'Anxiety Is Part Of What It Is To Be Alive'
The Debrief: Eleanor Morgan on why we need to stop shying away from this 20-something anxiety epidemic
Anxiety is ‘part of what it is to be alive’, says Eleanor Morgan, who’s literally written the book on it. It’s what gives us fight or flight, helping us to respond to threats. But if we feel it all the time, or at the wrong times, it can leave us paralysed in self-perpetuating cycles of fear and depression. In short, helpless. And in this week's No-Shit Sherlock News, a new study has found that women are twice as likely as men to experience anxiety, with under 35s being the most susceptible.
But Eleanor’s book, Anxiety for Beginners, can help. Using her personal experience of dealing with disordered anxiety as ‘the masterkey’, she asks all those relatable questions people will frantically type into Google late at night when they’re panicking, worried or depressed. So there’s a chapter on why we need to poo when we’re anxious, a careful analysis of how periods actually affect a woman’s mind, a look at how the media treats those with mental health problems and a rundown of the importance of interacting with real-life things like blades of grass and the ears of a fluffy dog. Interwoven with studies, reports, quotes from experts and statistics, there’s much humanity; Eleanor regales the reader with beautiful descriptions of the visceral, the sad, and the joyful. Even if you’re not dealing with mental health problems, her tone is welcoming and friendly. Which is exactly what she is when we meet up to talk about Anxiety for Beginners.
Hi Eleanor. This book is super personal. Were you ok with revealing so much?
I wrote the book that I wanted to read - an investigation. I wasn’t interested whatsoever in writing an in-misery memoir or a confessional because I’ve never been someone that confesses. I am nervous about how personal it is and how much vulnerability it exposes but I’ve read pieces, from Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham and Rob Delaney who have been unbelievably honest and I think that is the only way to be so helpful.
What I love about it is that it’s written from such a human level, it’s not just about the sadness
That’s the reality of living with anxiety. I’ve had two incredibly acute episodes in my life which led to depression and though it’s hard to differentiate, clinically, between anxiety and depression, I’m not a depressive. While there is a place for misery memoirs, they can help people by giving an echo of our own pain, I wanted this book to be me looking outwards.
The book is also disgustingly physical, your opening description of a panic attack made me feel sick
I wanted to capture that ferocity because it’s SO physical and it feels like you’re dying. Because of the strategies I have, panic attacks happen rarely, but when they do, I’m reminded that fucking hell I would give anything to never have that experience ever again. But I had to speak about the shit stuff, periods and poo. Women can be a bit squeamish about talking about them. But people do struggle and feel really ill with anxiety, our bodies fuck up sometimes and it’s good to normalise it.
Our bodies fuck up sometimes and it’s good to normalise it
Was it also part of showing that mental health is part of our bodily health?
A thousand million percent. The brain and the body are not separate, they’re all connected, especially studies showing your brains and your bowels.
As for periods, it felt so validating that you wanted to acknowledge they can mess with a woman’s head.
I felt like I hadn’t read enough on things like PMDD [Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder], which is a profound life-altering and life-threatening problem. Some women have it plain sailing, their periods are fine, but if half the population are potentially struggling, then why aren’t we talking about it? Because it’s periods and vaginas and blood and hysterical women.
While we’re on women’s stuff…
Yes. Do you think the pill is prescribed too often to help with women’s mental health? I always think prescribing the pill for skin issues is like giving someone MDMA as a laxative. Why give me something for its side effect?
I can’t bear the idea of mood being medicalised so readily, that is a problem. But relying on off-label effects is the way that medicine works. Antidepressants are prescribed for erectile dysfunction and for sleep problems and the pill is similar. But with brain chemistry there is always a certain degree of murkiness. Science hasn’t yet reached a point where it can isolate anything more specifically. And no-one can do a blood test and go ‘Oh, it’s working now’. It’s very cerebral and does have physical effects but to see an effect you have to think the effect.
When you were in a crisis a doctor refused to give you valium. In retrospect, was that a good idea?
When I got really bad I was desperate for anything that would put me to sleep, it was a living hell and I wanted to smash it to pieces. But the doctor refused to give me that because can create a synthetic relief, and in the book a neuroscientist tells me that it can create constant withdrawal and you don’t know what normal feels like. Oh, I hate the word normal, I think ‘relative functioning’ is a better term. But certainly in the States you can get Xanax like THAT [she clicks her fingers] our mental health systems are so different.
There are so many mini-moral panics about being on social media, what do you think its association with anxiety?
Social media is so synonymous with anxiety in so many conversations and we hear so much about how we’re all becoming more anxious but then when you talk to psychologists, psychiatrists will say that we’re actually becoming more willing to accept that we’re anxious and more willing to recognise when things are getting on top of us, but no one thing causes a mental health problem. Social media could only ever be a causal factor to a mental health problem.
