This post has everything to do with anxiety and nothing to do with sex. Except, of course, for the fact that both sex and anxiety are woven so tightly into the fabric of my life that they touch on everything I do. Except for that.
A while ago, someone sent me a link to this old article on stress and anxiety, and it made me stressed. But the good kind of stressed: annoyance that prompts me to write a long blog post about something. That kind of stress I like. It’s a refreshing break from the other kind of stress I have, which is a constant low-level hum of worry that I have done or said something howlingly awful, which at some point will be revealed to me via the medium of a friend or colleague telling me to get fucked.
The author of the piece has written a book, “The Life-Changing Magic Of Not Giving A F**k” – I actually have a copy which a mate of mine gave me, most likely because of my aforementioned perma-stress. I will read it soon, but I haven’t read it yet, so please don’t take this as book criticism, her ideas as expressed in the article are simply a pocket-sized version of things that a lot of people have said to me throughout most of my adult life.
Anyway. She says: the secret to living a happy life is to stop giving a fuck about everything. You make a ‘fuck budget’, in which you have limited fucks to give, stop giving a fuck about things you shouldn’t, then revel in how amazing your life is now.
Except she ties it to anxiety. And that’s not always how it works if you have anxiety. As I have had to explain to relatives and friends when I’ve failed them in any one of a thousand ways: anxiety is not like an M+S jumper – you can’t get rid of it by just deciding that you don’t want it any more. It would be like preventing the flu by simply deciding never to get the flu. Or solving a transport problem by deciding that you’ll learn to fly.
So: totally unrelated to sex, here are some questions on anxiety, and my answers. Be aware that I’m not a doctor or mental health professional, just a random slag with a bee in her bonnet.
What does a panic attack feel like?
Few people have ever asked me this, despite the fact that anyone who writes an article on anxiety will usually include a description of some sort. I suspect because they want to see if they can outdo each other in sheer horror, and that’s why I’m annoyed that more people do not ask what one feels like, so I can try and give them a proportionate answer.
The Woman Who Does Not Give A Fuck describes a panic attack like this:
“It feels not unlike drowning in a sea of hot lava while attempting to swim away from a lava-impervious shark with ninja-throwing stars for teeth.”
Far be it from me to tell someone else what they feel: she may well feel exactly like this. But a panic attack is not, for me, a lavashark situation. The best way I can describe a panic attack is to ask you if you’ve ever had a genuine, horrible shock: you’ve found out you’re being made redundant, for instance. Or perhaps something a bit more creeping and nausea-inducing: you think you’re being chased by someone on the walk home late at night. A panic attack starts with similar symptoms to a genuine fright: your body tells you something bad is happening and you need to get ready to fuck that something up. If you’ve ever done CBT, as I did for an achingly long time, they will bang on repeatedly about the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. It feels a bit like this – shaking a bit, things go blurry, your body is flooded with adrenalin that you’re not really able to use.
But then instead of breaking, it keeps building. You struggle to breathe and all your thoughts are things which feed more into the panic attack, and your limbs are tingling and you feel sick. Sometimes you are sick and then you can add the worry that people think you’re drunk to the worry that you’ll never be able to get out of this weird breathing/tingling/trembling/curled-on-the-floor vicious cycle into which you’ve fallen.
Except it’s not ‘fallen’ really: it’s ‘leaped’, because deep down you know it’s all your fault and you’re stupid and useless and you could just stop having a panic attack if you actually tried, you pathetic attention-seeker.
That’s how it works in my head, anyway. For you it might be lavasharks.
I say this because I think there will be people with undiagnosed anxiety, who are wondering what the hell is wrong with them, who are put off seeking help from a doctor or mental health professional because they read one of these kinds of descriptions. They may think – as I did – ‘oh I’m not that bad really. I have never felt like I’m in a pit of lavasharks. I just have this unspecific, gnawing fear which sometimes crashes over me in waves of abject terror. But that’s normal, I think.’
Onto questions I actually have been asked about anxiety…
Can’t you just chill out?
