It’s time for me to confess – my life’s been crippled by anxiety

It’s time for me to confess – my life’s been crippled by anxiety: She’s famed for her sassy confidence – now SUSANNAH CONSTANTINE shares the secrets that could help so many midlife women

  • Susannah Constantine spoke candidly about her battle with anxiety in midlife
  • The columnist unexpectedly began experiencing panic attacks in her mid-30s 
  • She has concerns over her marriage, children’s needs and a range of insecurities
  • She says advice from nutritionist Tanith Lee has helped her to cope with anxiety
  • Tanith believes anxiety can easily be a mistreated side-effect of menopause
  • An estimated 8.3 million people suffer from anxiety and depression in the UK 

Every morning I wake consumed by fear. A totally irrational fear that assaults with the force of a sledge hammer.

The snowball of anxiety in the pit of my stomach that melted over the course of the previous day begins to re-freeze. The cold permeates to all extremities, leaving me immobile. As my eyes open, I am racked by guilt. What have I forgotten to do? What did I do wrong?

Then the doubt sets in. Am I a bad person/wife/mother/friend? My husband and I have been married for 24 years and his eternal commitment through thick and thin is confirmed each morning with a sleepy smile. But that doesn’t stop me questioning and doubting — does my husband still love me? Anxiety turns me from confident/contented woman into a hot mess racked with insecurity.

Susannah Constantine (pictured) revealed that she suffers from crippling anxiety and started to experience panic attacks in her mid-30s

The crushing sense of foreboding I experience each morning was one of the reasons I gave up alcohol five years ago because a hangover, however mild, exacerbated the anxiety to the point where I could barely get out of bed. There is no one I talk to about this as I know that even the Dalai Lama whispering words of comfort would do nothing to stop these morning terrors.

Anxiety can happen at any age but midlife has a potent cocktail of possible triggers. It’s a time when our children have more adult issues that we as mothers are hot-wired to take on board. It is said that you are only as happy as your unhappiest child.

As they grow, so do their problems. Then they leave home and that’s when we may need to re-establish our identity. In their minds, we can go into the recycling bin, but in ours we are still umbilically attached.

All the things that were our parents’ problems are now our own. We might be worried about grown-up issues like ageing or our marriage, and there can be uncertainty around finances and security in our retirement.

We can also find ourselves in a caring role or sandwiched between the needs of our children and parents. And then there’s the menopause . . .

This combination of factors makes everything feel impossible. It can feel as though the floor is scattered with invisible eggshells and booby traps — whether it’s a challenging teenager or career worries.

The columnist revealed that she refused to admit to feeling panic during her childhood, Jake had to persuade her to get professional help

When I started experiencing panic attacks in my mid-30s, I had no idea that anxiety would become such a dogged feature of my life.

Aged 35, they arrived out of the blue after my father died. The worst happened at a Scissor Sisters concert, of all places. My son and I had been invited as guests of the band — I met lead singer Jake Shears while staying with friends on holiday — and until then I’d never had a problem with claustrophobia or crowds.

All I remember is hiding beneath Jake’s dressing table backstage, a desperate attempt to find somewhere that felt safe.

My son, Joe, then aged only eight, was the one who had to raise the alarm about my disappearance; I had unwittingly abandoned him in a crowd of 15,000 people.

It took Jake, who understood from personal experience, to persuade me to seek professional help and a course of anti-anxiety medication and therapy pulled me through.

Although this sort of extreme panic attack was new to me, feelings of groundless fear have been with me since childhood. At boarding school, panic would wake me every night.

Nutritionist Tanith Lee who helped Susannah to cope, believes many women experience anxiety and depression as a mistreated side-effect of menopause (file image)

I attributed it to homesickness and felt too ashamed to admit it to anyone because they were all having the time of their lives.

Yet throughout my 20s and early 30s, full of energy and with a life focused on building a career and starting my family, fear was an emotion that stayed thankfully dormant.

The help I sought after my concert experience helped tame the anxiety for a good decade. But then I entered the menopausal phase of my life and it reared up once gain, this time with a vengeance.

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Two years ago I was a hair’s breadth away from going down the anti-anxiety drug route again. But before seeking medical help, I decided to ask around for alternative solutions, to see if I could find a sustainable and more natural way forward.

Thank God a friend put me in touch with Tanith Lee, a nutritionist who has dubbed herself Mrs Menopause, who saved my bacon. She identified that, like many women, I entered the menopause years with essential nutrients depleted by stress, dieting and ill health and prescribed a plan that was simple and more importantly, do-able.

She explained that anxiety and depression can so easily be a mistreated side-effect of menopause.

For many women, these sometimes unfamiliar feelings come from nowhere and they go to (as I nearly did) their GP for help only to be prescribed unsuitable anti-depressant medication. If a woman can discover the biological root cause of these debilitating feelings and emotions, she will be able to regain hormonal harmony and feel like she is back in control.

Tanith’s diet plan has played a huge part in helping me cope with my anxiety. One cup of coffee a day, no alcohol or cigarettes, slow-burning carbs like porridge, as little sugar as possible (a never-ending battle), oily fish and loads of dark green veg. This and regular exercise. I stopped practising yoga and took up running on her advice. High-impact exercise batters my anxiety (and me) into submission. A run can transform me from twitchy and unsettled to calm and optimistic.

