If depression is the black dog in the corner then anxiety is the gnawing monster on your back. It will cling to you, drain you of energy and leave you shaking like a steam train on rusty railway tracks.
If you'd told me a few years ago that anxiety would be such a significant problem for me I might not have believed you. Mental health issues have been familiar since my early teens, mostly that looming shadow of catatonic depression, but I'd never really experienced anxiety beyond what is considered the norm. It was only in my mid to late twenties that it started to creep up on me, and now at the age of 28 it is a constant, stalking presence.
There are two types of anxiety. Generalised anxiety disorder can develop as a nauseating terror that sits in your stomach. In can rush over you in waves, suddenly rising, falling and churning around like the inside of a washing machine. It stops you going out and tells you something bad will happen if you do, something awful. In response you squirrel yourself away indoors and avoid interaction with people which ultimately only feeds the original fear.
Acute episodes are those moments where you are pushed right to the edge and suddenly the world around you is distorted. Everything speeds up and you can't reach out or steady yourself. There are usually identifiable catalysts, the small errors that your mind can run with and blow up to extreme proportions. Perhaps a smashed plate, a late bus, a spilt drink, the anticipation of a particular event or occasion that you are facing. Your head will play tricks; add two and two together to make five, and obsess to an extent where you feel tied in knots.
I am currently in London, dog sitting for a friend while she is on holiday. My aim has been to use the opportunity to meet up with friends who live nearby and be as social as possible while I am here. This is proving to be quite challenging and I am having to draw on various coping mechanisms to get by. Busy train stations and fast moving crowds are very much a trigger for anxiety, as well as the pressure of interaction with others. It is a wearing but worthwhile struggle to stay present instead of avoiding and retreating into a safe but ultimately smothering shell. But I refuse to give up and let anxiety win.
There can be some real strength to be gleaned from the familiar lesson "fake it till you make it". Although putting on a pretence long term is not a solution as recognising your own self worth is important, courage taken in small bursts of role playing can be beneficial. Take on the character of the woman stood next to you waiting on the underground platform. She is smart and has her head held high, she is on the way to work or an important interview or appointment. Transform yourself into her shoes and detach yourself from the mental processes that are holding you back.
It is also crucial to try to understand that a situation may be less than ideal and bad experiences do happen, but it does not mean the end of the world. Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?' Then keep questioning and pushing, "and so what if it does....what would that mean?' 'So what if I do make a fool out of myself, so what if someone doesn't like me, so what if I get into a disagreement.... so what? Why does it matter?' We all mess up and make mistakes, it is part of being human. You may come up against judgement, discrimination or prejudice, but that has more to do with the instigator than it does about you. Not caring about the insignificant things is far more difficult than it should be, but it is a goal that can be achieved with practice. In turn, be patient with yourself and recognise baby steps that will eventually add up to a mile. It is easy to throw in the towel and label yourself a failure if you do not manage to do something you intend to, but on the days that you just make it as far as the end of the road when the day before you only made it to the front door, that is still a success!
My own anxiety manifests very much in a deluge of thoughts that run through my head at marathon speed. I am usually able to distinguish irrational from rational but when my anxiety is particularly raging it can be harder to do so. Paranoia sets in and I find myself interrogating myself and harshly assessing my every move, how I look, how I act, the words that come out of my mouth. Even after walking away from social situations I will pick apart my actions with a fine tooth comb and find imaginary evidence to support flaws and wrongdoing. Regret. Guilt. Self-hatred. I have to step away for a second. I have to try and remind myself that I cannot rely on those thoughts, I cannot trust myself. It is common for me to want to seek a lot of reassurance from other people but I also have to resist this doing too much, as it can create annoyance and unease where there was not even an issue to originally address.
Being able to identify and separate the physical elements of anxiety from the mental is also really important. The racing heart and quickened breathing that may come on either in a fight or flight nervous episode, or as a result of mental distress, is simply the body's reaction to panic. It does not mean that you are in any actual danger.
Distraction is a key element in addressing anxiety. If available to you, talking therapy can be of great benefit. But individual mindfulness exercises or meditation can also make a real difference and there is an array of Mental Health literature and information available in relation to practicing both. Adult colouring books or games that sharpen your brain into a focus beyond the anxious feelings can also be of great use, as well as knitting, drawing or writing. It is okay and entirely healthy to need time out and space to yourself. Make a list of activities you can read through and try out during those moments when everything starts to feel too much and your mind becomes too distorted to think straight. In doing so your anxiety should gradually begin to lessen until it is at a more stable level.
Most of all remember you are not alone. Mental illness can feel personal and isolating but it is far from uncommon. According to anxietyuk.org More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life and an estimated 13% of the adult population will develop a specific form of anxiety known as a phobia at some point. That woman next to you on the tube platform could have just repainted her face after an emotional breakdown among the crowds. Reach out if you feel yourself slipping and let others support you. Good friends will be there to hold you up when you are lagging.
Anxiety might often feel completely overwhelming but it can be controlled and contained. Although it is unlikely to ever be a complete after-thought, it can be put into a box that sits in the background of your thoughts, which slowly through experience and the testing out of different situations will become smaller. Try to enjoy spending time with other people and letting them spend time with you. Those moments can be treasured and put into a new box of positive memories.
By Claire Kearns
This article was originally written by a DWED contributor in 2016 and then published by www.healthisyourwealthmagazine.co.uk. It is reproduced here by the author for Mental Health Awareness Week.