Everyone worries. We all get anxious, feel fearful. Maybe we get nervous before an exam, a job interview, or a presentation. Perhaps we get that wave of panic when we are walking home alone at night – thinking that everyone around us might be following us. We might feel anxious about starting a new hobby – running through scenarios in our minds of everyone being better than us, people judging, laughing, mocking. Sometimes that anxiety stops us doing things. Sometimes we can ignore the anxious thoughts and racing heartbeat – but it still takes a toll on our energy and concentration.
Remember those times you’ve felt anxious. You knew that being anxious or worried wasn’t going to solve anything. And it probably felt awful, maybe it made you feel sick with worry or just unable to get to the practical solution you needed. Yet there was no way to make that go away.
Anxiety disorders are similar, but the things that can trigger those worries may be less common than the more understandable job interview, and they normally come with extreme, unforgiving symptoms that take over lives and leave no room to feel other emotions or sensations. Imagine having those pre-exam nerves, at that level, for days at a time – you would be exhausted, and terrified. And it’s so important when trying to understand these disorders, that we don’t focus on the cause – ‘oh it’s so silly to be worried about that, it’s just a bit of dirt, get over it’ and focus on those feelings and symptoms – we can all relate to that.
A lesser known disorder, and not widely understood as a type of anxiety, is hypochondria, or health anxiety. This is a chronic and unwavering fear that there is something medically wrong. Lucie talks about her daughter’s experience:
“[She had] a constant worry that something was seriously wrong with her. Some illness, some disease, some undetected health problem that was going to suddenly end her life. From then on in her days became marred with overanalysing every ache, every pain, every sensation that her body feels. ‘Googling’ her symptoms and carrying out numerous body checks such as monitoring her pulse, then constantly seeking reassurance that what she was experiencing and feeling is normal. Her nights became spent lying awake, trying to turn off her negative thoughts, trying to stop herself from noticing her heart beating in her chest, trying to ignore the sensations that are coursing throughout her body as a result of the anxiety that has built up. Praying that no panic attack would follow and willing herself to please, just go to sleep. “
It’s evident from this that health anxiety is not about loving going to the doctor, or wanting attention. In fact, in Lucie’s case, her daughter hid the condition so well that it lead to Lucie questioning her own parenting:
“How did this happen? What did I do wrong? Am I at fault here? When did I take my eye off the ball and how could I not notice that my girl was suffering? Truth is, I didn’t do anything wrong. My girl was just pretty good at hiding how she was feeling from me, from all of us, but why? Well, she felt stupid, was embarrassed, ashamed even, that she was feeling the way that she was and, like many others her age, she didn’t know what to do or how to reach out for help.”
That shame can be common for many people with anxiety, and it can often lead to hiding, or being secretive about their condition. There is no easy fix for these conditions, but a more general understanding from those around them at least allows people to not use whatever energy they have spare to hide how they are doing.
We have all been anxious at some point in our lives, no matter how fleeting. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. At Blink we are really keen on peer-to-peer support, on being able to talk to others if we need to. We know that not everyone is a mental health professional and we don’t encourage people to try to be. But we hope that by presenting anxiety disorders in this way, we can inspire more relatable, empathetic, and supportive conversations.
Thank you to Lucie Llewellyn for her contribution, the full story of her daughter’s experience of health anxiety will be published shortly on Blink.