This blog was first published on 21st October 2016 on Female First.
Since the age of around five, I have suffered with anxiety and OCD, and it was a painful, lonely experience. How I wish I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, and to share a few tips on getting through it. Then perhaps I wouldn’t have found myself on a bridge, on the brink of taking my own life.
From being a little boy to a fully grown man, I had very intrusive thoughts. These were thoughts of killing my own mum, strangling an old defenceless woman I saw out shopping while on holiday, believing that I would become a child killer after reading about a similar murder in the national press, thoughts of stabbing my partner, hurting our children. Shocking, hey?
I had no idea what ‘OCD’ was – I was frightened, ashamed and appalled about my mind, and I tried to suppress my horrible thoughts or fight them. I always felt that I was on the edge of madness and that no one or nothing could help me. I was lost and alone. It was like losing a war every day as my strength would deplete and my energy drain away. It was both terrifying and debilitating.
Anxiety is better known as the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism – you can either stand your ground against the thing that is threatening you, or you run away from it. Most people experience this normal, innate response but anxiety can become a problem when it either misfires (such as when the threat is not real) or in my case, experience it in relation to a very unlikely threat (such as my thoughts about killing someone).
I found myself going out of my way in order to prevent myself from carrying out these intrusive thoughts of killing. I avoided being around children (including my own), and carried handcuffs in my pocket at all times so I could restrain myself if my thoughts overwhelmed me. These out-of-proportion responses to my thoughts caused my ‘fight or flight’ mechanism to kick in strongly, which caused the anxiety to intensify even more.
What I didn’t realise was that all of these thoughts I had of killing people were just that – a thought. Nothing more and nothing less.
If I could speak to the young Adam, I would tell myself instead of fighting my anxiety, to have the courage to face it head on. I would tell the younger me to accept and embrace the thoughts I was having, in order to take control.
Anxiety thrives on and feeds off your internal fight and struggle while you are trying to conquer this illness, but it runs away when faced with ‘courage’ as you start to take the steps to face it and see it for what it is; a misfiring emotional response driven by fear and without substance.
The younger me used the ‘sticking plaster’ technique to deal with my mental health issues, through avoidance techniques, coming up with little rituals and compulsions, and fighting my thoughts in trying to rid my mind of uncomfortable thoughts. Of course, these were all measures that worked only temporarily – until the day they didn’t work anymore.
OCD and anxiety can be overcome with the correct treatment and approach to recovery. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) with a Compassion-Focused Approach is the most effective way to deal with an anxiety disorder. CBT is the study of the relationship between the things that happen in our lives, how we interpret them and our physiological, emotional and behavioural responses to them. It sounds complex, but it isn’t, if done correctly it’s very simple, innovative and helpful. To overcome your anxiety, you need to have compassion for yourself, even as you are motivated to make changes in your life.
I wasn’t a believer in CBT until I met my psychologist, Lauren Callaghan. I’m a strong follower of science – science is validated by evidence, so evidence-based cognitive behavioural therapy now makes absolute sense to me. As someone who has recovered from OCD and anxiety through a cognitive approach, I am now an advocate for CBT and the benefits it can have in turning around the lives of mental health sufferers. It really does work and I am testament to this.
Of course, CBT isn’t an instant cure. It requires lots of patience and the commitment of time from the person suffering OCD and anxiety. But make no mistake, using the correct type of cognitive therapy can have outstanding results. I am proof of that.
I’m very aware that many people aren’t able to get the help they need, and I want to change that. In partnership with Dr Lauren Callaghan, the psychologist who helped me reach recovery, I have established the mental health charity The Shaw Mind Foundation, gifting it over £1 million to provide help and support to people with mental health issues, and those who support them. Dr Callaghan and I have also written a book about my mental health struggles and eventual recovery, in order to help others with OCD reach recovery: Pullingthetrigger: OCD, Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Related Depression. The Definitive Survival and Recovery Approach, Trigger Press, September 2016.
I am really excited for our second book, written for children, young people and their families, will be published 30th November: Anxiety, Worry, OCD and Panic Attacks: The Definitive Recovery Approach.