For TV presenter, author, wife and mother FEARNE COTTON, ‘having it all’ proved to be a sure road to anxiety. She explains how she regained her calm.
After the release of my last book Happy, something strange happened to me. I always felt that depression, rather than anxiety, was my weakness, but then one day I was driving down the M4 with a great friend of mine, Clare, on a relatively long journey. We were gossiping away about our favourite subjects – the royal family and Girls, the TV show – when I felt rather hot. I opened the windows and wriggled out of my jacket without mentioning anything to Clare. Next my lungs started pumping like a set of bagpipes and the world around me started to spin.
This is not ideal when driving at 70mph, but I managed to pull over and explain to Clare why our conversation about Prince Harry had come to a swift end and we were now on the hard shoulder half an hour from home. What was going on? I have always assumed that my physical state comes from direct thoughts. If I think of something negative, my body tenses; if I feel sad, it softens. But this was the antithesis of that. Our conversation in the car had been jolly and I was on my way home to see my babies. No stress, no drama, yet my body had taken a turn for the worse. I’d had a panic attack.
I had never experienced anything like it before. I’ve felt panicky and a little short of breath, but this was physically debilitating. Embarrassingly, yet thankfully, I was driven home by the AA (thank you, lovely AA man). After several hours of pondering why my body had decided to shout so loudly that it wasn’t happy, I sussed it. I know many people struggle with panic attacks and that the catalysts differ greatly, but for me it was exhaustion. My mind has a habit of telling me to keep going, keep pushing, keep trying. I’m not naturally good at relaxing so I do way too much most of the time. I love being a mum and a wife and I adore my job, but all this leaves no time for self-care. This motorway saga made some new rules for me: no more rushing around like a lunatic!
So I suppose I’m neither calm nor chaos; I’m all of it. And I expect most of us are the same. I have spent the same amount of time meditating and doing yoga as I have ranting with road rage and throwing inanimate objects at walls in toddler-style tantrums. I believe there is room for all these emotions, but using calm as a base to come back to is imperative. The more I understand the importance of calm for our general wellbeing, relationships and outlook on the world, the more time I spend trying to get back to it.
Sometimes if I feel depleted I won’t let myself off the hook; I’ll try to keep on pushing while my demons tell me I’m being lazy. Yet if I imagine a friend with the same complaint, I know exactly what my advice would be. So if I’m feeling agitated I try to imagine what I would tell a loved one. Perhaps I would suggest some fresh air and physical movement or a good comedy and an early night. Imagining what we might tell someone else is a great way to get in touch with what we know deep down will work. It’s about being kind to ourselves, reducing how much we beat ourselves up about mistakes, and how we move and rest.
When I’m nervous or faced with a colossal and nerve-racking job, I tend to hold my breath at the top of my chest. If I stay still and hold my lungs and muscles tight then maybe I’ll be steeled for what’s to come and everything will go to plan.
Breathing coach Rebecca Dennis told me that with controlled breathing many emotions, traumas and worries may be freed. She also told me to let go and see what happens without much thought. We all think too much. It’s constant: ideas, comparisons, assumptions, worries. Luckily, I switched off as soon as my session with Rebecca started. I was so focused on getting the breathing right (teacher’s pet!) that all other thoughts stayed away.
Soon after I got into this mystic cycle of breathing everything seemed to open up. My chest lost its usual tightness, my windpipe seemed to expand and my stomach softened. I realised how far from human I felt – pushing myself, never stopping, constantly thinking, stressed and disconnected. That’s when the tears started to roll as I felt the stress of millions of moments pass through me. People who have caused me pain, worries that I harbour, times I’ve felt crushed. I realised then how easily small, stressful moments pile up. When something tiny happens, such as getting a parking ticket, the stress gets out of control.
The brain requires a great deal of oxygen to function and breath work helps us to achieve clarity, feel grounded and be productive. It also relieves stress, anxiety, depression and negative thought patterns. Breathing properly can help us overcome addictive patterns of behaviour as well as igniting creativity and passion.
Sometimes we literally forget to take a breath. This is when conscious breathing comes in as an effective way of reducing stress. Our breath patterns correlate to every emotion, thought and experience. When we are happy and relaxed, breathing feels free and easy. When we are feeling sad our breath is shallow. When we are angry or fearful our breath pattern also changes and our body’s chemistry takes action. These exercises are like taking the breath to a gym or for an MOT.
Breathing exercises to relax and calm the mind, by breathing coach Rebecca Dennis
● Sit or lie down in a comfortable spot where you won’t be disturbed.
● Close your eyes and ensure your shoulders and jaw are relaxed and your spine is straight.
● Exhale deeply out of your mouth.
● Close your mouth and inhale deeply through your nose, directing the breath deep into the belly. Visualise filling a balloon of air in your centre.
● Exhale gently through the mouth – visualise the balloon deflating.
● Notice any sensations that arise in the body, acknowledge them and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
● Visualise the breath calming and relaxing the mind and all the systems of the body, and as you exhale allow the breath to release any tension.
● Exhale away any tension or worries; inhale in new energy, positivity and light.
● Let go of the pull of the future and the pull of the past; stay in the moment.
● Continue to go deeper; explore and expand your awareness inside with each breath.
● Try to do this for 15 minutes and notice the difference it makes to your day.
