Tag: anxiety

Agoraphobia: Getting the Heck Outta Here

Agoraphobia: Getting the Heck Outta Here

With the restriction on travelling between counties lifted, it’s now time to get out and enjoy our country! However, for some people, the mere thought of doing that fills them with dread. In fact, the mere thought of leaving the house may upset them.

Agoraphobia is not a fear of open spaces, but rather a fear of being in situations where the sufferer may feel it will become impossible to escape (the impact of this can often be lessened by going outside with their ‘safe person’). The result of this fear is that people build a shell about themselves, which consists of their ‘safe zone’. The more people languish in this safe zone, the smaller it tends to get, until it’s the size of their house, or even their bedroom.

What hasn’t helped in this pandemic is lockdowns, and both the media and the government inferring that grave danger lies outside! If you take proper precautions, of course it actually doesn’t. In fact, recent studies have indicated that being outdoors hugely reduces your chances of contracting it.

Part of my own anxiety disorder occasionally featured agoraphobia. If I was to be entirely honest, it still does, as I still have to complete exercises to combat its impact – and I still feel its impact from time to time.

The good thing is, at least that I’ve found, is that agoraphobia is entirely beatable, but it requires bravery and persistence. Healing only begins outside your safe zone. You will never heal within it.

Here’s what I’ve read and done. Note that these often apply to driving anxiety too.

  1. Baby steps. Take a walk around the block (or if driving out, drive to the end of your estate or village and back). Maybe even with your safe person, if you must, but it would be even better without. Do it again the next day. Then drop your safe person and do a few laps. Slowly extend your sphere in this way. Take in a few neighbouring blocks. Then, take precautions and go to the shops or take-away alone. Eventually, you’ll be able to go kilometers from home on your own. And beyond that? Socialising with friends again, even in unfamiliar places. The world is opening again… give yourself a chance to be in a position to embrace it!
  2. Keep looking outwards. When out, keep your attention focused on what you’re looking at, rather than inwards towards how you’re thinking. This takes concentration and practice, but gets easier over time.
  3. Stay and bear it. When you feel anxious, push that little bit harder, maybe do that extra lap – show your limbic system who’s boss! If you’re going to the shop and feel panicky, try standing still somewhere (looking at products), and extend your focus outwards towards your environment, rather than inwards towards what you’re thinking. Is that easy? No… it does take practice and training. But if you can, stay for as long as you can – again to show that your rational brain is in charge. Eventually, it will work, and your panic will subside, and you can smile to yourself as you complete your shopping and leave the building. If driving, drive to an unfamiliar carpark, park and stay there until any anxiety passes. Then drive home… don’t drive to the carpark and immediately drive back at speed!
  4. Give yourself a break. Sometimes you’ll feel so bad that you can’t quite make it out, or out far enough, on a given day, or that on another day you’d been to a place before but can’t seem to manage this time without your safe person. Allow this to happen. Some days you simply need to rest – give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up about it.
  5. Make it a habit. It can take up to 66 days to form a habit. Once a habit is formed it takes less effort/willpower to perform it as a task – it becomes more natural to do. I have a habit-tracking section in my journal and doing a ‘solo thing’ is one of the items I track. I would suggest doing the same. Just tick off the days you manage to do it successfully, and give yourself a reward for, say, 5 days in a row. There will be some days you can’t manage it. This is ok.
  6. People are the same as you. I have no doubt you’re a good person. So are others you may meet out there. They’re not all Covid vectors! In fact, this will be more and more the case over the next few weeks as vaccinations are ramped-up. Remember this… smile at and greet strangers, and observe them smiling back (most do!). About 1 in 6 people you meet may be going through something similar to what you’re going through. In fact, a recent study indicated that Covid has hugely exacerbated this. The important point here: you are not alone, and if you choose it, you will never be alone.

Good luck, and let’s get out an explore and people-watch again!

How I’m Healing, and a Walk in The Curragh

How I’m Healing, and a Walk in The Curragh

Hello again. I suspect this will be a lengthy article!

After posting the link to the list of the symptoms in my previous post, I thought I’d let you know a little more about my own experience, with a view to giving a message of hope to those of you walking with anxiety: that is, I believe that it is completely beatable, not merely manageable. The two principle ways of beating it are (a) allowing the symptoms to wash over you; experience them for what they are: uncomfortable sensations that cannot kill you (in fact, the body’s process (fight or flight) is the diametric opposite – it’s designed to keep you alive), and (b) to carry on with your life as normally as possible, going towards and experiencing people, places and events which currently cause you fear; get exercise in too. The chief reason for these is that you are trying to convince your limbic system that there is no real danger here. This takes training, which takes time – so it will not be an overnight success – you must be brave and persist.

Note that it is not easy to be positively minded when you’re flooded with cortisol, so although I talk a good game in this article, I sometimes am unable to apply what I preach, and subsequently die on my arse. This is ok. If it happens to you (and it will), be kind to yourself, and just try again next time.

