Good evening fellow Earth-dwellers,
After a somewhat strange week, I have returned for another look into some of my previous work and a post I have been wanting to make for quite some time. As I've grown up, I have generally stopped vigorously typing hourly life updates on social media due to a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that the people I love in my life have taught me that you really don't need to shout it from the rooftops for it to be special - in fact it's usually quite the opposite for us. I also found that the worse I was feeling, the more I felt I needed to post things online to make me feel better - it was a way of compensating for the things I felt I could not fix. Now I am a lot happier and where I want to be, so the desire to post on social media about my private life has drastically lowered.
However, I think that something different can be said for mental illness. Sometimes the stigma associated with mental illness is far more difficult to cope with than the symptoms, which means that we must be proactive. We must speak out loudly and truthfully. Those who have a voice should speak up and lift up others who do not. The last couple of years I have openly and, without shame, admitted that I have Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and panic attacks. The mere fact that I wrote that sentence with "admitted" and had to clarify "without shame" indicates there has been a problem with how we deal with mental health. Nobody "admits" to having the flu, asthma or cancer, unless you know particularly cruel and unsympathetic people, because people generally accept that it's through no fault of your own. Even if you never wash your hands, smoke a lot or take part in high-risk activities, they will often not attack you for gaining physical illnesses as a result because they realise that you are not being ill on purpose. So why don't we carry the same assumptions for mental illness? I'm not going to go through full scientific reasons why we should, but all I'm going to say is that the brain is part of the body and no amount of willpower can stop your body from getting sick.
Today I decided that having the next two weeks off meant that it was safe to tidy my room. Yes, I use the word "safe". When you don't have time off, you turn up to university and you get given even more work to complete, so planning any time for other activities is difficult when you're as disorganised as I am. Having two weeks free from university with my assignments and reading requirements set means I am free to plan my remaining time - some may relate to the consuming feeling of being completely occupied by one thing at a time. As I was tidying, I came across these;
These are Worry Dolls. Quite a few years ago (which I was panicked to discover was actually a decade ago), when I was just entering the pain that is adolescence, my mom handed me the little purple bag. She explained that these were 'worry people' and that at night-time, when my worries were always the worst, I could whisper my worries to the 'worry people' and they would take care of them for me whilst I slept. At that point, my life was completely devoid of smart phones so I didn't claw at Google to find out more about them. I simply whispered my worries to them and left them under my pillow every night. I didn't actually realise they were a common thing, however;
"In traditional and modern times, worry dolls are given or lent to brooding and sorrowful children. They would tell their doll about their sorrows, fears and worries, then hide it under their pillow during the night. After this, the child will literally sleep over the whole thing. At the next morning, all sorrows are said to have been taken away by the worry doll"
(Wikipedia - an incredibly reliable source that you should always turn to for academic writing.)
Personally, I laughed at the idea of calling myself a brooding and sorrowful child. It conjured up an image of being a moody tween complaining about boys, ripping your jeans and plastering your eyelids with blue eyeshadow and rhinestones (obviously I grew up in the nineties/noughties).
Finding these dolls reminded me of how involuntary my experiences were and that I had GAD long before I could realise it. As life got more stressful and I gained the responsibilities that come with getting older and older, my anxieties worsened and I was about to realise just how much it affected my life.
Firstly, I want to address the actual symptoms of anxiety. They are different for everyone, but there are some classic elements that most anxious people have in common. If you know of, care about or love someone with anxiety, or any mental illness for that matter, then please take the time to educate yourself about it. The time you take to research the illness of another person is infinitely valuable and it will enrich your relationship endlessly if you are able to gain a better understanding.
If you're looking for something simple then please do allow me to direct you to the NHS GAD page which explains in general terms what GAD is. A general understanding is better than no understanding, of course. However, I will detail some more in depth symptoms that many of us experience;
- Constant fear, dread and restlessness - If I had £1 for every second I felt relaxed I would never magically receive £1 coins.
- Excessive and unrealistic worry - Is that a molehill? Let me just get my magnifying glass.
- Feeling constantly overwhelmed, on edge, exhausted and stressed - "No, I don't take [illegal/recreational] drugs. Why do you ask?"
