Until the start of 2020, I had been under the care of my GP and the local Southampton and Dorset Steps2Wellbeing service, an organisation which offers help and advice for a range of mental health conditions. After several months of low-level Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and years of medication to help combat anxiety and depression, I’ve found myself in a darker place than I have been for some time. After moving on to the waiting list to begin higher-level CBT, I was assigned a therapist towards the beginning of June (2020) and have started my sessions via telephone, which will move to video calling once I feel comfortable. At the beginning of the year, I was also referred to the NHS Dorset HealthCare Trust Community Mental Health Team for further assessment, advice and treatment. At a time when many services are overstretched, not least because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel grateful to be finally receiving some expert help for the mental health issues I’ve struggled with for years.
Why am I telling you this? Because talking helps. Not only myself but other people as well. Every person who shares their struggles may in turn pass on that courage to someone else, allowing them to seek the help they otherwise may not have sought. It helps to break down the barriers and encourages compassion and understanding. Mental health is something I am passionate about. I am a psychologist after all, and although not my area of expertise, my own personal battles put me in a good stance to talk about it. Furthermore, working with Dr Robert Duff, also known as Duff the Psych, has given me a much broader insight into the field of mental health. I want to be able to share my experiences, as well as offer tips and advice that have worked for me over the years.
Robert has kindly let me share a selection of his best bits with you right here on my website. Therefore, in conjunction with my regular topics of cruising and baking, I will be sharing content aimed to broaden our understanding of mental health and wellbeing. With that said, I thought what better place to start than with a fundamental question – what is anxiety? And so, with the help of Duff the Psych, let’s dive into the psychology of anxiety.
Anxiety and Me
Anxiety is something I have struggled with all of my life. It’s only as an adult that I can appreciate how my childhood was blighted by it. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2013 that I fully began to appreciate how much anxiety has shaped my life – a story I shared previously on Time to Change. Since then, I’ve definitely had my ups and my downs and I have come to accept that this will always be a part of who I am, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
In general, Anxiety is a normal emotion which everyone experiences at one point or another. You may recognise it as feeling stressed or worried about something, or uneasy about a pending situation. All normal emotions that can actually help us get through our daily lives. It becomes a problem when somebody is experiencing a state of anxiety for a prolonged period of time, impacting their daily lives and stopping them from undertaking activities they would like to do.
Everyone experiences some anxiety at some point in their life. It’s normal to experience a temporary state of anxiety…but there is a big difference between the occasionally anxious moment and a persistent anxiety disorder that would need to be diagnosed by a professional.Dr Robert Duff
But what exactly is anxiety?
Duff makes a helpful distinction between fear and anxiety to enable us to understand it more easily:
When you are out in the world and someone threatens you with violence, your body goes through a physiological response to prepare you for action. This fear reaction serves a very clear evolutionary purpose to keep you safe. Now with anxiety, we have a similar reaction, but the most important distinction is that it is not in response to a real threat like the fear reaction…Instead, you are anticipating a situation that might occur. Your body is not in any physical danger, but your worries trigger the same physical sensations as if you were in danger. There is nothing dangerous about speaking in public, but that doesn’t stop your body from making you feel like you are about to have a heart attack.
He explains how anxiety can be classified into three different types: physically driven, cognitively driven, or both. Physically driven refers to anxiety that arises in the form of physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, trembling and nausea. In this situation, you may not be excessively thinking about anything in particular, but you are experiencing the physical signs of anxiety. Alternatively, cognitively driven anxiety is where anxiety is fuelled by your thoughts. It’s the anticipation that something bad is going to happen…a sense of impending doom or fear for what might happen. Thoughts and worries that continually cycle around your mind causing a prolonged state of anxiety. These worries are sometimes rooted in reality but are usually unrealistic and can often spiral out of control. Naturally, these two types of anxiety are not mutually exclusive. You can experience one or the other, or both.
Having made the distinction between fear and anxiety, it is important to recognise that both are emotional responses, and both can be present in anxiety disorders. Indeed, there are a number of anxiety disorders and ultimately, anxiety is different for everyone. Symptoms and severity can vary in the extreme. Some people experience bouts every now and again, or perhaps very rarely, while others live with it on a daily basis. It becomes a problem when it starts to impact your quality of life and stops you carrying out usual daily tasks or activities that you would like to do. Nevertheless, by taking the steps to understand what anxiety is and how it can impact individuals, we are arming ourselves with the foundational knowledge needed to overcome anxiety, as well as spread kindness, compassion and understanding.
So that’s anxiety in a nutshell. This is a brief insight into some of the basics that underpin anxiety and has been inspired and adapted from the article “What Is Anxiety?” by Duff the Psych. If you would like to dive deeper into this topic or are interested in the physiology behind anxiety, I highly recommend giving his full article a read (as well as the numerous other helpful resources that are available on the Duff the Psych website)!
If you’re experiencing mental health issues or require help or advice, please check out my mental health resource page. You are not alone.