Before I rattle on with the list, I have a couple of important disclaimers:

  1. It is extremely advisable that you get your diagnosis of an anxiety condition from a professional. If you think you may have something physiologically seriously wrong with you, get it checked out. However, once you get your diagnosis of anxiety/panic trust it. Do not second-guess it, and immediately give up Googling your symptoms.
  2. I am not a medical or psychological professional. I am purely speaking about my own experience. Get an opinion from a professional. Everyone’s journey is different. My own is chiefly health anxiety, thanks to the current pandemic, so during the past 9 months or so every new weird sensation could potentially add to my anxiety. You may see below stuff like “No, Eoin, you’re not…” – this is me letting you know what you might think it is, but trust that it is, in fact, just anxiety.

The List – Working down from Head to Toes

  • Stress-band headache. Pressure going from temple to temple across the forehead. A feeling of pressure. Lower your stress levels – take a break from what you’re doing, perhaps do a breathing exercise (e.g. box breathing). Once you learn to manage your anxiety, this symptom will tend to crop up as often. No, Eoin, you’re not about to have a stroke.
  • ‘Hot’ sensations in the left and/or right hand corners of your forehead. Will go away when your general anxiety lessens. No, Eoin, you’re *still* not about to have a stroke!
  • Work-related stress. Ok, this is a sub-symptom, but as an anxious person, you’re more sensitive to stress generally. For me, it got to the stage when every interaction in work was causing me to stress out – up to recently. About a month ago, I decided to maintain a ‘Positivity Journal’ in a spreadsheet. Just 3 columns: what the interaction was, the date, and the list of positive impacts it has for me. A month later, I have almost 600 rows in the sheet, and my stress has dipped significantly. Yes, it does add a couple of minutes to your work-related tasks, but for me it has been very much worth it.
  • Dizziness. I only had this early on when I was at my worst. It’s a sign that you’re hyperventilating. You’re breathing too fast and shallow; too high up in your chest, rather from your belly/diaphragm. No, Eoin, you don’t have a brain tumour. I’ve read that it’s incredibly rare to actually faint due to anxiety. If it wasn’t rare, then the fight/flight response would be a complete evolutionary failure! Try slowing down, do a little box-breathing, then continue on with what you were doing originally. Don’t take to your bed, or otherwise hide away!
  • Facial stress. Watch out for jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding and firmly pressing the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. If you catch yourself doing these, relax your face muscles, reposition your tongue away from the roof of your mouth. Chances are you will find that you’re also carrying tension in your shoulders and stomach muscles. Relax those too!
  • Inability to Concentrate/Brain Fuzziness. I am very open about my anxiety, which is good, as anxiety can bring about a great sense of shame. However, this is one of two symptoms I have any sense of shame about. When my general anxiety levels are high, I cannot concentrate, and taking in anything new is difficult for me. I feel rather stupid as a result, and give myself the impression I’m not pulling my weight in work. I am trying to learn to be kinder to myself. Reducing my stress levels in work has helped me a lot with this symptom, and led to me taking more tasks on. Again, learn to be kind to yourself, and, Eoin… this is just anxiety, not early-onset dementia!
  • Racing thoughts. I am still dealing with this, as probably my #1 symptom, especially as my issue largely is health anxiety. The trick is to simply not worry. It’s easier said than done, and I’m trying to find a mindful tool that works best for me. One of the best approaches I’ve found so far is to treat your recurring worries like sock-puppets (yes you read that right). You will get to the stage that you can allow the worries to be there, even eventually smiling at them when they arise. Sock puppets are harmless, and so are thoughts (see next in the list).
  • Dark thoughts. These can be very troubling, and can cause a deep sense of shame and fear. They could be anything from your amygdala flashing you a thought of your impending death/collapse, to bonkers stuff altogether (visions of you committing acts of violence, extreme sexual perversion, self-mutilation, blasphemic thoughts etc.). This symptom dissipates as your general anxiety lessens. The most important thing to remember, though, is this: these are just thoughts and nothing more – expressions of nothing but excess energy, THEY ARE NOT WHO YOU ARE. You are not going to act out on these thoughts. And rationally, you know this, because you are upset by them. Acknowledge them, and allow them. Then let them pass. They will pass by when you give them no more conscious attention. Humans have tens of thousands of thoughts each day, and some of them may include the type I’ve mentioned above. As people with an anxiety condition, we latch onto them because are have turned inwards from the outside world, and are actively looking for stuff wrong with us. Pay these thoughts no attention, and try not to get upset by them. And no, Eoin, you are not going insane. I do get impending doom flashes, but the more extreme dark thoughts have more or less gone away, as my general anxiety has reduced.
