I mentioned that I had anxiety in an earlier post. It’s taken a very long time to admit this to myself, never mind other people. In fact it took me years before I even admitted I might potentially have anxiety at all. It felt like a weakness, as if there was something wrong with me – which when you’re a perfectionist is fairly disconcerting. But it isn’t a weakness at all, and I know this from a theoretical perspective as I teach first year psychology students about anxiety as part of their lectures on emotion.
Just because it isn’t actually a weakness, doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like it is sometimes. There is a lot of stigma about anything to do with mental health – there is the persistent view it isn’t ‘normal’.
Well, let’s tackle that one first, ‘what is normal’? Statistically it is up to 68% of whatever you happen to be measuring – that’s the area of the bell curve which is 1 standard deviation either side of the mean (the average for the non-statisticians among you); although we would typically say a ‘normal’ result is within 2 standard deviations of the mean, so that would be 94%. (A standard deviation is the average distance of the scores from the mean, in case you’re wondering). For example the typical IQ ‘normal’ range is between about 85 and 115, above this you’re smarter than average and below this you’re less smart than average.There are various estimates of how many people will suffer from a mental illness/disorder or something along those lines during their lives, but most estimates of western populations are around the 50% mark. Well that looks pretty normal to me, in fact that is slap bang in the middle of normal. Half the population, that’s one in two people, will have something which could be classified for a mental disorder at some point in their lives, either in a single instance or it being something they may struggle with throughout their lives. That means you will know people who struggle/have struggled with something in the mental disorder classification index, but maybe haven’t told you. It’s a statistical certainty.
Anxiety is not well understood. If you’re having an anxiety or panic attack the typical consensus is that you’re just worrying over nothing, you’re being ‘hysterical’, and that you should just ‘calm down’. I can assure you, those of you who have ever said that, it is not remotely that simple.
Anxiety starts in the brain, it is a cognitive mood disorder, but it’s not confined to your brain like some mood disorders like depression, no, this anxiety sucker triggers other bits of your body to join in the fun, so that your nervous system and the chemicals in your blood team up to create a whole pile of stress for the mind and body.
Anxiety issues begin with a thought in your head, which can be the same normal worrying thought that any one of you might have. But in someone with anxiety, instead of worrying for a bit and then moving on, that worrying thought doesn’t go away and instead triggers the mechanisms we have that lead to the fight or flight response -which is usually reserved for really stressful situations. I won’t go into the biology of the anxiety response, it’s complicated enough to save for my lectures, look it up if you’re interested.
‘Fight or flight’ is something we’ve all heard of, it’s a key element of our survival. It’s usually triggered when there is a threat present, but nowadays it’s normally the biggest factor in why we get stressed. In the fight or flight response, our stress response, our bodies are primed to respond to threats; when we can’t our nervous system becomes overworked and our bodies are unable to mop up the excess chemicals – leading to the stress-related diseases you might have heard of since our modern lives tend to preclude being able to fight or run away from things which are threatening to us.In people with anxiety this fight or flight response is triggered when something isn’t technically a threat, so just because most people don’t see something as stressful doesn’t mean the person with anxiety is fine. They’re not, they’re perceiving a threat, even if you don’t agree, they are anxious and they are stressed.
The fight or flight response, our stress response, can do a lot of things when you can’t actually fight something or run away. It can paralyse you, reduce your concentration, make you irritable, cause insomnia, it will make you restless or jumpy (fidgety), and all of this stuff going on in your body and brain uses a lot of energy so you’re also likely to be really tired.
As much as I’m an eternal optimist, I also have always got something I’m anxious about, be it whether the cat is alright when she’s off on her adventures, if L is ok when she’s not with me, whether the theme park ride will collapse when it wobbles, or even the reaction I’ll get to posting this blog. I get stuck in anxiety loops where one thought triggers another then another, and it’s usually because I know enough about what is happening and how things work rather than the opposite – ignorance is bliss sometimes, until I get anxious because I don’t know. An appropriate phrase I heard years ago is analysis paralysis, it fits with the experience of anxiety.
The latest research in this area suggests that people who suffer from anxiety are actually of higher than average intelligence – because they’re not so much worrying about things that will never happen, as calculating all the possible consequences from potential actions which might be made at any given time. Our brains appear to be simply ‘over’-thinking about things far more than ‘average’. Analysis paralysis – we analyse ad infinitum rather than worry.
So, I have anxiety. So what? Sure I may fidget and worry an awful lot, and I may appear to be really neurotic at times; but I am also competent, capable and kick-ass when I want to be. I worry about everything, all the time. I also think of solutions because I keep thinking, I find ways to deal with things when I am anxious. And I am always able to deal with a crisis without appearing too different to normal because, let’s face it, my body is already prepared for that quite a lot of the time.
So if you know someone you always thought of as a ‘worrier’ who seemed to be excessively stressed about what you thought were tiny inconsqeuential things, then give them a break. They might have anxiety – in which case they’re in ‘analysis paralysis’ mode and could do with a big cup of tea, a chat, a giggle, and some sympathetic logic.