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Anxiety and me

Would you recognise anxiety if you saw it?

Some signs are obvious, of course, such as the bitten lip, the bouncing knee, the shaking hand and the breaking voice. But what about the unseen anxiety, the anxiety that is publicly conquered and outwardly controlled but at great personal expense?

What about the fight to get out of bed every morning when every instinct tells you not to? What about the constant overthinking and worrying, stationary fear in a cloak of normality? What about the predicting, scaremongering, pessimistic devil inside, determined to trip you up?

What about the person who turns up to work looking fine, but who only just made it after winning today’s exhausting, gruelling battle with their own mind?

Would you recognise that?

Maybe not.

At present, anxiety and depression account for 40% of global disability. Just let that sink in. Forty percent. Four out of ten. Two out of five. We must therefore accept that anxiety is one of the most debilitating weights that acts upon the human condition, and we must understand that, in order to thrive as a race, solutions are desperately needed.

The advent of social media, that ubiquitous mirror of critical self-comparison, has exacerbated our nervous tendencies, particularly among teenagers and young adults, creating a cauldron of anxious frustration. Our association of self-worth has been diluted to a quantification of likes and followers, retweets and views. More than ever before, we must compare ourselves to other people, grade ourselves in a merciless taxonomy of lies and pretence. Image is king. Everything else is contributory.

In my unqualified view, an untreated surfeit of anxiety is the single biggest catalyser and accelerator of mental disorder(s) within humanity.

Every single person in the world experiences anxiety. It’s a natural response to impending danger, the fight or flight instinct that aids our survival and prosperity. However, anxiety becomes a problem for those who experience extremely strong responses to potential danger, or who feel anxious even when no real danger is present. The clinically anxious mind creates danger, problems and worries, often as works of fiction, then exaggerates our responses to that imagined panic.

All too often, anxiety is the solvent, failure is the flame and depression is the consequence. When you drill down to the very bedrock of almost any mental illness, you will find a crippling surplus of, or a disorderly relationship with, anxiety. It’s a predatory killer of confidence, skill and genius, robbing society of generational gifts and leaving great potential unfulfilled. Anxiety is a core constituent of myriad mental health disorders. It’s the gateway ingredient, the accentuating force, and it must be disarmed through a unified opposition to stigma.

Right now, as a global populace, we are losing extraordinarily gifted people whose only relief from the searing dread authored by anxiety is found in isolation, self-alienation and motionless states of waiting for the dark cloud to pass. We cannot afford to waste the talent that exists within each of those forgotten souls, those troubled minds. We can’t allow these people to be cooped up in their bedrooms, curtains closed and hope dwindling.

We have to get them out here, creating and contributing, delivering their genius. But to do that, building a better world in the process, we must first create an environment in which people with anxiety disorders feel comfortable, away from judgement, obligation, oppressive capitalism and social justification. Away from macho maltreatment and insecurity dressed as bullying.

Just let people be and our happiness will soar.

We have made huge strides in understanding anxiety, to a point where the subject now resides on the cultural menu of seemingly acceptable struggles. However, anxiety is still invoked incorrectly to explain general reticence, discomfort or apathy. People still use ‘anxiety’ as a catch-all descriptor of dread, when in actuality it is a hypernym for several very different disorders of the mind. Anxiety is not an adjective. It is an umbrella term encompassing many debilitating conditions deserving of greater appreciation.

Generalised anxiety disorder is characterised by chronic anxiety, often without provocation or realistic justification.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is distinguished by recurrent, unwanted thoughts, thinking patterns and a cyclical association of contentment attained only through fulfilment of rituals and specific activities.

Panic disorder is marked by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear, often manifested in physical complications.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is identified by unwelcome and inexorable replays of distressing events, situations and feelings, preventing people from progressing with their lives entirely or without great hardship.

Social anxiety disorder is comprised of an overwhelming self-consciousness in everyday situations, with a pervasive fear of judgement or condemnation repeatedly stifling sufferers.

It’s not uncommon for people to associate with three or more of these conditions, which can be interlinked and overlapping. The complex interaction between different mental disorders adds to the enormous burden on our minds, but also on our bodies. Mental ill health has physical side effects, too, and many people don’t appreciate that.

Anxiety is tiring. Anxiety is draining and exhausting. Anxiety is relentlessly demanding. Mix it with OCD, like me, and sometimes you just want to curl up in a ball and sleep for a week.

Unforgiving and brash, society requires the wearing of a mask in order to avoid judgment. Straight-laced and stoney-faced, we must change ourselves to achieve goals and realise ambitions because anything outside the status quo is dismissed as strange, weird or unreliable.

