This epidemic of anxiety... and a need to educate ourselves

In her weekly column Ailin Quinlan talks about the rise of anxiety
This epidemic of anxiety... and a need to educate ourselves

A WEIGHT ON THEIR SHOULDERS: It has been estimated that up to one in six people suffers from anxiety problems

WHAT an awful way to live, I thought.

I’d just read a newspaper article in which a young woman revealed that she lived in fear.

And no, she wasn’t constantly trying to tip-toe around a violently abusive spouse or struggling to stay alive in a war-zone, or coming to terms with a diagnosis of cancer; she had an anxiety disorder.

Every day, this college student wrote, she has to force herself out of her house and fight a mental battle about the pros and cons of facing the world.

She’s not particularly shy or quiet, she said, she is, simply, terrified. All the time.

I imagine some people would find it hard to believe how this young woman has to argue with herself every day about the benefits of getting up and going out; she has to literally drag herself out of the house every single morning — and she doesn’t even know what she’s afraid of. It’s been this way her whole life, she observed.

She said that when she tries to explain to people that she suffers from an anxiety disorder, they usually don’t understand; they think she’s referring to an anxiety about a specific event like an exam or a visit to the dentist. But she’s not.

Because that kind of anxiety usually shuts down once the exam is over, or the dental work is completed. An anxiety disorder, she said, never shuts off.

You never get that feeling of relief. Instead she says, people like her who live with the condition live in a constant state of worry, paranoia and fear.

And when they confide in someone, they’re told they worry too much, or are thinking negatively, or that it’s all in their head.

When I googled, I found a range of different statistics out there for the incidence of anxiety — it ranges from an estimated one in six people by Mental Health Ireland, to one in nine by St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, to a figure of one in 13 in a global study of the issue by the University of Queensland.

Two years ago, Professor Jim Lucey of St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin said that we live in an age of anxiety. And from what I can see, the Irish seem to be particularly prone to it.

Professor Lucey also said that when people opened up about their anxiety, they should not be urged to pull themselves together.

He believed the increase in the problem was due to stress-related conditions such as anxiety, self-harm, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The article stayed in my head. What are people so worried about, I asked a friend. She shook her head. She opened and closed her mouth. She paused. And then it came out: “I know exactly what that girl is talking about,” she said quietly.

Then, and for the first time in years, it later emerged, she started to talk openly about the anxiety that has plagued her all her life.

Her first experience of it occurred when my friend was, she thinks, about seven years old. She was tucked up in bed for the night when she suddenly woke up finding herself worrying about whether she had done all of her homework.

Even though she was very conscious that she had done it, she repeatedly climbed out of bed to check her copybooks in her schoolbag.

The image of that worried little girl repeatedly climbing in and out of bed to make sure her sums were all done, brought a lump to my throat. “I had no idea,” I said.

Ever since, my friend had constantly worried. She was continually anxious about everything and nothing.

Usually she didn’t know what she was anxious about. She just went around with a knot in her stomach.

She’d stopped telling people years ago, because the usual reaction was to tell her it was all in her head.

But the torture carried on, through primary school and second-level, through college, work, parenthood and menopause.

Menopause was the worst, she said, because she’d started getting panic attacks. On the street. In the supermarket. At work. It was a nightmare.

However, over the years she learned how to counteract the anxiety, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques.

One of these, called ‘Flooding’, was very useful, she said. Instead of trying to avoid thinking about it, you basically focused on your anxiety and let it wash over you. When she did that, she said, she got relief.

I knew she was a worrier, but I had no idea that it was that bad, I said.

“Oh, it is,” said my friend, “it is.”

It was a silent, secret battle, that, just like the girl in the newspaper article, she had to face up to every single day of her life.

We were quiet. There was nothing to say. After a moment, I gave her a hug.

And if a mature, experienced, well-balanced woman like my friend suffered like that, I thought later, imagine what it must be like to be a modern adolescent beset by the constant demand for perfection — perfect hair, flawless make-up, the newest in branded clothing and shoes and the necessary number of ‘likes’.

A nightmare scenario, given the way people now compare themselves to one another on social media, trying to match what they see on Facebook with real-life lived experience, needing to be liked — and, sadly, most important of all — getting enough ‘likes’.

It’s no surprise that problems with access to Facebook earlier this week, made the morning national news headlines.

Back to the girl in the newspaper article. We all need to educate ourselves on mental health disorders, including anxiety disorder, she said.

Just something to think about the next time someone discloses to you that they’re really anxious. Listen.

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