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Emmy anxiety
17 Minutes

Anxiety and the modern woman: the need to know…

Modern dating, managing a career, conception, infertility, pregnancy and having a small person. All sources of great uncertainty and potentially of great anxiety! In order to get to the heart of these issues (and do something about it!) We sit down with one of our lovely resident expert advisors Emmy Brunner.

Emmy has over 15yrs experience in women’s mental health as a psychotherapist. She is founder and CEO of The Recover Clinic. She is also a mother of two. She shares her thoughts and most importantly her practical tips for how all of us can deal with modern anxiety. It’s a good one!

Read on or click here for the podcast version. 

The Journey: Do you think anxiety is increasing in our population, has it changed over time?

Emmy: I cant believe how many people are suffering with anxiety. Anxiety has become a diagnosis in itself. However, I believe it is a more a symptom of something else, rather than the actual problem. If you have trauma or experiences from the past that you haven’t processed properly, it will be held in your body and will manifest somehow.

Anxiety, depression, stress are all symptoms of unresolved trauma in my mind. I think a lot of people get focused on feeling anxious and trying to resolve the symptoms. Basically being in a constant battle to not feel anxious.

What does that mean? If something is worrying them, it’s about trying to make that specific worry go away. Or trying to medicate/distract. The thing about anxiety though is that anybody can feel anxious about anything. Doesn’t matter what it is. Anxiety will always find a ‘legitimate reason’ to feel worried and anxious about something. It is almost futile to constantly try and throw water over the things you’re worried about. There will always be something new to crop up.

So, if that’s the case and you realise that’s going on, what are you going to do? You have to start doing something different. I think that’s why I always come back to the fact that it is unresolved issues. If you go to the root of the problem and resolve that then everything else gets better. 

So you don’t think more of us have anxiety, you just think there are perhaps more opportunities perhaps for it to manifest? 

Yeah. I think what happened historically is that we were not so isolated. We spent a lot more time with one another. Whether it was guys meeting up in the pub on a Friday night (such a cliche!). Or, it was going to church, or girl guides or whatever it was. We got together and we talked. When we talk we offload and we process properly a lot of the more difficult things we are going through in life.

What is happening now, is we are more isolated and we get these ‘faux’ connections. They are happening through social media and online. You feel like you’re making a connection but actually we are doing that from our bedroom/living room. Where you are sitting by yourself. As human-beings we need physical connection with one another in order to feel well. Certainly in order to feel less anxious. 

Do you think as the role of women (and men) have shifted over the last few decades in terms of our lifestyles have compounded this feeling of isolation/anxiety? 

Yes, I think we are under more pressure than ever to ‘succeed’. In all areas of our lives. A few generations ago women were expected to have and raise children. That was about it. Their needs weren’t met for lots of other reasons.

Now, we are fighting to have space for our careers, we are fighting for space to be heard in many other areas. On top of this, we are still mothers, and in many cases we are still running the family home. So now, we are under this huge pressure to prove to the world that we can do it all. Actually what happens is that our needs get put to the very bottom of the pile. 

I think you’re spot on with that! The expectation of ourselves is now huge, plus that need to promote perfections. Social Media doesn’t help our anxiety either… 

No, it doesn’t. We are super tough on ourselves as well. I was speaking to a friend of mine and she was saying she had lost her rag with her son and screamed at him. Then of course she started berating herself and saying what a terrible mother she was. Actually the context of that was that she hadn’t taken care of herself for a really long time. She had been dealing with some difficult personal issues with zero support and inevitably something snapped. What that then did was give her a further opportunity to say she was a bad person and undeserving of self care. Ironically that the thing she needed the most. 

Speaking of lifestyle change. Many of us are now only feeling ready to have kids when we are into our thirties and beyond which inherently makes it more difficult. However against that, we all want things to be instant. Therefore there a lot of anxiety around stress and conception/how you fit in your career. Even finding the right partner. How would you approach this types of anxiety? 

I think we spend so much time on the back foot. Our own happiness isn’t our own priority. We are so focused on this check list. So stopping to actually check that we are invested in the partner we have chosen for example, or that we are taking care of ourselves in a way that feels genuinely nurturing to ourselves often does not cross our minds.

