With around 20% of the UK population thought to suffer from a form of anxiety at any one time, a good number of us will have experienced anxiety.
I’ve had periods of my life where I’ve been more anxious than usual; when I was going for the biggest job interview I’d ever have, when I’ve been troubled for an extended period of time over something someone said, when I was worried that my cancer might return. The thing is, we could put many other words to these situations too – worry, stress, concern, sad, obsessed even. So how do we know when something is anxiety or not, and what else might we be misunderstanding about it?
What is anxiety?
Wikipedia’s definition of anxiety is ‘an uncomfortable feeling of nervousness or worry about something that is happening or might happen in future’. I don’t disagree with this definition, but I do wonder if we identify universally enough with ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘nervousness’ to appreciate how difficult anxiety, and an anxiety disorder, can be. It seems that in our daily lives we use and hear words for anxiety that are more accessible and socially acceptable, because it’s normal to do so and it feels scary to admit to a mental health issue.
There are a range of clinical diagnoses for anxiety – six commonly referred to are generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia and social anxiety disorder, each with their own symptom profile but all characterised by anxiety being present.
In addition, a proportion of people suffering with anxiety may be what’s called ‘sub-clinical’, meaning we don’t have enough of the symptoms to be diagnosed with a disorder, but symptoms are present frequently enough to leave the sufferer on edge and uneasy, without being able to identify it or know how to change it.
A mental or physical health issue?
Officially defined as a mental health issue, anxiety has both strong mental and physical components; perhaps another reason it’s misunderstood. Mentally we may experience overwhelm, stress, worry and other psychological symptoms, each with their own definitions. Physically, we may experience a range of symptoms at various anxious moments or periods of time, like shortness of breath, a tight chest and muscles, headaches, nervous movements, and other body symptoms. The problem is we often assume that these sorts of symptoms are only present in say, a severe phobia, yet people might experience mental overwhelm with shaking hands that isn’t necessarily a phobia, but another form of anxiety that presents itself differently. Recognising what’s happening in our own body and mind first of all, and what’s normal for us, is a good start. Which brings us on to…
When experiencing an anxious moment or period of our life, our thoughts like to tell us that we always feel like this and that it will never change. This becomes our normal, so that we no longer understand what our less-anxious or anxiety-free normal can be. We also look at others and compare our normal to what we think is theirs (more on this below).
Really, there is no normal but our own. Looking at where and when anxiety impacts us gives us a clue as to whether we’re at a level that isn’t feasible to cope with. Also, thinking of the last time we didn’t feel anxious helps with our perspective of when it changes. When I carried out this exercise myself and realised it had been too long for me, I knew I’d not given myself the focus I needed.
Compare and contrast
We love to compare ourselves to others, telling ourselves we’re not as bad as someone else but nowhere near as ‘good’ as another, the constant placing of ourselves along an imaginary line. With anxiety, we might think we’re the only one going through this, or ‘look how much better others are coping’. A good phrase I hold close is ‘stop comparing your behind the scenes to someone else’s highlight reel’, which has stuck with me since I heard it.
Instead of comparing and pitching yourself against other people, try looking at yourself in the past or who you’d like to be in the future and notice the difference. Better yet, start with the present, this very moment, ask yourself how you’re feeling, what you need and how you can get that. Being present with your thoughts and feelings can be a supportive way to start to make sense of them, instead of looking outside to anyone else.
Isn’t it depression?
Another area of misunderstanding with anxiety is how we lump it in with depression. Like I mention in this video, we see them frequently coupled together in conversation, often because they can be diagnosed together, but they aren’t the same thing.
Aside from official definitions, I often think of how our energy is different between anxiety and depression; depression tends to be low energy, low mood, perhaps a slower pace, of being, of mind and body; anxiety tends to be higher energy, changeable moods and living at a fraught pace. This is a view corroborated by Dr David Baldwin, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Southampton. Of course, there are a whole range of energy and mood levels in between also, which makes defining both anxiety and depression that much harder.
But I don’t have a mental health issue…do I?
Finally, just like most of us believe we have above average intelligence (which isn’t possible!), we tend to think that anxiety, and mental health issues in general, are things that happen to other people; there’s nothing seriously wrong with me to warrant attention or to need to change anything, right?
Given 20% of the UK experience anxiety, and 25% are thought to experience a form of mental health issue within their life, for a fair proportion of people this isn’t the case. The more we speak out about our experiences with anxiety (and other mental health issues), the more we’ll understand what it is, how to identify it and where to get the right support for us.
In the next instalment of the anxiety series we look at what it’s like to live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, others’ experiences of anxiety, and what helps us in daily life.
If this post strikes a chord with you leave a comment (which will be public) or get in touch (privately).