This is a tricky one. I know that people always mean well when they say it. I have often been advised to:
- take on less work
- stay off Twitter
- take a holiday
and other similar things. My answer to all of these is ‘I have thought of that.’ I really have. I do sometimes ditch bits of work if it’s all getting too much. Unfortunately that comes with the stress of having to apologise to people I can no longer work for, thus risking more panic that those people now think badly of me. Likewise holidays (but what will happen when I’m gone??!) and staying off Twitter (what if I don’t reply to people and they start thinking I’m a bastard?!?). It also, incidentally, rides totally roughshod over what I actually want. I am not a chilled-out person. I hate meditation. I am happiest when I have a full life and a long to-do list.
Yes, those things are also sources of worry and stress. But, crucially, when I think about tackling my anxiety, I do not envisage a future-me who lives in a calm and tranquil world: I see me doing exactly the same things that I love, but being able to deal with them without collapsing. Writing blog entries like this without trembling a bit in case the lady who wrote the book ends up reading it and I may hurt her feelings and Oh God what if it makes her sad? Or choosing NOT to write blog entries like this and having to worry that I’ve stayed suspiciously silent on something that I should really be outspoken about. Or what I actually did, which is leave it for a few months thinking ‘Christ no one will want to read this shit’ then whack it up in a panic because I’ve run out of drafts and the idea of not publishing a blog on a scheduled day sends me into the aforementioned non-lavashark-attack.
Which leads me neatly onto the next question:
You know that particular worry is irrational though, right?
Trust me, if there is one thing I know without a doubt: which I hold aloft before me like a beacon of reason even while I cough and splutter and cry my way through another thumping panic, it is that the panic is irrational. There is no reason to care that one of my good friends invited me out for drinks and I can’t make it because I have the flu. Nothing bad will come of my turning down the invite. And yet, as I sit at my computer trying to compose the ‘So sorry, I’m ill’ email, the words do not come. Usually I go anyway.
The most irrational thing – and the thing I hate most about me – is the spark of pure rage I get when a friend I love texts me to say ‘can I come over?’ if I was looking forward to a night alone. It’s incredibly unhealthy to be mad at your friends for wanting to hang out with you – especially when you really really want to hang out with them, it’s just that you’re tired and stressed and there’s so much else to get on with.
It’s all irrational: I know.
Telling me to ‘stop caring’ or, like the book says – “Stop Giving A Fuck” – makes it feel like I have chosen, in all these instances, to give a fuck. I have not: anxiety has. And it has then rather sneakily colluded to make it feel like I’m a twat for caring. Anxiety tells you to give a fuck about everything, then makes you feel pathetic for giving a fuck. So when someone comes along to agree with your anxiety – telling you that you can ‘just’ stop giving that fuck – it does not feel like they’re on my side.
Have you tried therapy/medication?
Have you had the appropriate training to be suggesting either of those things?
Have you tried speaking to a doctor?
That’s a good question, if asked at the right time. If asked when I’m trying to explain to you why I’m feeling bad, it may well hit the wrong note. Sometimes I just need to explain to you why I’m being weird, because it is ridiculously important to me that you know whatever weirdness I’m doing is not meant as a personal insult to you. If you respond by telling me how you think I should fix it, again: panic ensues.
So what can I do for my mate who has anxiety?
Well, there are plenty of professionals who could answer this question better than me (find out more at Mind – the mental health charity).
BUT if you want my personal view on what works for me, then I will tell you to embrace the power of two good words:
Not ‘fix it’ or ‘chill out’: that sucks.
When I am having a particularly shitty time of it and everything feels like it’s wringing me dry, I would love more people to embrace ‘that sucks.’ A phrase which simultaneously offers empathy, acknowledges that shit things are happening to you and – crucially – does not offer unsolicited advice.
Unsolicited advice can sometimes be helpful, and I know it’s always tempting to offer it. But remember that if you’re neither a professional nor someone your mate has come to for specific help, then you telling them how to fix themselves may well sound like the person who tells them to ‘just’ get on and fly.
Help can be nice. Advice can be nice too. But sometimes neither is desirable, or even necessary. Often you just need someone to nod along while you tell them your woes, and bite back solutions or questions or plans.
Not to try and fix you, just understand you.