The amount of times at our clinic where women are dating/trying to find life partners their mind set is often: ‘I really hope he likes me’. My mantra to them is to go into it thinking ‘I hope I like them’.

If what you feel is that you are a wonderful human being full of love and kindness waiting for someone else to love and nurture, then your whole energy will be different. Instead we get this fear, even a desperate fear about us that come out in our energy. We can end up feeling panicked, frightened and full of anxiety. Then inevitably we dont find what we are looking for and then fertility is difficult as we are constantly on the back foot. 

Do you think that modern dating with apps/tech have made it more difficult? It can seemingly make people ‘disposable’ as it is so easy to meet someone else? I always felt that there were so many other people out there that you’re almost in competition. 

Actually I think that is all perspective. When I became single for the first time after a long while, one of my girlfriends asked me what apps I was going to go on and how I was going to meet someone? And I said, ‘well I’m just going to meet someone’. She said ‘but how? Everything has changed!’ She was baffled by my approach! I said that it was just not for me and it was not how I was going to do it. It just didn’t occur to me that I would be competing with other people. I just felt very confident that because I had learnt how to take care of myself and that I was loving towards myself I would meet someone else who would be loving towards me. 

How long did it take you to get into this mindset as I think it is probably a mindset that is so foreign to many modern people! How did you shift to prioritise yourself? As mothers, as a partner, or even in a career as you say, it is so easy for your own needs to get shifted down….

I think at some point you just have to ‘wake up’ to a need for change. It happened to me after another bad relationship. I realised that if something didn’t change it was just going to keep happening. I was the common denominator. If I want things to be different then I have to change something within me. I realised that I had got a ‘well’ voice within me that was trying to guide me. I just didnt listen to it. I didn’t have any confidence in it. That needed to change. 

I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s having confidence in that inner voice, which many of us squash down. Making anxiety worse… 

I thought what would happen if I started really listening to it and doing what it said. As far as I can see, it is generally right. That is what I did. From then on, I started to trust and listen to it. I did do a lot of work on myself, trying to heal some of those early wounds that I knew I hadn’t really processed. I read a huge amount. However, I realised that if anything was in conflict with my intuitive compassionate self I just wouldn’t do it anymore. 

So it is all about being compassionate to yourself and listening to that inner voice that we all have. Overlaying this with the impatience of our modern society. A lot of us are conditioned for instant results- including with conception. A perfect storm for anxiety. How do you deal with this and manage disappointment when things don’t happen as you hope?

I think part of it is trusting that things will happen when they are meant to. I think what we have to do is to try and loosen the reins of control over everything. We like to control and try and plan everything within an inch and actually life isn’t like that. Life goes on around us despite what we do. As soon as we recognise and be humble about who we are. We are just one person and cannot possibly control everything.

Have faith that the universe has a plan that we are completely unaware of. As soon as we put our faith in something bigger than ourselves it takes a huge amount of pressure off. You then realise it is not all on you to make everything happen. 

Do you think it is a modern thing that everyone wants to be in control of everything? 

I think we are so led to believe we can control everything. We are also sold so many things that tell us we can control everything. Actually we are all just human beings. The world is presented to us in such a fractured way, that we are all so different. However, we are not all that different. We are all just people and we are all just trying to connect and aspire to have some form of peace and love in our lives. No matter who we are. I really don’t think there is any exception.

Despite this, we are told to look at the differences. I think that makes ourselves compare with everyone else. A major source of anxiety. Women are particularly guilty of this. We are so hard on ourselves and looking at where everyone else is and what they are doing on their journey of life. Rather than thinking: ‘maybe I’m exactly where I’m meant to be’. If I trust that, won’t it be a big relief? If i can trust that I am exactly where I am meant to be.  

Here’s an example. I was listening to another podcast about forgiveness. The woman who was talking and saying to think of someone that you feel really hard to forgive. I thought of somebody. I then thought a bit more and I realised that actually those hard times and difficult experiences that I had, have led me to this point. I know that is an obvious point, but I have so much gratitude for that. When I met my husband I knew I had met him in exactly the right moment. I knew that I cared about myself, so I knew I must have attracted someone that would be kind to me. 

That is such a great way of thinking about it. I think it is sometimes a case that you have to get to a point to have enough confidence to relinquish control. On that: in terms of the path towards that: giving yourself compassion and self-care. How do you perceive self-care? Can you give us some practical ways to think about self-care. 

