My Anxious To Effortless Transformation
During a global pandemic in 2020/21 my experience of life went from seriously struggling with anxiety and depression to one that was exciting, joyful and full of possibilities.
It's a transformation that even now completely amazes, not just for how much my life actually changed but also how it did so with far more grace and ease than I thought possible.
This post is my current best attempt to sum up the backstory that led to my struggles with anxiety, the actual transformation and what happened since.
MY CHILDHOOD & GROWING UP
As I look back to some of my earliest memories I remember having intense feelings and experiences which felt like they were too much for me to cope with.
I was scared of the dark, had separation anxiety from my mum, conscious of trying to fit in, scared of monsters and was always worrying if I was ‘doing it right’.
As I moved into my teenage years I naturally became more aware of the consequences of things, even more eager to be liked, worried about uncertain situations and started to develop a general dis-ease about being myself.
All this meant a lot of thinking, worrying and vigilance happening on a daily basis. Some of the regular things that came up for me included...
- Making sure I wouldn't be caught short needing the toilet.
- Changing who I was, what I liked etc to fit in.
- Fear and worry about social situations (even with people I knew).
- Avoiding getting stuff wrong and or being laughed at.
- Trying to be special and get noticed (through achievement or clothes).
- Trying to be a 'good' boy, the 'nice' guy and fitting in.
- Over thinking decisions & worrying about making good choices.
There was so much going on in my head that looked scary so I thought I just needed to plan stuff better, try harder and control things all in an attempt to navigate life and be happy.
And on the whole it kind of worked. It's not that I had an unhappy childhood, quite the opposite, it was very an enjoyable one that I have many lovely memories of. Nor did any of this stop me from doing many of the things I wanted - I had a lovely group of mates, had girlfriends, went out to parties and got myself to uni.
And yet, as I look back I can see that I held myself back from enjoying it a lot. I held back from being my true self and lost so much time to worrying about the future. I can also see how effortful it was and how I was very much sticking within the confines of the expectations that I had been exposed to.
What's also very clear as I reflect is how the seeds of many future potential problems had been sown.
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
As I moved into my early twenties I went through a period of around 5 years where things just stayed about the same. The worrying and anxiety I had come to know just became a part of my life - and on the whole I did OK to manage them without much fanfare.
However, there was this general sense that there was more to life and that I was holding myself back from fully living. I saw others seemingly floating through life blissfully enjoying it and on some level I wondered if I wasn't wired right or whether that happy life just wasn't for me somehow.
As I moved into my mid twenties the worrying, eager to control life, insecurities, planning, efforting and fears increased in both frequency and intensity.
This coincided with me starting my own business, issues in my relationship being swept under the rug, hiding my struggles and doubling down on the whole "I will just work harder till I figure this out" mindset.
Some of the regular themes I was experiencing at this time were...
- Endless goals (where the goal posts were always changing).
- Worrying about money.
- Hiding parts of myself I thought were weird.
- Worrying about health issues.
- Planning endlessly.
- Fear of dying & not existing.
- Desperate to be 'successful'.
- Started to avoid social events.
- Worrying about the future & overthinking the past.
- Unable to enjoy the journey.
- Waking up anxious.
I was living my life but it was requiring a lot of effort to do so and I wasn't really able to fully enjoy it. I never really got it when people said they woke up excited to start the day or to "just enjoy the journey".
It was around this time when I really got into personal development. It looked like this world of learning had all the answers to my struggles with not enjoying life, limited success and lack of fulfilment.
I did the common thing for people new to this personal development world of following lots of the strategies and ideas that were out there. I made 5 year plans, 1 year plans, 90 day plans. I did the morning routines. I practiced gratitude. I thought positively. I kept pushing through. I was faking it till I 'made it'.
While the personal development stuff gave me something to do, as I reflect back much of it was actually just making me more controlling, forcing things and hyper focusing on all the 'problems' in my life.
As I moved towards age 30 things continued to get worse. It felt like I had an increasing number of plates to keep spinning and it was just a matter of time before some or all would come crashing to the floor.
REACHING BREAKING POINT
The years of stress, tension and worry started to create physical symptoms such as eye twitching, obsessive scratching, full ears, a 'lump' in my throat, loss of appetite, a pit in my stomach and tiredness.
I was often irritable, angry and short with people closest to me. A far cry from the loving, cheeky faced guy that I knew was on the inside somewhere.
I developed OCD checking behaviours, my dreams became scarier, panic attacks started occurring and I just generally spent my days on red alert trying to figure out who I needed to be and what I needed to do to get through unscathed.