  • Insomnia. Tricky one, this, as it’s a sub-symptom of both mental and physical anxiety symptoms. For me, though, it’s mostly been about racing thoughts. Early on in my anxious life, I had chronic insomnia, often getting just 1-2 hours (if any) sleep in 5 out of 7 nights. The two main things are to stay away from stimulants, and try to go to bed only when you’re feeling tired. Months ago, I had to use bluetooth headband headphones, and try to listen to sleep stories in Calm or sleepcasts in Headspace… finally graduating to gentle audiobooks from Audible. These worked, to a limited extent, but I eventually stopped using the headband. Two other pieces of advise: don’t get upset if you can’t sleep – it will happen, remain calm and you may eventually succumb to Morpheus! Secondly, hide your clock – I found this helped me a lot – do not look at the time if at all possible when you wake up. For me, insomnia lessened when my general anxiety symptoms lessened. I still use the Kindle App on my phone on the night-styling setting to read gentle fiction. Everyone still has sleepless nights, so insomnia is never guaranteed to go away, especially during a pandemic. Another trick which might work, is to try counting backwards slowly from 1000, to counteract racing thoughts, while being in a restful state. I have reduced my general anxiety by allowing and accepting my symptoms, and engaging with life, rather than hiding away. By way of illustration, here is a graph. As part of my daily journal (which I may soon end), I scored myself on several aspects, one of which was my sleep quality. I scored myself a 1 for a good night’s rest, 0.5 for getting at least a little sleep, or 0 for feeling like I got nothing at all. Here is how I’ve scored myself from late August to now. The trend line is very obviously increasing, and I feel now like I’ve almost normalised my sleep.
  • Night Terrors. Thankfully, I’ve only experienced this twice – both months ago, early in my onset. The first time I couldn’t breathe for several seconds, and I had lost sense of self-identity for about 30 seconds. Afterwards I was fine, but obviously felt very unsettled afterwards. The second time, I remembered who I was, but for a couple of minutes I fixated on the fact that I was supposed to carry out a task for someone, but couldn’t remember what it was, or who it was for. I haven’t had anything like this happen to me in months… and if I recall correctly, not at all while I was given my correct diagnosis of having an anxiety condition. So don’t worry… you’re not going mad! It’s just anxiety.
  • Nightmares. This have reduced, and become less severe as my general anxiety lessened. You’ll still have them from time to time, because you’re human!
  • Tinnitus. For me, I have 3 tones: (1) low rumbling, which becomes louder roaring during periods of high anxiety, (2) extremely high-pitched tone in my left ear – quite persistent, but rarely troubling, and (3) occasional very faint sounds of birdsong (which might actually be sounds of birdsong!). This is annoying, and has impacted on my sleep 1 or 2 nights, but the symptom will lessen as general anxiety dips. So no, Eoin, you won’t have a stroke, or you don’t have a brain tumour!
  • Earworms. I’ve read that these are a symptom of depression. I wouldn’t say I had depression, but merely only sadness (see entry below). Anyway, these are not your typical earworms, as they are snatches of song/music lasting 3-5 seconds that repeat over and over and over. They can be frustrating, as they often added to my sadness during my mid-onset. A benefit to them is that they seem to block out the tinnitus! I have found that while I still succumb to them, they are lessening as I am healing.
  • Sadness. Mild depression by another name I suppose. I have shed many a tear over the last 9 or so months. All I can say is that these symptoms have reduced by (a) reducing general anxiety (thereby also reducing stress), (b) practicing gratitude (gratitude journal, meditations etc. – this subject warrants its own blog, so I’m evaluating it right now), (c) mindfully allowing worries and dark thoughts, and letting them pass me by, (d) being non-reactive to things that might make me angry, and (e) remembering this is just the way I am right now – do not compare yourself to how happy others are, nor to how you used to be before you fell ill – this just leads to a Vale of Tears – stay in the here and now, and remember this is something you yourself can change – don’t wait for external circumstances to alter. If you feel there are underlying reasons for sadness/depression, then please contact a mental health professional. Right now, I feel I am over the worst of this, but I still occasionally have days of low mood.
  • Heightened Emotion. I don’t experience this as much as I used to, but it came on me during mid-onset and through to now – albeit not as bad for me in the last few weeks. Basically, you can be moved to tears or fears far more often than normal. Expose yourself to life more often to reduce this symptom. I still have to monitor what I can watch in fear of it potentially making me emotional or fearful, but I’m slowly getting better.
  • Hopelessness. This is mostly experienced during setbacks, which I discussed in my previous blog. Remember that setbacks are signs that you are healing. You will not be the way you are forever. These feelings come and go.
  • Irritability. Sometimes, albeit rarely, I can find myself being narky. It happens a little more often when you’re anxious. Try to remember it’s anxiety, which is distorting reality for you somewhat.
  • Depersonalisation/Derealisation. Speaking of reality… these are two of the most troubling and least understood of symptoms. I didn’t really suffer from depersonalisation, except for that one night terror (see above). Derealisation, though, I had bouts with on and off for a few months – and a few more of it in its mild form. It’s hard to explain… the definition of it is that you feel that the outside world feels unreal to you. I remember taking walks and feeling that people were like paper dolls. I would look at Niamh (my wife), remember who she was and that I loved her, but none of the proper chemicals were firing, and she might as well have been a wax doll. It was a terrible sensation. A theory is that the brain is prepping you for death – you don’t care about leaving the world as much. Note, that it in and of itself does not make you feel suicidal, nor will it actually harm you. It is just a feeling you have been exposed to after a lengthy spell of very high and persistent anxiety. Therefore, I only experienced this symptom at its worst before I got my actual anxiety diagnosis. The worst of it went away soon after I read up a little on anxiety (Barry McDonagh’s DARE, chiefly). However, it still cropped up when feeling very anxious – chiefly when I was looking at TV, and felt as though I was looking at it through someone else’s eyes. Disturbing, but not a sign of brain-cancer or madness. It still happens to me occasionally, but it will definitely dissipate when you get your general anxiety symptoms under control.
