Colin had been dealing with anxiety for as long as he could remember. He had come to feel like there were two versions of himself.
One was rational, capable and pragmatic.
The other, irrational, anxious and fearful. This version would jump to the worst-case scenario in any situation. Simply running late for an appointment could trigger panic.
After more than two years in counselling with little improvement, Colin ‘knew’ that if he just kept at it, he was going to outsmart his anxiety, even in the face of strong proof that this wasn’t the case.
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Anxiety was present from an early age
Even when he was young, Colin remembers feeling “a certain sort of shyness, an excessive sensitivity to other people's feelings.”
“When I was younger, I unconsciously worked to reduce what I feared might be negative reactions to me.”
Colin couldn't work out what made him feel like this. He just knew that it persisted through high school and into university. After graduating with a Doctorate in Roman History, he got a job at a large telecommunications company.
He worked hard and when the business was set to be privatised, Colin put forward a business case to upskill employees.
It was successful. Suddenly, he found himself running the program, managing training for close to 100 people.
It wasn’t long before Colin started to feel overwhelmed, as usual. Worry and self-doubt began infiltrating all aspects of his life and every waking minute was consumed by thoughts of work. Most nights Colin found himself staring at the ceiling, dreading what the following morning would bring.
“During that period, my blood pressure went through the roof and I could feel at times the anxiety reaching a shrill, screaming peak.”
The program was a success, but the anxiety felt crippling.
The pressure from work continued to build
Colin then moved to a job designing software.
This new role was demanding, but Colin relished it.
“It was a wonderful challenge but it was rife with deadlines, which were the types of things that triggered the intensity of my anxiety response,” he says.
At this stage, fixing bugs and solving issues were part of Colin’s daily routine.
However, the anxiety that arose from the role was a different issue entirely. The battle between his rational self and irrational self ramped up yet again.
“The conversation would go back and forth and more often than not, the irrational voice would get louder and louder. It was constant.”
Finding a solution to his anxiety
Colin’s anxiety wasn’t like the challenges he encountered at work. There wasn’t a clear beginning and end, and often there seemed to be no a relationship between cause and effect.
Colin attended counselling with a psychiatrist for several years. He pored over books and trialled every strategy he could find, from diet to exercise, meditation to mindfulness. Despite applying his highly developed academic skillset to cure his anxiety, it always triumphed.
A strategy that had been suggested to him in the past by both his GP and his counsellor was anti-anxiety medication. But Colin just couldn’t believe there was a compelling case to try it. He was so used to solving problems using his intellect and sheer force of will.
To him, taking medication felt like a shortcut, like a lazy solution to a problem that he should be able to solve himself. It was hard for Colin to accept he couldn’t outsmart his anxiety. But with all his other options seemingly exhausted, the penny dropped.
“I realised I’d started taking medication for my cholesterol and blood pressure issues after years of trying to deal with them by lifestyle changes alone. It suddenly dawned on me that this was no different.”
He decided to give medication a go. And it helped.
Understanding how to stay well
Colin is realistic.
“Medication isn’t a cure – but it’s a necessary foundation for me living well with the condition,” he says.
What it does is free up his mind to focus on other ways he can be happy and healthy.
For Colin, this comes in the form of gardening or exercise, seeing good friends or volunteering with causes he cares about.
It means accepting that he has to live with his anxiety, but that he doesn’t have to try to outsmart it anymore.