‘I controlled anxiety and you can too’Comment on this story
London - So far, it hasn’t been the best week for the female of the species. Researchers in the US say there is no real evidence that a diet rich in red wine and chocolate is good for you (they’re lying, obviously).
And, the Mental Health Foundation published a report saying that anxiety among women has increased significantly since 2009.
Note the language here: “anxiety”, not depression. The two are not the same thing.
And I should know. Because a few years ago I was diagnosed with something called “generalised anxiety disorder”.
I know, it sounds as if one of those silly made-up syndromes designed to legitimise something that essentially amounts to being a bit useless.
But the only reason I ended up with this diagnosis was because I was exhibiting some very real and uncharacteristic symptoms.
Having always been a lazybones, I began waking early, worried about everything and nothing in particular.
I developed a slight buzzing in my ears, as though a small insect with a very urgent appointment were struggling to get out. Sometimes, I would get a big lump in my throat, which sort of sat on my chest and made it hard to breathe.
My fingers would start to swell up, and I felt as if I needed to plunge my body in cold water. I had lots to do but never seemed to get anything done.
I went to see my GP, who assured me I wasn’t dying (health fears are another symptom) and referred me to a nice lady who explained that I wasn’t mad at all; I was just very, very worried - about the children, my career, my husband’s career, the yobbos hanging round outside our house, the world’s bees dying out, asteroids falling from space - you name it: general anxiety disorder.
Anxiety, she said, was a healthy human reaction to danger. But if a person, for whatever reason (and I’m sure these latest numbers are at least partly related to the financial crash of 2008/9), finds themself in a series of highly stressful situations, the panic button can get stuck. Women especially are prone to this, since they are natural multi-taskers. Just as they juggle their busy lives, they also juggle their worries.
Men, by contrast, are much better at compartmentalisation. It’s not that they worry less; it’s just that they don’t worry about all the worries all the time. Anyway, the good news is there are things you can do to break the cycle. The key for me was training myself not to worry about things I can’t control; and learning to live in the moment.
People call this mindfulness, and it is all the rage on the mental wellness scene. But don’t let that put you off, because it really works.
I was recently on an aircraft that got caught in a very strong crosswind. It was a seriously bumpy ride; in fact, the pilot made two aborted landings before diverting elsewhere. I won’t pretend I wasn’t shaken. But, to my surprise, I wasn’t nearly as hysterical as I might have been. This was because, as the craft flipped wildly from side to side, I focused on the land below, admiring the beauty of the landscape and simply refusing to let my brain play out the consequences of hitting the Tarmac at 150 miles an hour.
Every time my mind tried to press the panic button, I gently but firmly guided it away. After all, there was no point: I couldn’t control the wind and I wasn’t flying the plane. That makes it sound as if I’ve turned into some weird, ultra-rational Mr Spock character; I haven’t.I can be just as batty as I’ve ever been (just ask my husband).
But I know how to clear my mind. It doesn’t always work, of course. But it helps a lot.
GENERALISED ANXIETY DISORDER - THE FACTS
The High Court in Pretoria has ruled that murder accused Oscar Pistorius should undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he had been affected by mental illness, specifically Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February last year.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says there has been an increase in misunderstanding about mental illnesses like GAD. “People who suffer from GAD are becoming scared of stigma and the reaction of others, and concerned that they or a loved one are potentially dangerous”, says SADAG's Operations Director Cassey Chambers in a statement.
SADAG said anxiety was often misunderstood. While it is perfectly normal to feel anxious from time to time, particularly when you live in a stressful environment, severe, ongoing anxiety that interferes with your daily functioning is not healthy.
“GAD is a persistent, intense and excessive worrying of such severity that it interferes with someone's functioning”, says Johannesburg psychologist Kevin Bolon.
When you worry about everything, and your worrying takes up so much time and energy that you start slipping in your work and social responsibilities, there is a problem.
“My worries consume me some days and I feel anxious even when there's no reason to”, says Lara, a 33-year-old GAD sufferer. “I often have this overwhelming feeling that something terrible is going to happen - my family and friends just don't get it.”
Anxiety doesn't go away on its own - and can get worse over time, so the earlier it is treated, the better, SADG says.
More than twice as many women as men are diagnosed with GAD (which doesn't mean that men don't suffer from GAD). Childhood trauma, chronic illness, stress, and genetics (anxiety may run in families) are some of the risk factors for GAD.
Living with Generalised Anxiety Disorder can be a long-term challenge. “It causes people to be hyperaware of possible dangers like illness, personal security, and possible natural disasters, and see things as more serious or dangerous than they actually are”, says Bolon. It can also lead to, or worsen, other mental and physical health conditions, like depression, insomnia, substance abuse, headaches, and stomach pain.
In order to be diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, there are certain criteria that must be met, including:
* excessive anxiety and worry most days of the week for at least six months
* difficulty controlling feelings of worry
* anxiety that causes distress or interferes with daily life.
* feelings of restlessness, fatigue, inability to concentrate, muscle tension or problems sleeping.
“GAD is a very uncomfortable and stressful condition”, says Bolon, but he stresses that the condition is not dangerous. Anxiety is an introspective issue and sufferers of GAD are highly unlikely to be dangerous to others.
Anxiety disorders like Generalised Anxiety Disorder are highly treatable and there are many treatment options available - therapy, medication and support groups play an important role as well as lifestyle changes.
SADAG has an extensive referral list and information available on their website www.sadag.org . The counselling centre can be contacted on 0800 21 22 23 or 0800 567 567, 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm. - IOL