When I started this blog 3 years ago, my intention was to post about books, writing and the publishing industry. I have done that, but, over time, I have found myself writing more about mental health. It has been cathartic for me, but also very rewarding. When someone tells me that my posts have helped them to better understand the feelings of someone they care about, or have enabled them to better express their own difficult emotions, it reaffirms my decision to openly discuss my own experiences, no matter how difficult it is.
Rather than continue with my sporadic posts, I’ve decided to channel my thoughts into a series. This will be in 12 parts – one post per month for the full year – each focussing on a different aspect of mental health that I have experience with.
My hope is that these posts can provide words that will help others who struggle with these issues to find better ways of communicating how they feel, and provide insight for those seeking to understand these conditions.
January – Anxiety |February – OCD | March – Depression | April – Anger | May – Guilt | June – Lack of Motivation | July – Mental Effects of Physical Illness | August – Grief | September – Trauma | October – Fear | November – Loneliness | December – Impact on Relationships
Petrified Tree in Yellowstone National Park (the image is mine but feel free to use it)
Anxiety is an emotion we are all familiar with to some degree or another. Modern life is full of situations with the potential to provoke it. Job interviews, first dates, exams, election results – to name a few.
Anxiety on this level is normal, and will usually pass once the situation that triggered it is over. Having an anxiety disorder is different for two reasons:
1) Our anxiety can be triggered over the smallest, most innocuous situation.
2) It’s with us all the time.
It follows us through every area of our lives as an unwelcome companion that seeks to undermine our self-confidence and force us to question every decision we make, every word we say, and every thought we have. All the time, every day.
Here’s an example of an unremarkable, very common situation that we all experience from time to time: we send a text or an email, and the recipient doesn’t respond for a while.
There are a number of perfectly reasonable explanations for this. The other person could be busy, or have no phone signal or battery power. Maybe they just don’t feel like responding at that particular time. No big deal, right? This isn’t an issue. At least it isn’t if you don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder.
If you do, then the following is an example of how your treacherous mind can escalate this non-issue in less than 60 seconds.
Hmm, it’s been a while since I sent that message.
Checks time the message was sent.
Over 3 hours, actually. Why hasn’t she replied? Is she annoyed with me?
Rereads message for potential clues or accidental causes of offence.
I don’t think she could have misunderstood me. Wait, did I say something wrong the last time we spoke?
Mentally reviews previous conversations.
Well, everything seemed fine. We had a good time and she didn’t seem annoyed. What else could it be?
Checks phone and the time again.
Maybe she’s still at work, that’s why she hasn’t replied. But it’s after 6 p.m., she should be home by now.
Considers all the potential disasters that could have befallen her on the way home.
Oh my God. What if she’s been in an accident? Or been attacked?
Quickly checks her social media pages for evidence that she is, in fact, alive and well.
No new posts for the past 12 hours. Anxiety is turning to panic.
How would I even know if something happened? Would someone tell me? Do her parents have my number?
The phone beeps. She’s replied. “Sorry for the late reply! I got held up at work. Damn meeting ran over again.”
Well, now I feel like an over-dramatic moron. What a waste of time and emotional energy that was.
This is only one example of countless self-sabotaging thought processes that an anxious person can experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s exhausting, debilitating, and a hindrance to our happiness and wellbeing.
So why can’t we just rationalise these thoughts until they disappear? If we know we are prone to over-analysing a situation, why are we not able to reassure ourselves that it’s not as dire as we fear?
Believe me, we’ve tried. We can come up with rational explanations for these situations just as well as you can. The problem is, those explanations get drowned out by the much louder voice of our anxiety. You can’t apply rationality to what is an inherently irrational and emotionally driven thought process. That’s why phrases like “don’t worry, it might never happen,” however accurate and well-intentioned they may be, mean nothing to us. A situation we have experienced could have had a positive outcome 99% of the time, but our anxiety forces us to focus on the 1% of times when it didn’t. A situation only has to go wrong once for us to worry that it will go wrong every single time.
When I first started considering how I was going to explain this concept, I came up with the following analogy. I’ve always used metaphors and analogies to explain and process how I feel, and I find them to be very effective.
