The following blog posts are written by people with personal experience of anxiety. By talking openly, our bloggers hope to increase understanding around mental health, break stereotypes and take the taboo out of something that – like physical health – affects us all.
As someone who battled with mental health problems for as long as I can remember – (as in, I genuinely think I popped out of the womb panicking I struggled with anxiety that long) – I’m in a place where I’m willing to talk about mental health until the cows come home because, quite frankly, I think it’s something that can never be discussed enough.
When the topic of mental health got brought up in a recent conversation with some new friends, I had no problem getting stuck in. I revealed that I had struggled with anxiety and depression for a number of years which, surprisingly, prompted a succession of increasingly more personal questions.
‘How did your anxiety affect your daily life?’
‘Why did you not leave the house?’
‘Did you cry a lot?’
‘Did you isolate yourself?’
‘Did you stay in bed loads?’
It felt like a safe space to do so, so I had no problem painting a pretty bleak picture of just how dark things had become for me, when all of a sudden, I was interrupted.
‘- I’m sorry Lucy, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really just don’t believe you.’
I sat in silence for what felt about 43 minutes (which in reality probably only lasted about 13 seconds) in utter disbelief at where on earth that comment came from.
He finally piped up, ‘Yeah, I’m not trying to be rude, but you present yourself so confidently that I can’t see you battling with your mental health at all.’
Some people may read this and think his comments are merely trivial. What’s the issue with looking like you haven’t struggled with mental health problems? Surely that’s a compliment?
The problem is, that in one sentence, this man hit upon one of the biggest fears most people who have a mental illness experience:
– the fear of not being believed.
In that moment, I thought back to all the times I rang up work telling them I couldn’t possibly come in because I had food poisoning/the flu/tonsillitis and a whole other barrage of made up ailments because I was too embarrassed to admit that, actually, my mind was at a point where everything felt so terrifying I couldn’t leave my bedroom.
I thought back to all the times I bailed on friends, telling them I had commitments with family so I couldn’t meet up anymore, when in reality it ws because I felt so utterly depressed that I thought I’d never be happy again.
I thought back to the months I put off phoning up my doctor and asking for therapy because I thought she would think I was just being dramatic.
You see, when you have an invisible illness, the fear of not being believed is monumental.
When you have an invisible illness and someone outright tells you they don’t believe you - it is heartbreaking.
In the UK alone, 1 in 4 people are estimated to experience a mental health problem each year - so why are we still in a position where there can be such a lack of understanding, tact and compassion in handling those who are struggling?
If someone opens up to you, believe them
If someone trusts you enough to open up and share their experience of mental health problems – encourage them, listen to them and acknowledge their bravery for doing so in a society where it can still be seen as shameful.
On the whole, my experience of being vocal about my mental health has been almost entirely positive. Yet in this instance, the man I was speaking to shut me down mid conversation as he couldn’t fathom that I could stand in front of him seeming confident, yet have privately battled with such crippling anxiety and depression for so long.
It is utterly damaging to assume that the people around us that we deem to be happy/confident/‘put together’ have not, or are not struggling in some capacity. We can never know what the people we encounter on a daily basis are going through. We’re all facing our own battles, however big or small.
So, be a little kinder.
Show a little more compassion.
And let the people in your life know that you are there for them, that you care about them, regardless of whether you think they’re in a place where they need to be told - because, truly, we can never hear it enough.
My instagram where I share more mental health stories is @letmeluce
A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). When the symptoms and potential causes were described to me it made a lot of sense and in hindsight this is something that has followed me since my childhood.
An unwillingness to seek help due to fear and shame meant I wasn’t diagnosed until I had turned 30, had a few failed suicide attempts under my belt and a history of self-harm and eating disorders.
It took me a while to come to terms with my diagnosis and I continued to keep it secret for a pretty long time. I’d had a lifetime of keeping my issues a secret and it hadn’t got me anywhere. But by opening up to medical professionals I was finally getting some support.