The first thing to do is to get mindful about how you are speaking to yourself. When people try and make changes, they tend to try and make big changes. That often sets us up for failure. It is really hard to do and hard to keep those things going. When we start to do small things, that then gradually building the foundation for bigger changes to happen. These big changes then often happen without us even realising.

I think starting to consider how you’re talking to yourself is a really good place to start. You can start daily just challenging yourself. Whether its something like burning something in the oven, then calling yourself an idiot. Or whether it is forgetting to pack your child’s shoes for PE/kit. Whatever it is, you need to start to have a compassionate response To yourself. To recognise when you’re not being compassionate. It will probably surprise you how often that critical voice raises its head. Something we just accept. 

So it is just being conscious of it?

Totally. If you had a physical person next to you saying the kind of things that many of us say towards themselves it would be shocking in many cases. You would be in the most acute distress and anxiety. When people are actually in those scenarios we call it domestic violence or abuse. Yet somehow it has become acceptable to us on some level to tolerate this consistent high level criticism towards ourselves.

What would happen if we just shifted that? To give ourselves permission to even entertain behaving differently for a while to see what happens. I guarantee you everything would get better. 

How long do you think it takes to get into that habit? 

The first thing I would say is that you were not always like that. As a child, you look in the mirror you look in the mirror and think you’re wonderful, interesting and beautiful. I think it is important to remember that wasn’t your starting point. Your starting point is to be full of love and kindness for yourself. You have learnt how to be unkind to yourself. Now you have to unlearn that behaviour.

It takes a conscious purpose to do for a while. However, the more you do it the more it’ll become unconscious and a natural process. I no longer have to remind myself to be kind to myself. That is now how I live. That certainly took a period of time however and does depend on how bad it is. 

On that note. When it comes to infertility the default becomes ‘this is never going to happen’. How do you approach this? 

The first thing is to stop focusing on what you are scared of. I think when we are so focused on what we don’t want then that becomes our reality. It becomes our world. We notice and give our attention to everything we are frightened of. As soon as we focus our intention on what we want and we become kind to ourselves then that’s when miracles happen.

There are plenty of examples of people conceiving against all odds because they believed they could. Even if it took time. That is the difference. Often the doctors cant quite explain why. There are also examples of people healing their bodies by thinking about things in a different way. I think when women in their late 30s and 40s and start thinking about having babies their first thought is that it will be difficult. You start with anxiety. The world then responds by saying ‘ok, sure’. 

Speaking of lack of control. The next step of course is being pregnant. Many of us feel a lot of anxiety/lack of control/will the baby be healthy when they become pregnant. It is a major life change both mentally and physically. What would you say to someone who is struggling being pregnant mentally? 

I think it comes back to what we were saying at the start. It comes back to trying to respond to the anxiety. What I mean by that is: ‘I’m worried about this and therefore I am going to do that’. Actually it is your anxiety itself that is the problem. Not the subject of it. If you address that then it will start to feel a lot better. Otherwise there is always something to worry about/that will come up. Actually what will be will be. What you can do is change your experience of it and your perspective.

So, if you’re noticing that you are very highly anxious or catastrophizing you need to figure out how to manage that anxiety itself at its root. Whether that is seeing a therapist. Whether that is mediating. Every single person who comes into our clinic is taught how to meditate. 

I personally find meditation tough. How do you approach it, particularly if you are new to it or you find it tough?

Again, I would say small changes. Do not set yourself up for something huge. Especially if you’re not someone who has ever meditated before as its actually really hard to do. That is why we call it meditation ‘practise’. It takes practise and you have to keep doing it.

One of the things I do is when I’m coming into work on the train in the morning I listen to a ten minute meditation. Guided one or music. You need to find what works for you. Some people like guided meditation, some people like to listen to Sanskrit music. Play around and experiment. It is individual. Just because someone else finds something useful doesn’t mean you will. Give yourself permission to explore and be creative about it. Listening to a beautiful piece of music or sitting outside watching the sunset probably puts you in a meditative state, you just didn’t realise. 

Meditation vs mindfulness: what are you ‘supposed’ to feel? I am always wondering if I’m doing it ‘right’ ! 

