Anxiety is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the UK, with one in five people reporting that they feel anxious all the time, or a lot of the time.
A YouGov study from 2014 revealed that one fifth of people who experience anxiety have no coping mechanism, while the most popular ways to cope include speaking to a friend, exercise, and taking a walk. There’s a lot more complexity to managing anxiety, of course, and it’s a very personal experience that is entirely real and powerful.
One in five people in the UK have anxiety all of the time or, at least, a lot of the time. That’s an immense figure; bearing in mind that there are over 65 million people in the country, that’s at least 13 million people with a significant form of anxiety. We will all know a person who has some sort of anxiety. Actually, what am I saying? We will all know many people with anxiety.
I know people who have anxiety, including at least one fellow stable-mate in the Inspired Quill alliance. Craig Hallam is a talented, well-respected writer, a qualified nurse, and an all-round nice guy; from the outside looking in, you wouldn’t automatically realise that he had any form of anxiety, and yet he does.
Craig dealt with this by being brilliantly open about it. He wrote a blog about it for a while before refocusing his attention on the fiction side of his creative work. That doesn’t mean his anxiety has been reduced to manageable proportions necessarily – I’ve never asked, thoughtlessly – but that his desire to be creative in a form he is passionate about has given him a laser focus.
I admire Craig, because he took that step of speaking out on a subject that still has a certain stigma attached to it; if you’ve a mental health condition – any condition – some people see you as weak. You’re believed to be less than whole, and people are embarrassed to ask you about it, in a way they’re not embarrassed to ask about your broken arm or how you ended up with a sprained ankle.
So many people with anxiety refused to speak up about their mental health; they fear the response that they’re going to get. They fear how friends, family members, and colleagues are going to treat them as a result of their diagnosis. They might not even seek professional help, as they’re frightened of being seen as weak, a failure, or stupid.
And I’m one of those people. You see, I have anxiety, and I have never publicly admitted that before. It’s not just “a bit of worry every now and then”, but deep-rooted anxiety that is buried deep somewhere in my brain chemistry. Virtually no-one knows that I have suffered with this condition in bouts spanning a significant proportion of my life.
Outwardly, I present – I hope – as relatively confident, albeit with an occasional indecisive streak and the odd time when I doubt my own ability to do things I know I can. I don’t feel the need to broadcast those personality streaks to the world, although I don’t mind people knowing – it’s part of who I am, after all.
I always did mind, however, people knowing about my anxiety. It really bothered me that I’d got it, and I was embarrassed, to be frank. That’s despite the fact, like everyone, I know people – in fact, I’m related to some – with mental health issues, and I am entirely comfortable with them and the multiplicity of their needs and desires. I never judge them, and accept them entirely for who they are; why wouldn’t I? They’re human beings, after all.
But I never applied that same learning to myself. A lot of people don’t; a lot of us are guilty of that, aren’t we? I was embarrassed to suffer incredible anxiety, and overcompensated by showing a confident exterior – usually at its peak when I was working in a job that required a lot of public interaction or presentation skills. I was hiding behind a demeanour, a facade if you will. I was Matthew Munson, Community Engagement Officer, or Council Officer, or Writer … or whatever other title I was using at the time.
Inside, however, anxiety has always been there, whispering away – and sometimes shouting to get itself heard. And it always did get heard. Every single damn time.
I still experience it now, from time to time. Most bouts I can just manage and deal with by myself, but there have been times when the anxiety has become so overwhelming that I’ve needed support to get through that time in my life. Usually, my family are my sounding board – my parents are remarkably patient and understanding, and are usually the only two people I’ve spoken to in the past about my anxiety – but once I experienced such an overwhelming period of anxiety, lasting for four or five months (due to an atrocious situation I was experiencing at work), that it felt entirely beyond my control to manage. So I went and got myself some CBT.
I make it sound so casual, don’t I? I just popped over to a counsellor and got some help. Piece of cake, eh? Well, not quite. I had to pluck up a lot of courage to actually admit I needed the help in the first place, and I barely admitted it to anyone. I actively encouraged those around me to access therapy when they needed it, but I was embarrassed to do the same – and then embarrassed to admit that I was seeking help.
I didn’t get as much out of the CBT sessions as I thought – hoped – I would. From my perspective, I didn’t expect the therapy to be an utter panacea; why would it be? The change needed to come from within me, to alter my own thought processes and behaviours to cope with and tackle negative mental responses. I was so in the anxiety “zone”, brought on by the awful work situation, that there was a big hole to dig myself out of.
However, I managed it, although I wish I’d brought my friends into the fold a lot sooner. Talking to them about this latest bout has helped me no end. As I moved out of my family home again recently, I realised that I was leaving the relative safety of my “recovery zone”, and that made my anxiety climb the wall. “What if you fail? What if you can cope with the changes? What if you can’t afford to do everything you want to do? What if …?” Bastard anxiety.
But with each passing day, the anxiety will lessen; as I establish roots in my new home, it’ll become a secure base for me. As my plans develop, I’ll get used to new routines, financial controls, and in situ arrangements as I develop new opportunities. I know all this logically and rationally, and I even gain solace in that knowledge from an emotional perspective as well.
The anxiety is powerful, real, and ever-present, either actively attacking me or existing in a latent way hidden in the back of my head and ready to pounce at a second’s notice. Even when I think that I’m aware of what the trigger points are going to be, other things catch me out and make me gasp in shock from time to time.
So there you have it; anxiety really is a bastard, but it can also be corralled, controlled, ploughed through, and survived. I’m stronger than the anxiety that plagues me, and I will always survive it. Whatever psychological support I use – be it professionals or supportive friends and family – it’s making me a stronger person by admitting I have this issue and standing up to be counted. We shouldn’t ever be ashamed of who we are.