For some reason I seem to be seeing a lot articles and links on social media at the moment about anxiety and so begins blog number 5!
Being anxious is a perfectly normal feeling when a person feels under pressure in some way. A feeling that for many usually passes once the stressor is removed or is revealed not to be as bad as one anticipated. Anxiety is normal, if someone says they never ever get anxious that is most likely a lie. Before an exam, you get anxious. Before a first date, you get anxious. Public speaking, anxious. Totally normal reactions.
However, for many people anxiety can feel like it’s there at all times, like a fog, a running dialogue in our heads. It won’t pass when a stressor has been removed and the person may worry excessively. That, or when anxiety takes hold it seems insurmountable and can start a spiral effect. It often manifests in physical reactions and feelings. Racing heart, tightness of chest, panic attacks, decreased appetite, amongst many more; and for those of us in Generation Y or Millennials (born between 1980 and early 2000’s) it’s apparently on the rise. I can speculate about this on an unproven basis as to why, but to name a few reasons: job insecurity, rising living cost, social media, the media, increasing debt, the list could go on. We all know that these generations have more barriers to achieving ‘stability’ than the boomers before them, despite the progress of globalisation. Yeah, we’ve got Instagram but it also means a 14 year old girl can now compare herself 50 times a day to an insta-brushed highlight reel. Great, we can buy avocados in every supermarket (praise be) but god help us if we need to get a mortgage on our own. These issues will and do lead to heightened anxiety. It’s no surprise it seems more prevalent.
If your anxiety impacts on you more than what seems ‘normal’ i.e. not just in reaction to understandable stressors, or if the way it manifests is severe, or in my experience – it is entwined with another mental health issue. Don’t suffer in silence. I say this not because I’ve got a handle on my own but because I’m still trying to manage it. This post also comes of the back of me spending the other night at my best friends, riddled with anxiety, with that familiar stone in my chest, in tears.
Anxiety is a broad-spectrum term and there are several types of anxiety disorders:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder: this involves feelings of excessive and often unrealistic worry, that can manifest in some cases daily.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: involves extreme self-consciousness, a fear of being judged by others that leads to consumed worry about daily social situations.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: occurs after a traumatic event, such as witnessing a disturbing event, experiencing a sexual or physical assault, or the impact of a death. It involves experiencing anxiety attacks which occur after said event.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: when a person feels the need to obsessively perform rituals or routines. Obsessive thoughts and ritualistic compulsions.
- Panic Disorder: when a feeling of terror can strike suddenly. This inevitably leads to very physical sensations that in some can feel like a heart attack.
As said, anxiety is a spectrum disorder and so sufferers may experience more than one type, and to varying degrees.
Studies suggest that anxiety can have biological causes from genetics and chemical imbalances. Yet obviously, it can also be brought on by social and environmental stresses.
It’s only as an adult and having a wider awareness of myself and my issues that I now know I have always struggled with anxiety. In the same way I don’t remember not being hyper aware of my body. For most of my childhood and adulthood I’ve experienced anxiety and worry more than what can be considered ‘normal’, for me it is definitely tied up to my self-esteem issues. This tends to be my main adult trigger now. As a kid I thought I was just an ‘extreme worrier’, I’m sure my brothers would prefer to describe me as ‘highly strung’ or an ‘over-reactor’ back in the day. I must have been a delight as a sister.
I can look at certain incidents in my childhood and laugh about them, some of them have become slightly infamous amongst my friends, apt examples of my ‘quirks’. I can appear so laid back but I’m also consumed with worry and anxiety at times and for a long time I was incredibly uncomfortable with affection. I’m more than happy to see the humour in some of my issues. Being able to laugh at myself is therapeutic in and of itself!
A classic case was when I was about 10/11 and was at the ice cream van outside. It was a beautiful summers night. Just the type of night my big brother would have loved to have revelled in getting pissed with his friends, like a lot of 15 year old boys.
Then I happened!
I saw him walking up the road drunk and having a whale of a time with his friends, I promptly burst into tears and ran into the house and ratted him out. He was dragged back in.
I’m pretty sure he still hasn’t forgiven me for this (sorry!) but seeing this left me with anxiety for days. Just like the time I overheard my other brother (I’ve said before, there is a clan of us) saying he dodged a train conductor. It consumed me with what I now recognise was unreasonable anxiety and worry for days. These types of incidents and my all-consuming worry were par for the course with me growing up. Some about random stuff like above, others in which I took on adult stresses too young. There was also the horrible bout of anxiety ridden insomnia when I was about 13, that was particularly bad. I worried constantly. It was a default setting. I suffer from a combination of general anxiety, social anxiety and minor OCD. It can ebb and flow as to the severity of these different aspects at times.
Oddly as an adult my anxiety has never really affected me professionally, and even socially I’m an outgoing, friendly, talkative (opinionated) person. I teach in a high school; I’m not exactly lacking in confidence or assertiveness in so many respects. This is where I believe there is a lot of confusion and misinterpretation of what anxiety is. It is not shyness. It does not mean a person is rocking back and forth in a corner not being able to speak to anyone. Although obviously for many with extreme social anxiety, shyness will be highly evident but for many it’s anxiety and worry that can at times overwhelm, we feel physical sensations or a gut-wrenching aching worry that spirals us.
I personally think it’s pretty difficult if you have an eating disorder not to have anxiety. For many who develop eating disorders the anxiety probably predated it. Eating disorders have a high co-morbidity with other mental illnesses. Anxiety disorders are apparently the most common ‘co-morbid disorder’. With a study suggesting as many as 80% of those who suffer from an eating disorder also suffer from an anxiety disorder.
As an adult, as I’ve said, my anxiety is usually now more linked to my feelings of self-worth. When this is challenged or difficult for me my anxiety and worry is heightened. I no longer rat my brothers out for drinking. Yet when it hits the feeling is overwhelming, it makes me feel sick, a stone in my stomach and chest, my heart beat quickens, and i’m insecure and highly emotional. Luckily I’ve not had a panic attack in years.
I’m still learning to manage it; I’ve found some things that work for me but they still don’t work 100% of the time. Sometimes life events and issues take over. For me exercise helps, not just as an anxiety reliever but because I’m learning to view my body differently-for what it can do rather than what it looks like, and that is helping my self-worth. My big trigger.
Therapy helps. When I decided to seek help I originally wanted to do Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and I still intend to do this but after talking with someone about approaches, given I have such long dating historical issues, I decided I needed a person centred approach first.
Yet, what I believe is also vitally important is how people in the lives of those with anxiety respond to it. If your partner, child, friend, parent, etc. suffers from it, here’s my advice. This I’ve learned from when I didn’t receive these things, because it made it worse. Be patient with them. I appreciate this can be hard, but if they are having an ‘episode’ – crying, emotional, hyperventilating, etc., don’t get angry or belittle them. Many with anxiety need reassurance, this is vital. They need to feel like they are understood. Telling someone with anxiety they are being irrational or over reacting doesn’t help. Trust me, we are all too aware of our propensities, don’t point them out.
If you know the person well enough, you probably know some of their triggers so try to be aware of that.
Encourage them to find something to help manage it. Therapy, mindfulness, mediation, exercise, there are ways to manage it to an extent; and the reality is they have to learn how to manage it on their own.
Importantly though please don’t view anxiety as a weakness. I consider myself a very strong person. I’m resilient as hell but I can feel vulnerability and that doesn’t detract from that. No mental health issue is a weakness and it doesn’t detract from your character or personality.