Imagine chronic anxiety as a train, speeding along the tracks in the darkness. Imagine a person standing by the tracks (let’s call them ‘Rational Thoughts’). They see the train getting faster, out of control, heading for disaster. Wanting to intervene, Rational Thoughts starts running alongside the train, screaming for it to slow down. But the train is always faster. Always out of reach. Then, suddenly, before their helpless eyes, the train crashes.
That crash is a panic attack.
The kind where the world shrinks to nothing but the terrifying place inside your head. The kind where you find yourself on the floor, hunched over a toilet or a bucket, trying not to vomit, with no idea how you got there, because your adrenal glands are flooding your body with adrenaline, triggering your fight or flight response. But you can’t fight your anxious thoughts. They are intangible and impervious to your efforts to resist them. And you can’t run from them either, because they live where you live – inside your head.
Your heart is beating too fast. Your breaths are coming in short, sharp bursts, like your lungs have forgotten how to function, like they might give up on you any second. The panic escalates when you realise you can’t stop it, and you have no choice but to let the wave pull you under, tossing you around until it crashes on the shore and leaves you weak and gasping for breath.
And the worst thing? The trigger for such an extreme reaction could have been the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing. Like a text not being answered. Maybe the cause isn’t even discernible. Maybe the train just crashed because it did. Because you have an anxiety disorder, and that’s just how it is.
For anyone reading this who does not suffer from this kind of crippling anxiety, but wants to support someone who does, I can imagine that it might sound like talking to us would be a minefield of potential triggers that could make us feel worse. You might be wondering how you could possibly help.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by wonderfully supportive family, friends and colleagues since I began having mental health problems when I was a child. There have been many examples over the years of when someone has said or done exactly the right thing at the right time, one of which happened last year.
2016 was a really awful year for me and my family, and as a result my anxiety and stress levels were very high. I tried not to let my state of mind affect my work, which is very important to me, but there were days when it was obvious that I wasn’t doing well.
On one of those days, my manager asked me if I was okay. She’s well aware of both my physical and mental health issues, so this wasn’t an unusual question. When I said no, she asked me if I was in pain, or if it was my anxiety that was bothering me. This question simultaneously expressed concern and understanding while also acknowledging that my anxiety was a genuine issue for me. It made me feel supported and comfortable enough to admit if I needed to go home early or take a day off.
When you have any kind of health issue, physical or mental, that’s all you really want.
Acknowledgement, empathy and a willingness to listen.
In the case of anxiety disorders, we don’t expect others to understand the reasons behind our anxious thoughts (we often don’t even understand them ourselves). We’re not expecting others to fix things or come up with magical solutions. We just need some understanding and the security of knowing that if we need to withdraw from a situation because it makes us too anxious, that we won’t be judged or thought any less of. It’s a great injustice that so many sufferers of mental illness are told to just get over it and that it’s all in their heads. Imagine if that were the response to a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis? An illness is an illness no matter what form it takes.
From my perspective, I know my anxiety is my problem and I don’t expect other people to alter their behaviour to accommodate every anxious thought I have. It would be completely unreasonable, for example, for me to expect my friends to drop whatever they were doing to answer my messages immediately.
I know that 90% of the time my anxiety is lying to me. It’s taken a lot of work over many years, but I have gotten to the point where my anxious thoughts are mostly just background noise. They’re there all the time, but I have coping mechanisms to stop the train from crashing. They don’t always work, and sometimes my anxiety gets the better of me and can turn even positive situations into nerve-wracking ordeals, but I keep going. I’ve even found ways of using it to my advantage in my job (you can read about how in an earlier post here).
Every time something good happens and my anxiety is proven wrong, I add that memory to my arsenal of weapons to use against it in the future (writing these memories down is a good way of doing this). When a situation makes me anxious and threatens to overpower me, I mentally list all the times I’ve been in a similar situation in the past that had positive outcomes. This calms me down and gets me to the point where I can move forward and deal with the situation.
For those of you who suffer from anxiety; you are not alone. There are people in your life who care about you and want to help, but might not know how. If you can’t talk about your emotions directly, ask them to read this post, or a book with a character you identify with, or maybe even a quote from one of the many inspirational mental health writers out there, like Matt Haig.
Anxiety likes to make you think you’re weak and a burden to others. That’s another lie. It takes a great deal of strength to fight with your own mind on a daily basis and still get out of bed every day. Don’t ever forget that, and don’t ever stop fighting.