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Breaking through the clouds

Written by John Worsey

Remember, remember the fourth of November. No, that’s not a typo. 4th November 2016 was a day that changed my life. For a while, I feared everything was in ruin. Today, I see it was just an unpleasant catalyst for a much-needed, positive change.

It began at around 40,000 feet, flying home from a holiday in sunny Tenerife. I’d been glad to get away from the ‘real world’ for a while, with the Brexit vote and the possibility of President Trump breaking down all kinds of certainties. Flying back to a relentless work schedule, with no days off due until Christmas. I had hoped that my batteries would be recharged. Instead, I felt as if I was breaking.

The trigger was the sight of a passenger wearing one of those pollution masks you see in news footage of congested Chinese cities. In my anxious state, this seemed to prove something: There’s a sickness in the air. We’re trapped with it. There’s no escape from this plane.

My heart started pounding, my breath caught in my throat. I tried to distract myself with my headphones, but I couldn’t let go of the anxious thoughts. Awful scenarios of a plagued plane flooded my terrified imagination. This happened even though I knew, on some level, what was really going on: I’m having a panic attack. I just couldn’t make it stop.

I spent an hour at the back of the plane, as my wife helped me to calm down. Panic passed, as it always will. We landed, and Britain was much as we had left it: grey, cold, contagion-free.

I had felt such fear before. In 2006, following a spate of anxiety attacks, I managed to get some cognitive behavioural therapy on the NHS, which halted when my therapist left to take up another job. Still, I got back on an even keel eventually and that, I thought, was the end of that. But I hadn’t embedded a proper way of dealing with anxiety in my life. Ten years later, it came back with a vengeance, and I felt doomed to repeat the cycle forever.

If there is a modern plague, it may well be anxiety. Many things about the way we live and work are geared towards incubating worry. I’m sharing this story because you may sometimes suffer overwhelming anxiety yourself. If you don’t, you almost certainly know someone who does. Now I want to tell you what has made a difference for me.

A few days after panic at 40,000 feet, I visited a website, headspace.com. I downloaded their app onto my phone, and so began an ongoing journey into the world of mindfulness and meditation. I’ve used the app every day since and it has been genuinely life-changing.

Mindful meditation has given me a wholly different way of understanding anxiety. It has helped me to be more aware of the thoughts and feelings that drift through our minds like clouds across a clear blue sky, and to see troubling emotions in a new light. It’s not that I never feel anxious anymore, but I am anxious less often, and less severely, because I have a changed relationship to my worries. I’ve started to stop identifying with them, and get caught up in them less often.

If you’re feeling down or anxious, I urge you to give mindfulness a go. It is far better experienced than explained. I started on 7th November 2016; a day I will always remember. It’s the day things began to get better.


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