[At this moment, The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now plays in the restaurant we’re in, Morrissey wailing: ‘And you go on your own, and you stand on your own and you go home and you want to die’ and Eleanor notices my distraction] What’s going on?
Not to be all meta, but this song was released in 1984, 1985 and he’s singing about social anxiety too!
Entirely! We’re only beginning to understand social media because in the timeline of us as a population it’s very new. I think it’s a good thing to remind yourself of the fact every single person is looking out and thinking everyone’s got it better. Even Beyoncé does that.
What about just going offline? Is that a solution?
There is absolutely no point badgering people with the idea that being on your phones is unhealthy because we’re going to be and that’s the way technology is going. Fighting it, like fighting anxiety, isn’t helpful. That said, social media can create a horrible negative reinforcement loop of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders.
At present, young people are living in increasingly cramped conditions in order to make rent, do you think the housing crisis is affecting mental health?
Undoubtedly, but it’s affecting us, not making us ill. If someone’s vulnerable and living on a mattress in a living room somewhere, that situation is going to make it worse. If you’re resilient and able to make sense of your situation, you might be able to ‘get on with it’. But if your physical space is small and you’re confined, then your mental space becomes enormous, your brain sprawls. And if I don’t see green spaces, I feel very at sea. So I cycle everywhere, you need to be aware of the movement of the world and of time. An anxious person’s relationship with time can be very weird, you want to will it forwards because you feel terrible and you want to rewind it because you feel your experiences haven’t been real enough.
The only thing in your book you’re more critical of than panic attacks is the current government. Are you ok with being so strident?
It has to be in there; it’s reality. The mental health crisis in Britain is reality and if you’re vulnerable and you’re on your knees because the government has taken away every single resource available you’re left feeling like you have no place or imprint, no sense of self and purpose. That is a perfect chemistry for mental distress. And then if you’re mentally unwell, even though there are some amazing services out there, local authorities are being rinsed like a flannel and what’s left is this pathetic thing that cannot cater for everyone. It absolutely terrifies me, thinking of people just being lost in the ether of existence.
What will get the government to sort it out?
Oh I don’t know….people being out of work and withdrawing from society because they’re struggling with mental health creates a cost to everyone. To any rational logical person, if you look after people better, they will function better and they will provide better.
I will experience anxiety in some capacity until I die
Your book doesn’t claim to give answers, is that ok?
Anxiety is so much part of the human condition, it can become disordered but it’s also part of what it is to be alive and it’s incredibly nuanced because every single one of us is nuanced in our own way. I wouldn’t have the authority to write a step-by-step solution to anxiety because it’s an undulating process and as much as you cannot argue with self-help books that help people function, we need to think more holistically about our brains and the way we see each other. So I have my experience and it can become a tool for asking questions. The conclusion of the book is that there isn’t one, and in a perverse way it’s accepting that and realising you can experience clarity and relief on the way. I will experience anxiety in some capacity until I die and three years ago that thought paralysed me. But now knowing what I know I realise anxiety is not paralysing. It’s hardly freeing, but it’s realistic.
Looking for concrete answers seems dangerous to me when I see newspaper reports saying a man killed himself because his ex wouldn’t get back with him
Linking specific things to suicide is unbelievably irresponsible because it’s several things at play that make people want to end their life and it just reinforces those ideas that men can’t handle rejection. It is so poisonous, that pernicious, constantly reinforcing idea that a man will collapse if he doesn't get what he wants is something that has to change.
There’s not much out there to help people - especially men - deal with failure
I think we’re just beginning to edge towards really accepting. It is especially poignant for me because I recently lost one of my oldest friends to suicide. It’s absolutely devastating for me to think that he thought death was the only logical… I don’t know… it’s easy to get angry around suicide but I do feel relief for him as well as my own shame and heartbreak that he couldn’t be helped to realise that oblivion wasn’t the only option, he had options. Despair eclipses intelligence, everything. Matt [Irwin, a photographer], was incredibly successful, travelled the world and the blueprint of his life made you go ‘Oh, you’re sorted, you’ve got it’ but the despair was underneath. What happened to him makes me so much more vested in researching what leads people to that point and it’s part of the reason I’m re-training to become a psychologist.
That sense of oblivion, on a tiny scale, is what so many of us do with booze and drugs, right?
The Venn diagram of those meets with a massive overlap. Alcohol and substance abuse is also more common in men and it says so much about that need for the quick masking of something deeper. I’ve known functioning alcoholics, like my grandma who I wrote about, who will never say they’re addicted. She drank herself to death because she couldn’t live with anxiety. We all need to work more on our inbuilt prejudices about addiction and not recoil from it. Anyone that’s known an addict will know they lie and they can be unreliable arseholes. But everyone can be an arsehole, we just have to work at not being one.
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