Gayle Williamson: Use those feelings of fear, unease and worry to drive vital change in your life
Unlike depression, anxiety can motivate you to fulfil your potential – as famous sufferers can attest
Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30
'It's like being on the run from snipers who're watching your every move... I can't take it any more."
My client was obviously in a great deal of pain, worn down by her anxiety.
"I feel so weak and pathetic that I can't just get on top of it."
You'd be forgiven for imagining that this woman was not working, staying at home all day, alone; imprisoned by her anxiety. In fact, she had achieved, and was still achieving much in life as an executive at a multinational firm – a job she loved – and was married with children.
It's an interesting phenomenon about anxiety that many of its sufferers are high-functioning people: I include in this group the ordinary heroes who manage to get through their busy days despite overwhelming feelings of distress, along with the bestselling authors, award-winning actors, statesmen, legendary painters, business owners. In some cases, it may be the very fact of their success that is causing their anxiety; in others it may be that their anxiety has actually spurred their achievements – incredible as that may seem to anyone in the thick of the symptoms right now.
Of course, it's also true that sometimes anxiety becomes so overwhelming that sufferers do stop functioning for a time, and it is also a fact that in some people anxiety can cause depression, often characterised by withdrawal from everyday life. However, a key difference between anxiety and depression is that anxiety can actually act as a motivator; while in the latter it's usually difficult to feel motivated about anything – even about finding help for yourself.
Anxiety tends to nag at you, pushing you to make changes. It focuses your attention on the things that are really important in life: such as, I would suggest, looking after yourself, developing a strong sense of self and fulfilling your potential – all things from which great relationships, careers and achievements come. It drives you to create new ways of living your life.
Celebrated Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863- 1944) is a great example. He saw his anxiety as an indispensable driver of his work. "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness... their destruction would destroy my art," he was quoted as saying. Munch, who captured his anxiety – and that of the modern age – in his iconic masterpiece The Scream, was anxious for many possible reasons. I would speculate that chief among them was death – he lost his mother at age five and subsequently suffered several deaths of those closest to him, and he also had poor health throughout his life.
However, being innately creative may not have helped Munch. The 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said the more creative a person, the more potentially anxious he is. You just have to look at the many actors, writers and singers who have experienced anxiety for evidence of this.
It's a very long list, including David Bowie, Bill Nighy, Barbra Streisand, Adele, Kim Basinger, Johnny Depp, the late Sopranos actor James Gandolfini, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte and our own Cecelia Ahern and Bressie.
Of course, 'madness' and creativity have been linked since ancient times. Creating – or as existential psychologist Rollo May would describe it, actualising one's possibilities – inevitably causes anxiety because we have freedom of choice. As May says, if there weren't any possibilities for how we can create ourselves or the world around us, there would be nothing for us to get anxious about.
However, part of this and all anxiety is related to erroneous beliefs about your self-worth – so that even if you are achieving, you can't quite believe it and instead you give more weight to all those messages you absorbed about yourself while growing up.
This certainly seems true in Barbra Streisand's case. The multi-award winning singer and actress didn't perform live for nearly three decades after suffering what was described as extreme stage fright, forgetting her lyrics, during a concert in New York in 1967. Streisand's dad died when she was a baby and her memories are of an unaffectionate mother and a stepfather who didn't like her. I would guess this left her with feelings of not being good enough, likeable or loveable enough – in her child's mind; how could she be, when not even her own mother showed her love?
As Streisand herself has said in explaining why she doesn't remember her good reviews: "They [the bad reviews] stay in my mind. So that says a lot about my upbringing or, you know, a feeling of self-worth when I was younger."
Yet now, having learned what her anxiety had to teach her, Streisand can actually say "performing is not about perfection... It's about self-acceptance. It's about believing that I am enough."
Someone closer to home who poured their anxiety into being creative is Cecelia Ahern, who revealed on Miriam O'Callaghan's radio show last week that she started suffering panic attacks when she was 19. But the bestselling author said she put everything into writing her first novel PS I Love You, which "gave me a career".
"What was lovely was writing. I could express myself and I was feeling so emotional and trying to be there in other people's heads... I think that helped my writing. So everything does happen for a reason, it turned a really horrible moment in my life into something positive." It appears Ahern's anxiety helped her self-actualise, find her authentic place in life, and so helped ease her fears.
Media giant Oprah Winfrey is probably one of the most influential women today, and possibly one of the more unexpected sufferers of anxiety. But it has affected her throughout her life as a result of being sexually abused as a child and giving birth to a boy at age 14, who died soon afterwards. Today Oprah – host of the world's most watched talkshow for 25 years, philanthropist, actress and producer – would say her anxieties were the driving force that helped her create herself and her multi-faceted career.
But what of those who achieve success and only then get anxious? It was Freud – another high-functioning anxiety sufferer – who wrote about the syndrome of being "wrecked by success''; while US psychologist Abraham Maslow argued that we tend to shy away from our "highest possibilities". There's comfort in being just like our peers – in the comfort of the human huddle, as existentialist psychotherapist Irvin Yalom puts it – whereas standing out from our group, overtaking them, daring to fully grasp our life as an individual, well that's daunting. You might also fail.
Trauma specialist Suzanne Babbel suggests another reason for fear of success: she says that for those who have experienced trauma of some kind – which can include anything from a car accident to the unexpected death of someone close to parental separation or serious illness – the excitement of success feels uncomfortably close to the feeling of arousal they experienced during the traumatic event or events. Excitement-inducing circumstances, therefore, may trigger the original feelings.
Singer Niall Breslin, better known as Bressie, suffered crippling anxiety when he took on the role of coach on The Voice during the first season of the show. "I started realising that I lost my anonymity and I started to worry," the 32-year-old said when he spoke out last year.
Bressie had previously suffered severe anxiety as a teenager, going as far as to break his own arm in a desperate attempt to get help. He hoped he'd be taken to hospital where he'd finally get answers to his frightening symptoms, except no one diagnosed anxiety. Only with time and greater maturity did his symptoms ease, until triggered again by his sudden fame.
Actor Bill Nigh, 64, spoke last weekend, too, about how his sudden fame in the wake of Love Actually gave him anxiety attacks.
But with surpassing your peers often comes great responsibility, certainly in the case of US presidents. Abraham Lincoln famously suffered depression; however, a study by US psychiatry professor Jonathan Davidson and associates researched 37 US presidents – and found that 18 of them had suffered mental illness of some kind.
Of particular relevance here, Calvin Coolidge, Ulysses S Grant and Thomas Jefferson were diagnosed with social phobia by Davidson. In other words, they were prohibitively shy and avoided social situations – and yet they were American presidents.
A client said recently he was tired of reading articles on mental health – they offered no hope and made him feel worse. But without minimising how awful the experience of anxiety can be, perhaps there is a more hopeful side to our suffering that we should pay more heed to. It's important to know that, first of all, you're not alone: anxiety is widespread, even affecting commanders-in-chief; secondly, not only can you survive it, you can go on to thrive; and thirdly, if you can learn to listen to what your mind and body are telling you, you may just end up living the life you were meant to live.
Client confidentiality has been respected.
Gayle Williamson is an IACP-accredited psychotherapist practising in Dublin. Contact her at www.ferneytherapy.ie