The Alphabet

A is for Anxiety

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A good way to pass the time is to believe you’re going to die. Right now! Die! Probably of some previously unknown illness specific to you! You weren’t dying a second ago, but now you are! R.I.P. you.

Anxiety affects about one-in-four people in Australia at some point in their lives. That is, frankly, heaps. All these people who sit on trains and stand in queues and go to the movies and who sometimes think, ‘Oh shit! Am I having a heart attack?’

Women are more prone to anxiety than men. Why? There are as many different reasons as to why someone gets anxiety, as there are different people. But it’s not surprising that it’s particularly higher for women than men – we’re constantly told not to go out alone, not to walk alone at night, to avoid parks and to cover up so men don’t leer at us and then be told we’re crazy when we point out the ridiculousness of it all?

I try to find these women with anxiety, on the infrequent occasions I go outside and interact with humans. I look for my own anxiety in them – does she look like she wants to run away forever? is she wearing sunglasses inside? is she talking really fast to the point where people might call the police because what if she has a gun and actually maybe she’s a cyborg sent from the future to talk really fast in shopping centres?

But the thing about anxiety is that it’s different for everyone. It’s hard to diagnose because the way it presents varies so much from person to person. Some people have generalised anxiety, which means they feel a level of anxiety most of the time. Some people have a panic disorder, which means they experience huge bursts of anxiety for short periods (panic attacks). Some people are lucky enough (where’s that sarcasm emoji when we need it?) to have a combination of these.

Anxiety disorders also include things like obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re really anything that grabs you in the heart and reminds you that you are definitely going to die one day, and if not right now, then maybe tomorrow, or the day after, or some day after that.

Anxiety can wreak havoc not just on your brain, but on your body as well. It can stop you from sleeping, or from staying awake. It can make you feel nauseated, constipated, dizzy, headachey. It can make you feel depressed, angry, agitated, restless.

Having anxiety can be isolating and terrifying. My anxiety mostly feels like someone I care about has dumped me on a faraway planet with a credit card debt. But there are millions of us. We are here, sometimes quaking in our boots and sometimes being totally fine, sometimes being awesome at our jobs and sometimes spending a day in bed. The time I spend asking my cat to please stop me from floating into outer space doesn’t make me a less valuable person. If anything, it makes me a person who makes a damn fine effort to get up each day and stare down the challenges of never knowing when the next panic attack might strike.

Luckily, we’re living in a time when mental illness is a big focus for a lot of people. We’re moving from “you’re imagining it” to “this is real”. From initiatives like the ABC’s Mental As week to open conversations on social media and podcasts like one I started up with friends called The Anxiety Shut-In Hour 1 and The Mental Illness Happy Hour 2 – millions of dollars is being spent to raise awareness and reduce stigma of anxiety and related disorders.

Anxiety isn’t just falling apart alone on the toilet, but something that’s visible on TV, at the movies, in the news. Celebrities have it, sportspeople have it, regular schmos have it – and they’re starting to talk about it. Anxiety shows up in characters like Hannah Horvath (Girls) and Rebecca Bunch (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) Nina Proudman (Offspring). And maybe it’s not perfect yet but it’s there, not merely in the hilarious, bonkers sidekick but in women taking on the multifaceted challenge ofbeing a person with a mental illness.

Your anxiety doesn’t weaken you. It doesn’t compromise your value. It doesn’t make you less than the next person.

And it’s not hopeless. The best thing about being a person with anxiety in this, the twenty-first century of the modern era, is that there’s a whole lot of support and treatment available.

Call someone

Depending on the kind of support you need, you can call Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or Headspace (1800 650 890). These are free services, and some of them also offer online chat. You can also call your local mental health triage team (sometimes called a CAT team), and they can assess where your brain is at.

And if you really don’t know what to do and you’re worried you might be in danger, you can call an ambulance. They are trained to take this stuff seriously and will not judge you for a moment.

Seek additional support

Medicare offers something called a Mental Health Care Plan, which you can get from your GP. The appointment itself is bulk-billed, and gives you 10 subsidised sessions with a mental health professional. That means you get back about $90 on each session. If you can find one who bulk bills, you won’t be out of pocket at all.

Anxiety often responds well to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, behaviour therapy, immersion therapy, and all kinds of other things. Many psychologists specialise in anxiety disorders.

A GP or psychiatrist will also be able to give you advice on medication to help with your anxiety. Some people find it helpful to take an ongoing medication (like SSRIs), while others use periodic medications to treat acute symptoms (like sedatives).

Find your people

There are so many people living with anxiety and the internet is a really good place to start to find them. There are podcasts you can listen to, forums you can post on, thousands of stories to read. I’ve met so many empathetic people on Twitter, many facing the same kinds of anxiety-related issues I do.

Having a community has changed the way I think about my anxiety. I’m not just one person hurtling through time and space to my inevitable doom. I’m one of many.

We’re all people with the ability to contribute to society. Not only despite our anxiety, but with it, too.

If this article raised any issues for you, please call Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or Headspace (1800 650 890).

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About the author

Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan has worked in digital marketing for 15 years, including time on Ramsay Street, in the Formula 1 pits and on bus magazines. Her short fiction has been published in Kill Your Darlings, and she also writes on parenting and mental health for the Guardian, Overland and Daily Life, among other publications. Her first novel, The Paper House, is forthcoming from Picador.

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