So I decided to try to be more open with other people in my life. But it’s hard opening up; it takes guts to tell someone about the thing you hate most about yourself – so their reaction means everything! At its best opening up can leave you feeling empowered, heard and hopeful, but at its worst it causes real damage.
I try not to focus on the bad experiences, but it’s a struggle not to. When I hit a rough patch a while back and needed some support from a previous employer I had an experience that really scarred me.
I was in the midst of a prolonged period of depression and my anxiety levels were sky high. I spoke to my manager about it as I was getting increasingly worried about my low mood and ability to balance my workload. When my anxiety is at its worst I struggle to make even the simplest of decisions, I agonise over every possible option and outcome and it can make being productive at work impossible.
When I told my manager that I was struggling with depression and anxiety their first response was to make a joke about it: “well, we’d better get you carted off to the loony bin then”. At least I think this was an attempt at a joke, if it was it didn’t land!
This crushed me. I felt stupid and ashamed, but perhaps worst of all I felt like I couldn’t rely on my workplace for support when I needed it. There were countless other occasions where my manager made jokes about my mental health, both when it was just the two of us and in front of my colleagues.
When I requested to work from home on days that I didn’t feel well enough to commute and be surrounded by people all day - but I felt able to work – I was told no, I’d have to take sick days instead.
So, I kept working, I kept ignoring my body and mind when it was on the verge of spiralling, until eventually I ended up at rock bottom. I couldn’t leave my bed, let alone my house. I was consumed with impulsive and harmful thoughts about hurting myself or ending my life. I was signed off from work for six weeks, had a few emergency trips to hospital and was put under the care of my community mental health team.
When I came back to work (because I wouldn’t get sick pay if I was off any longer) I was immediately given a formal disciplinary for being off sick, despite having a letter from my GP.
Shortly after returning to work a new manager started. I thought things might get better, but they became worse. My new manager had a similar approach to dealing with people with mental health problems as the last one. They made jokes and mean remarks, and at one point I was taken aside and told “I heard rumours you’re a self-harmer and tried to kill yourself, if that’s true you need to tell me”.
At the time I was a manager myself, and I still am, and I can’t understand how so many managers could have such a poor understanding of mental health and lack even the ability to treat someone with compassion and understanding. I’m hoping I was just unlucky and that others aren’t getting the same treatment when they tell their employer about their mental health problems, but I imagine I’m not alone.
I have since moved roles and now work somewhere that I can be open about my mental health, work flexible hours so I can make my therapy appointments and take some space when I need it. The best thing is feeling able to talk frankly about how I am feeling without the fear of being stigmatised. Being open is still a work in progress but every day it gets a little easier.
Before I left, I recommended that my employer provide some training for managers on how to manage people who have a mental illness, or just how to compassionately support people when they are having a hard time! I also referred them to the resources on the Time to Change website – I’d like to think that they used this but who knows.
Two years ago, I started to experience mental health difficulties for the first time. What I mean by that is, two years ago I first became conscious of my own mental illness. My close friends will tell you that this all started long before two years ago. They are probably right but my own awareness only began when I was forced to retire from sport with injury in June 2017, aged 20.
Sport was a massive part of my life. It gave me my edge, a place to release my competitiveness, my aggression and my energy in a healthy way. To lose that before I hit my peak broke me. After finishing playing, I started to feel different almost immediately - less in control of my mood and my energy. I was due to go travelling with friends soon after and I used that as my suppression tool. I thought that partying and travelling would bring me back to myself.
I was sure all I needed was something to take my mind off things. Instead, the travelling, drinking and partying made things worse. Panic attacks and anxiety fits took over from fun and excitement. I’m a confident person, I’ve always been successful in academics, sport, my career, but that all felt very far away. Within weeks, I’d gone from an unstoppable person who could achieve anything, to someone who was scared to face the world. Suddenly, anxiety and depression surrounded my every waking moment. All I wanted to do was go home, I wasn’t me. I would wake up scared about having an anxiety attack, tension headache or down day. Sleep was the only relief, which as part of a despairing irony, became harder to come by as the condition continued.
