Through her husband’s sudden death, Katie finally learned how to manage her anxiety.

Video by Mamamia

 

When Katie Hawkins-Gaar becomes anxious her brain won’t shut up. It plays out the worst-case scenario on a continuous, lurid loop. The worry, the self-doubt and self-criticism all vie to be heard, and drown out hope of tuning in to thoughts that might bring peace or calm.

It can be miserable, and at its worst – about five or six years ago when the US journalist was working in a high-stress role at CNN – it was near constant.

Thankfully the Florida woman had another constant in her life: her husband, Jamie.

A coffee shop worker who dreamed of directing films, Jamie was better for Katie’s anxiety than anything else. As she explained during a recent CreativeMornings lecture series, “he talked me off the ledge when I was overwhelmed, he gave me a million reasons to laugh and smile… He was my number one fan, even when I felt like I was acting crazy.”

But on February 4, 2017, one mile from the finish line of his second-ever half-marathon, Jamie collapsed and died. Katie and his loved ones would later learn that he suffered from a rare heart condition that would have been almost impossible to detect before the event. He was just 32 years old.

It was then that Katie’s anxiety collided with something similarly crippling: grief. Yet as she shares in a Q&A with Mamamia below, it’s through Jamie’s loss that she has finally learned how to manage her anxiety and start living again.

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Tell us about your relationship with Jamie. What was it like to be with him?

He was the best husband — incredibly supportive, loving and always looking for ways to improve. We had a wonderful relationship that was built on a tonne of communication, love, respect and laughter.

At the time of Jamie’s death we had been married for eight years and were in the process of adopting a baby. He was super excited about becoming a parent; we talked about it all the time.

He would have been an incredible dad.

Jamie and Katie. Image: supplied.

How has your experience of anxiety changed since his death?

When my anxiety was really bad a few years back, Jamie was my rock. He was great at helping me break down big things when I got overwhelmed, and could spot an oncoming panic attack a mile away. He would suggest things like bubble baths, walking our dog together, or watching a mindless movie. He was the best at helping me turn off my brain when it was running a mile a minute.

So you’d expect that when Jamie died, I’d be a total wreck. And I am, in a lot of ways, but not as much when it comes to anxiety.

When Jamie died, it was like something in my brain clicked and I finally realised that I could practice all those lessons that he taught me over the years. Now when I get overwhelmed or extra hard on myself, I try to stop and channel Jamie. What would he do for me in that moment? How would he talk to me?

I’m still very much figuring it out — my friends have witnessed me struggling through some super anxious and awful times — but overall, channeling Jamie has helped me to be kinder to myself than I’ve ever been.

LISTEN: Robin Bailey and Bec Sparrow reflect on the concept of death, and speak to professionals about what we can learn from those who have passed. (Post continues below.)

What have you learned about managing your mental health in the midst of grief? What are the most important methods/tools you employ?

Grief is an absolute roller coaster. There are ups and downs, and giant loops that come out of nowhere and throw you upside down. Except, unlike a normal roller coaster, this one keeps on going. The only way to withstand it is to accept that you’re stuck on this ride for a good while, and to try and embrace all the feelings — sadness, joy, pain, anger, frustration and so on — that come with it. I think I’ve exhausted the roller coaster metaphor at this point. It sounds like a pretty terrible ride. I guess it is.

Anyway, the most important thing that’s helped me through my grief is to try and stay in the moment. It’s so hard not to let your mind dwell in the past and what once was, or rush to the future and what will never be. Both of those mindsets are really scary places to be. Being in the moment keeps me present and keeps me sane. The Headspace meditation app and book When Things Fall Apart have been especially helpful for me in my quest to stay in the now and not let grief overwhelm me.

Katie and Jamie had been married for eight years when he died. Image: supplied.

What key piece of advice would you like to give to other people for whom grief and mental health have suddenly collided?

Be patient with yourself. Grief is a long and exhausting process. Experts say it usually takes up to two years to process the death of a loved one. But you will get through it, I promise.

If you are patient with and kind to yourself, you’ll be amazed at the things you discover through grief. You no longer take things or people for granted, you love more fiercely, and you discover brand new levels of empathy.

You’ll eventually get through the other side of grief, and be damned proud of yourself when you do.

Watch 'Minute by Minute', Katie Hawkins-Gaar's full lecture on grief and anxiety.

For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter.

If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, help is available 24 hours a day via BeyondBlue - just call 1300 22 4636. For 24-hour crisis support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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