My Secret Fight Against Anxiety by Chrisopher Pepper

Guest Post: My Secret Fight Against Anxiety
By Christopher Pepper

In April 2014 I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is one of the most common health conditions in Australia. For men, anxiety is even more common than depression – 1 in 5 men will experience anxiety at some point (source: Beyondblue)

For those who know me this might shock you as I seem to be a person who always likes a laugh, a good time and making a fool of myself.  That in itself is entirely true and one of the traits that makes me the person I am today.

But there was a side of me that not many people knew existed except my close family and friends.  The mood swings, the feeling of nothing is going well for me even though I have a amazing wife and two kids I adore.  I would distance myself from my friends and instead of going out or away with the boys I would prefer to be at home on the couch.  It was extremely hard not having as much social interaction after I finished playing Aussie Rules at the end of the 2012 season.

Ask me why at the time and I couldn’t tell you my reasoning behind it.  All I know is that I felt pretty average and flat about things.

Around the same time, AFL footballer Mitch Clark retired from the game due to a mental illness (in his case depression) after two years of constant foot injuries and the weight of not being able to fulfil the massive contract with the Demons on his shoulders.  The people in the media and society either praised Clarke for his courage to give the game up due to his illness or told him to suck it up as he was on a big wage and playing AFL couldn’t be that hard on him.  It was the first time a professional footballer in the AFL had to give up the game due to an illness that couldn’t be seen like glandular fever or a physical injury such as a broken leg.  People were divided and I was one of them.

On the weekend after the announcement, former Victorian Premier and now Chairman of Beyondblue, Jeff Kennett, spoke to SEN1116 and praised Clarke for raising the awareness of mental illness within the footballing community with his announcement.  As Kennett was rolling through a number of the signs and symptoms of mental illness I was starting to relate to a number of the stages he was describing including;

  • withdrawing from close family and friends
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • irritable
  • frustrated
  • lacking in confidence
  • unhappy
  • indecisive
  • disappointed
  • feeling tired all the time

It was this moment I headed over to the Beyondblue website to see the full list and how closely it matched to my feelings and emotions.  For a long time I knew something wasn’t right with how I reacted to situations: up one minute and loving life, the next I would rather be on the couch with the blinds closed watching TV by myself.   For too long it was affecting my relationships with my wife, family and friends and I had to see if if Beyondblue could help by just listening to me and hopefully give me some guidance.

I made the choice right then to check my ego at the door and Beyondblue a call.

Not going into the specifics but picking up the phone and making the call felt like a huge weight was being lifted off my shoulders.  It was the first (yet a small one) step in getting the part of my life that was holding me back and addressing the possible causes head-on.  With Beyondblue’s help they reassured me that what I was feeling and going through was and illness exactly like having a sore throat or common cold; you go to your GP and tell them your symptoms and they will prescribe you with some medication make you feel better.

My GP was amazing.  He explained how mental illnesses can occur in people when their brain doesn’t produce sufficient levels of serotonin, a chemical which regulates moods in the human body.  He then prescribed me a trial of some medication I needed to take daily to see if there was a change in my emotion and in turn my interactions with people.  The medication has made such a difference I still take one a day to keep myself in check.  Will I ever need to get off them? Maybe, but if everything at home and work is so much better being on the medication that being off it why would I?

It has been almost a year since I was first diagnosed and it has been a continual healing process.  Over time I have let relationships slip with mates I played footy with for over 20 years and slowly I am trying to rekindle them (guys if you are reading this and you know who you are then I hope this provides some clarity why I have been distant).  There will be some close friends and family who are finding out about this for the first time and I hope you understand why I have kept this quiet. What I do know is when people find out they have been uber-supportive and want to help out any way they can.

Having avenues of support is vital when dealing with anxiety and I am very luck to have a network of family and friends who have been there whenever I was having one of my moments.  Finally, thanks to my amazing wife Narelle for her support throughout our 19 years together, especially during the last 12 months.  You are my best friend and soul-mate.

I am not looking for sympathy.  I just want to raise the awareness that there are people you know that may be hiding their mental illness from you and eventually they will let you know about it.  If they are like me they will probably just want someone to talk to like I did.


Christopher Pepper
About the Author: Christopher Pepper

You know what? Living the life of  two wonderful kids and an incredible wife in Melbourne, Australia has its ups and downs and most of the time it isn’t because of them. My daughter Maya and son Noah light up my life but being a father has its challenges. Whether it is putting them to bed, feeding them or even taking them to the shops can be either a walk in the park or World War 3. You can be like Leonardo and be ‘on top of the world’ one minute and then feelings like you are in The Abyss the next.

I have decided to share my experiences with the world for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it gives me a chance to brag or vent depending on the situation to you all about being a dad. Secondly, it might help any potential, new or existing dads know that there is someone who is going through what they are and that they are not alone. Thirdly, I reckon I have a few things on my mind that a few of you out there is thinking but have never had the outlet to say so. Now you do.

Think of it as the Top Gear of Dads! If I have something positive to say about an experience, product or process I will praise it to high heaven. On the other hand, if it has left a negative impact on me you will know as well. I am going to be as genuine and honest as I can be because if I’m not it won’t help you and then you won’t come back to read more.

I’m Christopher Pepper and you can find me at ‘The Pep Talk’!  I encourage you to add your two cents by commenting on any of the posts, sharing the site with others, and most importantly getting involved!

You can contact Christopher via his website and follow him on FacebookTwitterInstagram and Pinterest.

 

3 Comments

Betty

great article what meds are you on i have tried too many they sides effects are awful still trying to find one or combo

Reply
Elizabeth Conrad

I think this is a great article and I thank you for sharing your story! xx

Reply
Peter Ayre

Well done Christopher, I took the hard road and thankfully came out all right after a few years, but I don’t recommend it. Talk to your doctor, you wouldn’t try to fix a broken leg yourself…

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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