The Strong Healthy Mind Series: The Many Faces Of Anxiety
Anxiety. You’ve probably heard about it, read about it, and seen something vaguely memorable on some form of advertisement recently. If you suffer from it, it’s probably become either an annoyance, or a crude reminder. Every time you think you can forget about it for just a short while, it’s inevitably rubbed in your face right?! If you don’t suffer from it, you’re probably made more aware of the seemingly epidemic nature of this ‘mental illness’ but let’s be real, probably a little bored of reading about it over and over again by now? And I 100% understand, I do. And I will tell you why.
The world likes to box things up, make things easy to digest, simplifies things in order to minimise the fear and judgement that results from ‘the unknown’. Anxiety is one of those things. But if there is one thing that’s sure about anxiety, is that it’s far from simple, far from singular. In fact, there are hundreds if not more ways of experiencing anxiety. So, I’m sorry ‘Mr. Advertise Awareness Campaign’, I totally appreciate your efforts to make the word anxiety a household name, but your description and monotonous explanation of anxiety is boring the hell out of all of us.
If you really want to know what anxiety actually entails from the horse’s mouth, allow me to take you through the rollercoaster that is my mind and how I have experienced anxiety in many different forms and severities over the years.
The Hungry Monster
I was listening to some Ted-X talks on Youtube the other day walking to work, as you do (when you are as much of a psychology geek as I am) and I stumbled upon one about a lady who’s daughter was suffering from a severe form of OCD. I also suffered from the disorder when I was very young and it took me many years to find the right coping mechanisms to deal with it and move on with my life. (I will just add that my recovery was largely thanks to an amazing Psychologist Mrs Scharee, shout out to you. And FYI the Dutch healthcare system was not always as fucked up as it is at current.) So back to the Ted-X talk, the mother in question had a very interesting way of describing the illness that was so all-consuming to her daughter and her entire family. They referred to the illness as ‘The Hungry Monster’. After I laughed that off for a few seconds and carried on listening to her explanation, I realised it is extremely fitting. I can vouch for the feeling of overwhelm when in the ties of the controlling nature of a disorder as malignant as OCD can be.
Here is where I am going to connect OCD to anxiety. A lot of people aren’t aware that OCD actually falls under the umbrella term ‘Anxiety Disorders’ alongside:
GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder)
PTSD/C-PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder/Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
So ‘The Hungry Monster’ that we all suffer from in one way or another, is the driving force of the anxiety experienced by all in their own unique way. It could be the obsessions, the panic, the social fear, all of these fear induced states of mind have one thing in common, the monster. You are feeding the monster every time you give in to the thoughts, the compulsions, the ruminations, the fear so intense it causes you sleepless nights. And you know what learning about the monster gave me? It gave me the verification I needed to realise that I was not alone. I wasn’t alone suffering back when I was 6 years old, and I’m not alone now. Neither are you. We all suffer from our own monster and we should all learn the coping strategies to starve it.
‘The extreme or irrational fear of open or public places.’
One of the most common versions of anxiety is the phobia of open or public spaces. For some people it’s the fear of embarrassing theirselves in public, for others it’s the fear of the perceived lack of control in a large open space. For me it was both.
The perception of other’s view of you is something most people with anxiety find important and very anxiety inducing. They struggle with the idea of not being liked, being spoken about badly or being perceived as weird. Then there’s the control element that every person has in one way or another. Whether it’s having control over your work schedule, or having control over your own actions, many sufferers doubt their ability to deal with certain situations, a lack of self confidence and self-esteem. I personally still suffer from agoraphobia from time to time, and for me it’s more the control element of it. If I am unable to leave a large open space easily, I start to worry. If I perceive myself to be ‘stuck’ in a certain situation I become very uneasy. Here’s the important thing though, the more we avoid certain things or places, the stronger the feeling of avoidance becomes which can result in a phobia of it. When the fear of a place starts to control your life, you have yourself a case of agoraphobia.