It’s 4am and you’re wide awake with lists going through your mind. Try this simple exercise. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then exhale through your mouth for eight seconds. This helps to slow the heart rate and bring us into a relaxed state.
There are 100 emails in your inbox – where to begin? Close your eyes. Place your thumb over your right nostril and exhale through the left nostril for eight counts. Breathe in through the left nostril and hold for another eight. Now repeat on the other side. Repeat ten times and notice the difference in your breathing.
The brain has a habit of taking us far away from the sweet spot of calm. There is so much going on – chores, appointments, work to do, people to see, goals, dreams, desires. If things at home are chaotic and I am chasing my tail with the kids and my career and I know I am not giving enough time to my marriage or friendships, I feel myself moving away from this sweet spot. My mind throws around ideas and worries, those little voices telling me I’m not good enough and that I’m failing. Thoughts of past mistakes mean I quickly descend into feelings of panic and fear.
Trauma can be so overwhelming and long-lasting that it can drown out calm. I’ve had to surface after trauma and time has helped me to heal and get back on my feet. But the memories can be haunting and drag you back to that pain in a nanosecond. During one enlightening conversation with Yvonne Williams, a counsellor who specialises in post-traumatic stress disorder, Yvonne likened trauma to shattering glass. We may do a good job building ourselves back up, but there could be a small fragment still lying on the floor.
Yvonnne asked me to visualise where this tiny fragment could be. I instantly pictured it and felt sad. She asked me to visualise heading to the scene to pick it up. The experience was truly emotional: I saw myself walking over to this small part of myself and collecting it like a lonely child waiting at the school gates. I held that part close and will continue to because it calms me down massively. This simple visualisation tool can be very powerful if you have been through anything traumatic.
I have a vivid imagination. For example, every now and then my husband is away for work and I go to bed with my children snoring nearby, feeling pretty exhausted and ready for a night of rest. All of a sudden, my imagination gets going and I see pictures of every window in the house open. I know every window is shut. Out of bed I get to check. Then I slip back into bed and think of the oven. I remember turning off all the knobs but my imagination has got the better of me so I get up to check. This goes on for some time and then the only thing that will soothe me is visualisation. I imagine a giant angel with huge, white-feathered wings perched on the roof of our house, its wings draped over the sides as it stares down at us all sleeping below. If I really focus on this image I can eventually get some sleep.
Visualisation can be very helpful in moments of chaos. If you feel panicky, anxious or stressed, give it a go. Pick what works for you. It could be imagining a still pond of water inside you that flattens out like a sheet of glass, never moving and deep, or it could be a hand gently pushing your shoulders down away from your ears and holding you calm and still. Whatever it is, picture it vividly and believe in its power.
Family can be a world of calm and chaos. There will be members who make you feel calm, but others who make your muscles tense just thinking about them. Those who nurture, those who listen, those who think with clarity will more than likely be the ones you will call when in trouble or turn to when you feel chaotic.
In my family, my mum offers me such strength but she can also easily get tangled up in fear and worry. I could fall into her arms at any time and know they would be outstretched, but I also know what to confide and what to leave out. I know that as a mother the thought of your loved ones being hurt or feeling pain is enough to rock you completely. My dad joins the dots of our family nicely. He is grounded, considered and keeps a cool head when offering advice or unpicking worry. I feel very lucky to have a strong mother who I can turn to and an unflappable father.
The first thing I try to do is step back. If the drama isn’t affecting us directly it’s much better to just hear the stories, feel the emotions that naturally surface and then let them pass. If we know that we cannot help the situation and that being involved will only worsen it, we have to step back even though it is tempting to be sucked in.
I feel inspired by those in my family who take each step thoughtfully and spread calm with a single smile. I try to emulate them when I find myself in tricky spots as I can find it hard to hold my tongue. I have let words tumble out of my mouth before pausing for thought and that has made situations worse.
Sometimes in families you just have to accept that there are members you are not going to get along with so easily and that’s OK. Let antagonists antagonise; let the irresponsible be irresponsible; let the narcissist look only one way. Get on with your own story when you can and don’t bite on the bait that others offer. Family tension is often that bit more intense than other types, because you care so much. The love is deep, the connection is strong and the loss feels heavier.
Consideration – a word I hadn’t given much thought to in my teens and early 20s. I am a neat freak. When my husband Jesse leaves cupboard doors open after he’s made a cup of tea, I want to throw every single teabag on to the street in a fit of rage. Equally, my need for order is frustrating for him when I hang up clothes he has only seconds before got out of the wardrobe to put on. We annoy each other in so many little ways, but by understanding our own needs we can both let go a little and not let it build up.
I think delegating is awfully important in shared homes. I am fiercely independent and useless at asking for help, but I have learnt over the years that that only gets me into trouble and leads to more stress. My husband happens to be a very helpful fellow so he is happy to pick up the parts of life I sometimes feel overwhelmed by, so we have a cooperative partnership when it comes to household stuff and bringing up the kids.
If things feel off-balance with your partner or housemate, make sure you’re honest and really sharing the responsibilities in your home. It can be tough, but those hard-to-say words are preferable to sinking into resentment and a whole host of other emotions that will cause a lot of stress, and very little calm.
This is an edited extract from Calm: Working Through Life’s Daily Stresses to Find a Peaceful Centre by Fearne Cotton, to be published by Orion Spring on 28 December, price £18.99. To pre-order a copy for £15.19 (a 20 per cent discount) until 31 December, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15