  • Pressurised sinuses. I think this is like the stress-band style headache above. I’ve only had this crop up once in the last month – before it was on and off for a couple of months. Not brain cancer, Eoin.
  • Red rashes around the mouth. This is either a stress symptom, or from the fact that I drooled a little bit more than usual while I slept. Either way, I’ve not had these rashes in a while. Not a vitamin C deficiency, Eoin!
  • Lump in the throat/oesophagus. I found that this goes away by reducing general anxiety, and by ensuring you’re not breathing too shallowly. Try to breathe from your belly/diaphragm, but don’t get caught up in controlling your own breathing! Either way, it’s not throat or oesophagal cancer, Eoin.
  • Shoulder/shoulder-blade pain. I am currently experiencing this. I am not sure if this is actual rotator cuff damage or anxiety, or a combination of both. I have an appointment with a physio in the next week or so to help me assess this. It took me several goes of convincing myself that it wasn’t bone cancer, though – this is due to a misdiagnosis my mam had before she passed away.
  • Breathing issues. Oh boy, where to start! This is one of the chief reasons people suffer from anxiety in my opinion. Hyperventilation (probably brought about by stress and worry) eventually alerts the limbic system that something might be wrong, and requests the adrenal glands to begin firing the body with adrenaline and cortisol. There are a few pieces of advice I can give, based purely on my own experience (and I still suffer from feeling like I’m short of breath, by the way). Firstly, trust that your lungs are alright. Stress/worry is causing the muscles in your torso to sieze-up, thereby causing you to breathe too high up in your chest. Relax your shoulder and stomach muscles, try to breathe from your belly. Secondly, I often try to feel my breath mostly coming in through my nostrils, in an effort to get the body to breathe from the correct place itself, rather than consciously trying to direct my breathing – because consciously controlling your breathing is not possible in practical terms. Lastly, if you feel like you have to take a deep breath, please avoid doing this – it could lead to hyperventilation and kick off heightened anxiety. I have (or had – the Jury’s still out), accompanying gastritis, which can also make you feel like you’re breathless. Again… just trust that your lungs are working fine! Eoin, you do not have Covid-19, lung cancer, pneumonia etc.
  • Chest heat. A heating from the stomach to to the pectoral muscles. Again, I think this is coming from shallow breathing/hyperventilation and the impact the resulting anxiety can also have on your stomach and digestion (see further below). The intercostal muscles between your ribs are being over-worked and leading to this feeling of heat. It is not a heart-attack!
  • Racing heart/Palpitations/skipped beats. Probably the main reason why anxious people end up in A&E, as they create more anxiety to the point of pushing people into having a panic attack. I have had my heart checked our 3 times in the last 18 months, and can now finally say that I don’t let these symptoms bother me nearly as much as I used to. All of these symptoms will reduce with a lessening of general anxiety, and moving through your panic attack. You are not having a heart-attack! Again, if you’re unsure, always get the advice of a medical professional, but then trust their diagnosis!
  • Paresthesis (pins and needles in the forearms/hands). These can also occur in the legs and (I’ve read) in the face. I’ve mostly just had them in the arms/hands, and never in the face. They are a sign of highish anxiety and will dissipate when the anxiety level goes down. They are related to hyperventilation (so I’ve read).
  • Clumsiness. When anxiety is at least moderate, I can knock things over or drop things more frequently than I normally would when my cortisol levels are low. This will pass. No, Eoin, it’s not Parkinson’s!
  • Stomach/Digestion issues. I was also diagnosed with mild chronic gastritis. However, I now notice that the symptoms of this generally only manifest when I am anxious. Some people can also develop IBS with anxiety. I haven’t. I get occasional acidity, but the main symptom is a feeling that my stomach is knotting. Not pleasant, but will come and go with anxiety. It is one of my chief symptoms, however. Fortunately, (and without going into too much detail!), the rest of my digestion seems to be good. However, note that my diet has been better than it’s ever been (I’ve lost over 50lbs in the last 9-10 months – no, Eoin, that weight loss is not down to cancer!). I’ve cut down on sugar, processed foods, crisps, booze… I never drank caffeine, so that’s good… I also drink Kefir milk daily, and ensure I’m getting enough vitamin D and B12 (both of which are supposed to be good for maintaining good mood). Eoin, you don’t have stomach, pancreatic or bowel cancer.
  • Feeling like you need the toilet (1s or 2s!). I’ve only had this during times of highish anxiety. It passes (pun not intended).
  • Jelly legs. Again, just had this during moderate-to-high anxiety. Nothing to worry about. It will pass as levels drop.
  • Cold legs. Anxiety can cause your blood to flow to more important organs, making other parts of the body feel weak or cold. This will pass as your anxiety level goes back down. No, Eoin, you don’t have Covid.
  • Pulsing in my feet. A newish sensation for me… it comes and goes. I’ve just noted it and let it pass.
  • Shaking. This is often experienced at the end of a bad panic attack, or prolonged bout of anxiety. It’s the body’s way of removing the excess chemical soup from your system. You see it on wildlife programmes, where a lion’s prey avoids being caught, and they seem to shake helplessly for a few minutes, before getting on with life again. Help it along by shaking it out yourself, or jumping up and down, shadow-boxing etc. No, Eoin, it’s not Covid!

