Anx­ious ’r’ us — but here’s what can help

Miss FQ - - Contents -

I’d al­ways as­sumed reg­u­larly feel­ing fear and guilt was nor­mal; as a teenager I barely ac­knowl­edged the anx­i­ety that ac­com­pa­nied my daily ex­is­tence. It wasn’t un­til I had my first panic at­tack — ly­ing in the bath, my heart pound­ing — that I re­alised my near-con­stant panic and gen­eral emo­tional dis­com­fort were frag­ments of a greater whole, and iden­ti­fied anx­i­ety as part of my psy­che.

Do­ing so was my first step to un­der­stand­ing it. I be­gan to see that the dis­or­dered eat­ing I strug­gled with was also a man­i­fes­ta­tion of anx­i­ety: fear of los­ing con­trol, worry about my ap­pear­ance. Re­strict­ing my food in­take and pun­ish­ing my­self with ex­er­cise had be­come a cop­ing mech­a­nism, one that ul­ti­mately made things even worse as I dealt with feel­ings of guilt, para­noia and fail­ure.

Olivia* can re­late. “My anx­i­ety rears its ugly head through my re­la­tion­ship with food and ex­er­cise. It re­ally all boils down to con­trol. When I don’t feel in con­trol of my life, I need to con­trol the things I can, like what I eat, how much ex­er­cise I do… My anx­i­ety has driven me to dis­or­dered think­ing and be­hav­iours.”

Need­less to say, we’re not alone. In the 2011/2012 New Zealand Health Sur­vey, 7.7% of women re­ported be­ing di­ag­nosed with an anx­i­ety dis­or­der, com­pared with 4.4% of men. In the past six months alone, Anx­i­ety New Zealand Trust has seen nearly 200 women aged be­tween 15-44 for anx­i­ety-re­lated is­sues, double the num­ber of men in the same age bracket.

Ac­cord­ing to one of the Trust’s reg­is­tered psy­chol­o­gists, Na­dine Isler, anx­i­ety is like a state of fear. “Your body will re­act in ‘fight or flight’ mode, caus­ing phys­i­cal symp­toms [like a rapid heart­beat and sweat­ing] as well as thoughts [like] analysing your en­vi­ron­ment for threats.”

Anx­i­ety can also present in more sub­tle ways. Kate* suf­fered from stom­ach aches for years be­fore she dis­cov­ered the cause.

“I started go­ing to the doc­tor a lot as I had crazy tummy pain, and was told I had IBS [ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome],” she ex­plains. Dis­sat­is­fied with this di­ag­no­sis, she be­gan to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther and re­alised the pain was ac­tu­ally “more of a men­tal is­sue”.

Com­pul­sive be­hav­iours are an­other sign. Olivia de­scribes the need to “stick to cer­tain rou­tines, or do cer­tain things be­fore I can re­lax. You know it’s a high-anx­i­ety week when Sun­day night sees five neatly folded out­fits and a fridge jammed with smooth­ies.”

Mean­while, Gab­bie* says, “I very rarely do any­thing so­cial. It all seems too much for me. I plan things, but hardly ever fol­low through [be­cause of] the anx­i­ety. I feel bad that I’m never ‘present’ in re­la­tion­ships; although I know a lot of peo­ple, I have few friends.”

I knew some of my friends also strug­gled with anx­i­ety, but when I be­gan search­ing for peo­ple who’d be will­ing to tell their sto­ries, the re­sponse was unbelievable, as was the depth and hon­esty of what they shared. Ev­ery­one ad­mit­ted feel­ing an over­whelm­ing pres­sure to at­tain per­fec­tion — the per­fect ca­reer, per­fect re­la­tion­ship, per­fect ap­pear­ance, per­fect diet. As Leah* says, “There are so many ex­treme ex­pec­ta­tions for women of our age. We have to stay com­posed and be pretty and also fit, and pump out a whole lot of work con­stantly at a re­ally high stan­dard. We should see enough of our friends and fam­ily and part­ner — pro­vided we have one — as well as work or study full-time. I get so over­whelmed and so stressed.”

