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Don’t ask me what I’ve got to be anxious about – it hasn’t happened yet

Lucy Nichol explores whether these 'unprecedented times' mean those of us already diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are shaking in our heels / Dr Martens / Vans...the answer may surprise you.

By Lucy Nichol

We’re living through ‘unprecedented times’, we’re in ‘lockdown’ and we’re told to ‘stay alert’ (which apparently comes with a 467-page instruction manual as to what that actually means). And because of all this, the planet and its inhabitants are hosting an obscene amount of anxiety right now.

So, does that mean those of us already diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are shaking in our high heels / Dr Martens / Vans?

Weirdly, no. And here’s my view as to why that is…

When I was 18-years old, I felt a tightness in my chest. I felt breathless, I was exhausted, and I sounded like an old man with a 90-a-day Marlboro habit. As a teenager who had experienced panic attacks on and off for several years, you might start to imagine the turmoil I was in. Did I have cancer? Was it those ciggies I’d been smoking? Was it terminal?

The fear was palpable. Especially when the GP sent me for a chest X-Ray after confirming that I did, indeed, sound like an old man with a 90-a-day Marlboro habit. To say I was terrified is an understatement. My imagination got the better of me and I was already imagining what my mates would be wearing to my funeral.

As it turned out, I didn’t have cancer. I had pleurisy and pneumonia. So, I immediately calmed down, convalesced for a bit, and then went straight back out to Spiders nightclub in my high heels and teeny tiny lace dress. In the middle of winter.

See the thing is, anxiety disorders don’t make us weak or terrified of everything. They make us terrified of the unknown. Tell us that something might happen and that the consequences could be catastrophic, and we’ll panic. Tell us that something is happening and what that means, and we take it on the chin.

At least, that’s my experience, anyway.

The difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder is how relative the anxiety is, and how much impact it’s having on your life.

When we think about Coronavirus, we see people dealing with it in all manner of ways. Some are wearing gloves and face masks, some are self-isolating, some are feeling very panicked and cleaning their post with disinfectant. Others, meanwhile, are doing the conga on VE day. The strange response, in my view, is the latter, because we know for a fact that this virus is very real and very contagious, and the fatalities keep rising. We’ve every right to be anxious. We should be anxious. It’s having a big impact on our lives but it’s relative to the situation.

So those of us with anxiety disorders will obviously be far more anxious than Joe Public, right? Not necessarily. In fact, this isn’t my experience at all. 

I was concerned when I first heard about the virus. I found the idea of it coming to the UK terrifying, and, weirdly, I became obsessed with other types of health conditions – as my health anxiety often can make me do. As we entered lockdown, my job felt stressed, redundancies were a real possibility, and I was having daily meltdowns, lots of tears and plenty of wine. My GP put my anxiety meds up (I take antidepressants which for some people cause anxiety, and for some, like me, decrease anxiety).

But once things were put to me in black and white (I’m talking pre ‘Stay Alert’ campaign here when we all knew to ‘Stay at Home’) I calmed down immediately. There was a very real threat to my health gallivanting around the Co-Op and the park wearing an invisibility cape. So, I stayed at home and I took the precautions advised. I was made redundant and then understood my financial situation and what I needed to do (i.e. look for work) and I got on with it. There’s a bit of anxiety, of course, but no major meltdowns.

You see, for me anyway, the difference between normal levels of anxiety in response to real threats is very different from an anxiety disorder. My panic attacks are never, really, based on realistic situations. I’ve made myself believe that I’ve had all manner of terminal cancers, heart problems and even Motor Neurone Disorder (which was purely because I hurt my thumb while gardening once. I became obsessed and hit Google 20 times a day for two weeks). I sometimes think that one of my cats is stuck in the washing machine and have to turn it off and double-check – terrible images making their way into my head until I’ve fully accounted for all three cats.

A few years ago, I went through a period of believing that the bus was going to topple over, and experienced extreme feelings of panic whenever I sat on it. Once, I had to get off two stops early because I simply couldn’t face it. These anxieties are not based on actual threats. They are based on perceived threats. Ones that our minds conjure up into major life or death catastrophes. And when these panic attacks occur, I do indeed shake in my Dr Martens.

Anxiety disorders aren’t simply about being scared of life. It’s far more complex than that. It’s about being taken to terrifying places in our heads and encountering threats that don’t really exist. And it is about how these thoughts negatively impact our lives, by stopping us from doing the things we want or need to do (like getting on buses) and making us feel relentlessly ill and terrified.

We are not all hiding in corners of rooms or peeking behind our front doors like Aunt Josephine from Lemony Snicket or nervous Mavis from Coronation Street. The things that scare us would scare anyone – it’s just that most people would be able to distinguish between the perceived and the actual threat.

Some seriously kick-ass women live with crippling anxiety. Mental health warrior Natasha Devon took the government to task on Question Time and is a regular public speaker. Similarly, BAFTA-award-winning actor Rebecca Front has a hugely successful career. Both have openly talked about having panic attacks.

I guess my message is this: if you are feeling anxious about the pandemic, that’s pretty normal. However, if you find that you can’t do seemingly simple things like stand in a supermarket shopping queue (pre-pandemic, I mean) without having a panic attack then it might be worth speaking to your GP. But know this – it definitely doesn’t make you weak and you should never feel ashamed.

About the Author

Lucy Nichol is a writer, mental health campaigner and PR consultant, a regular blogger for Metro UK and former columnist with Sarah Millican’s Standard Issue magazine. Her work has also appeared in The Independent, The I Paper, NME, Red Magazine, Den of Geek, Huffington Post, The Mighty and All Mad Here. She is passionate about challenging mental health stigma and, as such, is a Time to Change volunteer who has appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire Show, Woman’s Hour and many regional programmes. Lucy has worked with the media in PR and marketing for over 15 years and has experienced anxiety for even longer, meaning she is well-placed to comment on the issue of mental health stigma. Lucy is also a freelance script advisor with Mind’s script advice team.

Lucy’s book – A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes: Naming and Shaming Mental Health Stigmas – is available now on Amazon, with the Kindle version currently 99p. 

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