Why are we all so ANXIOUS?
We all know about depression – but anxiety looks set to become Ireland’s biggest mental health problem. Anna Magee investigates
Last year, Anne Smith was a laid- back 29-year- old who was travelling around India. In April this year, back at home, that suddenly changed. ‘I was sitting in the hairdresser’s when my heart began to race; I felt jittery,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t breathe properly and my heart was beating so fast, I felt as if I might pass out. I had this lump in the pit of my stomach and an urge to be sick.’ That was Anne’s first panic attack. Since then the digital media manager has been plagued by anxious feelings in situations that never frightened her before. ‘I began to get the same feelings in more normal situations: getting ready in the morning, walking down a crowded street. It was terrifying.’
Anne is far from alone. Experts are warning of a new age of anxiety, as anxiety disorders — such as panic attacks, obsessivecompulsive disorder (OCD), post- traumatic stress disorder and generalised anxiety disorder (or GAD, which involves feeling overcome with worry most of the time) — are now as common in Irish people as depression.
According to St Patrick’s University Hospital in Dublin, it is estimated that one in nine of us will suffer a primary anxiety disorder in our lifetime, and that anxiety disorders count for a similar level of stress and disability within Irish society as cancer or heart disease. Meanwhile, prescriptions for tranquillising drugs such as Xanax and Valium are up. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with GAD as men.
Over in Britain, the figures are stark. CEO of Anxiety UK Nicky Lidbetter points to an annual 10 per cent increase in calls to the charity’s helpline. ‘The recent rise is mainly in women with GAD,’ she explains. ‘ They’re worrying about everything, frightened about the future. They say things like, “I have this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach,” then go on to describe constantly feeling as though they are going to be sick. They tend to experience anxiety as physical symptoms such as nausea, sweating and palpitations.’
The Mental Health Foundation ( MHF) recently identified a rise in women between 45 and 55 reporting mental health issues such as anxiety. ‘ During this time of life women are juggling many roles,’ says Simon LawtonSmith, head of policy at MHF. ‘They may be wives and mothers, carrying a burden to earn money and care for ageing parents. This creates pressure that can result in panic attacks.’
In these uncertain economic times, women are more likely to lose their full-time jobs than men. ‘We’re seeing people who have never experienced anxiety coming forward,’ says Lidbetter. ‘They may want to move on but can’t because there are no other jobs to go to. It shakes the foundations of even the strongest of people, leading to a massive drop in confidence, manifesting as anxiety.’
But while it’s more acceptable to admit suffering from depression, few of us admit to anxiety because it’s seen as somehow failing to cope. ‘Sufferers will say, “I’m stressed” even when they are living with debilitating anxiety symptoms,’ says Lidbetter. ‘Even doctors often diagnose the catch-all “stress”. But left untreated, anxiety can turn into severe depression, which is harder to treat.’
For Anne, the anxiety began when, after returning from travelling, she had attended 15 job interviews and been rejected after every one. ‘One morning I noticed my hand shaking and realised how badly my confidence had