Brian Pennie

These 6 Tactics Helped Me To Beat Chronic Anxiety And Heroin Addiction

Now they’re helping me to cope with Covid-19.

Anxiety comes in many flavours, but they all involve uncertainty. That’s where anxiety lives: In our thoughts about an unknown future.

I spent most of my life mindlessly obsessing about the future. I was consumed by anxiety and tormented by my mind. I turned to heroin to numb those anxious thoughts, but it didn’t work. For 15 years, that’s where I stayed — numb and frozen by fear.

Heroin brought me to the very edge, but I was lucky. Pounded into submission by the most painful night of my life, I was forced to look at the world from a completely new perspective.

That was in October 2013, when I was first introduced to a solution for my suffering. I’m now anxiety-free, and I’ve become an author, a PhD student, and a lecturer at the top two universities in Ireland, all in the area of mindfulness, addiction, and wellbeing.

As someone who was once tortured by anxiety, and as someone who has since swatted it aside, I consider myself a relative expert in the area.

Today, however, Covid-19 is stretching my toolbox to its limits, but here are 6 strategies that are helping me most during these troubling times.

1. Realize That You Have A Choice

Covid-19 is a challenge for everyone, one we have almost no control over. This might sound disheartening, but I’ve realized this is not a weakness, it’s a source of strength.

Why? Because we always have a choice in how we respond to the challenges life presents to us.

During his 27-year prison sentence, Nelson Mandela worked under torturous conditions. But instead of letting external circumstances control his behaviour, he used meditation and reflective thinking to sharpen his mind.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl used similar tactics to survive the abject misery of four concentration camps. He lost everything, yet continued to exercise the freedom to control his own inner world.

These are extreme examples, but provide powerful demonstrations of our ability to choose. They also point to an important truth: it’s not the challenge itself, but our reaction to it that causes most of our suffering.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” — Viktor Frankl

Covid-19 is happening. So instead of resisting what has already occurred — which often takes the form of anxiety — accept the facts, and the pain will eventually subside. More than that, you will also stop feeding it.

Don’t confuse this with giving up. Acceptance isn’t passive. It’s the first step towards corrective action. It’s also the opposite of resistance, which only creates more pain. By realizing this, you will harness the power of choice, and your anxiety from Covid-19 will no longer control your actions.

2. Monitor And Change Your Self-Talk

If you tell yourself a virus is going to kill you, you’re going to act accordingly. If you tell yourself you’re struggling with anxiety, it’s likely that you will.

This is backed by research which shows that language is a vehicle for emotion. As a result, how you think, and the language that you use determines how you feel. It is therefore critical that you choose your words carefully, especially when talking to yourself.

In the world of Covid-19, our stories about anxiety are particularly problematic, with many people crippled by an incredible amount of uncertainty. “When is this going to end?” “I can’t handle self-isolation.” “I need to drink because I feel overwhelmed.” “What if I run out of money?” When this kind of internal dialogue goes unchecked, you’re in serious trouble.

It is therefore crucial that you monitor and change your self-talk. For example, words and phrases such as “I can’t,” “if only,” “I must,” or “Covid-19 made me feel that way” should be replaced with proactive language such as “I will,” “I choose to,” and “let’s look at this another way.”

You should also monitor the questions you ask yourself. For instance, replacing “why me?” with “what can I do about this?” will provide you with a sense of control.

When you replace reactive language with more proactive language, it will instill in you a sense of strength, directing you toward corrective action rather than worrying about what you cannot change.

3. Stop Fighting With The Monster

A person struggling with anxiety will often try to fight back. But this only creates more anxiety. A great metaphor for this is a tug-of-war with an anxiety monster.

You have one end of the rope, and the monster has the other. In between both of you, there’s a bottomless pit. You pull as hard as you can, but the monster is stronger and pulls you closer to the pit. You’re stuck. What should you do?

‘Drop the rope.’

Yes, the monster’s still there, but you’re no longer in a struggle with it. It’s the same for anxiety. When you stop struggling, you rob it of its power.

I heard another great monster metaphor from my psychologist friend Nick Wignall. Imagine you’re driving down the road of life, and the anxiety monster jumps into the car demanding control of the wheel.

You have a few choices. You could let the anxiety monster drive, which means letting anxiety control your actions. Or you could throw the monster out of the car. Nick refers to the latter in terms of popping drinking alcohol or distracting yourself with social media.

It’s fairly obvious that neither of these options help — you’ll likely crash the car in both scenarios. Thankfully, there’s a third option: Just like dropping the rope — when the anxiety monster is still on the other side of the pit — you can let the monster come along for the ride, but insist that it stays in the back seat.

In other words, instead of fighting anxiety or allowing it to take control of your actions, you can acknowledge that it’s there, set healthy boundaries, and try to get on with your day regardless.

