I am a writer, and I am anxious.
Now, to say it like that, ‘anxious’ makes it sound like a temporary state, but that’s not so. I’m anxious, and I have been, on and off, since I was a child. I decided to write this post because I know there are plenty of others out there who suffer from acute anxiety, and also that it is something that is hard for them, and others, to talk about.
It has been heart-warming to see depression go from taboo topic to much more widely accepted and discussed. Although there is of course a long way to go, I think people are just now starting to realise that you can’t just tell your depressed friend to ‘cheer up’, and when they don’t, get snarky with them and tell them they are just not trying. Matt Haig has written eloquently, and with openness on his depression, so it’s to him I feel indebted when I write this.
Firstly, I’d like to talk about what anxiety is, how it feels to be anxious from day to day, and how a panic attack feels, and what you can do as a stranger or a friend to help. Then about anxiety and how it affects my writing life. I’d really like to hear from some fellow sufferers too, so if you feel like commenting at the end, I’d appreciate that.
What is Anxiety?
According to the NHS,
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.
GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) is a long-term condition which causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event. 1 in 20 people in the UK suffer from GAD.
People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. GAD can cause both psychological (mental) and physical symptoms.
GAD can cause a change in your behaviour and the way you think and feel about things. Psychological symptoms of GAD include:
- a sense of dread
- feeling constantly “on edge”
- difficulty concentrating
- being easily distracted
the physical symptoms of GAD can include:
drowsiness and tiredness
pins and needles
irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
muscle aches and tension
shortness of breath
painful or missed periods
difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia)
Anxiety and panic attacks
If you’ve ever found yourself in a stressful situation, or had a bad shock, you will are likely to have felt anxious. There is that ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, a need to get out, to get away, or sometimes to lash out. But for someone with anxiety, this feeling occurs far more frequently, and at inappropriate times. You can be quietly riding on public transport and be suddenly hit by a wave of unease. You can be in the supermarket, in a pub with you friends, at a concert. Anxiety can be rooted in social discomfort, or can be a response to certain triggers. If there is no escaping the trigger, no release of pressure through calming methods, the feelings can ramp up to extremely high levels, so that the sufferer has a panic attack and may even pass out. Meanwhile those around them remain confused, maybe even repelled, by the dramatic ‘hysterical’ response they are witnessing.
I should point out that I’ve never been diagnosed with GAD. I have however had almost all of the symptoms listed, and over long periods of time. When I was working on my PhD, I became so anxious that rather than breathing normally, I began hyperventilating all the time. I went to the doctor and was given some breathing techniques and told to exercise regularly, two ways of working on the stress I was feeling with such an overwhelming workload. I successfully submitted the PhD and passed my viva, though after that it took months for the anxiety to subside to normal levels. If you think you are struggling to cope, go and see your doctor. If they aren’t helpful, don’t be afraid to ask them more than once for instruction and relief. They are there to help you.
What can I do?
If you are a stranger who comes across someone who is suffering a panic attack, there are some things you can do to help them. The first thing is not to make the person feel bad while they are suffering. Don’t stand and gape. If you hear someone breathing abnormally, you should ask yourself whether they might need medical assistance (obviously, they might not be having a panic attack, but perhaps a stroke or heart attack). Ask them to describe their symptoms. Work with those around you to help the person – and find a doctor or call an ambulance if things are not immediately clear.
If they are having a panic attack, talk to them. Of course you are under no obligation to do this, and they might not even respond to your questions, but it can have a calming effect. Ask them easy questions, ask them about the weather, or something related to where they are – nothing too personal. The aim is to put them at ease, not interrogate them. There is something helpful in repetition, so saying, you are okay over and over can help. Best not to touch the person, even if you just want to pat them on the back. You don’t know why they are panicking – it could be because of invasion of personal space. If things get to the point where they pass out, find someone who knows first aid. Be on hand to provide water for when they come round – they will likely be very thirsty.
Obviously, strangers will have limited contact with someone who displaying the regular degree of anxiety GAD sufferers have. If you do interact with someone who appears a little anxious, you can help them by refraining from commenting on it – drawing attention to it or making jokes helps no one – and be courteous in your dealings with them.
If you are a friend, relative or partner of a person having a panic attack – proceed in the same way as a stranger would, only, if you are tempted to comment on what is happening in a negative way, either by expressing your embarrassment, disgust, or disbelief at your friend’s symptoms – DON’T. They DO NOT need to hear ‘what are you doing?’ ‘stop that’, ‘get a hold of yourself’. While being snapped at might silence the sufferer, it will make them feel terrible. No one having a panic attack wants to cause a fuss in public, but they aren’t doing it because of you. If you can, help them out of any situation that seems to be exacerbating the attack. And remember, it is an attack, not an outburst.
