We Need To Find A Better Way To Talk About Anxiety
The Debrief: It feels like anxiety is everywhere but it's different for everyone.
Being ‘afraid of your own shadow’, a ‘bundle of nerves, having ‘butterflies in your stomach’, behaving like ‘a cat on hit bricks’, not being able to ‘stand the pace’, feeling like your ‘heart is in your mouth’ and ‘having ‘the jitters’. These just a few metaphors we have been living by, ones which, generally, describe a state of anxiety.
Metaphors are figures of speech, a way of using words that is not literal and helps us to understand something through comparison, which we might not otherwise be able to visualise. They help us to express things which might not easily be summed up in one word. In many ways, they demonstrate the limits of language and how hard we have to make it work in order to express ourselves fully.
For a long time mental health metaphors were a way, even the only way, of describing problems like depression or anxiety. How many times have you heard depression described as 'the blues' or 'feeling a bit low'? In part this is because words failed us and, in part, it was because the correct terminology and condition it described carried with it a huge stigma. Thankfully things are better now, perhaps better than they ever have been, but they could be better still. A lot has been done to open up a dialogue about mental health, anxiety in particular, and stop people from suffering in silence.
But, what exactly is anxiety? This small seven letter, four syllable word is used to describe a whole range and sliding scale of experiences and emotions, both physically and psychologically felt. The NHS define anxiety as ‘a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe’.
They say ‘everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life – for example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam, or having a medical test or job interview’, and point out that, at times like these, feeling anxious may be ‘perfectly normal.’
However, as the NHS website goes on to say, ‘some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives.’
Anxiety is, in fact, a symptom of several conditions. These include panic disorder, phobias like agoraphobia and claustrophobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and social anxiety disorder. It is also a condition in its own right known as generalised anxiety disorder, sufferers feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed.
Generalised anxiety disorder can have both psychological and physical symptoms, which can be different from person to person such as feeling restless, worrying, having trouble concentrating, having trouble sleeping, experiencing dizziness or heart palpitations.
Anxiety has been felt and expressed as long as human's have had the means to do so. The word itself is derived from Latin, its use has been recorded in medical discourse since the early 1900s and the experience of anxiety has been described and explored since in the works of writers ranging from the Ancient Greek Epicurean and Stoic philosophers to theorists like Freud, novelists like Virginia Woolf and TV shows like GIRLS.
For Søren Kierkegaard anxiety was ' the dizziness of freedom', for popular philosopher Alain de Botton our personalities are 'determined by how we've opted to defend ourselves against anxiety and sadness', as David Foster Wallace wrote it was 'being terrified of everything, and terrified to show it' and, for, poet Anne Sexton it was giving the appearance of being 'quite collected at cocktail parties' whilst in your head 'undergoing open-heart surgery.'
The meaning of anxiety has shifted in recent years and its use in everyday language has increased. Up until relatively recently you were unlikely to be diagnosed with and offered to support for anxiety as a clinical condition, which the example of Virginia Woolf proves. If she were alive now what’s the likelihood that she would be fully diagnosed and properly treated, perhaps even writing first person confessionals about her anxiety on the internet? Until recently, if you were diagnosed with anxiety, the odds are you wouldn't speak openly about it.
These days it does feel as though we can’t move for anxiety. Indeed, we find ourselves living in anxious times. One in five people suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. In 2013 there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK. In England women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders as men.
According to the most recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics when asked ‘how anxious did you feel yesterday?’ 20.06% of people reported experiencing a high anxiety level.
When we use the word ‘anxiety’ to talk about the experience of being anxious it’s inevitable that we turn that experience into something recognisable. If you say ‘I suffer from anxiety’ someone will instantly know what you mean which is a good thing but, equally, in making anxiety more identifiable and expressible we turn the experience of anxiety into something homogenous, something standardised, something uniform.
For one person anxiety may be a feeling of slow, deep and relentless undulating fear felt deep down inside them, for someone else it may be the sense that their brain is trying to break out of their skull and for another it may be like an itch which can never be scratched. Anxiety can be deafening, it can be crushing and it can be debilitating. Anxiety is like walking around with an open wound that nobody else can see but which you can feel with every move you make. Anxiety can make your blood run fast and hot hot, it can also be icily cold. It can make you feel to full and it can make you feel totally empty. It can feel like you’re having a heart attack, it can feel like your limbs are falling away from your body. Anxiety can be like plummeting down an empty life shaft on a loop, each time feeling as though you’ll hit the bottom at full force. It can be rooted in your past and it can be caused by your future. Anxiety can make you terrified to leave the house and it can make you want to stay out of it as much as possible. Equally, for some anxiety can be managed with medication, others need to talk it inside out and some need both. Some people find that CBT helps, others think it useless and get nothing from it.
There is no doubt that it is a good thing that more and more people today are talking about their mental health. There is no doubt that the fact that more people can recognise and report experiencing anxiety is a good thing. There is also no doubt that we still have a long way to go in terms of helping those who need help, support and medication for mental health problems. Just as different treatments work for different people, anxiety is experienced differently by everyone.
We need to start using our words to express anxiousness and describe anxiety – to recognise that it’s a vast experience which affects people in different ways and find new ways to talk about that so people can continue to better understand and approach it. The current language has limits and anxiety, as it's wont to do, spills out beyond them. It refuses to be contained by seven letters and four syllables.
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