For too long, society has insisted on a rigid identification of success, and people have restrained their inner souls in order to achieve it. Success wears a suit. Success takes itself seriously. Success is male, pale and stale. Success keep its mouth shut. Success stays late at the office. Success says yes to anything and everything.

It’s time for that to change.

True diversity, rather than showcase effort, is needed more than ever before. We yearn for a genuine desire for change rather than transparent marketing gimmicks disguised as equality.

Embrace the so-called weirdness. Let people define their own happiness, value and purpose rather than triaging their worth based on their ability to generate profit. Stop judging, because that time has been and gone.

Hopelessness is the darkest state a human can endure. I believe it to be the most potent precursor to suicide anywhere in existence. To be hopeful requires positivity, which is reliant on energy. Anxiety zaps energy with alarming speed, making it a dangerous force that must be managed above all else.

I’ve struggled with various forms of anxiety since an early age. As a kid, chronic shyness and natural introversion morphed into social awkwardness and conversational discomfort. In 2013, the paralysing thought of adjusting to different situations and meeting new people led me to surrender a place at Liverpool John Moore’s University, where I was due to study journalism. I just couldn’t face the challenge, as anxiety robbed me of some fantastic opportunities.

I developed a strong career in freelance journalism, writing for the Guardian, BBC Sport, Liverpool Echo and others, gradually leaving my shell, but obsessive-compulsive disorder ruled my life, driving me to wonderful and horrendous places in quite unequal measure.

In 2017, I transitioned to full-time employment, growing personally and professionally, learning to cope with some aspects of my mental health better than others. Nevertheless, anxiety - in its many forms - was still a contributor to the breakdown I suffered throughout 2018. Untreated and rampant, my anxiety disorders meshed with stress and general burnout to create a formally-diagnosed depression.

I’m fortunate to have come through that painful stage in my life, reaching a position where I’m no longer inhibited by shyness nor ravaged by self-doubt. My self-esteem is no longer controlled by external forces, by other people, by the endless quest for acceptance. The journey has been long and treacherous, requiring a holistic approach to recovery including medicinal corrections, but I’ve got there.

I’ve done a lot of critical self-analysis. I’ve made a lot of changes. I’ve cut things out and finally listened to the real me, that original voice inside. The wisdom of people like Gary Vaynerchuk, preaching a philosophy of non-judgemental self-expression, have helped me reconnect with my soul. I can see my ambitions more clearly now, and the road to achieving them is back in focus.

The role of my girlfriend, Patrycja, in transforming my outlook has also been phenomenal. She entered my life at such a bleak, confusing juncture, when I was totally lost, awash in a sea of bitter hopelessness. Patrycja taught me how to become unbothered by the opinions of other people. She taught me to follow my passions, express my desires and let the real Ryan flow. Do what you love, she says, and do it for yourself. That’s when you’ll experience true value through authentic contentment rather than vacuous pacification through superficial popularity.

The penny finally dropped, and I can now express myself without fear of rejection, ridicule or mockery.

I just don’t care anymore - in a good way. After a lifetime of caring too much about absolutely everything, living at the precipice of anxiety-fuelled capitulation, being suddenly unhindered from worry feels good. It allows me to explore wider themes of recovery.

Some people don’t have that luxury. Some people can’t even understand the pain they are feeling, and their misery goes undefined. Being able to articulate my struggle is a gift. It’s a cathartic tool in my resurgence, and quite possibly a way of helping other people.

Anxiety can be seen as a corrupted interpretation of time and an under-appreciation of ability. It ignores vast experience. It is sceptical of intuition. It argues with ideas, admonishes solutions and is generally hostile to any form of rationality. Anxiety is the disease of ill-informed hunches, unwanted and unabated. It’s the ultimate impairment of perception.

Anxiety is not wanting to leave the house. Anxiety is cancelling plans and scuppering events, escaping from responsibility and snapping at your family. Anxiety is broaching the worst-case possibility in any situation. But anxiety is also the unspoken fear of unfulfilled potential; a chastening need to constantly act; and reluctantly participating in a world that doesn’t match your values.

Anxiety is chasing an ideal and losing yourself along the way.

It’s an essential ingredient in any breakdown.

The behavioural manifestations of anxiety can often appear lazy, boring or selfish. Stop lying on the couch! You never come to the pub anymore! Pull your weight! But when the nervy smog descends, depleting energy and dampening enthusiasm, mustering the forbearance to complete even the most menial task can feel impossible.

You are not lazy. You are not boring. You are not selfish. Put your health first, and don’t fret about what you cannot control, namely the way other people interpret the consequences of your struggle.

You’ve got this. Never give up.

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