‘I think there’s a cliché in the UK about the stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on and all that. Many people suffer quietly,’ Louise Chunn, former editor of Psychologies and founder of the mental health website welldoing.org, tells me. I’ve called her to talk about anxiety, the world’s most common mental disorder, and how it has managed to affect almost every person you and I know. I’ve always viewed anxiety as fleeting, like a bad hangover or a summer cold. But for many, it’s become the new normal. Or as The Telegraph called it, an ‘epidemic’ sweeping through Generation Y. ‘People think anxiety is a minor ailment, but of course it’s not a minor ailment when you’re going through it,’ Chunn says.
I’m a relatively optimistic, smiley kind of person who can find an upside to the worst of scenarios. I can make lemonade out of the rind. Dumped by your boyfriend? A smarter, hotter Lucky Blue Smith doppelganger is around the corner! Lost your job? Now you can be more Zuckerberg and start that dot-com you’ve always been talking about! Broken both your legs? Well, say yes to guilt-free Netflix binge-watching! I’m the person who people come to for a pep talk – and the cheese, wine and box of tissues I always have at the ready.
Life is beautiful, right? Right?
But lately, conversations with many of my closest friends, women who seem to have it all together on the outside, are becoming more fraught and existential as the world around us becomes more unpredictable. And I’ve been having a hard time drumming up positive answers. What will our lives look like in 20 years? Will our jobs be replaced by apps? Are we saving enough money? Working smartly enough? Should we be building a personal brand? Investing in likes? Or rebelling against it all? These questions drive home the fact that the future, for all of us, looks uncertain. And that a bottle of red and a cheeseboard isn’t always enough.
Anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness or uneasiness about an indeterminate outcome. It affects one in five people, with women being 70% more likely to experience it during their lifetime than men, according to a YouGov survey conducted for Mental Health Awareness Week and The National Institute for Mental Health respectively.
In many ways, it does feel like an epidemic. Search interest in anxiety is the highest it has ever been in Google’s existence. (An ironic thing considering many would say Google and the like are partly to blame, disrupting everything we know including the way we socialise, date, work and play.) The Twitter account @sosadtoday sums up an entire generation’s angst and disillusionment through terribly sad, awfully hilarious tweets for its 275k followers. Things like, ‘This too shall pass and come back resistant to therapy’, and, ‘Excited for my expectations to turn into resentments.’
The topic spreads in fashion too, with bloggers and editors writing articles about ‘generation burnout’; the designers who have been unable to preserve their creativity and mental health in the face of fashion’s cut-throat pace. The most worrying aspect is, few talk openly about it on the kind of day-to-day level that can lead to recovery. ‘It’s still very taboo,’ says Rachel Boyd, Information Manager at mental health charity Mind.
Chunn adds: ‘I think young women worry that if they tell their friends they’re struggling with anxiety or seeing a therapist, they will be seen as weak. I think that’s sad, actually. If you start seeing a therapist it’s a good sign that you’re doing something about it.’ She says the stigma causes the silence, which ultimately holds back women who struggle with anxiety. Here, three women share their experiences beating it…
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‘IF I FAIL, I WON’T DROWN’
Tamu McPherson, 38, founder of alltheprettybirds.com. Daily anxiety conquered, one phobia obliterated
I always thought I’d be successful. ‘Growing up, I was an overachiever. I set the bar high. I used to experience a certain amount of anxiety at university. You know, it was the usual thing: struggling to get your marks up after the first year of partying. But it wasn’t until I started law school that the anxiety became more persistent. Grades determined which internship we got, which in turn determined what law firm you got to work for, which determined what kind of career you would have. So the exams could make or break you: you had to get into a top-tier firm in order to have a top-tier career.
And when you’re 21, these worries can seem like the end of the world. I began to experience a really high level of test-related anxiety and it was hard to come down from. I had always been sensitive health-wise, a hypochondriac. But being at law school pushed me over the edge. For me, anxiety meant a general feeling of being wound up and restless, not being able to concentrate or think, not being able to sleep. I felt really jittery and out of control.
It starts with a thought, a fear, and then you can’t control the thought and it spirals into panic and irritation. I didn’t hyperventilate but it did become physical. I felt it in my chest and my heart. It wasn’t exactly pain, but it felt tight and heavy. ‘For my second year of finals, I got so anxious that I began going to the doctor regularly, asking to be tested for whatever I could think of. I was projecting my fear of failure on to my body. When I would go out to eat with friends, I’d clean the utensils. I wouldn’t use public toilets. I wouldn’t touch door handles in public places. Eventually, my hypochondria escalated to me having a serious panic attack.
It happened during exam time of my second year of law school. I hadn’t been hearing back from all of the firms that I wanted to. All of my classmates were talking about having been placed in the right firm. And I was an overachiever. When you’re in that kind of competitive atmosphere, if you’re really ambitious you fall into a trap where you have to do more, and more, and more to get ahead. And so it reached a point where I had trouble coping: the worrying paralysed me for a full two weeks, during most of which I didn’t sleep.
