Why Anxiety is Not a "Minor Mental Illness"

 woman with anxiety sitting on train

The sound of my alarm sliced through the darkness and my heart sank.
I already knew it was going to be one of those days.

I lay in my bed and let the familiar crushing feeling sweep over me.

There was little point in trying to fight it.

It had been another restless night. Periods of being wide awake broken up with anxious dreams created by my own catastrophizing.  

I was sick to death of feeling like this.

I tried to sit up but it felt like someone had laid a plank of wood over me.

I had no alternative but to lie there until I mustered the strength to move. It was a frightening feeling.

I knew the second I got up the voices would begin and my head would be filled with constant accusations of ineptitude.

An hour and a half later, I was sitting in the doctors waiting area. I could feel my eyelids begin to droop. I couldn’t even begin to express my exhaustion. I felt like I’d been mentally beaten up.

A mental health nurse called my name, and I dragged myself into a small, characterless room. The nurse explained that the room was used for “alternative consultations,” as he didn’t have his own space.

The consultation began. The usual questions.

What happened in your childhood?

Have you harmed yourself?

Have you thought about killing yourself?

I rattled off my answers. The nurse took notes and nodded.

“Look,” I said, trying to concentrate and express how I actually felt, “I don’t think I’d act on these thoughts, but I am struggling. I’ve stopped feeling anxious, and, instead, this numbness has just taken over. I don’t feel anything.”

The nurse nodded again and waited.

“Some days I feel so exhausted,” I continued, “that I can hardly move. At work I feel tired and most of all lonely.”

The nurse nodded for a third time and began to rummage around in his desk drawer. He continued to ask questions while looking for whatever it was he needed.

“What about exercise? Do you run or jog or anything like that?”

I blinked. I thought I had just answered that question. I was pretty sure I had explained that getting up was exhausting enough, never mind going for a run.

“No,” I replied.

Exercise is not something I particularly enjoy. I suddenly realized I might be coming across as non-cooperative and racked my brain for alternative activities I did enjoy.

“I like baking and I like drawing” I began, “and occasionally I try and write…though I don’t think I’m particularly good at it.”

I could hear myself speak and began to get frustrated at myself. I sounded pathetic. All of a sudden my head became busy.

He’s not going to help you.

He’s not going to understand.

Could you just, for once, cooperate and stop being so self-deprecating?

Are you even ill? Do you need to be here? You’re wasting this man’s time!

The nurse had found what he was looking for. He handed me a folder containing a relaxation CD and information on how to download a mindfulness app.

I stared at the contents of the folder.

Was that it?

Anger rose in my throat. Hadn't I just said I was feeling lonely? Was the best solution here to refer me to a machine?

“Try and do some mindfulness and listen to this relaxing CD. That should help your anxiety. And try and go for a run. Try and exercise. Also try and…”

His voice tailed off as I stopped listening. I walked out of the room feeling deflated and exasperated.

****

I’ve worked in mental health in different capacities for seven years. I currently manage two mental health rehabilitation services for people with complex and severe mental illnesses.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.

On bad days, I’m prone to panic attacks, catastrophizing, exhaustion and self-deprecating thoughts that slowly chip away at my self-esteem.

On the good days, I’m just like everyone else. I have a lovely boyfriend, good group of friends, a great mum and brother, and my dog, Rumble.

I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was 13 as I try and make sense of the chaos that goes on in my head.

In all this time, I have only had one therapist who took my thoughts seriously.

Therapist number one had a tendency to stare off into space if I wasn’t speaking about my father, which seemed to be the only thing that interested her.

Therapist number three was a bit judgmental for my taste. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t enjoy listening to me, and I couldn’t figure out why.

I still have no idea why she quickly terminated our weekly sessions without warning. I certainly didn’t feel like I was getting better but did get the sense that she was glad her time was not taken up by me for an hour a week.

Since being diagnosed, I have been acutely aware of one overwhelming feeling: I am not ill enough for real help. I don’t have what some would describe as an “interesting” mental illness.

Even the name “generalized anxiety disorder” would put people to sleep.

It has the word “general” in it, like it’s just a vague, unspecific thing. It’s also common, affecting around 5% of the UK population. You just feel generally anxious.

