I presumed for years that I was simply a nervous person. I was aware that anxiety is a part of life – everyone experiences it, right? The feeling you have before you take an exam, or have to make an important phone call. The slight dizziness or butterflies before going on a date. Your heart beat speeds up, you get the sweats – you get nervous. But then the event happens, and you get through it.
When I was 21, I was worried about money (lack of), jobs (lack of), dates (lack of). Hmmm, there’s a theme here. The point is, I felt I had genuine concerns to concentrate on, so didn’t question when the worry became something more.
My problems began when the apprehension and uncertainty turned into continuous, chronic worry. My anxieties did not disperse throughout the day, and living in a constant state of fear began to take a toll on my physical health. My asthma got worse, my skin got blotchy (ok, I had spots) – this didn’t help much with the lack of dates.
I never thought that I could seek help. Primarily because I was pretty sure that this was ‘just who I am’, but also because I was aware that everyone worries to an extent. I was sure that my friends and family would not understand. I then worried that even if my mates gave me good advice, it would not help - as I was beginning to worry about everything.
I felt like a fraud, and this view was picked up by my peers. Dan is now 31 and was at university with me: “I would imagine there are plenty of people that suffer from anxiety that actually don’t believe these things are real and that they just need to pull themselves together and stop moaning.”
Tom, also 31 - admitted to feeling better when he had something tangible to worry about. He called it his ‘justifiable misery’. “Anxiety due to an actual stressful event is easier for me to deal with than anxiety for no particular reason. It’s also easier for other people to understand.”
Dan agrees: “Grief and anger are seen as legitimate reasons to feel bad, but unspecified anxiety seems frivolous and self indulgent. It makes perfect sense for people to feel better when they have something they consider legitimate to worry about.”
Some anxiety is healthy, and normal. After all, many things are valid for our concern. Lynne Drummond, a clinical psychologist at the Springfield University Hospital in South London knows all too well that anxiety can be hard to define.
“Anxiety is a universal experience and without it, we would have wiped ourselves off the face of the earth many years ago by facing up to tigers or falling off cliff faces. It is completely normal. However, sometimes it can be too frequent or severe for an individual to tolerate, and can become high anxiety. It may form in depression, it may be a phobic anxiety in response to certain situations, or OCD in response to anxiety provoking thoughts - or generalised anxiety in response to worrying about a whole range of everyday occurrences.”
People with anxiety are distracted by their worries, unable to focus on daily activities. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and as many people are aware that some of their thoughts are irrational, they can become frustrated and this can add to their concerns. This can then lead to a feeling of helplessness, and subsequent depression.
The inability to shut the mind off incapacitates a person with anxiety. There is a heightened sense of doubt – what did this mean? Why did this person say this? What if this happens? Thinking turns into over thinking, ruminating, and dwelling on things with no apparent answer.
It took me a long time to seek help. Most of my energies were put into appearing as normal as possible to those around me. I was worried about particular things in my own life, but on top of this, I had new concerns, and they all seemed to be working in unison to make me feel…..well, terrible.
I asked Lynne if seeking help was a particular issue for young men: “I think that’s definitely the case. Men are not supposed to be scared; big boys don’t cry. It’s okay for women to need help, but in many people’s views men are supposed to be there as the comforter protector and they find it very difficult to accept that they have anxiety. Therefore I think it’s very often hidden. They’re more likely to hide it with drink or drugs which of course are counter productive. But I’m hopeful that now people are a little bit more open and maybe men will realise that it’s perfectly okay to be anxious, everyone is anxious sometimes.”
I’M GOING MAD!
Yep, I honestly thought I was going insane. What had started as a small set of worries had gained momentum, and the physical and emotional effects of stress and anxiety had blown things out of proportion. I was already shy, so found it hard to talk to people about things. I had no internet, and would find information in the unlikeliest of sources – my mum’s women’s magazines, overheard conversations, or my own presumptions about what was happening – based on my fears. I was sure that this had to be something else, and so treated the symptoms of my anxiety as separate issues, ignoring the core problem.
Lynne expands on these symptoms: “People can get headaches, upset tummies… anxiety is a great mimicker. It’s all about increasing levels of adrenaline racing around the body, or muscle tension. Emotionally, people often describe the feeling of being out of control, or of impending doom. They can be convinced that something bad is going to happen. Really - a range of quite unpleasant symptoms both emotionally and physically. People vary in the level of anxiety that they experience, and abnormal or high anxiety can only really be defined by the sufferer. I think it is a self diagnosis, the individual has to say ‘hang on, this anxiety is too extreme and is interfering with my life’.”
OTHER PEOPLE THINK I’M CRAZY!
I continued to socialise, but I was feeling increasingly alienated around mates. The anxiety was dominant, and other thoughts took a back seat. I began to make excuses for why I would not go out.
My reaction to feeling social anxiety was to step away from the limelight, and I withdrew from my peers. This then led to a feeling of panic when I was faced with any new situations. These feelings are very real. With exhaustion comes avoidance, anxiety breeds - and it becomes difficult to do anything.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?
A common question. I put this to Lynne – what causes anxiety - and why are some people seemingly able to cope whilst others find it more difficult?
“There’s probably some genetic component to it, in that some people are more prone to anxiety than others, and it can run in families. Early experience and upbringing can either give you a buffer to make you less likely to be anxious, or more likely. I am against blaming anybody, but if you are in an anxious family, maybe you’re more likely to learn to be anxious. Some people will have an anxiety disorder come what may, with others it has to be some sort of trauma which will trigger it. Some people will develop anxiety insidiously from early on in life and some people will develop it in response to some traumatic event. Given enough stress, every person on earth will have a problem one way or another.”
SO, WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
For me, the first step in overcoming my problems was to start talking. This started with trusted friends and family, and I also found solace in internet forums. I found cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a proactive form of talking therapy, to be very helpful, but there are a number of options. Lynne was able to offer some advice:
“You can’t snap out of it, it’s not putting it on, and it’s not a minor thing. It’s something that needs help. The first step would be looking at self help groups, there are also self help books on the market. You may like to talk to your GP and ask for help. In the early stages, it may be more self help, but then ultimately going to your GP and asking about cognitive behavioral therapy. This often involves getting people to face up to the things they fear, but also looking at peoples thought patterns and how that contributes to the anxiety. With some people though, it is necessary for medication.”
Anxiety is not a sign of weakness, you are not wrong to be feeling it. It can feel like a battle sometimes – trying to get on with your day whilst coping with your anxiety. But there are people who can help, and you are not alone. I am glad that I have talked to friends about my problems and I was surprised at how many of them could empathise, having gone through similar things themselves.
Lynne concludes : “I would like to say to people that there is hope. People with anxiety disorders do get better, and they do get better with CBT. If you can’t get it immediately, use every facility you can to try to track down how you can get that help.”
Lynne Drummond is a consultant psychologist at South West London and St Georges Mental Health NHS trust. Her specialty is cognitive behavioral psychotherapy and she deals with anxiety disorders, phobias, and OCD. As well as clinical work, she is also involved with research into developing new treatments for anxiety.
http://www.topuk.org A source of a lot of information on anxiety
http://www.swlstg-tr.nhs.uk/service A guide for practioners and information for patients on a variety of conditions.
Photo by Leland Francisco (Lel4nd)