I went to counselling when I returned from my holiday. I thought, “I’ll go for 3-4 sessions and I’ll be good as new, it was just that I was away from home and a bit shook”. I went in hoping for a magic cure for my anxiety and depression, but I quickly realised that this doesn’t exist. Over time it became apparent that this was more serious than I first thought. Over-exercising had allowed me to push down my issues and losing sport was not only a grief in itself but it also meant that I wasn't able to forget anymore, I had to deal with my demons.
I found it very difficult to accept what was happening to me. I was used to being numb to my emotions or at least not letting them get in my way. Now I was dealing with the idea of carrying this label of anxiety and depression everywhere I went. I felt overwhelmed, weak, powerless.
When I first told my dad about my anxiety, he said “What are you anxious about?”, and when I first informed him of my depression a few weeks later he said “I can accept the anxiety but I don’t think you’re depressed son”. It is a difficult enough journey of self-acceptance as it is, never mind feeling judged or unsupported by family or friends.
Most of my friends and family were great - my Mam is a counsellor and my girlfriend is a nurse. They understood what was going on and they talked to me with compassion. They helped me normalise how I was feeling.
To anyone who knows someone struggling with mental illness, don’t let them feel like they are “crazy” or that what they are experiencing isn’t normal. Having someone to speak to without judgement helped me feel safe and like I could actually manage. With their support I decided to challenge my dad to learn more about what was going on with me. I sent him videos, articles and books. Over time he began to accept my journey. He was scared his son might be “broken” and that he let that happen. Sometimes older generations label mental illness as being “broken”. That isn’t even close to the truth. In fact it has been the catalyst for me to open up about my struggles, to share the load and build closer bonds with my parents, friends and girlfriend. Sometimes it takes that.
My illness has encouraged me to analyse my life. Anxiety and depression have been a wakeup call. My lifestyle was burning me out. I worked myself too hard. Whenever I wasn’t working or studying, I was socialising or playing sport. I left no time to check in with myself or to talk to people about issues in my life. I created an environment for myself where personal issues could be hidden behind walls of work and activities. If I didn’t have to think about issues, did they even exist? If they didn’t exist, what was there to talk about?
It’s tough to change that thought pattern. We live in a world where working ludicrously long hours means we are “committed” or a “hard worker”. These are things that employers, teachers, parents and peers all praise. My family instilled an unhealthy work ethic in me, one that would earn me huge success and plaudits in school, sport and career, but one that burnt me out to the point of collapse. Being busy is rarely called out as a negative. It wasn’t until I went to counselling that I was questioned as to why I do so much.
Now, I’m trying to push loving myself to the top of my agenda. It’s difficult because for 90% of my life I’ve hidden from allowing myself to feel exactly what has been going on with my mental state. Be it my parent’s separation, my forced retirement from sport, heartbreaks or deaths, I suppressed it all and used activity as my therapy. Sitting with it is a lot scarier but I’m starting to feel the benefit, I’m starting to heal.
All I can say to people going through something similar is - this is scary, there is no denying that. If you can love yourself and completely experience your mental illness then you’ll be OK. Just hang in there.
Anxiety is an ongoing struggle that most people never seem to understand. Battling with your own mind every single day is a scary place to be in - and that’s something that I have to live with 24/7.
I was first diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was 19 during my time at University. I’ve always known that something wasn’t quite right since I was a child and I’ve never known what life is like without anxiety. When I was younger, I put this down to simply me just being a kid and the environment I was living in as I grew up. I would brush my feelings off and hope it would go away as I became older and more independent. It didn’t go away.
I was becoming quieter and shy and when relatives or friends would make a comment, I would feel even worse. “You need to talk more!” “You are painfully quiet!” or if I would try to make a conversation, they would say “wow, she actually said something!”. To them, it was just a joke. But to me, those comments made me feel so much worse and shattered my self-esteem and confidence. I felt worthless.
