmatised. It’s only recently that I’ve admitted to myself that I have it — it used to be something that only happened to ‘other people’.

Looking back over the last few years, as my health deteriorated following years of chronic stress and burnout, I recall the increasing number of times with my family where I was so ‘on edge’ I was likely to snap at them at the slightest provocation. The number of times I felt compelled to escape alone for several hours to let the pressure inside me gradually ease. Then there was the recent family Christmas up in the mountains, where my family felt like they were walking on eggshells around me.

‘Anxiety’ is where stress and anxious feelings don’t go away after a stressful situation has passed, or when they’re ongoing and happen without any particular cause. According to Beyond Blue, an average of one in four Australians experience anxiety in their lifetime.

What does anxiety feel like? How do I describe a feeling in words? It’s a sense of alarm and distress, a pressure inside that won’t go away. It’s like when you realise you left your wallet on that park bench an hour ago; or when you’re arriving at the airport just in time to catch your overseas flight and discover that you left your passport at home — except it often rises more gradually, or just sits in the background, a tension that you can’t turn down the volume on.

On this bike journey I have an anxiety ‘flare-up’ about once a fortnight, though sometimes more often. It seems to depend on how tired I am, usually happening mid-afternoon. Each time I’ll know the anxiety is irrational, but that doesn’t make the stricken feeling stop.

There are typically circumstances involved, such as when I’ve passed one campsite and decide to push on to the next, but I become tired and start having doubts. What if I don’t make it before sunset? What if it turns out to be a bad place to camp and I have nowhere else to go? I’ll end up paralysed by irrational fears and indecision, unable to continue moving forward, and eventually forced to retreat to the previous camp.

Or when I feel trapped in an uncomfortable social situation, or with people who are needy, demanding or overbearing and put too much pressure on me. Like a caged animal, I’ll feel an overwhelming need to escape.

But it also seems invariably linked to my gut issue and what I’ve eaten. It’s bizarre; put me up on stage public speaking in front of hundreds of people and I’ll be fine, though perhaps a little nervous. Feed me some underripe fruit and later that day I’ll probably be an anxious mess — my resilience in responding to my situation will be really low.

Most of us have heard of the ‘gut-brain’ connection. Certain trigger foods will, like clockwork, cause me to start shivering uncontrollably and my anxiety levels will go through the roof. It freaks out my hosts when this happens, and all I can do is apologise and tell them it will soon pass. It’s as though my body detects a threat and assumes it’s something external, when actually the threat is the food I’ve eaten and that my gut is struggling with. I’ll often feel fine again after a couple of hours when my energy levels pick up again, even if my circumstances haven’t changed.

I have friends who have greatly reduced their anxiety by changing to certain low carb or ketogenic diets. My current carb-loaded diet is one I settled on after my gut troubles landed me in hospital, and whilst it’s giving me enough energy to cycle across the country it’s far from ideal. I keep telling myself that I’ll have the freedom to experiment with new diets after I’ve finished this trip.

But I’m finally admitting to myself that I could be doing more and developing strategies to manage it better.

This bike journey was partly my way of dealing with the anxiety: escaping the pressures on me for the freedom of the open road and more time in peaceful places. And it has helped enormously, giving me time to become better acquainted with it, and often putting me in challenging situations that I can’t escape from, thus helping to re-build my resilience. All the riding exercise seems to help, providing an outlet for the fight-or-flight instinct and taking the edge off.

I’ve learnt to be upfront about it to whoever I’m with, telling them I’m having an anxiety flare-up; that it’s not them, it’s me; and that I need to be alone for a while or do something to distract and calm myself until it passes. Often just the act of declaring it takes a lot of the pressure off me, and I’ve been amazed by how supportive and understanding most people are.

I’m also learning to be gentle with myself when I do feel anxious, to observe the anxiety in me and see it for what it is; to sit with and accept it, knowing that it will pass; and to rise to the challenge it offers: to be brave in the face of irrational nameless fears and teach myself that what I fear isn’t likely to happen, disarming it’s claws.

At the eco-village I explained my anxiety flare-up to my host and excused myself from the social gathering, going for a stroll and trying to enjoy the scenery. But my thoughts kept returning to the worries and fears fueling my anxiety. I phoned a family member, in this case my sister, and recruited her help in distracting me, and just the act of explaining my situation made it all seem more surmountable. And then I ate some good food, the mid-afternoon energy slump passed, and I started feeling okay again. I re-joined the social gathering and had a lovely evening. I was glad I’d come.

Thanks for following my journey! Can you donate to help keep me pedalling forwards?