You may have seen this piece in Monday’s The Age, wherein we discover that, unsurprisingly, a large percentage of the population either doesn’t understand what anxiety means, or actively denies its existence. Apparently, 50% of people think that anxiety is a personality trait. You’re a nervous person. You need to get it together. Miki Perkins has interviewed a person with anxiety and this person has said, “yes, I have anxiety”, and Beyond Blue has said, “yes, anxiety exists.” Job done! Now everyone knows about anxiety.
If only it were as simple as stamping our feet and telling them it is real, we’re not just highly strung. We’ve already tried this. Beyond Blue had a whole viral campaign with Ben Mendelsohn, and it was moving and true and distressing. The trouble is, 50% of our public don’t know what we’re describing. We don’t distinguish between “anxious” and “anxiety disorder” in the same way that we do “low” and “depression”. We’re talking about the onset of anxiety, or of temporary anxiety, and not the realities of living with an anxiety disorder.
There are six true things to note about living with an anxiety disorder
1. There are many different kinds. You can have a panic disorder, which is when you have lots of panic attacks a lot of the time. You can have a generalised anxiety disorder, where you just feel a low-moderate level of anxious feeling pretty much all the time (this is what I have). You can have specific phobias. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder. One person can have multiple anxiety disorders.
2. Anxiety disorder doesn’t fit a neat diagnosis. Anxiety disorder is not just when you get trapped in a lift and you scream until someone comes to save you. Anxiety disorder is not just going to a job interview and realising your palms are sweaty and actually, you feel a bit like someone has their hands around your throat and actually, you also feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest. Anxiety disorder is not just when you decide you can’t go to your favourite restaurant anymore because it’s become a trigger for you. Anxiety disorder is not just suddenly having an acute belief that you don’t exist and nothing around you is real. It can be all of these things or none of these things and what it is is specific to each person who experiences it. One of the symptoms of my anxiety disorder is that the right side of my body goes weak and numb, even when I’m not feeling obviously nervous or panicked.
3. None of these things are helpful: “Just calm down!” “Stop being so highly strung!” “There’s no reason to be nervous!” “But you’ve done this heaps of times!” “You worry too much.” “What have you got to be anxious about?” We have a mental illness, not stupidity.
4. Panic attacks really do feel like dying, even after 15 years. With work, it can become easier to recognise and deal with them, but part of you always, always, always thinks, “This is the time that I’m actually dying.” The most common physiological symptoms of anxiety closely mimic those of a heart attack or stroke: difficulty breathing, racing heart, dizziness, disorientation, chest pain and tightness, headache, body weakness. The only real way to differentiate it is when you don’t die at the end. Like, five minutes ago I was having a heart attack, but I seem to be fine now.
5. It’s not like Offspring or Girls. Anxiety disorders aren’t hip or quirky. They are fucking shithouse. Shoving a q-tip through your ear drum is definitely something you could do as part of a compulsive behavioural disorder, but it’s not romantic. It’s terrible. You do that because you feel out of control of your actions, because you can’t get a hold on yourself or the world, because something bad will happen if you don’t, because you definitely have something living in your ear, because you’re having a stroke, because you’re going deaf, or any number of other reasons relating to the fact that you just can’t face the next part of your life unless you do this first. It’s not cute or fun. It’s debilitating and cruel.
6. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. I spent Friday night talking to a person close to me who has started having panic attacks. One day, a few months ago, she was driving her car and suddenly believed that her death was imminent. Now she has panic attacks most days (this is usually classified as a panic disorder). She had to drop back to part-time work, and now sees a psychologist every week. She came to me because after three months of it, she is exhausted and doesn’t know what to do next. I had to look her in the face and say, I’ve had an anxiety disorder for fifteen years and that’s part of the cycle. I feel bad, I feel bad, I can’t stop my brain, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t think, I don’t know what to do, I’m so tired, I’M SO TIRED, HOW CAN I LIVE WITH THIS FOREVER, it’s not so bad, I got out today, I haven’t panicked for weeks, I feel happy, I’m safe, I’m so tired, I don’t know what to do, I can’t think, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain, I feel bad, I feel bad. Chronic anxiety often presents with depression, because it’s just so bleeding tedious.
Feeling anxiety about things is a normal part of being a person. Feeling acute, compulsive, recurrent or non-contextual anxiety is not. Let’s be clear about what we’re saying, before we expect to change anyone’s mind about what it really means to live with anxiety.
This article first appeared on Anna’s blog and is published here with permission.
If you or someone you know needs help contact Lifeline (13 11 14), beyondblue (1300 22 46 36) or the Salvo Care Line (1300 36 36 22).