I also suffer from social anxiety which is yet to be formally diagnosed. I always prefer to stay in than rather go out with friends, but then this also leads me to feeling very left out very easily and then I feel like I have missed out on opportunities to meet new people.
I’m a sensitive person, so I can dwell on a comment, even to this day. I was bullied at school because I’m so short. I'm only 4"10, and I also look a lot younger than my age, so I receive comments most days from customers at work. "Shouldn't you be in school? you look about 12!" and "How old are you?!". Comments like these bother me and sometimes ruin my whole day. I get the same comments on a night out from strangers. I don't mind joking around with family and friends because they understand me, but when I receive patronising looks and comments from people I don't know, it works me up and my confidence goes downhill. The intellectual bullying I got at University never helped me get better. Now, at the age of 27, I still struggle everyday.
My anxiety hits me the most when people argue, even if it is just bickering. The fight-or-flight response kicks in and I panic and I feel like I’m in danger.
If somebody I’m living with goes out, goes to work, etc and is late coming back home, I immediately think something bad has happened and the stressor does not go away until that person is home. My husband finishes late from work, sometimes it can be later than usual if it’s been a busy night. My mind will always wander and I’ll pace around panicking until he gets home.
If I have to be up for work very early the next day, it interrupts my sleeping pattern, and I end up feeling the effects the following day.
I feel fatigued and generally unwell. I have so many other anxieties, that would be too much to list.
Due to embarrassment, feeling disappointment, feeling misunderstood, mocked by other people, and the stigma that surrounds mental health, I’ve been unable to express my feelings. Just like so many other people in this world that feel the same way as I do.
It’s a journey that I’m fighting every day. I have good and bad days. I still struggle to get out of bed on my weekends off and be productive, not because I’m feeling lazy - it’s just too hard.
I know that I will have to live with this for the rest of my life and I’m continuing to improve my confidence and motivation, and trying to think of different coping mechanisms to help control my anxiety when I know it’s coming.
Lately, I have been reading other peoples’ blogs and it makes me feel better knowing I’m not the only one going through this. I love that so many other people are stepping out and expressing their feelings to help raise awareness for mental health disorders. Talking about your mental health is not “attention-seeking” and it pains me that some people think that is what this is all about.
I still struggle now talking about this in person, but I hope to connect with people who are in similar situations and to educate those who have no idea. This is my very first blog attempt and I’m hoping it’s the kickstart to help improve my mental well-being.
Leading up to the day I opened up about my mental health I had struggled with anxiety for many years. It affected me in many ways and eventually opened the door for depression to come in, which would then take hold of my life for over a year. Throughout that time trying to deal with my anxiety and depression brought with it a lot of negative habits. The build-up of these bad habits would eventually get me to the point where the thought of doing something I used to enjoy would set off negative feelings about myself and my life. Now because this would repeatedly happen, I became too scared to even try and be happy for such a long time.
I lost all interest in the hobbies I would have enjoyed in the past. And this was because of that internal tug of war that I was having to go through every day. On one side I would know that I had stopped doing what I enjoyed, and it would make me feel so ashamed and angry that I was letting this get the better of me. But on the other end, if I did try to push myself to something, it would be met with immediate anxiety because I knew those feelings of guilt would soon follow.
Either way, I couldn’t win so I would be losing days and weeks due to this internal battle and by the time this had been going on for so long, I had eventually convinced myself that I didn’t deserve to be happy anymore. If I wasn’t at work, I would just spend my time stuck in this tug of war. Never giving myself the time to relax and feel truly happy.
The internal hatred I had for myself had reached what felt like a peak, but somehow still felt like it would continue to get worse. I felt lost, scared and that the potential for me to have a good life was over.
Throughout all of this, I was able to hide it from the people in my life. I would do this because I did not want to push these negative feelings on anyone else because I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously, and they have their own lives to deal with so why care about this.
The day I opened up about my mental illness
However, the day I did find the courage to open up I had not planned on doing it. I was on my way to see a movie with my girlfriend. On the way there the guard I'd had up for so long to hide my internal struggles just crumbled out of the exhaustion of it all and I couldn’t hide it anymore. My girlfriend noticed something was wrong with me and I realised that I had to tell her what was going on, so a little later this is what I did.
