Ireland (Photo credit: Trent Strohm)

Recently I took a trip to Ireland with my family to visit some of my husband’s relatives, and throughout our stay there were numerous enquiries about people’s general health, ongoing health issues and recent operations.  Yet how my battle with anxiety was going was never mentioned.  Not because they weren’t interested or didn’t care, but because they didn’t know.  There was plenty of opportunity to bring it up, and in fact no reason that they didn’t know already  – irish people love to know everything they can about everyone – I’m sure they have asked after me during several phone conversations.  Yet I nor anyone else refered to it, even though every night I filled out a panic diary as part of the CBT I’m having, and had to battle daily with some sort of anxiety.  It wasn’t until I was on the ferry back that I wondered why? Why am I ashamed? Why is it such a taboo?When someone has a physical condition, people naturally sympathise, even if they haven’t had that condition, everyone has been in pain or felt sick.  But, the same could be said for anxiety; everyone has felt nervous at some point.  So why do I think that people won’t understand?  Maybe that’s the problem: because everyone has felt anxiety at some point, they think they do know how it feels and it’s not that bad.  Also, for most people, there is generally a reason for it which makes it more manageable – again, it’s not that bad.  So I’d have to explain why this is different, worse, debilitating, to people who didn’t really get it. Would they even believe me? For the most part I can hide how I am feeling inside or I can make a reasonable excuse to leave so people don’t see me at my worst.   Would them knowing make the anxiety worse?  If they knew,would feel I was under constant surveillance for signs of anxiety?  Would I simply regret telling them?Of course the answer to these last questions is no.  In other areas of my life, such as work, I have needed to be very open and generally it has helped.  They may not have understood but then they don’t need to offer some support.  Actually, I have found that more people than I thought do really understand as by opening up they have confided that they also suffer from panic attacks and anxiety and I have felt able to support them.  I have one friend who is have CBT the same time as me; a fact I would never know if I hadn’t confided in how I was feeling.  It is said that anxiety of one kind or another will affect one in three people at some point in their life, so by opening up and sharing stories with the people we know we can raise awareness of this taboo subject and help each other in the process.

Next time I go to Ireland I’m just going to mention it – see what happens.

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I noticed that someone in the government is suggesting that there needs to be a ‘mental health secretary’ in order to raise the profile of mental health up to the same level as physical health.  The reason being that mental health affects a lot of people yet the services are not nearly as accessible as if, say, you had broken your leg.   This got me thinking about my own experience of mental health services.

I was only six when our family had our first need for mental health services.  From a six-year old’s perspective we woke up one day to find my dad had literally gone mad overnight and by the end of that first day it was clear that we needed help fast.  Not knowing  where to go, the out of hours doctor was called.  He promptly turned up and then promptly left – stopping briefly on the step outside to write a hasty prescription then retreating – clearly out of his depth.  I don’t know exactly what happened over the next few days except we looked after him; often eating dinner while my dad was naked, talking balmy or being an animal.  We also slept downstairs with the ironing board in front of the door so that he couldn’t leave the house with no clothes on – eventually he was sectioned.  For the next six years, my dad was in and out of hospital while they tried to diagnose and control his condition.  He was assigned key workers that my mum could contact when needed and mostly, I would say that, the service was good: as they got to know my dad better, my mum had proactive people that she could get in touch with quickly.  To date, he still has regular meetings with a psychiatrist and with an added diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, the different professional areas are keen to coordinate.

Perhaps because my own experience of mental health has not been as dramatic or, perhaps serious, my experience hasn’t been as positive.  When I first had serious anxiety, I was at university but went to my doctor at home as it was the holidays, they prescribed me with beta blockers which I though made my chest tight.  Now, if you have suffered from anxiety, you will know that one of the symptoms anxiety is a tight chest – I don’t have asthma and so there is no reason why they should do this, but instead of investigating further, I was taken off them and told to go to the doctor at uni.  By this time, getting to the doctor was almost impossible and when I got there sobbing, I was told off by the doctor because I hadn’t come sooner.  However, they still simply prescribed me antidepressants and sent me on my way.  Over the next eight or nine years I was on and off of various antidepressants even though depression was not the problem.  One doctor I had bearly spoke to meet when I would make my monthly appointments to get the antidepressents.  He never asked any questions and it was only when I moved doctors that she informed me I had been on them for over two years.  I was refered to the mental health team when I moved, but because I was holding down a job, I was simply not a priority.  It is only now after having a child, so is potentially a social services case, and taking time off work (it could also be a change in borough – my forth), that someone has taken me seriously and I feel like I’m actually being helped.

This is where, I feel, the mental health services are going wrong – not taking moderate cases seriously enough.  Because the problem is, eventually those moderate cases become serious chronic cases unless they are addressed.  I don’t know what the answer is – perhaps more education for GP’s, more awareness in society so less stigma, more money put into therapies that really do help rather than just medication or spmething else.  What I do know is that, if a mental health secretary can get people help sooner, then I’m all for it!

It’s That Simple!

High Anxiety (album)

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Scratching, tensing my muscles, trying to control my breathing (usually by hyperventilating), stamping my feet, blinking quickly, rubbing my eyes, getting out of the situation as quickly as possible. The list of ‘safety behaviours’ are endless – there are probably some I don’t even know I do.   Built up over years of trying to control the anxiety and panic attacks.  Built up one behaviour at a time, as each behaviour proves insufficient against the wave of anxiety so another one must be found to control it further.  Built up until eventaully the bricks have surrounded me and I cannot escape the anxiety or the avoidance behaviours that keep me locked in.

“This week I want you to not do any of these behaviours.  When you feel anxiety, just let it happen.”  These were the words of my cognitive behavioural therapist this week.  It’s that simple.  Yet if it’s that simple why haven’t I done this before? If it’s that simple why have I been wasting my time on these behaviours for years?  Logically, I have known for some time that these behaviours don’t stop the anxiety; that it was probably making it worse, so why didn’t I just stop?

If you’re a councillor and know the biology and psychology it is that simple, or perhaps if you have never had a panic attack it is that simple but the truth is that, despite what I know rationally when I am sitting here now, I also know that when I feel even slightly anxious, I completely believe that what I feel is going to cause me to die.   If you were falling, would you not put your hands out in front of you?  It’s that simple for me!

That is not to say I’m not going to give it a go.  I will try to just let it happen when that nervous feeling whirls around my body. I will try to relax my hands rather than clench them, try to breathe normally rather than hyper-ventilate, try not to twitch, not to scratch, not to fidget or run away.  At best that’s going to take some practice, at worse it’s going to be impossible.  Never the less, I will try as hard as I can – let’s face it –  the behaviours aren’t helping so maybe not doing them will.

When anxiety spills over

English: An anxious person

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Everyone has suffered from anxiety at some point in their lives – that feeling before you have a job interview, the lurch in the stomach when you remember that you have forgotten something important, or the constant playing over in the mind of an argument or conversation that didn’t go well.  But what if that anxiety tips from understandable and logical to unreasonable and illogical? When you find yourself worrying about things that the likelihood of happening are one in a million; or that sick feeling in your stomach doesn’t go away and you find you can’t concentrate on anything else (something awful must be wrong with you); or you have moments where you literally feel like you are going to die or go mad.  What happens then?  You will most probably begin to try to work out what you can do to stop these feelings.  Unfortunately this often means limiting your life – it may start with avoiding only one thing, which works for a bit but then the anxiety comes back in a different situation or place so you avoid that too.  You may also check for symptoms of illness or madness or do things that you think will stop the thing you fear happening (even though you feel may not know what might happen or why these things will stop it).   What happens then?