Mental Health Awareness Week: exploring anxiety

I’m a big advocate of talking about mental health issues. Growing up in a family blighted by depression and mental health problems, I know how imperative it is to talk, talk, talk about what we suffer.

In 2014 Mental Health Awareness Week’s theme is anxiety which is something that has hit our family hard recently. When a young member of the family suffers, it is inescapably sad and there’s a horrid feeling of helplessness. I’ve tried to read around the subject a bit to make sure I’m well informed so I can be of help as and when I need to be.

I know one of the biggest barriers to improving the lot of those with mental health conditions is stigma, mostly based on grossly incorrect assumptions. Even though I’ve been surrounded by mental health problems my whole life, I know I still fall into a trap of ignoring the symptoms, seeing if it goes away, and still becoming frustrated with the sufferer, especially if the sufferer is me.

So I was reading a list of symptoms of anxiety:

Physical things that might happen:

  • Rapid and / or irregular heartbeat
  • Fast breathing
  • Weakened / tense muscles
  • Sweating
  • Churning stomach / loose bowels
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth

Psychological impacts can include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling depressed
  • Loss of self-confidence

Reading the first physical symptom, a memory hit me like a tonne of bricks. I remembered when, in 2003 I ended up at the doctor’s very worried about an irregular heartbeat. It felt like my heart was stopping, missing 3-4 beats and when it kicked back in, the first beat was so strong it felt like I was being punched in the chest. It was horribly scary and at times painful. I had an ECG and when the results came in my doctor said, and I paraphrase: there’s nothing physically wrong with you, you’re probably a bit stressed, try to not be.

This conversation resulted in a handful of problems. Firstly I felt like I’d been a fraud and wasted the doctor’s time.  I was working at an outdoor education centre, working 80-90 hours a week, often in charge of the entire centre. I had had a bad relationship and an even worse breakdown of the relationship. I was still having to work with the bloke and live next door to him at the centre.  So yes, I figured stress *must* be the problem. I went away feeling silly. That diagnosis and reaction from my doctor seemed so sensible and definitive and I never thought to question it.

Secondly, I’ve been so convinced that I am just the kind of person whom stress happens to, when I’ve suffered the same irregular heartbeat periodically (sometimes intensely and frequently) over the intervening years, I automatically look to my diary to see what is causing me stress. I’ve begun to pride myself on being able to change things so the ‘stress’ goes away. I always jump to the conclusion that there must be external factor causing the irregularity. I haven’t been aware of lots of other techniques I could be trying rather than cancelling another meeting, or tucking myself up in bed thinking it will go away if I just don’t do activity X which is one thing too many this week. Those responses still have their moments, but it is a simplification it seems.

Thirdly, I’ve thought, well yes, all my family have mental health problems, this inability to manage stress is probably just the way it manifests in me. Count yourself lucky and get on with it. (Yes, I know, dumb.)

I’m now wondering how much of what I’ve felt has been caused by the environment I’ve put myself in, or find myself in and how much of it has its source within me.

Clearly, I think I was (and still do) suffer stress, but anxiety and stress are different. I understand that it is widely recognised that stress in and of itself can be useful, helping us recognise situations for what they are and allowing us to manage them. Of course, chronic or acute stress can be bad for us in many ways but I am trying to understand the difference between anxiety, which is subdivided into disorders, and stress.  One descriptor is:

‘Anxiety is more akin to fear. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when that fear is significant enough to interfere with daily functioning, or if it seems to develop without cause’.[1]

Although it appears the lines between anxiety and stress can be blurred, I was surprised to read that anxiety disorders can include phobias, as I suffer from emetophobia, the fear of vomit. I’ll dig into that one in another blog (if I can, just thinking about it makes me anxious and I think I’m lots better than I used to be)! I wonder if I’d mentioned that to my doctor, he’d have put two and two together.

So, I wish I’d had proper support back then to understand what was going on and what I could do about it.  I’ve cycled through times of stress and now I think I’ve been suffering anxiety too.

Now, I’m not a hypochondriac, honestly! I know this smacks of “oh, get her, she reads a list of symptoms and now she thinks she suffers from it.” It honestly isn’t that, a lot of things from a very long period of time seem to be falling into place. Given the frequency of occurrences of these problems in our family as well, I’m less surprised and more face-palming wondering why I didn’t notice it earlier. They say familiarity breeds contempt….

I think Mental Health Awareness week has already helped me become more aware of when I’m suffering anxiety as opposed to being stressed and given I now recognise there is a difference I hope I can be of use to myself and others.

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