- Being irritable and finding it difficult to concentrate - Becoming overstimulated by subtle changes and starting my work at 4pm because it took me all day to get into 'the zone'.
- Feeling shaky, experiencing trembling and being easily startled - Basically one of those little dogs that constantly shake and need to be held and reassured.
- The inability to sleep - I have heard of this thing called an early night but I'm not entirely sure I can grasp the concept.
- Panic Attacks - If you have ever had a panic attack or experienced someone having one then you will understand why they are called 'attacks'. Your heart beat rapidly increasing until it feels like a steam train is rocketing across your ribcage, your body becoming hot and sweaty and claustrophobic, and being undeniably convinced that you are dying. Panic attacks are often accompanied by other symptoms of anxiety such as dry mouth, cold, numb or tingling extremities, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath. Naturally, it is very hard to tell yourself that you are not having a heart attack.
Questions Some May Have
I realise that the stigma facing mental illness is often a product of simply not being informed, and not out of malicious intent. Therefore I will do a mini Anxiety FAQ.
(c) Lauren Newman - 2016
Always credit me for my artwork.
I know that you might be itching to say to someone with anxiety, "hey, just don't worry so much about things". That is probably one of the most unhelpful things you could say. Although it is always easy to tell who genuinely means well by this statement, it can make some feel uncomfortable about confiding in that person.
Do you worry about how having anxiety will effect being employed?
This is a common point made to me and my answer will always be the same; if someone does not want to employ me because of anxiety then I am glad not to work for them.
Would I rather be unemployed than lie about my anxiety though?
Yes and no. I would never lie about my anxiety, and if I am asked I would freely talk about it. However, I'm not going to write that I have a mental illness on my CV or use it as a topic of discussion in a job interview any more than someone with Crohn's disease or carpal tunnel syndrome would. If I can get a degree with anxiety, I expect I can do many other things too. I always work to the best of my ability, and I don't expect to have to lie about having anxiety when I don't have to lie about having migraines.
How can I help someone with anxiety?
Accept that no matter how much you love someone, you can't fix it for them. Anxiety can often be made worse if the sufferer feels that they are letting you down every time they feel unwell or that they are making you feel inadequate. Just love them, be there for them and listen to them and that is all you need to do. Mental health is a personal struggle and responsibility and, just like any illness, they are the only ones who can figure out how to deal with it. The best you can do is create a loving and supportive environment for them to grow in at their own pace (they might not grow at all - that is not your fault). In addition, do not tip-toe around them. Be kind, considerate and loving but they are still a human being and are capable of making choices. Do not stay with someone who is treating you badly just because they are ill. You are a human too and you must not forget your own mental wellbeing.
How can I cope with having anxiety?
This is a difficult one because everyone is different and it is unlikely that the same thing will work for every single individual. I mean, of course it couldn't possibly. The key word here is 'cope'. When I was very young, my family and I thought that I would grow out of worrying. Obviously, we didn't realise what was to come, but since then I have never actually thought about curing anxiety. I have accepted anxiety as part of my life, and furthermore, I don't think I know where I end and anxiety starts. It has taken me a few years to work out some coping mechanisms that are actually healthy and I will share these with you;
- Taking a break from technology and/or social media.
- Write down how you feel at length - pen and paper is usually best but if you only have a phone it will do.
- Let it all out - vent and cry to a trusted person.
- Regular exercise or outdoor activities.
- Learning breathing techniques and ensure you're not taking shallow breaths.
- Good diet and drinking plenty of water throughout the day.
- Keeping your environment clean and tidy.
None of these will fix anxiety, they might not even help, but they are all things that have contributed to a little less stress in my life. Sometimes it's simply giving yourself one less thing to worry about (though you will inevitably find something to take the empty slot).
This was a very long and general approach to having anxiety which I will definitely revisit when discussing more specific aspects of it. The topic is far too large to cover wholly in one post!
I will leave you with my mini comics on anxiety and the situations which can cause us some bother!
Lauren Newman a.k.a shr-Inking violet
(c) Lauren Newman - 2016
Always credit me for my artwork.