Some days, the term “anxiety” seems like the biggest understatement.

When you’re gasping for air in the middle of a public space wondering if you’re going to die while worrying that everyone around you is judging you while feeling conflicted and angry that nobody is helping you, the word “anxiety” does not spring to mind.

Around a year ago, I had a panic attack that sent me into a frenzy.

I was out shopping and was suddenly hit with a wall. It was as though someone had just punched me in the stomach.

My vision morphed into wild colors, and members of the public began shouting and laughing. All I remember is running until I couldn’t run anymore and ended up lost in a car park of a block of flats and could not stop crying. I felt so ashamed and useless. I felt like slapping myself. I was an absolute mess.

I took some time off of work and decided that I was going to help myself. I was done feeling like this.

I was angry that I had nowhere to turn for help, but the feeling of wanting to change was overwhelming.

I began by identifying my problems.

Firstly, I wasn’t resting properly. My days off were spent looking at my work emails and worrying about work until I became so tired I didn’t have the energy to leave the house.

So I bought a dog. He was something to care for and nurture. And he needed daily walks, which guaranteed I’d get out of the house at least once a day.

I had been neglecting my own physical care. My left ear had been blocked for about 3 years and would occasionally cut off sound. I had an infection in my foot that I had been neglecting for years also. So I got my ears syringed and medication for my foot.

But there was a bigger problem.

Since working in mental health, one thing has become apparent to me. Our system takes a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

I recently accompanied my best friend who was going through similar issues to her doctor, who handed her the exact same relaxation CD and mindfulness app information that was given to me.

While I don’t doubt that these help some people, I find it abhorrent that we should be assuming that this will work for everyone.

I’ve tried the mindfulness app and it doesn’t work for me. Neither does listening to relaxing music. Partly because I don’t have a brain that’s easily distracted from worry, but mostly because I get angry at someone telling me to “breathe in and breathe out.”

What the mental health sector is screaming out for is an injection of connection, fun, and time. Having a mental health issue, I believe, comes down to disconnection.

 man with anxiety alone on train looking at his phone

Whether this is a disconnection with people, yourself, your environment or your own personal sense of identity.

Having a Mental Illness is a lonely place to find yourself in. Too often, it can be a place where your support network feels powerless to help you and reverts to cliches and recycled content you’ve heard a billion times.

You begin to feel guilty that things aren’t working for you. But here’s the thing: support needs to find what works for you. There are economic and political challenges that face mental health, and although stigma is being slowly eradicated, it’s not fully addressing the problem.

Mental health education is something our country is severely lacking in. Teaching children from a young age about mental illness would result in a more empathetic and connected society. We could eradicate this fear and replace it with something much more valuable: compassion.

Also, I cannot state enough how important it is to introduce fun into the lives of people with mental illnesses. Often enough, mental illness has its roots in childhood, and, in my experience, there have been times when people have not been allowed to be children and have missed out on that essential opportunity to be curious and adventurous.

In order to go forward, we must begin engaging in a more person-centered way.

We should be striving to discover what makes a person laugh, what diminishes the fear, and what assists in calming the mind.

Everyone is different, and this is something to be celebrated, not overwhelmed by.

Isn’t that the wonder of people? That essential human connection that links us all together to produce a more forward-thinking society?

People with a diagnosis of, what seems to be viewed as, “a minor mental illness” doesn’t mean it’s OK to pay it less attention.

Brushing off what is considered to be less serious symptoms will not solve the issues--but exacerbate them.

The people I work with every day are some of the most wonderful, interesting and beautiful I have ever met. Their refreshing honesty, creativity in communication and sense of humor is something that not only rewards me every day but gives me a deep sense of privilege to be invited into their world.

Together, if we strive for the right for everyone to be treated as an individual, we could change the way we respond to--and treat--mental health issues.

Recovery is not one and done. It is a lifelong journey that takes place one day, one step at a time.


Gem is 25 and lives in Scotland. She has worked in mental health for 7 years and is the service manager of a grade 5 rehabilitation service for people with complex and severe mental illness. 

You can find her on Facebook experimenting with her latest creative project, Happy Things Post: https://www.facebook.com/HappyThingsPost/