To summarise: if you have your diagnosis, trust it. Then trust that your symptoms are only anxiety, a feeling which, although very unpleasant, cannot kill you. Experience it, then let it pass… and go out and live your life, even if you feel frightened by what you’re about to do.

I thought I’d finish off this blog with some snapshots I had of a walk in The Curragh!

Anxiety: Symptoms, Setbacks and Walks

Anxiety: Symptoms, Setbacks and Walks

Imagine for a moment you’re about to go into a panel-style interview, where you know you’ll be criticised, but given a chance to redeem yourself. On live TV (your first time). With a studio audience of hundreds. Just beforehand, you’ll sweat, your legs will feel like jelly, and your heart will race. In addition, your bowels will contract and your bladder shrink to the size of a golf-ball. You may even be desperate enough to want the whole thing to be cancelled at the last minute, even though the encounter may benefit you – you may still want to avoid it.

Now add pins and needles in your arms, and maybe some chest pain for fun. And sure, why not some dark thoughts and high emotions too? And instead of a panel interview, you’re simply walking out the door to go to the shops alone, or are out driving, or opening a random work email… or simply just sitting on your couch at home. Welcome to anxiety and panic. And symptoms which may be felt by degrees over months or years by people who walk with anxiety.

The good news is that anxiety symptoms will NEVER kill you (like a real heart attack might, for example). In fact, they are triggered by a system (fight or flight) designed to keep you alive. Unfortunately, it has gone into overdrive, and your rational mind then has the extremely difficult task in convincing that part of your brain (the amygdala) that there’s nothing to fear here! This can be done, but training can take time.

The symptoms felt by those with anxiety are so varied, it’s incredibly surprising, even shocking, to those unfamiliar. I am not going to list them here, but instead link to a page with a near-complete list of symptoms.

Anxiety Symptoms: The List | CBT4Panic

What a list! And a bunch of them are experienced all at the same time. It can be quite overwhelming.

In addition, anxiety can come and go. And when it comes back, the amygdala thinks “Ok, they’re used to these symptoms a bit, so let’s hit them with something else!”. And so you may experience a whole new range of thoughts and physical feelings when it comes back (aka “symptom shifting”).

Unfortunately, it frequently comes back, and back again… usually in the form of what are called Setbacks, sometimes with new symptoms and sometimes with old ones. This term sounds negative, but is frequently used by sufferers of anxiety and depression and their respective therapists. Setbacks are unpleasant to experience (I’ve just come off one that lasted 48-60 hours), but in reality, they are a sign that you’re getting closer to recovery.

So the idea is to let yourself not be upset by your setbacks, and even learn to embrace them when they come. This is not too easy, as they are designed to frighten you to keep you “safe” from a danger that the amygdala thinks may be omni-present, but it fact it exists only within itself. It’s designed to make you think “My God, it’s back as bad as ever – I’ll never be rid of it!”. That’s just not true – and if you are able to practice your CBT or whatever mindful toolset you have you will experience this. In fact, the better you are at your practice, the shorter setbacks are supposed to be (I am still learning to manage setbacks properly!).

When you’re loaded with cortisol, it’s very hard to put into practice your mindful tools, but you’ve got to keep trying. You’ll beat this, and soon you and your anxiety will be living in equilibrium. As stated above, this training takes time. No estimates provided, as everyone’s journey is different and you should never compare yourselves to others.

Remember too that the graph of anxiety recovery is not an upward straight line, but more resembles the flight path of a paper airplane thrown into a hurricane!