It was very scary, and it was one of those times where I just couldn’t find the words to describe how I felt and what had been going on. I’ll admit that the guilt of passing this on to my girlfriend and my parents the next day was there. It was scary, but their incredible understanding and support made me feel safe and comfortable, something I had not felt in such a long time. Opening up to them and then my GP would be a great help for me. I am forever grateful for the overwhelming support they gave and continue to give me.
If I had not expressed how I was feeling I don’t like to think about what could have happened. But they guided me in the right direction to find myself again and experience real happiness again. It’s still a work in progress, I’m not perfect and I will sometimes make the mistakes I would do in the past. But when all is said and done, the gratitude I have for the continued support will always trump those bad days!
Ah depression and anxiety, my two controversial friends that have placed me in a non-consensual three-way relationship which is often very difficult to deal with. I can wake up some days and feel like I’m ready to take on anything. But on one side of the bed, I’ll have my anxiety badgering me about the million and one things that will go wrong today. And on the other side of the bed, my depression will remind me about the social event that I’ll be taking part in later that evening and casually reminding me that no matter how confident I’ll appear to be, that the people I think that love me in fact don’t, they’d rather I not be there, and that I’m weak and eventually push everyone I love away from me. And then I get up and get on with my day, after crying on my pillow, and admitting defeat.
Some would call me over-emotional. Some will tell me, and have told me before, to simply move past my problems and carry on. Some people just don’t understand how you can’t just put the thing that’s worrying you, or dragging you down, in the bin and never look back. Sometimes I am able to do this, and I feel better. But when I can’t, please understand that it’s not that I don’t want to feel happy or stop my brain racing. Believe me, if I could do it all the time, I would. But I am constantly battling my anxiety and depression, and sometimes they win, and it can be hard to control. Imagine playing your favourite video game and you have the controller, but sometimes, the controls will bug out, not work like they should, and it starts ruining your game. That is what my anxiety and depression feel like to me.
I don’t blame people that don’t understand my anxiety and depression, I really don’t. From an outsider looking in, it may just look like I’m over-reacting, that I’m dramatic and attention seeking. I’m very aware of what it may look like, but I promise it is not that. I take antidepressants to help keep my anxiety and depression on the low-down, but that doesn’t mean that I am ‘cured’. It also doesn’t mean that I am sick, or that I can’t be like anyone else, do things that everyone else can and live a relatively normal life. Because I can. I just occasionally put my training wheels back on when I feel like I need them.
I don’t need you to tell me to ‘stop worrying’ because I will always worry, even if my face and body language says otherwise. I sometimes need that reassurance that everything is ok, that I am loved, and that you won’t leave me when I need you the most, even if in the depths of my brain, my depression is telling me it’s not true. But I also don’t need you to be afraid of me, because underneath the dark cloud that my anxiety and depression form, there’s a normal human being who wants to be loved, is kind, understanding, has a sense of humour (or so I’d like to think) and always tries to put a smile on her face and on other people’s, even if it feels like I’m losing my battle.
Today has been a day where my anxiety and depression defeated me but writing this is my way of taking back control. It is temporary, and I have accepted that, but I’ll bounce back because I always do.
I had never heard of the word anxiety. I had heard of depression but didn’t understand it, and at that point, I never thought it would hit me.
In 2012 I graduated with a 2:1 degree, made amazing friends and I was working for a company I loved. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out where I was working and I decided to leave my job and search for another one. It was a hard decision walking away from the company I loved but I knew I had my education and experience on my side.
In February 2013 I attended a football match, I was the biggest football fan in the world! I watched games from all different leagues regardless of who was playing, but visiting this particular stadium was a big part of my life, it was like a dream. What I didn’t realise was I was gaining anxiety. I was sat in high seats and had an overwhelming feeling, I had no idea what this was - all I knew was that I felt light-headed continuously, which lead to me experiencing my first ’fight-or-flight’ sensation. I ran to the closest tube station and went home confused and emotional.
