Previously, I wrote openly about my own mental health and used the opportunity to dive into what exactly anxiety is. The positive response I received filled me with gratitude and I was overwhelmed by the kindness and support shown to me – thank you. As we head towards the end of July 2020, I am now deep into my therapy sessions and am being armed with the tools to move forward in a positive direction. I have also had my assessment with the NHS Dorset HealthCare Trust Community Mental Health Team and for the first time have received formal diagnoses. Although I’d hoped I would receive more advice than I was given, this was a positive step in that it has given me a platform of understanding on which to build a solid path in which to step forward on. There are still questions and avenues to explore, but for now, I have a brilliant therapist who is helping to restructure my world and give me back my thirst for life.
Living with anxiety
Following on from what anxiety is, I thought it seemed a logical next step to take a look at how anxiety can impact you. However, explaining what it’s like to live with anxiety is incredibly difficult. To start with, it can differ for every individual and impacts lives in a number of varying ways. From a knot in your stomach and heart palpitations to overpowering thoughts of fear and panic, anxiety can rear its not so beautiful head in a number of different ways. For me, anxiety is woven into the fabric of my personality and shapes the way I see the world…it’s what is described as ‘trait’ anxiety. That means it is something I will live with for the rest of my life. That’s not to say I’m doomed to an eternal life of misery, just that I may need to work a bit harder to prevent anxiety from ruling my life.
Anxiety to me is now a familiar ‘friend’…it is there every moment I am awake, and sometimes even when I sleep. Indeed, I don’t remember a time in my life without anxiety. Something I have found difficult to cope with recently is the problem of feeling anxious for no apparent reason. How can you combat anxiety when you can’t even grasp the reason why you feel anxious? I’m learning that it doesn’t matter so much why you are feeling anxious, the principles are the same – it’s about not letting those feelings have power over your thoughts. Acknowledging them and then re-focusing your attention on other, more valuable tasks. This is easier said than done but is a tactic that research has demonstrated to be incredibly helpful. It takes considerable practice and effort…which reminds me, anxiety is exhausting.
Not only is it exhausting, it really REALLY sucks. As with most things in life, some days are harder than others. Tasks that many find simple, I find incredibly difficult. On good days life is good, on bad days I won’t even leave the house. I’ve always suffered from extreme physical symptoms which include sweating, palpitations, stuttering, trembling, shaking, and even vomiting. But with the right support, these are no longer so much of an issue, yet are all aspects which have impacted my daily life. Living with anxiety can leave you feeling hopeless, a burden, and reduce your self-esteem to nothing but rubble. It can make you feel insignificant and trapped in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and negative thoughts. Through all of this, it is my writing and my support network, my family, that have kept me afloat and helped me pursue the light at the end of the tunnel.
These are my own personal experiences. But anxiety is different for everyone and so it’s hard to truly explain it. I have an outlet in my writing, but not everyone is so lucky. Many continue to suffer in silence and by opening ourselves up to other peoples experiences we can sow the seeds of understanding, growth and recovery. Yet for some, verbalising their struggles to a friend or loved one is terrifying and impossibly difficult. That is why, in conjunction with contributing my personal struggles, I wanted to share a brilliant letter available for all to use, adapt, and start their own conversation with someone they care about. As somebody recently reminded me…a problem shared is a problem halved.
How to explain anxiety… A letter from Duff the Psych
In his bestselling Hardcore Self Help book series, Dr Robert Duff has written a letter to people who just don’t “get it” when it comes to anxiety. In it, he tries to explain how it feels to live with this illness and what you can do to help support those in need. The letter was designed to be used either for inspiration to help start conversations or to print out and give directly to an individual in your life who you would like to better understand what anxiety is like. It is a resource which I have used, adapted and found helpful in the past and so I felt it was important to share.
Sometimes, the hardest part in talking about your mental health is knowing where to start. This is a letter written from the heart which anyone can adapt and use to help start their conversation. I hope this helps others as it has helped me. And if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please do share it with them.
To whom this may concern,
You are an important person in this individual’s life. That’s why you are getting this letter. My name is Robert. I am a therapist and the author of a book about anxiety that this person has recently read. This means that they are trying to find resources to help pull themselves out of the crappy feelings that you have seen them struggling with. It can be immensely hard to explain what anxiety feels like. If you have never had significant issues with anxiety, you are exceptionally lucky because it really sucks. I want you to know that the person who gave you this letter is not trying to be difficult. If they had a magic wand that could help them suddenly stop struggling with these issues, I 100% guarantee that they would use it without a moment’s hesitation.
Have you ever felt the “fight or flight” response? Maybe you’ve stepped out into the street without looking both ways and nearly missed getting hit by a car or perhaps you’ve had to speak in front of 1000 people and felt like you were going to puke, cry, and hyperventilate all at the same time. That’s what anxiety feels like except it’s not just a fleeting state of discomfort that happens once. It is something that can come on without much warning and it makes it very difficult to function. Trust me when I say that this person feels sad, guilty, and exhausted due to difficulties that anxiety causes them and the people around them. You don’t need to know how to make them feel better and that’s okay because it’s not your responsibility.
If you want to be awesome, I have a few tips that can help you be the best support possible for this person when they are enduring a hard time. Firstly, don’t take it personally. They might act very differently when they are having a “peak” in their anxiety. Take the things that they say and do in context. I’m sure you’ve been through a hard time before and acted in ways that aren’t quite in line with your normal self. Asking them if there is anything that you can do to help is great, but don’t always expect to get a clear response from them. Things can be confusing when the anxiety monster is hitting hard, so knowing what would help is not always clear. One question that most anxious people can give you an answer to is “do you need some space?” If they say yes, please give them a little room to breathe and let them know that you will be around if they need you. Try not to tell them it’s all in their head, because they know that already. It doesn’t make the pounding in their chest, the pain in their head, the hyperventilation, the sweating, or the racing thoughts any easier to deal with. There’s no way that I can put you in their shoes, but I hope you believe me when I say that it’s not as easy as just taking a breath and getting some fresh air.
Having anxiety does not mean that this person gets a blank slate to do or say anything that they want. You still have a right to be upset if they do shitty things but like I said before, try to take it in context. if you want to address the way that they are acting or the things that they are saying, maybe consider doing it when things have calmed down a bit. I also want make it clear that you don’t have to understand them or agree with everything that they do to be supportive. This person’s world feels chaotic and a good portion of their unease probably comes from feeling like they have no control over their environment and the things that happen to them. If they know that you are a constant that will be supportive no matter what happens, it can make a big difference.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you good job! If you are still in this person’s life, then you aren’t like the others who have run away or disappeared on them so far. They need supports on this journey and they really want you to be on their team. If you want to learn more about what this individual’s experience with anxiety is like then I encourage you to ask them. I’m sure that when things are at their least crazy, they would be more than happy to sit with you and help you understand.
Robert Duff, Ph.D. on behalf of the awesome anxiety warrior that gave you this note.
This letter has been taken from the article “How to Explain Anxiety | A Letter” by Duff the Psych. You can find the original letter (available as a digital download) along with a host of other valuable resources from Dr Duff on his website. There is also a brilliant letter for those living with depression. Next in the series…simple things you can do to support those living with anxiety.
If you’re experiencing mental health issues or require help or advice, please check out my mental health resource page. You are not alone.