To try and cope with everything that was going on I sought out a numbing strategy, a way to escape this scary life that I was experiencing. My go to options were work and food. I could at least control these aspects more than most. I would spend a lot of time working to avoid the storm of my life while also giving myself some pick me ups through things like chocolate or cake.
I started seeing friends less (making excuses not to join in), holding back in my marriage, playing small in my business and staying in my comfort zone wherever possible. I was rarely present even with those closest to me, too busy worrying about the future to be able to enjoy even the most day to day moments.
I became increasingly numb to feeling, wanted to hide from the world, spent a LOT of my time worrying and became a stranger even to myself.
THE AVOIDABLE IMPLOSION
Ultimately in mid 2017 my entire world came crumbling down. My marriage ended, I had built up big debts, lost friends, hid away from the world, couch surfed for a while and was seriously unhappy.
The following two years were spent coping the only way I knew how - avoiding things and numbing the pain away. I went on the road staying with friends, family and house sitting. I spent my days working, trying to figure out how to get my life back on track and coping with things as best I could.
There was no true joy in my life at that time, it might have appeared like I was living the life. My Instagram account showed what looked like a fun nomadic lifestyle where I was ‘living the dream’, truth was, life was anything but OK - that was all an attempt to trick myself into thinking I was happy.
On the inside I was a shadow of my former self and things weren't getting any better. At best I was coping with life. At my worst I was deeply unhappy if not depressed.
My days were spent just trying to get through as best I could and attempting to create glimpses of happiness before the inevitable draw back into my seemingly never ending whirlpool of worrying and unhappiness.
I continued trying more self help tactics and coping strategies. I had some therapy with a coach, I participated in online training, I read books, watched videos, listened to podcasts, tried affirmations. I threw as much as I could at this, but nothing seemed to help. Whilst some of these were helpful, for me they were simply plasters helping me to get through a very low point - they still didn't create the real lasting transformation I wanted.
I wouldn’t say I’d given up hope, but it was certainly starting to wane and I was wondering if this was just my lot in life. For a while, that’s where I stayed - a cycle of just trying to get through the day, while keeping up appearances, hiding all my behaviours and trying to somehow fix myself.
THE TURNING POINT IN MY STORY
I kept looking for answers, and eventually they came but in a very unexpected way - not through my searching, but through my Dad. In 2019 he introduced me to someone he thought I might find interesting, John El-Mokadem, a transformational coach.
I had a look at John's website and some of the videos he'd shared previously. It was all very different to what I'd been previously looking at. The thing that really stood out for me was that the clients that worked with John had incredible transformations without all the usual techniques, coping strategies, monitoring or anything like that.
They were experiencing transformations with more grace and ease than I thought possible. And they were lasting changes. And they were truly life changing.
To say I was intrigued would be an understatement. I ended up having a call with John where I asked more about his work and understood how the clients he worked with transformed their lives. I was genuinely moved and intrigued by what John shared - and yet 6 months would go by before I would connect with John again.
It was at a family BBQ at my parents house where I happened to end up sitting next to John for the evening. We didn't talk much though - the guy to my left was very much engaged and interested in hearing more about what John did.
So I just sat there listening to John in conversation with this other guy. Something moved me that night and I basically decided that more people needed to hear about this approach to life. What I didn't realise, which still makes me chuckle, is that the person I knew who MOST needed to hear this stuff, would turn out to be me.
Rather than letting more time go by, I reached out to John for another meeting. Not for coaching, but to discuss helping him with marketing (that was my freelance day job at the time). I could see the impact that John’s work had and I wanted to help him reach more people. All I was thinking was that, more people needed to hear about this approach and I’d love to be a part of helping make that happen. Somehow, it still never really crossed my mind that John could help me.
Skip to a few meetings and calls later, I started working for John in late 2019 as a behind the scenes tech guy. Simply by working for John I was exposed to new perspectives around navigating life, finding peace and creating the life you want.
I didn't interact but simply consumed the material whilst doing my day job which involved things like website editing and designing graphics. What I did do was ponder and get curious about what I heard and how it might be applicable to my own life.
During that first 6 months I experienced huge shifts in my life. Not by asking John questions or getting direct coaching from him (I didn't feel like I could as I was working for him and wanted to keep it professional), but simply by being the tech guy behind the scenes and listening to videos and calls - then seeing what I saw about it all for myself.
As I listened, pondered things and explored for myself I got new insights about life which made the following plus many more shifts possible...
- Nearly all my physical symptoms were gone.