What helped me getting over my latest setback was to read about them in the DARE book (by Barry McDonagh – Chapter “Give Up Fearing It Will Last Forever”), and similarly in this selection of sites:

There’s a Japanese quote I saw on another site that grabbed my attention, and sums it up:

Fall seven times, stand up eight.

Dealing With Setbacks | ADAVIC Anxiety Disorders Association of Victoria, Inc

So again, good luck to all of you trying to walk with your anxiety in peace.

I thought I’d finish off this entry with some pretty! Here is a selection of photographs from Kilcullen and the Curragh I took when out on my walks.

Walking in the Curragh.  What’s going on in Volterra now?

Walking in the Curragh. What’s going on in Volterra now?

So what’s the story? Well after coming back from Christmas holidays (about 13 nights off), my anxiety has increased a little while I get used to the change. The last time this happened coming back from Volterra, I was in a bit of a meltdown for 3 weeks.

Now, I am using my tools better to help me. Oh, I still have periods of high anxiety, and maybe because my symptoms have reduced in intensity, my ability to rest in them has lessened too. So, at times I don’t feel like I’m getting better, but when I think about it properly I definitely am.

So this is the beginning of the 3rd week (Monday 18th Jan), and last Wednesday I had a panic attack. But after a panic attack comes a period of reflection, in which you realise you can’t be hurt by any symptoms (new or old) you’ve just experienced.

Anyway, aside from mindful tools, I also try to walk a few kilometers a day. I have a treadmill for periods of bad weather, but there’s nothing quite like getting out among people. I miss casual interactions with people so much, but at the same time, I’m a little agoraphobic – and sometimes find it tricky to get out without my support person (Niamh). As Niamh is also on a health kick, I don’t mind missing going out on walks by myself, and enjoy when we get out together.

We generally walk around our hometown (Kilcullen, Co. Kildare), but for the past couple of weekends, we’ve gotten out to a wide open space in the countryside called the Curragh. As well as gently rolling hills of grass which is kept short by hordes of grazing sheep, there are also copses of trees and most strangely of all, one of Ireland’s largest army training camps and an associated barracked village.

The first time we went was Friday the 8th of January, when the were still patches of snow on the ground.

The second time (the Sunday just gone), we had a much longer walk around the back of the pitch and putt course, and up by the back of some of the training grounds and through the camp itself – not sure we were meant to be there, to be honest! Anyway, we circled back to the car afterwards.

So, what about Volterra?

Well I have some good news, some interesting news and some… well, not entirely bad news, but it could have been better.

Firstly, during the first Covid wave, Volterra peaked at (I think) 12 positive cases at any one time. This wave, it had no less than 127 – just before Christmas. However, they’re doing something right, because as of today they’re all the way back down to 9. As far as I know there were only a couple of deaths – the rest of the positives got well again.

Secondly, Volterra celebrated Christmas by paying tribute to its alabaster artists, rather than having a traditional Christmas tree. It was a brave move, but seems to have been favourably received. I won’t grab someone else’s work or hotlink a photo here, but you can check it out on this page.

Lastly, Volterra was among the final 10 cities in the running for becoming Italy’s City of Culture for 2022. It was announced this morning, though, that Procida (an island with colourful buildings near Ischia, in the Bay of Naples) was the victor here. Commiserations to Volterra, but congratulations to Procida. However, all is not lost. Volterra instead was declared the Tuscan City of Culture for 2022. I know it sounds like a consolation prize, but you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Tuscany here – a cradle of western culture – and with the right ideas and publicity/marketing, this could turn out to be a golden opportunity for Volterra.

Niamh and I hope to maybe be a part of it, or at least partake in 2022. Forza Volterra!

Last Day, Deserted Pisa Airport – 19/08/2020

Last Day, Deserted Pisa Airport – 19/08/2020

It had to end sometime.

I got up alone and took a stroll around the town. Volterra tipped its cap to me by finally having clouds down in the valleys below, giving the smaller colline (hills) the appearance of islands floating in a milky sea.

For lunch, we went to Ombra Della Sera, right beside Terra di Mezzo – which was closed. This is the serious restaurant of the two – they also own the pizzeria near us too – our favourite one. Sadly, although we’d tried several times, the pizzeria was closed, even beyond the dates it said it would be – for pretty much the last week of our holidays, if not longer.

Anyway, the food we had there was quite good – not our favourite, but it was fine. I had the Zuppa Alla Volterrana (che sorpresa!), which was great – and pici with meat sauce (not as nice as the last time I had it). Niamh had eggplant parmigiana, and ravioli with a different meat sauce!

Best of all, I stopped off at Isola del Gusto for a bit of award-winning you-know-what.

And then… well… I guess we went home… and moped, and packed, and got depressed. We drove back to Sixt (recommended!), who did nothing about the scratch on our rental that was news to us – it went all the way along the side, but wasn’t deep – finger paint would do the trick. We had to walk the full length of the outside of Pisa airport before we finally found the new entrance (for Covid). Inside was all bustle…

We flew home, and my anxiety wasn’t at me much… until I got into bed at midnight and got no sleep… only to have to hit work at 07:00. It was the beginning of an extremely harsh 3 weeks for me, anxiety wise. Next time it won’t affect me so badly. But also next time, we won’t hop back into work immediately after coming home!

