How Living With Anxiety Made Me Realize the Importance of Communication for Mental Health

     My name is Sophie and I am a first-year Australian university student. My favourite place in the world is probably my local beach. Or maybe the streets of Delhi. My favourite colour is blue. There are many things I could tell you about myself, however, one of the things I want to tell you the most is that I am living with anxiety. Or the big A, as I like to call it.

     Now, I want to make this very clear from the start. I am not in a constant in a state of terror or riddled with a debilitating, nervous darkness. This isn’t one of those pieces where you want to go, “Oh you poor thing!” and thank you lucky stars that you're healthy and well. 

     My anxiety is something that is ever-present somewhere in the back rooms of my mind. When making decisions, it is a persistent “tap, tap”, reminding me of its existence. When I am going to places or events where I don’t know many people it is a firm grasp of worry. It’s a little moist whipser in my head when I walk into an exam, telling me that I am going to fail and informing me what people will say if I do. It’s a panicky kind of defensiveness when I don’t succeed at a new skill the first time round. It’s a tightening in my chest when I think people might not like me or think that I am not pretty/clever/funny enough to be liked.

      Right, so now I’ve told you the heavy stuff, it is so important to say that this isn’t how I feel all the time. Chances are, my friends wouldn't even have ever noticed it, focusing more on my loud and giggly stories, my clumsiness, or my love of dancing. I think that I have a responsibility to show that not every person with anxiety is obviously tense, frightened, or shaky, as the stereotype might suggest. We need to talk about the stigma and the reality s to realize that anxiety and other mental illnesses can be experienced by anyone and they aren’t always obvious on the outside.   

     According to Headspace in 2016, 50% of 12-25-year-olds wait six months before reaching out for crucial help. According to mental health organization Beyondblue, people experiencing mental health conditions generally report more experiences of being treated positively than of being avoided or discriminated against, particularly from friends, loved ones and family members.

     We need to talk about this and take away the stigma. You are not weak, nor are you silly for experiencing stress, tension and panic attacks towards activities that your friends might be able to do easily. It is not weak to seek help if you are experiencing difficulty coping with pressure from academics, finances, family, relationships, and other things. It is not shameful to talk about your discomfort and not a burden to ask questions or to ask for help.

     When I was sitting in the chair at the doctor's, telling her about missed sleep and lost appetite, I was deathly afraid. My hands were shaking at the thought that this woman might tell me that I was just stressed from university or tell me that my feelings weren’t real or valid. But she didn’t. She heard me. Now, I feel that if I felt like this about what I was experiencing, how many other young people must feel the same way too? Like they don't have the space to speak up? Like their problems might be considered futile? We need to communicate and educate, so individuals dealing with mental health problems like anxiety in the next generation can feel comfortable sitting in that chair and speaking their truth.

     When I was growing up, I would hear people say, “Are you on your period?” to an emotional woman. I would hear people say, “Get over it, it’s hardly worth worrying about!” or “You are just overthinking it and being a stick in the mud, its fine!” These kinds of stereotypes, I believe, support the culture where we don’t talk about what is really happening below the surface and dismiss mental distress as if it is easily controlled by our rational minds.

     The trouble is when you ask a person if they are ok, unless you are close friends or family, normally you get the response of “I’m fine.” Of course, if someone truly doesn’t want to talk about it, I am in no way suggesting that they are forced to do so. But, I do believe that everyone has the responsibility of not only being there to listen but also the responsibility of reaching out if they notice someone in distress.

     From my experience, it really helps to talk to a close friend or family member about whatever you are experiencing. Sometimes, it may just be a case of overthinking a situation or looking at it the wrong way. Sometimes, an additional perspective can put your mind at ease and make nervousness go away. However, and this is of utmost importance, sometimes it is too big of an issue for an untrained confidant to assist you with, no matter if you are anxious or depressed, or anything else. If you or anyone you know are experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, mood swings and any other unhealthy behaviours, please seek the help of a trained professional. Some tips for managing anxiety from ReachOut Australia include talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, focusing on the present, taking some time out to relax, monitoring and challenging your negative thoughts, moving more, eating well, sleeping and facing your fears. 

     There needs to be more education on mental illness and more information provided about it when people are younger. This needs to happen so that a distressed individual doesn’t feel as though they don’t want to bother their friends or loved ones with too much information. The organisation Healthy Place provides some tips for individuals who are experiencing difficulties with mental health for effectively communicating their mental health needs. The tips include being prepared before having a conversation with someone and determining exactly what you're asking for to make sure there is no miscommunication. Stick to what's important, choose no more than three things that will help you feel better immediately. Frame things positively. Finally, try your best to keep emotions in check. Mental illness often creates strong emotions that interfere with effective communication. Be aware when your emotions are becoming turbulent, and take a break. 

     Some young people I have spoken to have stated that they don’t want to bother people with what’s going on in their lives. Some may even talk about their feelings, but then apologise profusely. These people shouldn’t feel like they need to apologise -  friends support you and empathise, even if they don’t quite understand. (And if your friends don't do that, it's time to get new friends). 

     My anxiety makes me question how I am judged in social situations. I obsess over details and run situations through my mind at night. It makes me question things I’ve said and cross-examine my ability to be successful and worthwhile. My hands tremble and sometimes I forget to eat. I get this bubbling feeling in my stomach that won’t go away and sometimes I am teary for no reason.

     But even though I am living with my Big A, I also recognize that living with it does not define me. I am a strong, independent, intelligent woman. I am interested in politics, psychology, and making a positive impact on the world. I love my horse Percy, cooking, and dancing. I can’t sing to save my life. I have wonderful friends who are there for me when I need a crazy adventure or a calm glass of wine to wind down. I traveled to India and Paris, seen so many amazing things, tasted incredible food, and learned funny words in other languages. My family is so supportive of me and I have so many goals I want to achieve.

     My anxiety is one part of a crazy, beautiful, rambunctious life. I am taking back the A and speaking up in a way I hope that others will too. Mental illness is something that should be talked about for both men and women, young and old.

     So please, if you need to - get help, speak to your friends and family. Mental illness needs communication, education, and people who experience it to whatever degree, our support.

When should you get help?

The following symptoms might be signs of an underlying mental health condition:

  • thoughts of hurting yourself or others

  • frequent or persistent feelings of sadness, anger, fear, worry, or anxiety

  • frequent emotional outbursts or mood swings

  • confusion or unexplained memory loss

  • delusions or hallucinations

  • intense fear or anxiety about weight gain

  • dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits

  • unexplained changes in school or work performance

  • inability to cope with daily activities or challenges

  • withdrawal from social activities or relationships

  • defiance of authority, truancy, theft, or vandalism

  • substance abuse, including alcoholism or use of illegal drugs

  • unexplained physical ailments

If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, get help right away. If you have other symptoms on this list, make an appointment with your doctor. Once they’ve ruled out a physical basis for your symptoms, they may refer you to a mental health specialist and other resources.

How can you get help in an emergency?

Are you making plans to hurt yourself or another person? That’s a mental health emergency. Go to a hospital emergency department or contact your local emergency services right away. Dial 911 for immediate emergency help.

Suicide prevention hotlines

Have you been thinking about hurting yourself? Consider contacting a suicide prevention hotline. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. It offers 24/7 support.

By: Sophie Mollett

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