What you can do is to notice your own experience. Simply notice if you think a lot about doing it ‘correctly’. It is again being compassionate with yourself. Understand what is working/not working for you. Try to do something consistently. The more you do it, often the easier it gets. I gave myself permission to do it wherever I was. So, if I had a very busy schedule, and I was finding it hard to sit in a dark room alone for twenty minutes then I didn’t do it. I made sure it was not a chore. That’s why my ten/twenty minute meditation on the train every day is so lovely to me, because it is my sanctuary and it really works for me.

Equally, if I was away on holiday and had more time and space, I may well spend more time meditating. It is giving myself permission to give myself what I need. As long as I am constantly nurturing my practise. I think the first step is to not put loads of pressure on yourself and creating rules about what you ‘have’ to do. Make sure you’re comfortable, make sure its something you’re actually enjoying doing. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. 

So you think meditation is very helpful in your experience?

I know it is helpful and statistically it reduces anxiety by something like 90%. So that would be my first port of call if you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety, particularly during pregnancy. Surround yourself with what you do want, not what you don’t want. 

Ok so next up is birth. The fear of the unknown and the lack of control can cause catastrophizing and fear. How do you approach that?

I think if you find that you’re getting really anxious then getting support is key. Most people don’t have horrendous experiences. However, if you seek out the horror stories, then you’ll find them! Instead focus on why you may be thinking like that. You’re being very unkind to yourself in those moments. You need to get help and support. It is also an experience realistically that you will have very little control over.

That being said, instead of focusing on that, focus on the positive things that you can control. Sitting down with a doula or midwife, having a birth plan. Even deciding what music you have, deciding on whether to dim the lights or not will make you feel a bit better. If you feel like your anxiety is rising then that is the problem. Not the fact that you’re having a baby. Be kind to yourself. You’re not alone and don’t be afraid to ask for help and support. 

Speaking of this: dealing with the underlying or previous issues/trauma that then manifest in anxiety. Meditation and changing the way you speak to yourself is the first port of call, but how do you actually approach dealing with the root?

I think seeking help from a professional is the best place to go. A therapist or a local doula can be a really positive first step. What we know is that if people do have unprocessed trauma/issues they have not dealt with, then it will come out when you’re pregnant. Simply because that is when you feel vulnerable. You are also going to be hyper aware of your own safety during this time. Another reason why trauma tends to come up.

If you know it is probably there and you’re planning on trying for a baby then do the work now. So much better than waiting for the issues to come up. It is far better to address ahead of time than to wait to hit a moment of crisis because it will change your entire experience. 

So. Next is the dreaded ‘mum-guilt’. Despite many of the thoughts we have as new parents being irrational they can be difficult for us to control. Especially as it is a new, challenging experience. As a mum yourself, how do you deal with it?

Firstly, I am super aware if I have any thoughts that are not particularly kind or compassionate to myself. I am aware that these thoughts are exactly that. Not kind, not compassionate. That is a really good start. I try to separate myself from them. My immediate response is how can I take better care of myself. Simply put, if I am not being kind to myself then there is something I am not doing that I could be doing to support myself better. 

When you say ‘taking better care of yourself’ – it is the way you talk to yourself? What else do you do?

Yeah 100%. I spend loads of time outdoors, I find being outside, being in nature really cathartic for me. Really healing for me personally. It helps me ground myself. I also make sure that I see my best friend often. That has become increasingly important as we have gotten busier, older and have kids. She is part of my life so seeing her makes me feel good.

I also make sure I spend time with my husband. I mean real time. We go on dates. I think about positive and nurturing things we can do as a couple because my role as his wife and my role as a mother are no more or less important to me. I need to nurture both of them. The other thing I always say to mums is dont give too much air time to other people’s opinion. Trust your instinct. Intuitively we always know what is really wrong. Trust that. 

So it is basically prioritising yourself and shifting your mindset from you being at the bottom of the pile to realising that if you put yourself higher up that you’ll feel a lot better and things will likely fall into place? 

100%, we are in a better position to care for those that we love as soon as we love and look after ourselves. 

If you’d like to hear more from Emmy check here out @emmybrunnerofficial on instagram and on her own site. She is also CEO of The Recover Clinic. Click here for more. Or, if you’d like to speak to someone please reach out to their official help line. 

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