I have to say again that the people where I work have been incredibly patient, and have handled my situation with due care and empathy. Even though I have had some very bad days, I have not taken another sick day off (since the ones I took when they told me I had Covid!).

I will always be grateful for what they did for me.

And Volterra, here’s looking at you, kid. We’ll be back, vaccine willing, in time for the autumn season in 2021!

Casale Marittimo – 17/08/2020

Casale Marittimo – 17/08/2020

If Siena is my favourite hilltop city, and Volterra is my favourite hilltop town, then Casale Marittimo is my favourite hilltop village. (Incidentally, Quercerto is my favourite hilltop hamlet!).

We’ve been here a few times before, most notably on May 1st, 2019 – Labour Day in Italy, when the whole village was out celebrating with a fava bean harvest. They were playing some sort of bingo, with numbers being shouted over the main square. Here are some photos taken back then!

However, I was acutely aware that we hadn’t done a full explore of the place. We would rectify that this time around. But first thing’s first: I went on a walk that morning, by myself (up yours, anxiety!), but by the time I reached the part of the road overlooking Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro, I began to earworm Springsteen’s ‘My Home Town’, and had to fight of tears for much of the rest of the walk – I really didn’t want to leave, but we had to soon. I still managed the full circumnavigation of the town’s walls, though – so I won in the end!

Back to doing something happier! We decided to go to lunch in one of the Chinese restaurants closest to us: La Grande Cina in Marina di Cecina (40+km away!). We’d always found it passable before… this time, it was a little different. It was stinking hot, and was absolutely freaking mobbed, so that we had to wait a good 20 minutes for a table. The food we had there was so-so in the end, so we were disappointed.

We countered that by going to Casale Marittimo afterwards and grabbing a gelato there (it was about a .6 on the Isola del Gusto scale, so still yummy!).

The place is crawling with hidden lanes and stairways, and we explored most of what we previously hadn’t.

Not much else was done, and if I recall correctly, this was our last day-trip of this stay in Volterra. That evening I think we had to begin to use what was left in the fridge, and so ate in. Still, it didn’t stop me taking a couple of snaps of Volterra that evening.

Staying in Volterra – 15/08/2020

Staying in Volterra – 15/08/2020

Short one, this!

Well, it was market day again, so we headed down to the carpark and had a nose. The novelty of the market had left me behind a little by now, especially considering it was smaller again due to holidays.

We had a little walk about town and took shots as we went.

As you can see, we walked through the public park too. I know I mentioned earworms yesterday, but I now recall that this is where I first heard Springsteen’s ‘My Home Town’ and it somehow resonated with me on a deeply emotional level – but negatively so, I’m afraid to say. A few days later I was about to hit a terribly bad spell of mental health when I returned to work.

We stopped off at La Mangiatoia, where Niamh had a pizza and I had a burger. Both were delish! Niamh had a beer. I finished off the meal with a Limoncello. Check out the default depth-of-field on that photo – well done, iPhone!

I’m sorry to say, I didn’t take any more pics that day, nor do I have any specific memories. Apologies!

The Cathedral – 14/08/2020

The Cathedral – 14/08/2020

At the time of writing this it’s new year’s eve! I’d like to wish all readers a happy, safe and prosperous new year. 2021 has to be better than 2020! I’m enjoying my second day in a row of feeling relatively normal, but I mustn’t get my hopes up, as any setbacks would affect me worse. I can only hope that it continues, and that I’m on my guard with mindfulness techniques to help live with the worst of it.

Back to August. I’d by now begun to notice two things:

  1. That I was suffering from repetitive 3-5 second earworms, most of which would make me sad (the saddest of which was Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Home Town’). I was undoubtedly upset that I would soon have to leave Volterra – and these bouts of sadness would be a feature for a while, unfortunately.
  2. Volterra was busy! I’d read that Italian tourists were forsaking larger centres of population (e.g. Florence and Siena) in favour of smaller towns, which still had decent amenities – Volterra fit the bill snugly, and later on it reported that despite Covid, it had taken hardly any hit at all. In some sectors, visits were actually higher. A problem for us came in the form of timing our meals out. Unless you had a booking, or arrived early, the chances of a walk-in were exceedingly remote. In addition, I really wanted to visit the Palazzo dei Priori to take snaps from the bell tower this trip, but I couldn’t as the queues were well outside the door, and Covid rules weren’t allowing people to be in such close proximity. Mask-wearing was now mandatory even outdoors, while within the walls of the old-town, and the Guardia di Finanza (the armed Italian finance/smuggling police force) were drafted in to enforce (albeit politely).