I needed advice about how to handle it, so I went to a doctor for clinical and behavioural advice. In the first minute, he said, ‘You need Prozac.’ This was 2000, when everyone was on it. ‘But I wanted him to say, ‘When you’re feeling this way, you should just breathe,’ or talk me through my problems. I wanted to learn how to conquer these feelings in my head. I didn’t want the medicine.
My breakthrough came from a place I didn’t expect: my swimming instructor. When I was a child, I was in an accident in a swimming pool that caused a real fear of deep water. So I decided that I wanted to conquer this as an adult. I thought it could help me. It was during a lesson when he was trying to teach me how to float in water that my instructor told me, ‘You’re afraid of letting go.’ I remember his temperament being mild › and balanced, and he told me I was afraid of uncertainty. It was through these swimming lessons, and his teaching me to navigate water, that the anxious feeling began to dissipate; I began to gain some control of my feelings. I would be in the lessons, floating in the water, with my instructor holding me up and then letting go. ‘You have to learn to trust yourself. Don’t be so afraid and uptight,’ he’d say. The metaphor made me realise that I would be fine.
Life and my career – both had been feeling like deep water. Learning how to swim showed me that I didn’t have to sink. I’m married with a son and now I live in Milan where I run my blog, alltheprettybirds.com, and shoot regularly for magazines. I stopped practising law in January 2005 and decided to pursue fashion photography, which I had always been passionate about. Many people have this impression of me as successful. But I still get pangs of anxiety on occasion – it’s in my nature to worry. But psychologically, the swimming lessons taught me not to fear the deep water. People don’t just drown every day. I’ve had to learn to not be so afraid of failing. How many times have we heard hugely successful people say things like, ‘I failed 56 times before I got it right’?
‘I still have those vulnerable moments when I think, ‘Other bloggers have more followers than me, I’m so behind.’ The thoughts still creep up. But what’s changed is how I handle them. The pressure to get followers, likes and instant approval on Instagram can lead to stress and anxiety for some individuals. It’s easy to become obsessed with the instant gratification associated with the platform. Who doesn’t love compliments about their looks and/or their taste? The instant approval of images can become a bit addictive and push a person to try to consistently garner the same positive responses from followers, and more likes.
‘These days, it’s more about a healthy competitive spirit than paralysing myself with anxiety and fear to perform. And it’s not simply about success. It’s just because, at the end of the day, when I think of what I will do next, it’s not so scary not to know. I’m not afraid of evolution. Even as uncertain as that is.’
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‘I NO LONGER WANT TO GET OFF THE RIDE’
Katy Weber, 40, journalist. Two kids, two bouts of depression deconstructed.
I’ve struggled with depression ever since I reached puberty as a girl in Canada. It was something that hit me pretty strong at university and I went on Prozac. I was obsessed with how I was different as a result of the antidepressants and whether or not this was a happy pill. I didn’t stay on them for very long, I just thought, ‘Oh well I just need more sunlight and exercise and to get over it on my own.’
And I pretty much did. I moved to New York, fell in love, got married, my life was great. But I’m a glass half-empty kind of person and nearly always have been. I got pregnant, and I was nervous to have kids. I never wanted babies until I got married and thought, ‘Well, I want to have your baby. We are going to do this together.’ I had my first daughter and had to go back to work at the New York newspaper where I was a news editor, 12 weeks after having her. It was awful. I grew up in Canada, so all my friends were having 12 months of maternity leave while I was stuck with 12 weeks. It was a real shock, and I went from loving my job and my career to suddenly hating it. I didn’t want to be there and felt guilty for leaving my daughter with someone else.
I was also crying a lot. I thought, once my baby gets more sleep, I’ll stop feeling so emotional. I kept thinking that around the corner was something that would solve all of my problems. That didn’t happen. Instead, I had a breakdown.
I was home alone with my daughter and a plate broke and I collapsed into tears and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t even cope with a broken plate. ‘I can’t overstate how difficult it is to be a first-time mother and deal with sleep deprivation and going back to work in a city where you have no family nearby. You love your baby, but at the same time you feel like you want to get out of your life and escape. That’s when I realised I had post-natal depression.
When I went to the doctor, I couldn’t even utter the words ‘I need help’ without bursting into tears. My doctor put me on an antidepressant called Celexa, which helps to correct the chemical imbalance in the brain that can cause depression. Nearly overnight, things changed. I had been afraid to take medication because I thought it would make me feel inauthentic, that I would lose something. But none of that happened. I just felt normal again.
I stopped taking the medication when I became pregnant with my second child and had anxiety throughout. I was very nervous that something bad would happen to him, like maybe when he was born the umbilical cord would be wrapped around his neck.
