Recent research revealed that almost 20 percent of Australians believe people who suffer from anxiety are ‘putting it on’ and are using this condition as an excuse to ‘get out of things’. This news is likely to leave the two million people in Australia suffering from anxiety feeling even more isolated and misunderstood.
But there is another side to this story which is more encouraging. The same research shows that more than 50 percent of us disagree with this idea and another 30 percent have no particular viewpoint. This means that at least half of the Australian population understands anxiety is real and exists on a continuum.
We know what it feels like to have a churning stomach when under pressure. We understand how your throat can suddenly close, snapping words in half, when you’re forced to speak publicly. We’re the ones who find ourselves wishing to be transported somewhere – anywhere - when faced with a job interview or a first date. We’ve learned to take deep breaths and tell ourselves that it will all be okay. And for the most part it is.
Being able to recognise our own fears and vulnerability not only helps us to manage these moments of anxiety, but it also helps us to understand the other end of the continuum.
This is where occasional nerves become a constant hum of fear. Where your heart races not only when faced with a new and challenging situation, but at the realisation you’re out of milk and need to go to the supermarket. Where everything feels like a threat.
It’s at this end of the spectrum where anxiety becomes a genuinely debilitating condition. Life becomes about avoidance rather than engagement. Saying ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’ in an attempt to stop the dread and fear.
So why do some of us experience severe anxiety? Perhaps we are ‘wired’ to be more reactive – we are quicker to respond with anger or fear and generally experience emotions more vividly. Or maybe we have come from a long line of ‘worriers’ and have learned to focus on and fret about life’s uncertainties. Some of us may have experienced a traumatic event that robbed us of our sense of safety and control and have developed the habit of ‘catastrophising’ where we think of the worst case scenario for every situation we face.
Whatever the reason for being at the more severe end of the anxiety spectrum, it’s important to remember there are ways to move back the other way. We can learn to calm our physical and emotional reactions through practices like mindfulness and breath work. We can start to break the habit of catastrophising and learn to think about better outcomes. We can slowly shift our mindset so we are in charge, able to control reactions and have less to fear. Ultimately, we can gradually push back the restrictive boundaries our anxiety has created and live more rewarding, fuller lives.
But this takes time. And it requires effort and persistence, often involving treatment and support from a psychologist, psychiatrist or GP.
Contact the SANE Help Centre if you are dealing with anxiety. We can help you explore treatment and support options. You can also join us in the SANE lived experience forum where you can share your experiences and be supported by others who have trodden a similar path.