It’s no se­cret so­cial me­dia is a ma­jor con­tribut­ing fac­tor. End­less per­fec­tion is just a swipe away, giv­ing us a strange yard­stick against which to mea­sure our self-worth. Sarah* agrees. “So­cial me­dia is a beast that runs off peo­ple’s in­se­cu­ri­ties and anx­i­ety. Ev­ery­one’s cu­rat­ing their [feeds] to be this aes­thet­i­cally pleas­ing dream life. It’s im­por­tant to re­mind your­self that it’s not real.”

For Re­becca*, so­ci­ety’s beauty stan­dards are trig­ger­ing. “As a woman of colour, [I see] white bod­ies con­stantly be­ing por­trayed as a sign of beauty. Even with women of colour, there’s a cer­tain type of per­for­ma­tive beauty and body pos­i­tiv­ity that I don’t [re­late to], and that [makes me] su­per anx­ious.”

Ca­reer-fo­cused Lucy* says her work-re­lated anx­i­ety can also be crip­pling. On one oc­ca­sion, “I got feed­back that one of my projects needed to be re­worked, and although on the out­side, I project a strong, prag­matic self, I [be­gan to doubt] whether I was in the right job, the right coun­try, the right in­dus­try. I didn’t want to see any­one. I felt sick, my heart pound­ing, not know­ing how to feel bet­ter.”

Oth­ers I spoke to also ad­mit­ted avoid­ing oth­ers in an at­tempt to cope, and although that may ini­tially seem to help, Na­dine warns against it. “In the short term, you might feel re­lief, but in the long term, you’ll never get to learn that you would have been able to cope, [and so] your fear grows.” She also cau­tions against de­vel­op­ing con­trol­ling or repet­i­tive habits in or­der to soothe your­self. “[This] might in­clude spend­ing hours on spe­cific rit­u­als and com­pul­sions, [or] go­ing over and over some­thing to make sure it’s per­fect.”

For me, man­ag­ing my anx­i­ety is a day-to-day thing. Ex­plor­ing meth­ods of self-care can pre­vent it from spi­ralling: mod­er­ate ex­er­cise, a healthy diet and ac­tively avoid­ing the hangx­i­ety that ac­com­pa­nies a hangover.

Leah rates ex­er­cise as her top tip. “I’ve started run­ning ev­ery morn­ing. It’s half an hour when my brain is some­where else — and that’s so positive.”

Sarah says em­brac­ing a healthy life­style has helped her han­dle her anx­i­ety too. “These days, I rarely drink, try to eat well and keep my en­vi­ron­ment healthy. Lately, thanks to my part­ner, I’ve been go­ing on long walks and hikes, which gives me a sense of calm and achieve­ment.”

Kelly* also places im­por­tance on her down­time. “If I start feel­ing ex­hausted, I give my­self the okay to re­lax and take time out.”

Self-care is one thing, but some­times we all need a lit­tle ex­tra sup­port. Un­for­tu­nately, Kelly hit rock bot­tom be­fore she sought pro­fes­sional help. “I couldn’t get my­self out of bed, let alone our apart­ment. Only through months of talk­ing and work­ing with [my psy­chol­o­gist] did I re­alise I’d been in such a state of anx­i­ety that it brought on a bout of de­pres­sion.”

Re­becca, too, found a ther­a­pist she trusts and says, “I rec­om­mend it 100%. And if you don’t gel with [the first pro­fes­sional you visit], find an­other one. It takes time.”

“Ther­a­pists are here to help,” says Na­dine. “We’re not here to judge. I have full re­spect for any­one who asks for help with their anx­i­ety, and the sooner you start, the sooner you might have a so­lu­tion.”

Ev­ery­one ad­mit­ted feel­ing an over­whelm­ing pres­sure to at­tain per­fec­tion

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