- No more panic attacks.
- Sleeping better with fewer scary dreams.
- Able to enjoy moments as I wasn't crippled by fear or worry.
- More able to step out of my comfort zone.
- A greater sense of ease in life.
By early 2021 I was in a completely different place - so much so that I felt OK sharing my struggles with the world. I was no longer really struggling, I'd found some solid ground and was starting to come alive again.
For the next 6 months or so I continued to explore and understand everything I was seeing - 2020/21 is a period of my life that I refer to as being in a cocoon waiting to come out as a butterfly.
When I left the cocoon mid 2021 I thought I would emerge this new butterfly fully prepared to spread my wings and soar out into the world doing all the things I wanted to.
In some ways I was right, there were a lot of fun and joyful moments. In amongst all the fun and generally being more expansive though, was a whole lot more inner work and challenges I wasn't expecting.
I forgot that this wasn't a once and done kind of thing. Though anxiety was becoming less of a problem there was still more to see around it and the act of coming out of my cocoon would then bring a whole new set of challenges.
The difference by that point was I had learned how to navigate life far better than I ever had - and the ongoing explorations I was doing were helping me to live a more effortless life.
By late 2021/22 I was a completely different person to 2019 Paul. I had lots of people say how I just seemed different, happier, more at ease and looking healthy.
And I really was all these things and so much more.
Life didn't look so scary to me anymore. It looked exciting and full of possibilities.
Worrying as I used to experience it became non existent. I could still have doubts, concerns etc and yet not be crippled by them.
I was no longer a victim to life. I was stepping up and taking more responsibility for what I wanted.
My physical symptoms had all gone.
I didn't need to avoid life through work or numb through food (most of the time).
I knew more and more I could just show up to life as whatever version of me I wanted.
It was so freeing - life really started to become more like the experience I thought was possible but always seemed just out of reach.
This was a process, things didn’t suddenly change overnight. It was as if at some point I’d look back and remember what life was like and how different it was now. Imagine someone slowly turning on the dimmer switch in a room; it’s so gradual that it’s not noticeable until you remember just how dark it once was.
Even as I write this I still can't quite believe how effortless and enjoyable my life is compared to just a few years ago. And what's so exciting is I can tell that I've only scratched the surface of what it really looks like to live more effortlessly.
WHAT HELPED ME WITH ANXIETY...
There were no techniques that John shared. No coping strategies. No monitoring my behaviours. No trying to control my thoughts.
It was far more simple than I expected.
It was seeing through the misunderstandings I had about life. What does that mean?
The way I think of it is like this...
As we grow up, we all pick up ways to navigate life; rules of life if you like.
These rules then mean we play the game of life in certain ways.
What if those rules aren't helpful? What if they are in fact blocking you from living more effortlessly?
What if they're hindering your ability to create the life you've always wanted?
And that's what helped me so much - getting curious about these rules of life I'd been playing by and noticing how they were impacting my life.
For example - I always thought anxiety was a big problem, that I needed to do everything I could to avoid feeling anxious and that the freedom, happiness and success I wanted would only come once I got rid of it.
What I started to get curious about and ponder was...
What if anxiety isn't the problem I thought it was?
What if I could find freedom WITH anxiety?
What if I could get to a place where I see that anxiety can be a normal thing for humans to experience?
Through this process of exploration I started to see some of the rules differently. Some of them I adjusted to make sense for me while others I just threw out the window. As the rules of my life changed, I naturally (without any effort) showed up differently, which created a very new experience of life.
That's what I did to completely change my life - it's how I went from Anxious to Effortless.
I won't say it was always easy or comfortable or without challenge - and yet it was still far more graceful and effortless than all my many years of trying to change my life - and it actually worked, it was true lasting transformation.
There's more to go into around this process of how this transformation was possible, that is all coming in future content I will be creating, for now I want to round of the story aspect of my transformation by sharing where I'm at now.
NOW IN 2023...
What's funny is that I thought the transformation I experienced back then was incredible, well it just kept going and getting even more and more amazing.
Not in the typical way you might expect e.g making lots of money, big houses, expensive stuff etc - but in even more amazing ways.
I'm living life from a more effortless space which is filled with so much joy, fulfilment and love.
And from that space life is now opening up for me and so many of the things I'd previously wanted are coming into my reality.
I've seen through so many more misunderstandings I had about life - AND I continue to be on that journey, to explore, ponder and learn.
That’s my story of Anxious to Effortless.
I hope that it helps you in some way on your own journey.
And if you'd like to read my original shares about opening up about my struggles click here.
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