What does depression look like?
After this episode, things just got worse. I didn’t leave the house, I constantly felt paranoid and emotional, my confidence had completely gone. I become completely unsociable. I was unemployed and applying for at least 10 jobs a day doing anything.
It took someone close to me to see the signs of depression. My idea of depression was an older person who had lost everything, not someone who’s just graduated from university with their whole life ahead of them. This goes to show mental health can impact anyone at any age, at any stage of their life.
I was lucky - I gained medical help and eventually got a local job at the same time. The hardest thing I had to do was tell my new boss I had a mental health issue. There's a lot of negative stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the Asian community, but I was lucky I had an understanding manager and team who helped me gain my confidence back.
I eventually went back to work in the career I loved but I still wasn’t myself. I was quiet, I had no confidence and had to do ‘rituals’ to get me through the day. For example, I would sit and do exercises from my desk to keep my mind occupied and anxiety down.
This is where I believe understanding of mental health in the workplace is severely lacking. Looking back, it also shows how untrained my manager was; advising a colleague ‘try to make her more talkative’ was the wrong approach. Hopefully, in time there will be a movement towards ‘we have a new starter who isn’t settling in too well, let me see how she’s adapting to change’, and more understanding about anxiety and depression.
Opening up about my mental health
Luckily, I met someone who I was able to open up to, and this was the real start of my recovery. I felt comfortable confiding in what I had been through and how I felt. Instead of thinking, “I’m taking a risk and being judged”, I felt I could comfortably be myself again.
The conversations didn’t feel difficult; it felt like a genuine conversation where I could talk about my stress and anxieties. I gained my confidence back and become sociable. Importantly, I become happy again, and I started travelling which I would never have done without having someone to confide my fears in.
The biggest achievement was going back to passion, my football. Never did I think I would ever attend a football match again in my life - and here I was sitting among 90,000 people at Wembley.
Taking a different approach
I thought my anxiety and depression were beyond me…but they came back. The difference this time was that I knew what anxiety and depression were, I knew what was going to happen, but most importantly I knew I wanted to fight this.
I did slip down a bad path and my behaviours and actions were not me at all. However, I was open and honest to my friend who helped me through before, and it helped me realise I had motives to continue and get back to being myself.
This is when I decided to become a mental health first aider. Since I've been open about my mental health difficulties, people have been able to open up to me in the same way I was able to open up to my friend. For that reason, all the training I have done has been worth it.
I believe we still have a long way to go for society to understand how to deal with mental health, but there is positive movement towards better mental health awareness.
I’ve struggled with mental health problems for 4 years now. I started my first year at college, being that independent person my parents always wanted me to be, but then everything just came tumbling down. My family and I all went through a very traumatic time and that’s where it all began.
I lost my way a bit. I didn’t want to go to college, I didn’t want go out and socialise like every other teenager would be doing. I locked myself away. Over the following months I found myself rapidly getting worse. I didn’t want to speak to anyone about how I was feeling, especially my family. I always felt like the glue in the family, holding everyone together, so I kept silent with my problems.
At the age of 18 I decided to move out and live on my own. At first I was loving life. Having my own place, my own pets, doing what I wanted when I wanted. Then I slowly realised how lonely I was and how much I was struggling. I was working somewhere where I was getting paid minimum wage so I couldn’t afford anything apart from just about managing to pay the bills. I pushed all my close friends away because I just didn’t want to leave the house. This is when I realised I’d slipped back into depression.
After 3 years of pretending to be this happy, bubbly, energetic character, I just broke. I was tired. Tired of pretending. I pulled myself together and reached out for help. I was finally diagnosed with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. I felt free in a sense, a massive weight I’d been carrying for 4 years had been lifted off of my shoulders.
