Why I’m not admitting I have anxiety

September 12, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Posted in mental health | 16 Comments
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This tweet from @wjohngalloway made me smile:

john galloway MH tweet

I love this attitude. Mental health problems are just, well, health problems. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by them, or worried about admitting them.

I wish I felt like this. I really do. But I still find it incredibly tough to admit I’ve got any kind of mental health problem.

My name is Alison, and I am anxious. I don’t have a diagnosis; I don’t have medication; I don’t go to a support group. I just have a kind of free-floating anxiety. Sometimes it’s over something realistic, like the worry that the six-year-old will dash out in front of a car; but generally it’s over something daft. (I lay awake from 2-4 a.m. recently, unable to stop my brain obsessively picking apart everything I’d said in a conversation with someone important, highlighting the bits where I’d made an idiot of myself, and playing Venti, turbini in the background.)

Having fought with it all my life, telling myself I was Just Being Silly, and everyone felt like this, and I just needed to pull my socks up, putting a label to it last year was a massive relief*. But I still hate saying it. It feels like some kind of moral failure.

To go off on a tangent for a sec, there’s a bit of a campaign going at the moment to rehabilitate introversion, and see it as part of life’s rich tapestry, instead of Mr Hyde to extroversion’s Dr Jekyll. Introverts say being an introvert is fine, thanks very much, and all you noisy extroverts should stop expecting everyone to play by your rules. I recognise some traits of introversion in myself, even though I’m the one who’s getting ridiculously overexcited about stuff and trying to make everyone laugh and marching up to people introducing myself. I love people, but they tire me out. I fear crowds. Noisy places make me want to cry. I need a little lie down after the school run. And I’m absentminded, forgetful, because I spend such a lot of time in my own head (mostly lost in daydreams about winning cyclocross races and writing bestsellers and seducing opera singers) that I forget how to interact with actual people.

walshaw reservoir

Hold on. Is that a countertenor down there?

I might be able to learn to live with introversion: to think of it as something that makes me Pale and Interesting, perhaps, or Bookish, which seems like quite a nice thing to be. At any rate, it’s an excellent excuse to never, ever go to Glastonbury. But anxiety? Do I have to accept that’s Just How I Am? Like introversion, there’s not much sign of it going away. And while I might be learning to manage it, this is cold comfort, because it’s SUCH a right royal pain in the arse.

Anxiety’s why I eventually quit my career, after years of vague unhappiness escalated into weeping with fear on the commute every day. I don’t have to go there any more, and I’m a lot happier as a result, but anxiety’s still in my way. It’s why I drag my feet over doing lovely things, like going for bike rides and writing blogposts and ringing up friends. It’s why I cancel things I really, really want to do, with people I really, really like, at the last minute. It’s why I fear committing myself to things, agreeing to stuff, volunteering, putting my hand up.

And, of course, in that greatest of ironies, I’m anxious about my anxiety. How should I manage it? Do I have to force myself to do the stuff I’m scared of, in the hope that it’ll help, in some kind of aversion-therapy way? Or can I get away with just avoiding everything that makes me anxious? Would it be OK never to leave the house again, except maybe to go to the opera?

And, most scary of all, is it going to stop me doing all the things I want to do?

I don’t have any answers to all this, and so it still seems safest just not to tell anyone about it**. Maybe, then, it’ll just go away, and I’ll wake up one day and be FINE.


* I filled out the Anxiety & Depression scale at Occupational Health, thinking ‘I’m just writing normal stuff. I’ll look like I’m malingering. Everyone feels like this.’ The nurse said ‘Well, I’m seeing a lot of anxiety here.’ Ah.

** Apart from the internet, which doesn’t count

Listen. No, shush. Listen*

May 13, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Posted in mental health | 8 Comments
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For Mental Health Awareness Week.

We’re used to having this kind of conversation with friends:

  • Topsy: How are you?
  • Tim: Oh, I don’t know. Not too good, if I’m honest. I just feel worn out.
  • Topsy: Ooh, I know what you mean! I haven’t slept properly for ages.
  • Tim: Mmm. I’m just feeling really down about everything.
  • Topsy: Oh, dear. I know loads of people who are stressed out at the moment.
  • Tim: I think it might be more than just stress.
  • Topsy: It’s hard when your kids are little. Maybe getting out on your bike would help?
  • Tim: I can’t really seem to get motivated to do anything.
  • Topsy: Oh no! Have you been to the doctor?

This is fine, right? Topsy’s making suggestions, giving advice, trying to make Tim feel better. So why does Tim come away from this conversation feeling wretched? He knows Topsy was trying to help, but he feels that his problems were being minimised, that he was being jollied along, that Topsy wasn’t really taking him seriously.

Here’s an alternative.

  • Topsy: How are you?
  • Tim: Oh, I don’t know. Not too good, if I’m honest. I just feel worn out.
  • Topsy: That sounds hard.
  • Tim: Mmm. I’m just feeling really down about everything.
  • Topsy: Oh, dear.
  • Tim: I think it might be more than just stress.
  • Topsy: Oh, really?
  • Tim: I can’t really seem to get motivated to do anything.
  • Topsy: That must be tough.

We fear this kind of conversation because we think: what if I make it worse? What if Tim starts to feel REALLY bad, because I haven’t managed to cheer him up? In fact, the opposite might be true.

Siegfried Neuenhausen Künstlerwand Bertramstraße 1991 Gerd Winner stop-look-listen cautionJust listening to someone is enormously powerful. Giving them all your attention. Putting your own ideas and opinions and concerns to one side, and just listening while they talk. Without:

  • interrupting
  • saying ‘I know what you mean’ (you can’t be sure of this)
  • giving anecdotes from your own life, or those of others you know (this takes the focus away from the person you’re talking to)
  • giving advice
  • making suggestions
  • trying to cheer them up or distract them
  • trying to make them feel their problems aren’t really so bad

It’s hard to do. It’s really hard. We’re not used to it. But it’s worth a try. You won’t make it worse, and you might even help.

* (aka: what I’ve learned from a year of counselling training)

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