Women tend to get the shorter end of the stick when it comes to facing midlife.

Whether it’s due to our changing hormones or our changing roles as a woman during this period, the crisis can hit us hard.

While about 8.3 million people suffer from anxiety and depression in the UK, women are twice as likely to fall victim.

Many men think they’d be happier if they make a big change in midlife and feel a desire for pleasure and thrills, the classic ‘midlife crisis’. They make impulsive decisions, only to regret them later.

Women, on the other hand, tend to lose our sense of excitement as we feel the pressures of adulthood are weighing us down.

Weight gain, fine lines and sagging skin, lethargy, blue moods and heat intolerance add to our feelings of insecurity.

Anxiety destroys harmony as we lose the ability to speak for ourselves and the people around us productively. Frustration with a partner, resentment towards an in-law, confronting a rude teenager, news of a back-stabbing colleague, aggressive calls or emails — when anxiety is sky-rocketing these situations can flip the brain into thinking it’s all personal.

It is no wonder so many of us and our relationships come near to breaking point. For me, one of the greatest anxiety-riddled hurdles to scale has been the constant worry of becoming a husk of my former self and the selfish question of what’s left?

Susannah (pictured) says trying not to worry about things she can’t change along with practising her own take on meditation has helped to transform her life

I joke with my children to put a pillow over my head when I become a burden to them and made a loose promise with a friend to go on a rebellious world tour when we turn 75.

As for the brain, I feel blessed to have found a second career in writing, a passion that I pray will keep my mind agile until the end. More than that, it has become my safe place where my anxiety has no part.

Today I have learnt to accept that stomach-churning hit of fear when I wake; to see it as a feeling that will pass by mid-morning.

I use it as a motivator. Fear kicks me out of bed and gets my lardy arse into gear. I’ve learned that inaction feeds the monster but action pummels it to pulp.

Before I get going with my day, I make peace with myself by practising my own take on meditation. This involves running through a gratitude list in my mind. There is so much to be grateful for and I’m a firm believer that what you take for granted can be taken away.

I try not to worry about the things I can’t change and focus on improving the things I can. Then I’m up and get on with my day. These small steps are not a cure, but they have truly transformed my life. 

What helps anxiety? No coffee after lunch and a magnesium soak

Tanith Lee, aka Mrs Menopause, is a nutritional therapist and fitness trainer who specialises in women’s health in mid-life. These are her top five tips for beating menopause anxiety.

  • Magnesium is known as Mother Nature’s relaxant because of its calming properties for both body and mind. But many women in midlife tend to be magnesium depleted because their busy lives mean they often aren’t eating properly.

This is an easy one to fix by eating more leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, seafood, dark chocolate and wholegrains. There are also magnesium supplements available, including a spray for the skin.

A good way to reduce anxiety is with an Epsom salts bath or foot bath. This has a doubly calming effect — while you’re absorbing magnesium in the salts through the skin, you’re also reaping the soothing benefits of a warm bath.

  • Many of us love caffeinated drinks as they give a great boost, but they’re also likely to exacerbate feelings of anxiety for several reasons. Caffeine can have a negative impact on good quality sleep, has been known to trigger hot flushes and cause palpitations.

It can also mask tiredness meaning we’re more likely to keep going and put ourselves under pressure when we should be relaxing, which can also lead to anxiety. My advice is to cut out caffeine altogether or vastly reduce your intake.

If you must drink caffeine, stop at lunchtime as one cup of coffee can stay in the system as long as six hours.

Try green tea instead. You’ll get a mild caffeine boost, but it also contains a compound called L-theanine, which has calming properties.

  • Breathing — most of us breathe from high up in the chest, which isn’t optimal for staying calm and in control. On the other hand, breathing properly can reduce feelings of anxiety instantly.

At times when you’re feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope, try ‘square breathing’. Breathe in through the nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breath out through the mouth for a count of four and then hold for a count of four. Repeat until you feel calmer.

  • Increasingly, links are being made between gut health and the brain. Some studies have even drawn a link between gut health and anxiety.

But during the peri-menopause many women find their gut works less well and they start suffering from IBS symptoms such as bloating or constipation. One reason is that fluctuating levels of oestrogen can compromise how well the gut is able to move on food.

At the same time, stress and anxiety can also impact on digestion. It’s a circular problem. Pay attention to diet, ensuring it’s rich in a variety of nutritious foods. These should include plenty of fibre such as fruit and vegetables, protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. And it’s worth taking a probiotic supplement.

  • It’s well known that exercise stimulates ‘feel good’ endorphins and I cannot stress enough the benefits of keeping the body moving as a way to combat anxiety.

For a start, while you are exercising it’s impossible to think of anything else so it helps break the cycle of anxiety, and then afterwards you reap the benefits of serotonin, which creates a feeling of wellbeing.

Exercising to the point of getting sweaty is ideal, but even a walk at lunchtime will bring benefits. Exercise can also help with feelings of negative body image — just knowing you are taking action can make you feel better and more positive.

by Tanith Lee 

For nutritional tips and no-nonsense guidance through midlife, go to mrsmenopause.co.uk.

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