Throughout the process of getting the help I needed, I heard typical comments like ‘just be happy then’, ‘stop worrying so much then and you’ll be fine’. But I also heard things like ‘I didn’t realise you were struggling so much, you hid it so well’. That was the issue, I shouldn’t have had to hide it. I wouldn’t have needed to if people had a better understanding about mental health.
I found it so difficult to admit to myself and others around me how much I was struggling. I had and still do have a brilliant support network from my partner, family and a few friends. I knew telling them would be difficult, but I also knew they love me know matter what, which I am so grateful for. It’s the rest of the world that’s scary. The lack of understanding and knowledge that people have towards those with a mental illness. If someone breaks their arm, everyone jumps to them to sign their cast. If someone has a mental health problem, people run because they think we’re unpredictable and strange.
I’ve come across a mental health champion scheme and I’m now making it my task to help people understand and talk more about their mental health. Don’t be ashamed of who you are.
People shouldn’t have to lie about taking medication. People shouldn’t have to lie about doctor or counselling appointments. Those with a mental illness should be accepted and treated the same as anyone with a physical health problem. I’ve learnt that it is ok to be a little different. It’s ok not to say you’re not ok. Everyone needs to learn that not every disability is physical. The happiest person you know in life could be the one who is also struggling the most. Make sure they’re ok. It’s time to talk and it’s time to change.
When we think of stigma and mental health, we tend to think of hurtful societal reactions and prejudice based on negative stereotypes. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Those with mental health problems also frequently suffer from self-stigma. This is where a person takes on wider social prejudices about mental illness, internalizes them, starts to believe and incorporate them into their self-image.
I have suffered from devastating, life-changing anxiety and panic since my late teens, mixed in with periods of relative stability. As I got older I increasingly started to integrate societal attitudes towards anxiety and label myself. I felt weak, pathetic, dependent, and incapable of being by, or looking after, myself. In short I was suffering from self-stigma, which is characterised by feelings of low self-esteem and self-efficacy, self-discrimination and self-isolation.
During my early 30s, when my anxiety was at its worst, I used the tactic of avoidance. I actively avoided making new social connections, as I thought nobody would like me once they discovered my problems. I cut myself off from all but my oldest friends, as I didn't want to have to explain why I couldn't do things that I used to do, like going out for a meal or a drink, the cinema, or a gig.
After finishing my PhD, rather than feeling elated and proud about my achievement, I questioned why I'd bothered to do it in the first place. Because who would ever employ an academic whose anxiety precluded them from teaching, going to conferences, or giving presentations when they could hire someone 'normal'?
This is an example of the ‘why try?’ effect, where self-stigma acts as a barrier to achieving your goals in life. Ultimately it becomes a vicious circle. The more you stigmatize and berate yourself for your mental health problems, the worse your self-esteem and self-worth become. This can then lead to an exacerbation of the original problem or bring on others, such as depression, as it did in my case.
The burden of keeping a secret can have further negative effects on your mental health, as you are constantly worrying about hiding your condition and trying to maintain a façade of normality.
I used to drive to the park two streets away to walk my dog Mavis because I needed my car near me as a security blanket to be used as a means of quick escape. When people questioned me about it, I said that I needed to keep my walking to a minimum due to my (albeit genuine) love of high heels.
If I was in a situation where there might be alcohol I would say I was driving or on antibiotics, rather than admit to being on anti-anxiety medication.
Research has found that one of the key tools in challenging self-stigma is through self-empowerment. And, in turn, one of the best ways of empowering yourself is through disclosure: talking about your mental health condition and your recovery journey.
This can be done selectively - for years I had a small number of friends and family who knew about my problems but who were forbidden to talk to other people about them due to my intense feelings of shame.
However, I still couldn’t bring myself to engage in what is known as ‘indiscriminate disclosure’, where no effort is made to conceal your condition. Indeed, the opposite is true: you decide to be completely open about your experiences to anyone and everyone.
Not quite ready to take this step, I started on some new medication and got a dog, and my anxiety began to improve and with it my confidence and self-esteem.
