The theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (15th to 21st May) is Anxiety.
Here Dave Smithson, Operations Director of the charity Anxiety UK , explains more about the nature of anxiety and suggests ways people struggling with anxiety can get help or help themselves.
We position anxiety as that feeling of unease or fear that we get when we’re faced with a threatening or difficult situation. Something that creates that little bit of fear. However, anxiety can be quite a normal and sometimes even helpful emotion to experience. But if that anxiety becomes too strong or if it’s there all the time, then it can become a long-term condition or disorder. Particularly if it starts to interfere with your day-to-day functioning and it stops you getting on with doing what you need or want to do.
Some anxiety is normal
We all feel a little anxious about some things on occasion, but it doesn’t stop us doing those things, does it?
Public speaking is something that a lot of people get anxious about, but they still go ahead and do it. They can overcome those fears and worries and manage it through various means. So, it’s about that fear or worry becoming so great and so strong that it stops you being able to function normally. With social anxiety you start to avoid situations or avoid going out and meeting with your friends and socialising.
Agoraphobia is also a form of anxiety, fear of being away from that safe, comfortable place where you feel content. I once had a woman tell me she hadn’t left her own home for over three years because agoraphobia was so all encompassing and debilitating for her.
So, at Anxiety UK we work to try and help raise awareness, provide information, support and advice on all levels of stress, anxiety disorders, stress and anxiety-based depression, through a whole range of different services, a lot of which are now available, of course, online post the pandemic. We also provide access to talking therapy, which is often the gold standard of support that people can expect for anxiety.
Anxiety does not discriminate
Anxiety can affect anybody and everybody. There is evidence that there is a genetic link and that it is passed down in our DNA for some people. Other causes could be traumatic experiences. PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, used to be classified as an anxiety condition. However, in the last Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that came out, it was separated out into its own category. But trauma and PTSD can be a cause of anxiety. Genetic links are there.
An imbalance in chemicals in our bodies and in our brains can cause anxiety. Lived experiences, and certainly growing up, learnt behaviours. So, a lot of simple fears and phobias like the fear of spiders, the fear of mice can be based on experience. If you grew up in a house that whenever a spider was seen crossing the kitchen floor, somebody screamed and jumped on a stool as a young person, you would’ve regarded that as normal behaviour and you would learn that behaviour by those around you.
Your siblings or guardians or parents’ behaviour would influence your own behaviour the same as they influence our behaviour in other ways. And so learned behaviours is another cause of anxiety. So, there are lots of different reasons and anybody can be susceptible to that.
Lots of high profile celebrities have recently been talking about their anxieties, helping to put it on the map and reducing some of the stigma which is great. But you also hear people say, “Oh, well what do you have to be anxious about?” Or “You’re a big famous footballer earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, why are you anxious? You have nothing to be anxious about.” Well, they have, and anxiety isn’t restricted to a particular socioeconomic group. It can impact anybody regardless of your personal circumstances or any other characteristics.
Help is at hand
First and foremost, the important thing to do is to talk about it. Talk to somebody about it to overcome the stigma. Don’t be worried about it. It is okay to be not okay, and it’s okay to talk to somebody about it. People worry about being judged and the impact it might have, particularly if it’s a work-related issue. But talking to somebody can really help.
If you are someone who’s supporting somebody with anxiety, be non-judgmental and try to be as empathetic as you can be. Listen, support, and follow through. If you say you’re going to do something to help them, make sure you do it and follow through with it. Give them the time and space they need. Try and put yourself in their shoes and imagine what it must be like for them before you rush to judgement.
Then encourage them to look at some of the self-help tools and techniques that are available. There are lots of products out there that can help. There are podcasts, self-help books, self-help materials, breathing exercises, and distraction techniques. We have a couple of leaflets on our website that are free for people to download with guidance on different breathing distraction techniques they can try.
As well as those simple self-help tools, they may want to consider a peer support group. We run an online peer support group twice a week now. If these things are not helping, you might need more professional help. And that’s when you need to reach out to your GP, who may suggest medication if that’s something you want to try, or talking therapy, which is what the NICE guidelines recommend. That’s usually cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT. There are often waiting lists for this. It varies indifferent parts of the country.
That’s where we come in. A lot of people turn to Anxiety UK and access therapy with us because our talking therapy services are available to all of our members. You need to be a member of the charity to be able to access them, but the therapy fees are then discounted. You would be allocated to an Anxiety UK approved therapist who is a private therapist, but they charge a discounted sliding scale of therapy fees, for our clients based on their personal financial circumstances. So, it’s a means tested system. And most of our clients will have their first appointment with a therapist within two weeks.
We have a help line number 0344 4775774, that’s open 9:30 to 5:30, Monday to Friday. There’s a chat bot on our website that can signpost you to information and advice on our website 24/7. So, the chat service will guide you around the website. We’ll even signpost you to some of the free resources that you can download from our website. You can also contact us any anytime night or day. And even if we are not there, our chat bot, called Ask Anxia, will help you.
Please don’t suffer in silence, talk to someone or get in touch with us.