Hosted every May by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is an annual UK event offering an opportunity to focus on achieving good mental health. The theme for this year’s MHAW (May 15 – 21) is anxiety, which is something that affects many of us. In a survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation one in four adults said they sometimes felt so anxious that it stopped them from doing things they wanted to do. I’d like to share my experience of anxiety and a few things I find helpful.
Anxiety and Stress
The terms anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably, but there are some important differences. Understanding which condition we’re dealing with helps us figure out how best to respond. The following is taken from the Anxiety UK website.
Most people experience stress and anxiety at some point in their lives. Generally, stress is a response to an external cause, such as a tight deadline at work or having an argument with someone, and usually disappears or reduces once the situation has been resolved.
Anxiety is typically described as a feeling of apprehension or dread in situations where there is no actual real threat and is disproportionate to the situation faced. Unlike stress, anxiety persists even after a concern has passed. In some cases, anxiety can escalate into an anxiety disorder and can affect day-to-day life.
I explored my experience of acute stress a couple of years ago. In this case the external trigger was a household emergency. I experienced a number of very unpleasant symptoms including gut pain, elevated heart rate, and headaches for a couple of weeks, but they eased as soon as the situation was addressed and did not return.
My Experience of Anxiety
In the sense of a persistent “feeling of apprehension or dread” I get anxious anticipating stressful situations, especially where I feel overwhelmed at the scale of what needs doing. I can act decisively in a crisis but I’m much less adept at keeping on top of things proactively. Examples include household maintenance, repairs, and decluttering. I’ll put up with inadequate situations (and the attendant anxiety) rather than face things head on and deal with them promptly. This is especially so where addressing the issue would involve engaging or organising other people, such as tradespeople or other professionals. Examples include anything that includes legal or financial planning, such as wills, conveyancing, mortgages, or pensions.
I experienced a great deal of anxiety in the final years of my mother’s life. I dreaded the thought of having to organise things once she died, such as planning her funeral and dealing with the legal and financial aspects as a named executor on her will. I didn’t have a good relationship with the wider family and the prospect of having to work, negotiate, and coordinate things with them filled me with a near existential dread. It wasn’t present with me all the time, but neither was it ever very far away. It would surface from time to time, often without warning. In the event, everything was taken care of by others and I had no involvement at all. I could have addressed my anxiety by asking questions and clarifying what my role would be. Instead, I repeatedly pushed it aside. Not the healthiest of ways to deal with things.
I rarely get anxious at the thought of speaking in public, presenting to colleagues, or being interviewed. I’ve written about this previously in Speaking Up, Speaking Out: Harnessing the Power of the Spoken Word. I think the reason I don’t get anxious at such events is because I only have to deal with my own preparedness and performance. It would be very different if I had to organise the event itself. This is largely why I stepped back from heading the Mental Health First Aider (MHFA) network at work a couple of years ago. I’m still a Mental Health First Aider but I found organising and leading the calls increasingly stressful. I felt totally inadequate to the task of working with my MHFA colleagues to develop ideas and plan activities and events.
I get anxious if I feel I’ve done something wrong, especially if I think I’m going to get into trouble for it. A number of years ago I spent a very anxious fortnight on vacation. Just before I finished work for my break, one of the senior managers e-mailed everyone to say there was going to be an important announcement the following week. For some reason, I got it into my head this was about personal internet use, and that I’d be in trouble for using my work computer for my writing and research. The announcement turned out to have nothing to do with that at all. I needn’t have worried, as they say. Or rather, I could have dealt with my anxiety much better, by checking in during my break to see what the announcement was about.
Other triggers include worrying about other people (despite my no worries policy it does happen), doubts and uncertainty about the future, and the prospect — real or imagined — of relationship breakups and difficulties.
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
When I’m anxious the main symptoms are a sense of being “in a bubble” and distanced from what’s actually going on around me, a tightness in the muscles of my face and jaw, a sense of breathlessness, and discomfort in my gut. These are similar to the symptoms I described in my blog post about acute stress, but less intense. They’re not present all the time, but fade in and out for as long as the underlying situation continues. Given that my triggers mostly concern situations which have developed over time or concern the future, and I do little if anything to address them, the symptoms can go on for a long time. Months, or even years, sometimes.
How Do I Handle My Anxiety?
In a word — poorly! As I’ve described already, I tend to avoid addressing situations which trigger my anxiety, until they become unavoidable or critical. I do my best to ignore the symptoms, or distract myself with other things until they go away. I’m aware that this isn’t a very healthy approach, not least because my anxiety will keep resurfacing until the underlying situation is resolved. It’s worth noting that I’m much better at helping other people address their issues, concerns, and worries, than I am at dealing with my own.
Why do I find it so hard? In large part, it’s because I doubt my ablilty to handle certain situations effectively, especially those which involve negotiation or organising other people. Unfortunately — and unhealthily — that includes asking for help. I rarely get anxious about things I’m able to deal with myself. Stressed, yes, but not anxious. In some circumstances, my reluctance comes down to fear. I can handle how things are right now (I tell myself), but what if they’re actually a lot worse than I imagine them to be? The truth, of course, is that situations are generally less awful than we anticipate, and simpler to deal with now rather than later.
The hashtag for this year’s MHAW is #ToHelpMyAnxiety, so what can I do to help mine? Writing this article has helped, because it’s forced me to accept how poorly I handle anxiety when it presents itself. My challenge is to acknowledge my limitations (for example, that I’m not an effective leader or organiser) and become better at asking for help when needed. In the meantime, I can be gentle with myself for handling my anxiety the best way I can right now, whilst exploring healthier strategies and approaches.
You can find a number of techniques for handling the symptoms of anxiety on the Mental Health Foundation website. These include focusing on our breathing, exercise and movement, keeping a diary, challenging our anxious thoughts, connecting with others, diet, and sleeping.
Anxiety UK offers a range of services including therapy, a helpline and text service, courses and groups, webinars, Anxious Times magazine, and a membership scheme.
Anxious Minds is a UK charity committed to improving the mental well-being of people in the North East of England.
Founded in 1979, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) is an international nonprofit organization “dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through aligning research, practice and education.”
You will find a selection of articles for MHAW in previous years in our curated list of posts for mental health awareness days and events.
If you or someone you know is in need of immediate support, check out the help and crisis lines on our resources page.
Over to You
In this post I’ve described my personal experience of anxiety and some of the ways I handle it (and fail to handle it). How do you manage anxiety in your life? What strategies do you find helpful, or unhelpful? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.
Image by Diane Picchiottino at Unsplash.