A PERSONAL ACCOUNT OF ANXIETY
After reading George Bell’s article on depression, I felt that I should say a thing or two about anxiety. But I was reluctant at first, as we can see from the fact that I’m writing this anonymously. I wondered if it would be relevant to the three things that The Artistic Collaborative is a celebration of: art, travel and culture. I have a lot of time for art and travel in my life, though I don’t think this has anything to do with the anxiety I face. However, I then realised that anxiety is incredibly culturally relevant, particularly the kind that I experience. My worries in recent years, have been a lot to do with how others, and by extension, society, view me. What is and isn’t socially acceptable.
But do you know what, when I hear of how the government is trying to address the fact that mental health is hugely underfunded, I think, do I really need a reason to justify writing this? The reality is 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems every year, and I firmly believe that the more we openly talk about it, the better chance we have of tackling it.
If anxiety was an artwork. Or maybe I just chose this because it looks quite jokes
So, what exactly is it? I’ve always seen anxiety as being the other side of the coin to depression. One friend said to me that while depression is negativity about the past, anxiety is negativity about the future. Though one can definitely interact with the other. For instance, I’ve previously been so bogged down with worries that this can eventually lead to low mood and I end up feeling depressed.
Anxiety is driven by worrying. The fear that bad things are going to happen. Worries are the thoughts, and anxiety is the feeling that can emerge overtime from the repetitive cycle (rumination) of the thoughts. So anxiety can be physical, with symptoms like shallow breathing, a nasty sensation in the gut or chest and at the extreme level, panic attacks. Fortunately, I’ve not really experienced the latter but I am told it can be a frightening experience where you feel like the world is actually ending.
A job interview – something normal to worry about
Now, we all worry at some points in our lives. You’re worried about that upcoming job interview – so you prepare. This is helpful worrying. But if you’re anything like me, you might find that your worrying goes beyond this. I worry about ridiculous things. Things that would not even enter the minds of most people, or if they did, only for a second.
For instance, one of my earliest experiences of anxiety was when I was 10. Something had happened in my family and I suddenly became aware of my own mortality. And I got scared, and couldn’t shake off this feeling of fear. This dread that anything can happen. I even temporarily lost my appetite. And I really can’t imagine many others in my primary school class back then, having the same thoughts. But of course, this is an assumption. How can I make such a statement without actually knowing what my classmates were thinking? And this is part and parcel of the problem I spoke of before. That with mental health problems being so culturally silenced, you really don’t know how your friend might actually be feeling.
Since my teenage years, my worries have taken on more of the social anxiety form, as I hinted at in the beginning. I can get really worried over how others perceive me. Taking this a step further, I can get really frightened by the idea of running out of conversation. Somewhere along the line, I made the association that if I can’t think of anything further to talk about, then that must mean I’m boring. And if I’m boring, then well, that’s it. That’s the end of the world – no one will like me. And again, because this sort of thing generally isn’t spoken about, when I have revealed to those close to me that these are the sorts of things which cross my mind, they are so surprised. They had no idea.
But the other reason that they can’t believe what they are hearing is because, well … it’s not actually true. The evidence is that I clearly do know how to hold a conversation. And when that inevitability arises where I can’t think of anything further to say, it doesn’t mean I’m boring. It just means I can’t think of anything further to say. I don’t necessarily class other people as boring when they run out of conversation. People with anxiety tend to worry about things that never happen.
Hang about …
And that’s just it! It’s not rational thinking. It’s based on incomplete evidence. However, saying just this to someone who has anxiety may often not be enough. I fully well know that what I worry about, deep down, isn’t actually anything real. The issue with mental health problems as a whole is that they are often not tangible. I can’t look at and feel my worries in the way that I can look at and feel a broken leg. Symptoms can be observed, yes, but the worries themselves are all in my head. Yet even though the rational side of me knows this, I worry nonetheless.
This is because the worries have become a habit. But like smoking, with time and energy, the habit can be broken. To anyone suffering from anxiety, I can assure you from personal experience that you can manage it and get through it. In fact there are a number of ways you can do this. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is very good. It’s all about using strategies that overtime and with practice, can challenge and change your unhelpful thinking patterns. From my understanding, the goal is to eventually rationalise those worries and you start to realise, actually maybe I’ve jumped the gun a bit here. How could I think about this situation differently?
But something I couldn’t recommend any more strongly and is a form of CBT, is guided imagery. I came across this YouTube video a year ago where this doctor puts it all into perspective in the form of a lecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYJdekjiAog). But you can access just the imagery part also (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dL96FeiL1Xs). It’s fantastic, it really is. The idea is that you consider the situation which is causing you anxiety. And you then think, what do I need in order to better cope with this situation? And through his guidance you remember a time when you had that quality or if you never had that quality, you simply imagine what it would be like to have that quality.
Martin Rossman discussing Guided Imagery. My summary doesn’t do it justice
So for my social anxiety, the quality I often think of is self-belief. I know that outwardly I may come across as confident to others, but inwardly what I really need is more self-esteem. So I imagine, with my eyes shut (whatever you’re comfortable with), for 10-15 minutes what it would feel like to believe in and accept myself more. And overtime, I end up with more self-belief naturally, without even needing to deploy the imagery technique. Of course, you may ask, “isn’t it a bit weird? Using your imagination like that?”. Well when you worry, that’s also all in your imagination. Guided imagery is simply putting it to better use.
These are just a couple of the many ways you can manage your anxiety. But it’s so important to approach each way with a positive attitude. Expanding on that, you need to trust and believe that things will get better. And taking that initial first step is often the hardest. You might practice your coping strategies regularly, but if you don’t actually believe you’ll get through your anxiety, then you can forget it.
I was fortunate to have my best friend take that leap of faith with me and tell me that everything will be fine. And that’s another thing, turning to that support network of friends and family you have is key. That’s what they are there for. And if you are that person where, in the early days, you’re anxious friend asks for your reassurance every now and then that everything will be alright, just give it to them. All you have to do is say “everything’s gonna be fine” – it isn’t asking much. If that person is serious about getting through their anxiety, they will find that one day they won’t need that reassurance quite as much.
When Gandalf reassures Pippin that everything will work out
And that’s the thing. For those of you who haven’t really come into contact with anxiety, quite like with depression, you may find it hard to understand. And so I hope this article goes some way to assisting with that. If any of you want to discuss any of this further, I’m happy for Serge to put you in touch with me. As I’ve said, if you have anxiety, things can, do and will get better – you just gotta be positive and stick with it.