What the hell is ‘anxiety’, anyway?

What the hell is ‘anxiety’, anyway?

Quite simply put, anxiety can make you feel anything. Feelings of everything to nothing at the same time, fear and confidence entwined, energised and frozen, sick and still. Anxiety can speed up speech and silence, sometimes in the same day. It can make you reclusive, depressed, agitated, stressed and suicidal. It’s self-help, therapy, medication or nothing at all. It’s one of the greatest issues we face as a society, and we're not prepared.

Anxiety still has a stigma

The death of Robin Williams in 2014 prompted a surge in the discussion of mental wellbeing. Anxiety, depression and personality disorders were banished from the realm of taboo and spoken aloud. Whilst mental illness was a contributing factor to the demise of Robin Williams, it was later confirmed that the actor was struggling with the degenerating side effects of a brain disease, with depression only playing a minor part in the suicide. Robin is not the only celebrity to speak out against the debilitating effects of anxiety and depression. Stephen Fry’s campaigns to bring mental health issues into the spotlight have opened conversation to the idea that anyone can have anxiety. Anxiety doesn’t discriminate and no one is exempt. In 2006, Stephen Fry responded to a fan's letter about issues with depression and anxiety. Crystal Nunn reached out to Stephen whilst experiencing mental instability, the comedian wrote the following letter in response:

Dear Crystal,
I’m so sorry to hear that life is getting you down at the moment. Goodness knows, it can be so tough when nothing seems to fit and little seems to be fulfilling. I’m not sure there’s any specific advice I can give that will help bring life back its savour. Although they mean well, it’s sometimes quite galling to be reminded how much people love you when you don’t love yourself that much.
I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:
Here are some obvious things about the weather:
It’s real.
You can’t change it by wishing it away.
If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.
It will be sunny one day.
It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
One day.
It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness - these are as real as the weather - AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’s CONTROL. Not one’s fault.
They will pass: they really will.
In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes.
‘Today’s a crap day,’ is a perfectly realistic approach. It’s all about finding a kind of mental umbrella.
‘Hey-ho, it’s raining inside: it isn’t my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.’
I don’t know if any of that is of any use: it may not seem it, and if so, I’m sorry. I just thought I’d drop you a line to wish you well in your search to find a little more pleasure and purpose in life.
Very best wishes
Stephen Fry

Anxiety is everywhere

I’d be surprised if anyone reading this has not yet come into contact with mental hardship (we’re talking anxiety, depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, etc.). Whether that experience is personal or not is somewhat irrelevant, any contact with mental upset should be a strong enough platform for verbalisation. Mental health remains a lingering social taboo and yet it exists on the most human of levels. The brain is a network of thought, process and decision, none of which are linear and without fault. We expect our mind to serve us well as an automatic function, perhaps more so than we would expect a physical part of our body. If we avoid discrimination for physical illness, why do we stigmatise an issue with the brain?

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Anxiety may not have a 'cure'

A broken bone is seen as a physical ailment and usually generates an element of sympathy from those surrounding the patient. In contrast, an issue with the mind is accompanied with a stigma - it’s all about relatability. We understand how a bone breaks and fixes far more than we understand cognitive behaviour and perhaps more significantly, understand the process for healing. A broken bone has a beginning, a period of recovery and an end, the time where everything reverts back to how it was before and life moves on. Mental illness doesn’t quite work in such a linear style. Firstly, we don’t understand why people become mentally unwell, asking someone why they’re sad won’t work most of the time as 90% of the time they will have no logical answer. This then frustrates the person trying to understand why someone is ‘sad’ as they struggle to digest their inability to ‘pull it all together’. Then, we don’t have a pre-determined recovery process, brains are slightly trickier than arms and unfortunately, it’s slightly more complex than a plaster cast. We have a host of approaches we try to heal a sufferer of mental health, medication, behavioural therapy, hypnosis, religion, herbs, there will probably be a new one tomorrow. To the sufferer, finding a 'cure' is frustrating, we don’t really know what will work and what order to try for an antidote. Ultimately, there is no cure, we can only attempt to deal with the symptoms for as long as they stay. A 6-week plaster cast can fix a whole manner of sins when it comes to broken bones, but give us a mental illness and it can take six weeks to start remedy number one. Similarly, we don’t know if the struggle is chronic or short term, and most importantly if it will reoccur. A sufferer of mental health disruption one off and that we need to revisit the entire process again. We fear explaining our mental health to those close to us in a way that wouldn’t be considered if we were discussing a physical ailment. We worry that association to mental struggle will provide instant membership to the ‘weirdo society’, where ‘normal’ people couldn’t possibly want to socialise with us.

Anxiety awareness

Anxiety encourages us to neglect ourselves

We conceal the strain we are going through, the brunt of it bared by one of our most important body parts, the mind. We lie awake at night, we threaten relationships and employment as we take on the stress of other people’s problems. Most importantly we compromise the relationship we have with our own mind, simply turning away and refusing to help. Those surrounding us question why we are acting a certain way, why we can't 'snap out of it' or when we are going to be 'back to normal.' The bottom line is that we don't know, and that we would like to remember what 'back to normal' looks like, let alone feels like. That the blank or chaos of an anxious spell looks like a phase, and not a new reality. That we are not 'mental' but have something going on right now. And no, we can't just snap out of it.