One of the most common questions that I’m asked is. “How do I know if I have an anxiety disorder?” To be honest, this is a tricky one, because mental health is a huge spectrum. We ALL experience intense emotions, it’s natural and very human. For instance, you can feel depressed and not have depression, or feel anxious and not have anxiety. Furthermore, anxiety is a sneaky bastard. One that convinces the person in question that there’s nothing medically wrong with them. Instead, whispering; It’s a character flaw, you’re just weak and pathetic.
It took me twenty-four years and a nervous breakdown before I realised that I had diagnosable social anxiety. When the doctor said those words out loud, I was stunned. In a mere sixty seconds, she’d labeled something that I’d been grappling with for a decade. “Your symptoms are textbook,” she told me. Are they? I thought. On a good day, I like to think of myself as a reasonably educated woman. So why hadn’t I worked this out? (On a bad day I’m; a stupid bitch, a waste of space and a loser, who’ll f**k everything up and die in the gutter with a bottle of vodka). Why is it always the gutter? I do wish my anxiety would contemporise a bit… or at least be more creative.
Truth is, I was too caught up in the abusive cycle to look at things objectively.
Here’s a handy anxiety checklist
- You’re plagued by negative thoughts.
- You have a constant feeling of unease, that you can’t shake, and are convinced that something bad is going to happen.
- You criticise yourself constantly, never satisfied with a performance, piece of work or interaction.
- You set yourself very strict goals and expect a great deal from yourself. Failure to reach said goals, results in punishment.
- You analyse events and interactions after they’ve happened. Replaying them mentally like film. Questions such as; what could I have said/done better? Spring into your mind like an appraisal.
- You experience regular physical symptoms such as; nausea, sweating, blushing, tremors, difficulty sleeping, and extreme fatigue.
- You feel unhappy, stressed and emotional.
If you experience three or more of these symptoms on a CONTINUED basis. (i.e every day for a month). Then it might be time to make an appointment with your doctor for a chat. Think of it this way, if you had a cough for more than four weeks, you’d see a doctor. Treat your brain with the same respect.
This leads me on to the second most common question I’m asked. “Ok, I have anxiety, what the f**k do I do now?” Granted, people phrase it more eloquently than that, but the message is always the same. Anxiety can feel like a vast ocean. What direction should you swim in? Who should you ask for help? I have so much empathy for people at the start of the journey, it’s scary and can be very lonely.
For starters, DON’T do what I did and Google ‘Anxiety.’ I mean you can, but be prepared to be hit by masses of psychiatry based websites that use medical jargon, and take a paragraph to explain something that could be summarised in one sentence. If you’re not drawn to these sites, then you might be hit by what I call the ‘misery memoirs.’ People who write about how mental illness ruined their lives. I will never forget reading a post on Reddit by a woman who wrote, “I haven’t left the house in four years. Social anxiety has taken everything. I want to die.” Whilst this woman in question had every right to document her feelings… it wasn’t the best read for a newly diagnosed, vulnerable me.
The Claire Eastham ‘what the f**k now?’ list.
- Get a big piece of paper and split it into three sections. Label them; ‘physical symptoms’ ’emotions’ and ‘worries/thoughts.’ Then… you’ve guessed it! Fill in each section, being as detailed as you can. This is not the time to censor yourself, nothing is too small to mention. This is the time to let your brain purge, particularly in the ‘worries’ section. Having everything on paper is not only therapeutic, but it will help you understand what you’re dealing with. You might notice that your worries have a common theme.
- Make an appointment with your doctor and take the list with you. It will help to keep you on track if you get flustered. The doctor will most likely be more concerned with the physical symptoms and emotions, but they might also be interested in what’s causing you such distress.
- If you’re prescribed medication, then take some time off work. Side effects are common (sh** but true), and it’s important to rest while your body is getting used to the change in brain chemistry. If you can’t take any time off work, start taking them on a Friday night.
- If you can, book a few days off work to rest your brain and come to terms with your diagnosis. Think about it.. If you’d been diagnosed with Diabetes or some form of Cancer, you’d take some time out in order to process. Mental illness is EXACTLY the same.
- Get serious about your gut. More and more studies have shown that the stomach is the second brain. So don’t take the piss!
Serotonin (the chemical thing that you lack if you have anxiety), is produced in the gut. Read this post for more info.
- Tell someone. It’s vital to have a support network if you live with a mental health condition. Ideally a family member or friend, but you can always start with the Samaritans. (Open 24/7 365 days a year). Sometimes it’s just nice to talk to someone who doesn’t know you.
- Get educated the right way. Claire Eastham approved material, (FYI none of this is clinical, I prefer the human experience):
Websites – Anxiety UK, MQ and Calm.
Books; We’re All Mad Here (obvs)! How To Survive the End of the World – The Anxiety Solution and A Beginners Guide to Being Mental
People to follow on social media; ME (again obvs) – Ellen Jones – Ruth Cooper Dickson – Chloe Brotheridge – Aaron Gillies
I would recommend podcasts too, but I haven’t explored this area yet!
- Have distractions that actually work. The urge to sink into the “omg what the f**k do I do now?’ loop, is strong and not helpful. It’s important to give the brain respite. So distract it! Go for a walk, listen to an engaging (non-mental health related) podcast… knit, watch a film, cook, dance, play Tetris.. whatever works for you is cool, but find something.
A mental health condition is NOT a character flaw. It’s a valid health issue that deserves respect and adequate attention. You’re not alone on this journey. The first step is always the hardest.