4. Observe Anxiety Without Engaging

Research shows that mindfulness meditation improves anxiety. The self-observation technique, which is a form of meditation, is similar to the strategies above with a subtle difference. Instead of trying to change how you think, or to stop fighting it, sometimes it’s best to observe anxiety. This means mindfully observing the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that are associated with anxiety.

For example, if I asked you to observe how tense your body feels, you might take a step back and focus on a specific area, such as a lump in your throat or a tight chest. If I asked you about your anxious thoughts, you could observe this too. You might be worrying about money, why your chest feels like it’s going to explode, or why everyone except you seems to be able to cope. It’s the same for anxious feelings. If I asked you how you felt — maybe you feel restless or agitated — it’s possible to take a step back and observe this too.

The point is, you can take an observer’s perspective of anxious thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. However, when you implement this practice, you must observe, without engaging.

The clouds in the sky metaphor explains this best. Imagine your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations as clouds floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and angry, sometimes they’re light and calm. But you are not the clouds. You are the blue sky who observes the clouds, without engaging. You simply observe them until they pass, and they will pass. Everything passes, good and bad — even Covid-19. Be the observer.

When you practice self-observation regularly, you won’t be your anxiety, you’ll be the observer of it. This will help you detach from anxiety-inducing sensations. And when they do arise, they will no longer consume you.

5. Prioritise the Basics

The simplest solutions are often the most powerful. Sadly, because they’re so simple, most people tend to overlook them. For me, these basics include exercise, sleep, what we put into our bodies, and what we put into our minds.

Exercise is one of the most powerful anti-anxiety techniques. Experts suggest that even a moderate level of exercise is helpful for anxiety. With social distancing and self-isolation in play, this makes it more difficult, but not impossible. If you can get out for a walk or a run, great. But even if you’re in self-isolation, you can do pushups, situps, squats, lunges, or yoga.

An inability to sleep is another problem in these challenging times. Exercise will help, but unfortunately, most people find that they can’t shut their minds off when they go to bed. My friend Nick is an expert in this area, and he suggests that we should tighten up our habits and sleep routines to ensure better quality sleep. Here is his personal insomnia guide.

Drinking alcohol to avoid how you feel is also common during stressful situations, but hangovers can have an alarming impact on your mental health. Try to avoid, or at least limit, your alcohol consumption, as this is a core cause of anxiety for many people.

When it comes to anxiety, what you put into your head is just as important as what you put into your body. To do that, I usually avoid negative news and social media. However, we need to check these anxiety-inducing platforms to stay informed. We, therefore, need to find a balance. Maybe forty minutes per day broken into four chunks is sufficient. I would also advise you to read a good book, or some inspirational work to counteract the negative input.

6. Realign Your Compass

Whether you’re aware of it or not, we make our decisions based on what’s important to us. This includes our values, goals, and life purpose.

I don’t know about you, but my values and goals have taken a swift U-turn over the past few days. Only last week, the media campaign for my book launch was my number one goal. After that, my PhD research and various speaking gigs were next on my list.

Today, however, I have two goals: Improving the mental health of those around me and my own self-care. Yes, I’ll get back to my other goals in time, but they are not what’s driving my decisions right now.

Thankfully, my life purpose involves helping others to improve their mental health, so that hasn’t changed, but many of my values have also pivoted over the past week.

Connection, compassion, patience, and inner-peace feel more important than ever. Having fun is still high on the list — it’s critical for our wellbeing. But many of my core values, including ambition, boldness, and even balance, have fallen from their lofty pedestal. These values are still important to me — their direction has just shifted for a while.

Many people, I imagine, are working from an old framework that doesn’t serve them during the Covid-19 crisis. Instead of working from that framework, you should reassess the goals and values that will serve you right now. It’s time to realign your compass. Here’s a guide to show you how.

The Take-Away

Covid-19 is all-consuming, and it feels like we’re drifting into nowhere land. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. And for that reason, it’s normal to feel anxious. It would be strange if you didn’t.

However, you do have a choice over the flavour of your anxiety, as it’s your relationship with it that determines its strength. Ultimately, if you want to reduce this anxiety, you need to develop a healthier attitude towards it:

  • You can realize that you have a choice in how you respond, and Covid-19 anxiety will no longer control your actions.
  • You can monitor and change the self-talk that’s feeding your anxiety. When you change the words, you kill the story.
  • You can stop fighting your anxiety monster. Acknowledge it, and set healthy boundaries instead.
  • You can observe anxiety without engaging. When you create a sense of detachment, it will feel less threatening.
  • You can prioritise the basics. The simplest solutions are often the most powerful.
  • You can realign your compass. Your old framework will not serve you during these times.

Freedom from anxiety exists, even during Covid-19, but only if you’re willing to change your relationship with it.

What would you do if you had a second chance at life?

Having escaped from the depths of heroin addiction (see before-after addictions pics here), I decided to write a book about it. ‘Bonus Time: A true story of surviving the worst and discovering the magic of every moment.’

Order from: Ireland / Rest of World / Ebook and Kindle

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Brian Pennie