Agoraphobia is a very treatable condition and many sufferers have learnt to overcome the feelings of fear by a method called ‘Exposure Therapy’. It’s put simply, exposing the person to the fear (or context of the fear) in small incremental doses until the person no longer fears the thing/object/place. This has also been very effective for helping to treat all of the 6 main Anxiety Disorders mentioned earlier. You can practise this yourself if you feel like you are starting to develop a fear of a certain place or thing. Face the fear head on (safely) and break it down into manageable steps. As much as I seem to have a reoccurring love affair with many a face of anxiety, I am also incredibly stubborn and feisty. When I feel like I need to take control back over a situation, I most definitely will, so the Exposure Therapy or my own version of it is always what I end up doing naturally. I push myself until the fear is no longer substantiated in my mind. It always helps to have a trusted person help you through any feelings of distress, keeping it bottled in tends to make things way worse (speaking from experience, also still working on that one).
Obsessive Compulsive Drive - AKA The Workaholic
Here is one I think some of you may relate to! Low and behold, the workaholic! Long gone are the days or relaxation and taking time off, when you have an obsession with your personal performance it can become all consuming. I am very much guilty of this, and when I say guilty I mean that it has at one stage or another been a choice I made. We all make the choices in life that result in our behaviour pattern whether we are aware of it or not. We also ‘enjoy’ certain (not all) patterns of behaviour and feel like we are getting something out of it. The workaholic most certainly does - productivity.
I was given a book by friends of mine, a book about mental health and its many forms. It’s a fantastic book written by a woman called Natasha Devon who in her own very quirky sarcastic yet lovingly open way takes you through her own journey with mental health and her definitions and explanations of all of the disorders she has come into contact with. Every chapter has a letter of the alphabet as initial of a disorder or topic, and one of them was the letter O.
‘Obsessive Compulsive Drive’, as she puts it, is the incessant need for productivity in ones life. Some people have it, some people don’t. I most definitely do. It was actually the very first time I had heard about anyone defining it and it was a nice feeling to know that it’s not just one of my own neurotic traits, it’s an actual ‘thing’! Natasha also explains how her therapist told her the positives about this trait. You can’t fight all impulses and once you have developed a certain ‘drive’ (usually in your childhood) it sticks with you, and by you, all of your life. So why not instead of fighting the impulse, use it? Use the productivity, use the moments of inexplicable miraculous creativity that enter your brain and as I like to say, just ‘roll with it’. And that’s what I have done, and am doing this very moment whilst writing this blog for you all!
Mental Health isn’t something bad, it’s something we all have, just like a physical health. It’s caring for it, understanding yourself, and noticing when thing aren’t feeling 100%. It is my belief that everyone in their lifetime experiences some sort of eye to eye with their mental health and it is the tools you use that determine in which way it affects you. We all carry the baggage of our previous lives, and whether you want to know it or not, you can not escape the past you’s. The childhood you, the teenage you, the overly naive early twenties you. We are all a product of our environment, our past, and our choices all squashed into one, and it’s your choice and your responsibility to look after all of those versions of yourself that make you so very unique and special.
I write articles like these because I want you to know that I can relate. I also want to provide a non-judgemental place where the takeaway message is that we are all stronger than our negative thoughts, stronger than a label or a stigma, and stronger than you ever imagined. I use my experiences as examples because I am not afraid to put myself out there as a passionate activist for better mental health awareness. I am a better person because I accept the things I have been through as lessons, not failures. And lastly, I know that I would have wanted someone to speak up more about these topics when I was at my lowest.
I hope you all enjoyed this blog! As you can see looking at my posts so far, I like to write about topics that I have experienced in one way or another. Mental health is one of the topics I come back to a lot, because as I always state: ‘’A stronger mind is the key to building a stronger and healthier body.’’ If you have any topics you would really like me to research and write about, let me know!
Please leave a comment if you did! Also, tag a friend that may benefit from reading this today.