You’re Not On Your Own – Emily Clarkson
Emily Clarkson set up her blog, Pretty Normal Me, as a way of saying to other young women like her and her sister that ‘you’re ok’. Whoever you are, whatever you look like -- despite the pressure that she has noticed in other media. Emily has been diagnosed with anxiety and found herself prey to worrying thoughts. It took her a while to accept and understand that diagnosis. She says she’s now stronger and braver than she’s ever been thanks to her acceptance of herself. For more real-life stories from those with mental health issues, or for ideas on how to improve your wellbeing.
What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
It is often difficult to determine the difference between day-to-day worry and anxiety. After that, it is often even more difficult to tell the difference between anxiety that is helpful, and that which is not.
Describing anxiety as ‘helpful’ might, on the face of it, seem a bit odd. After all, who would want to experience anxiety? However, there are times when a degree of anxiety can help our focus, motivation or performance. For example, it is understandable to experience some anxiety when preparing for or sitting examinations. Feeling that ‘edge’ can help really focus our thinking on the task in hand; some adrenaline can help us perform to a high level of ability. The same could be true for other types of actions, such as in sport for example, where some anxiety can help us to achieve.
We commonly talk about anxiety in the context of the ‘fight or flight’ response: needing to ‘fight’ a threatened situation, or ‘flight’ from it – to escape. When that threat is hard to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, e.g., something that we are struggling with emotionally, we can feel increased anxiety.
However, while we might be able to acknowledge how anxiety can help us, it can also become debilitating, exhausting and overwhelming. High and sustained levels of anxiety can negatively begin to shape how we feel, who we are and what we do.
At the simplest level, anxiety might be becoming problematic if:
- It is experienced at a very intense level. For example: heart beating fast; feeling nauseous; feeling faint; a sensation of trembling or that we might faint.
- It is experienced at a time without any apparent reason. For example: at times when we might otherwise expect ourselves to feel relaxed, and when there is nothing apparent triggering our feelings (such as exams, or an interview).
- It is linked to particular thoughts or fears. For example: anxiety can sometimes be experienced in very specific ways – social anxiety might mean that we avoid social situations; health anxiety might mean that our thinking is preoccupied with thoughts about our health, usually very negatively (“I have cancer”; “I am going to have a heart attack”).
The common physical symptoms that people can experience when struggling with anxiety include:
- A sense of your heart pounding, or of palpitations
- Feeling nauseous, or actually vomiting
- A tight band across your chest
- Feeling tense muscles
- Trembling or shaking, feeling physically agitated
- Hot flushes, or feeling cold
- Dry mouth, or an unpleasant taste in your mouth
- Difficulties in swallowing
- An urge to go to the toilet, or actually going to the toilet more regularly
- Feelings of tingling in the body, particularly hands and feet
- Fearing that you will faint, or collapse
While the emotional/psychological experiences related to anxiety can include:
- Feeling really exposed: that people are watching you and can tell that you are highly anxious
- Feeling as if you are observing yourself, like you are detached from yourself and spectating, with little direct control
- Fearing that you might die, or might be having a heart attack (if you are experiencing panic)
- Fearing that you are losing control
- Being hypersensitised to things and people around you – feeling sometimes startled by everyday things
- Feeling that the world is going too quickly, or too slowly
- Ruminating thoughts (intrusive, usually negative thoughts that might repeat, or that we have difficulty controlling)
There are other symptoms associated with anxiety that are very similar to depression. It is not uncommon for anxiety and depression to be experienced at the same time. These include:
Irregular sleep or change in sleep pattern
It is very common for anxiety to have an effect on sleep, leading to insomnia and sleep disruptions like early waking.
Sometimes there is a pattern of excessive sleep. Regular, sound sleep is essential for healthy functioning and sleep disruption is a particularly debilitating weapon in the anxiety arsenal.
Appetite or weight changes
Regular healthy eating is essential for general wellbeing.
Loss of appetite and weight loss, or sometimes overeating and weight gain, can be a sign that anxiety is interfering with the healthy eating habits essential for maintenance of healthy mood levels.
Crying serves a very useful purpose – stress hormones are released through tears.
However, if you find yourself crying much more than usual for no clear reasons it may be a sign that anxiety is at work.
Do you find it hard to settle down to a task, or to sit still for any length of time? Some people are naturally energetic, but anxiety can bring a troubling sense of restlessness and inability to focus.
Being constantly keyed up and over-alert in this way is very draining, in turn decreasing resistance to anxiety.
Poor concentration and difficulty making decisions
Anxiety can often lead to ‘automatic negative thoughts’. Poor concentration and/or difficulty making decisions can be due to ‘blanking things out’ or may indicate the need to address the thinking habits which are allowing anxiety a foothold.
Feelings of helplessness
There are many uncertainties in life and things that cannot be controlled, yet many cultures emphasise the importance of individuals having ‘control’ over their lives. Having bad things happen and not being able to prevent them can then leave someone vulnerable to the generalised feeling of helplessness that anxiety feeds on and perpetuates.
Things We Can Do
The most common thing we do when experiencing anxiety is try to avoid those situations that might, or do, make us feel anxious. For example, if I am worried about going to a lecture I might avoid going. In the short term such avoidance helps us feel better – after all, we have avoided the trigger (or ‘stimulus’). However, what we have unwittingly done is reinforce our anxiety by giving ourselves the message that we can’t cope with such situations.
Therefore, the best way of tackling anxiety is to learn strategies that can help deal with anxiety-provoking situations, as opposed to avoiding them. There are a number of strategies across the site that you might begin to use to help deal with anxiety. Try taking a look at Making Changes and Self-Support and, in the meantime, read a little more about anxiety here .