‘Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.’
‘People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.’
– Definition of Anxiety from the American Psychological Association
This describes my experience with anxiety exactly. The surge of negative thoughts that plagued my head, stopping me from enjoying the things that brought me the most happiness. I found it difficult being with my friends and family or even just interacting with others when my thoughts wouldn’t allow me to think straight. Perversely, it became my best friend – I couldn’t go a week without having some sort of attack, that clouted both my mind and body.
This spells a similar story for many people in the U.K. Figures from Anxiety UK, state that 1 in 10 people in Great Britain are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life. For young people, there’s been a surge in anxiety diagnoses, with a study from 2015/16, reporting that more than 10,000 patients under the age of 18 were admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of anxiety.
Interestingly, this can also be witnessed in online searches. Research using Google Trends, indicates that depression and anxiety show up as two of the highest ranking mental health searches and that searches for anxiety have increased 18% in 2016 compared to 2015, with an astonishing 96% increase over the period of last 5 years. In young people mental health issues can be caused by school stress, online bullying and body image pressures. In adults, it can be financial troubles and job stress.
Looking back, my anxiety was spurred on by a combination of these issues. I was caught in the chasm of feeling old and young and finding it hard to cope with the challenges that life threw at me. I was at university, studying a subject I didn’t like and had no idea what I wanted to be. My older sister, had successfully completed university (as well as a masters) and landed herself a great job. I felt under pressure to do just as well as she did, as effortlessly too.
My thoughts became profoundly negative after my first year at uni. I was just about on a 2:2 while my peers were on 2:1’s or firsts. My self esteem was really affected and I felt I wasn’t smart enough, in fact I wanted to drop out. The pressure to stay on top of your game at a competitive law school left me feeling anxious and panicky. I remember missing weeks of term, visiting friends just to get away from it all. Though, I managed to finish with a 2:1, I never quite felt proud of myself, finding that my worries clouded my celebrations. Sounds wild right?
I also had health issues. I was (still am) battling with a debilitating skin condition, Hidradenitis Supparativa, which led to me having an operation that took six months to heal. I was stuck at home, visiting the nurse daily to dress my wounds unable to do them myself. After that finally healed, I developed a serious eye infection that had me rushed to the hospital and forced to stay awake for over 48 hours. I couldn’t close my eyes for fear that the infection would spread.
After that, I can admit I became a total mess. I became overly paranoid that I would get ill. I would make appointments to visit my GP every other week, so much that the nurses and doctors became concerned. I also felt lost in life in general, not really knowing who I wanted to be. I can remember clearly one evening, my heartbeat becoming so rapid due to all my constant worrying. My stomach was completely knotted up and my shoulders felt heavy. I could feel the metaphorical burden literally weighing down my body. It was this impending sense of doom that I couldn’t shake off, through uni, after my health issues and dealing with life.
Turning to friends for support also became a struggle, I worried even more that they would grow tired of my anxiousness and inevitably turn away from me. Many helped, but the need for constant reassurance made me feel it was best to keep my battle internal. But, nothing was actually going wrong, I was healthy and had a great support system.Yet, I was consumed with thoughts that something bad will happen and I would never amount to anything.
It wasn’t until when I started working and my manager pulled me to the side to talk. I had been slacking at work recently and she was concerned. I immediately burst out into tears, feeling almost delirious from the stress I felt. I had been going through a particularly anxious period that kept me awake at night and unable to feel at ease.Talking to my manger was extremely therapeutic and cathartic, but I knew I couldn’t rely on her. I had to seek professional help.
Now, l’ve always been sceptical about using any kind of mental health services. I saw it as treatment for extreme mental health issues not ‘common‘ anxiety. Plus I had always felt like I could get through my issues on my own (clearly not!) this kind of distain is often prevalent in black communities.
Research from the Mental Health Foundation suggests that African-Caribbean people living in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental illness than any other ethnicity in the UK. This may be because they are reluctant to engage with services, so are much more unwell by the time they do. Mental illness is a stigma within the black community and, because of a lack of participation with mental health authorities, experts admit there is a huge gap in statistics for this growing problem. I remember sitting one evening at home and watching a BBC News report on NHS mental health services. My mum, watching the report with me, suddenly kissed her teeth, labelling those people as ‘weak and lacked the ability to be resilient’. I was genuinely shocked by what she just said, but knew it was due to a lack of awareness and I was still determined to seek help for myself.
I spoke to a close friend who mentioned a counselling service called Off The Record. They are a charity in Croydon and Sutton providing free support to children and young people (ages 14-25) going through tough times. Support services include counselling, support for young carers, free online workshops and Community Development Work: supporting the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) community to develop mental health services. I was really weary about going to counselling but, my fears were quelled once I got there. I was assigned a counsellor who met up with me every month. Each session we discussed any issues I had and techniques on how to deal with them such as mindfulness. It definitely felt like a safe space where I could express myself and my fears. I needed to hear my worries out loud to help myself move on.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m completely perfect but I definitely feel like I’m getting better. Anxiety doesn’t have such a hold on me anymore. I’m able to rationalise extremely negative thoughts and compartmentalise them. Counselling helped me along my journey by giving me specific support. Though that’s not the end, anxiety doesn’t go away overnight, it takes conscious effect and a great amount of courage. I advise anyone really struggling with anxiety to seek help whether through family or professional. You can begin to overcome it with time.
Here are some other mental health organisations in the U.K:
Faces in Focus: similar to Off The Record, but for the borough of Lambeth
Recovr: helping young black adults find black therapists and counsellors who relate to their experiences.
Be you, all-ways