Niamh and I got up and took a nice walk around, culminating in the 200 steps near the Fonti di Docciola (near the biggest free carpark). I remember the steps not exhausting me too much – I was really happy with this!

I think we must have eaten at home, as I neither have memory nor photos! Anyway, later that afternoon, we strolled out again, and decided to pay the Cathedral a visit. Whilst more humble out the outside, it’s quite feature-rich on the inside.

I headed out again in the evening to pick up a lovely porchetta sandwich from La Sosta del Priore. Afterwards, I took some shots from the apartment terrace.

We screen-watched, and when I went to close the terrace doors, and discovered that Volterra was cloaked in a bank of cloud.

Siena, and Shoe Shopping in Ambra – 13/08/2020

Siena, and Shoe Shopping in Ambra – 13/08/2020

Ever since our trip to Monteriggioni last year, I’d been wanting to go to Ambra to gram some slinky shoes in the Pratesi outlet store. We decided to go there via Siena. The last couple of times we’d been there (I blogged just one) it drizzled with rain, but today it would be a great deal warmer.

I love Siena. It’s has all the charm of a typical hilltown, but on a much greater scale. It also contains, for me, the most wonderful piazza in Italy (if not Europe) – the Piazza del Campo.

We left later than usual – it usually only takes us 50-60 minutes. We drove past the O, Colle di Val d’Elsa and Monteriggioni – and onwards to our ‘go-to’ parking spot (Parking San Francesco). There was a short queue – maybe 5 minutes and we parked. It was early lunchtime when we went up the escalator and started taking pics!

We explored a slightly more modern part of the inner town, near the post office, and I remember being in decent form, health-wise… I don’t think my anxiety was bothering me that much.

We stopped off in an inexpensive cafe-style risto (Il Pulcino). I had a decent Spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino – it’s hard to screw that up – but Niamh thought her dish was passable… I think it was some sort of ravioli, but I can’t remember (sorry). Anyway, it was pretty inexpensive and frequented by locals, so give it a bash if you want to avoid tons of tourists while in the area.

After lunch, we headed to the Piazza!

As we’d skipped dessert, we stopped off at Il Camerlengo for a large lump of gelato! It was tasty – maybe a 0.9 on the Isola del Gusto scale. There seems to be a serious lack of bins on the square, so keep your eyes peeled for getting rid of unwanted trash (e.g. gelato cups).

We went to the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico, but didn’t buy tickets to explore any farther (see photos above).

We explored the town just a little more before heading back to the car. On the way back we stopped into a tiny Sicilian streetfood place called Cannoleria Ke Cassata. We got a couple of arancine each to take away for later, and headed to Ambra.

I regret to say that I didn’t take any shots of Ambra – we didn’t explore, but parked at the back of the outlet store and just headed inside. Niamh bought shoes and a bag, I bought a few pairs of shoes…. one of them pretty… eclectic!

Home again for a rest from the raw heat. We then hit Volterra later that evening after eating the arancine we picked up in Siena (re-heated in the oven). They were setting up the outdoor cinema in the main piazza that evening. We should have bought tickets, if only to support the endeavour, but we didn’t… maybe next year, as it’s a superb idea.

The Tower and the Theatre – 12/08/2020

The Tower and the Theatre – 12/08/2020

As I am recalling this on December 24th, the first thing I wish to do is wish all of the blog readers a very Happy Christmas, and a peaceful, safe and even fun new year. I hope to make it back over to Volterra in the first half of 2021!

Anyway, back to the past.

No idea what we did when we got up, but I remember some time later that morning, I decided to buck my mild agoraphobia and reliance on my support person (Niamh), and head out to a tower at the end of our street. For the princely sum of €2 you can climb to its top and peek out at some fab views of the town.

You can see a nice, big panorama shot of the town from this vantage point here. Open the image in a new tab, and remove the size tag at the end of the address to view it in full size!

Afterwards, when I’d come back to the apartment, we popped out for a small walk and a pizza in Quo Vadis (the improbably named Irish Bar in Volterra). I was really impressed by the white pizza I had – very tasty. I also had a virgin Mojita, which was amazingly refreshing!

On the way back to the apartment, we saw the theatre was open (Teatro Persio Flacco). We’d visited it before, but seeing as I had a new iPhone 11 Pro, I wanted to test out the wide-angle lens.

I was doubly-glad we went in, as this time they actually had the backstage partly opened for people to explore, which was pretty cool.

And so back home, where we stayed until we decided to head out to La Taverna della Terra di Mezzo for dinner that night. We just had a single course each, as we’d had pizza earlier on. Niamh had one of her favourites here: Penna all’arrabiata, and I had one of the nicest plates of pasta in Volterra: pappardelle with a lemon ricotta sauce, pancetta, and topped with black truffle. So tasty. We shared a tiramisu too, and on the way home snuck in a gelato from Isola del Gusto!

My tummy and anxiety must have been behaving themselves that night!