It turned out that I did, and do, get work as a researcher. My colleagues understand that, for example, I need to do meetings by conference call or Skype rather than face-to-face. They value me for the work I’m good at, rather than concentrating on what I can’t do.
And I discovered that people do like me, after all, despite – perhaps sometimes even because of – my mental health problems. I may not be a great friend to ask to go on a holiday, to a festival, or even on a train ride, but I think my struggles have made me a kinder, softer, more empathetic person.
Even the very act of sharing, being honest and open, allowing yourself to be vulnerable with others, fosters a kind of warmth, understanding and closeness. As a consequence I now feel incredibly lucky to have a wonderfully supportive network of friends who accept me unconditionally.
Emboldened, I started to talk about my mental health to a slightly wider circle of people. This included the odd social media post where I tested the water. For example, on my dog Mavis’s birthday, I wrote a post about how he had been instrumental in helping to get me over the worst of my agoraphobia. After posting it on Facebook I felt anxious, exposed and vulnerable. What if nobody responded? What if people thought less of me? But the comments were supportive and validating; others even shared their own experience of how their dogs had helped them.
Feeling further empowered, I then wrote a couple of blogs for mental health charities and, after long deliberation, I disclosed my struggles in the introduction of a book that I co-authored about mental health.
This article is another step in my journey of self-empowerment as a tool against self-stigma. So please people, be kind; I've metaphorically beaten myself up enough.
What is it like to live with anxiety in an environment that dismisses you? An environment whose response to your experiences is ‘everyone gets anxious, just get over it!’
I certainly knew this was not the way things were supposed to be from a very early age. I was shy but then why did I feel so much fear at school?
Was it shyness that made me not want to read a paragraph in class when everyone else appeared to be enjoying doing it? I knew I loved to read. But reading out loud in class was the problem. When I knew that it was my turn to read out loud, I just couldn’t understand why the thought of that was accompanied with so much agony and anguish. I did not want to miss any of my English classes because of this; but my book would get “lost”, and with that, then I didn’t have to read.
I would have wanted to be in the drama club. I would have wanted to participate in the many activities at school. But I just couldn’t. The fear ‘of other people’ was totally out of this world.
And looking back, I can see the many opportunities I missed because of this fear. In school, through college, I lived my life as a fly on the wall, just wishing to be seen and not to be heard.
When I mentioned I experienced anxiety in formal places with lots of people and that it was ruining my life I was told: ‘but everyone gets stage fright,’ and ‘you will get over it.’
I did not seem to get over it. I remember quitting my first internship on the first day because I was sent to a press conference. I thought that as a trained print journalist, all that would be required of me was to write stories. But I did not anticipate that I would have to ask questions during press conferences. And I remember that first press conference, sat there, seeing everyone else ask questions for their news items, whilst I was agonising over how to frame even just one single question. Why was my heart beating so hard? Why couldn’t I just concentrate on the issue at hand and forget my worries for a little while? I went back and told my editor that I couldn’t do the job.
It was not the first job that I lost because of my anxiety. I remember the first time I sat with a clinical psychologist years later, telling them about this monster gnawing from within; how I cried. How I cried at all the lost opportunities because of my anxiety. How I wished I could go back to change it. Would it have been better if I knew more? Maybe if someone else knew more about what I was going through?
Now I see more and more of us speaking about their experiences with mental illness. Indeed, it can better at some point. It doesn’t have to take so many lost opportunities. Maybe if I had known of someone else going through something similar or maybe if there was someone I could have talked to, maybe it would have been easier.
Safe spaces are so important. Safe spaces in the workplace. In the schools. In the community. When people feel able to talk about their mental health. To talk about challenges and find support. That would have helped me so much when I was struggling.
There is a lot of focus on mental health now. I write this knowing that sometimes all it takes is to have someone talk to. Someone to share their struggles with. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, having someone to talk to about how they’re feeling and get some support from them can make a world of difference to someone who is struggling. Sometimes all it takes is a sharing. Because from that sharing, the life of someone else will change for the better.
Know that things get better at some point. Importantly when we start talking and when others start listening.