After I had him, I think a lot of my problems had to do with sleep depravation. I’d wake up in the night to feed my son and I’d be paralysed with fear. I wasn’t sure where this was coming from. He was healthy, my daughter was healthy. I had difficulty travelling in a car and I was afraid for my husband to get behind the wheel. I was always afraid the car would careen out of control and we’d die. My life was slowly falling apart.
So I went back on Celexa and, again, it was like I had my mind and body back and could cope with the curve balls. It’s like, ‘OK, things aren’t easy, but I’ve got this.’ For me, taking the meds was about finding myself.
I see a lot of women who I think would benefit from antidepressants but no one wants to hear that. I feel like the best thing I can do is talk openly about the fact that this happened to me and that I’m on them, and that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m a functioning human being, I’m fun, and I live my life in a very happy way without being out of balance. I like to say, ‘I live with depression.’ I manage it. I don’t wake up every day feeling like I want to die. If I wasn’t on antidepressants I know I’d want to just get off the ride. But you know what? The ride’s not stopping.
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‘FOUR OF MY 10 CLOSE GIRLFRIENDS HAVE HAD PANIC ATTACKS’
Kristin Sørenson, 31, senior telecoms manager. Two big promotions, one nervous breakdown conquered.
I had my first panic attack in London. I had been living here for about two years and working at my job at the time, an IT consulting company, for about one year. Work wasn’t particularly stressful, but I led a very hectic life. I was constantly out socialising, never having a break.
In a city like London, you can just keep going, going, going if you don’t watch yourself. It was 2007; I was in a pub with friends and started feeling really dizzy, as if I were going to faint. I panicked and got really scared, so my friends took me to the A&E. I was hyperventilating and wasn’t sure what was happening. The doctors did all these tests and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They checked for neurological issues, and then said it was probably psychological. They told me, ‘We can’t do anything for you. Go see your GP.’
I went to see the GP, who referred me to a psychologist. I didn’t want to go, which is ironic because I studied psychology at university. ‘I’m not really that sick,’ I thought. I was in denial.
After that happened, I started experiencing similar symptoms whenever I tried to go out and then it began to happen on the tube. This went on for nearly a month, to the point where I stopped wanting to go anywhere outside of work. I started spending more and more time at home.
I began doing basic cognitive behavioural therapy, which I had studied during my degree, on myself. I started rationalising the experiences and feelings I was having and told myself it wasn’t life-threatening, but rather my body was going through emotional stress. So I started exposing myself to the very places that would make me uncomfortable. I would force myself to take the tube. I didn’t want to slip into this extended state of avoidance. I should have just gone to see a therapist, but it’s a bit taboo in my culture (I’m Scandinavian). I viewed needing therapy as a sign of weakness.
My self-therapy worked for a bit. My life became more career-focused as I moved from one company to the next, one role to another more senior position. I eventually joined a larger telecommunications firm, where I’ve been for the past two-and-a-half years. It’s also where the real problems began to set in.
In the beginning it was good. I was working on massive projects and big product launches. It was exciting, but challenging as well, with everyone trying to keep up with the latest digital advancements. I was given an even more senior position, managing a team of other managers while simultaneously recruiting candidates for my old role and covering for a second more junior position I was hiring someone to fill. I had never done all of this before. I had never been the boss to such a large team.
I worked in the office from 9am to 8pm and then went home and worked until 11pm. Inevitably, I crashed. It wasn’t a panic attack, but rather a nervous breakdown. My symptoms were textbook: I had acid in my stomach and unexplained pains in my arms. I developed eczema, something I’d never had before. I’d reached a state of constant emotional tension – I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t have the energy. I burned out.
I reached a place mentally where I couldn’t handle anything and I’d start crying for no reason. For example, I was given a massive new project to start (in my field these take two to three years from start to finish) and I started weeping. I couldn’t function and ended up having to go on sick leave for three weeks. I made an appointment to see my GP, who encouraged me to go back to work. In retrospect, this is the worst thing I could have ever done.
Full disclosure: on my team, there’s a history of people having nervous breakdowns. Five, to be exact. When I was on sick leave, three others were also off on sick leave. And before that, two people had been on stress leave. It’s an industry filled with lots of disruption.
I think the kind of work culture we’re in at the moment is changing so fast. In my industry in particular, telecoms and technology, it’s difficult to keep pace. Everyone is working faster in order to stay ahead. I went to see a therapist who advised antidepressants. But I wanted to find other ways to cope, so I started using mindfulness as a supplement to my therapy sessions. I have the meds, if I need them. But I hope I won’t ever have to take them. Plus, the mindfulness practice and talk therapy have worked just fine. I like to use an app called Headspace, which teaches you how to meditate and manage your negative thoughts.
I’ve also begun to talk more openly to my friends about my struggles with anxiety, and through doing so have discovered that four out of my 10 close girlfriends have had similar experiences. Anxiety is more common than we know. ●