If you know a person who is anxious all the time, the same advice applies – do no harm. Do not goad a person with anxiety. If you wouldn’t say to a depressed person ‘I don’t think you’re even trying!’, why would you say ‘you always overreact!’ to a person who has GAD? Both of these things are toxic and unkind. It can be hard to be with an anxious person, because they move at a faster speed, often churning ideas over and over in their heads. They seem to make no sense to you because you can’t understand why they would be so stressed by something that seems so minor, or devote so much energy to their worries. But if you remember they are struggling with a wonky flight-or-fight mechanism, or that they might have problems in their life that you do not know about, you can remind yourself to be kind. To make them tea, to talk things out if they want to. To go on a walk with them outside if they need the fresh air. If you are in a position to help them break the cycle of anxious thoughts, do.
If you suffer from anxiety yourself, there are lots of resources online – breathing exercises, visualisations and suggestions for work-outs. One thing that helps me is writing – quite odd, as you’ll see below. Another is working on tasks with small, defined steps, such as cooking. Chopping vegetables, reading instructions, putting things together, and producing something at the end that serves a purpose. You might also try visualising a system from the smallest part to the largest – a landscape, beginning with the soil, to the roots of small plants, to fields, to mountains and the weather overhead. You could also think of parts of a car, or furniture in a room. Again, talk to your doctor. Though it’s likely you will have to periodically live with anxiety, you do not have to fumble alone in search of tools to help.
Writing and anxiety
As I said above, writing is one of the things I do which helps break me out of my anxiety. The small, diligent act of building a sentence from nothing, up to a paragraph, into a chapter or whole piece is both challenging and satisfying. It’s hard to find lists online with writers who suffered anxiety – because often, these labels are applied in retrospect to people now dead, and I scrunch my eyes at diagnosis without patients present. But you can bet there have been writers who wrote through their anxiety.
A strange part of writing as an anxious person is that writing, itself, can often be a source of great unease and fear. The idea of writing for an audience. Anxiety caused by thinking of how your work with be received. Anxiety as response to callous criticism (or even constructive criticism of the helpful sort), or indifference. Fear over inadequacies. Fear over having to read aloud their work. All art requires that the artist is vulnerable, both in being open to interpreting the world, and in standing out there alone to make it. In letting the work be in the world. For the anxious, it might fill them with a deep sense of doom or futility. But they do it anyway. They persist. Because art, writing, is a form of communication, and they want to speak in a way that they otherwise could not. Think about the writer, squirrelled away in their room, writing, sick with self-doubt and perhaps shaking with anxiety-produced adrenalin. But hypersensitive too, aware of the many things they have said and done wrong, that others have said, and capable of the repetitious, testing thoughts that are required to build a narrative, break it down and rebuild it again in better ways. The writing is a channel for the surge of corrosive energy, a conduit that allows more to flow, for a time, but to a purpose, unlike that generalised anxiety that clings to the skin of the world otherwise. This is one reason why I write. Why, in fact, anxiety enables me to write.
As a reader, I favour books which deviate from a ‘realist’ mode. Realism – a method of describing that seeks to emulate ‘real life’ experience, being mostly linear (with some flashbacks), full of smooth sentences, casts of clearly described characters. Yes, sometimes I enjoy reading Tolstoy, but the notion of realism requires that there is a single idea of the ‘real’ that we generally agree on. For people with anxiety, what is real is not necessarily enacted in the same way as for others. Fragmented sentences, fragmented thoughts. Repetition of the kind found as scaffolding in fairytales. non-linear time, and incidents that are returned to, dismantled, seen from other perspectives. An allowance of uncertainty, doubt, contradiction. Perhaps, maybe, I’m not sure. Modernist interpretations of stream-of-consciousness might not be an exact match for the world inside the head, but they often move forwards, backwards, in a way that acknowledges the threads and knots of thought.
I hope some of this has proved useful to others. The worst thing (which of course I have been thinking about) is if this just seemed to be about myself. Let me know what you do with anxiety, yours, or the anxiety of people close to you. I want to hear this phenomenon discussed freely, the topic moving with depression towards a public acceptance. If depression is a black dog, anxiety is a smaller animal, but no less hounding. A little weasel with sharp, nipping teeth. How do you see the world through your fears? Do you know how brave you are? How do you help those around you find their way to equilibrium? Please leave comments below.