Friday 24 November 2017

Anxiety: are we exacerbating the problem?

Jennifer Lawrence
Lena Dunham
Selena Gomez
Vogue Williams
Grace Mongey
Dominique Nugent

What does anxiety mean to you? Missing a deadline in work; bumping into an ex on the one day of the year you look like an extra from a low-budget zombie movie; or realising you left the fridge open mid commute?

For some people, anxiety is a casual synonym for stress or worry. But for thousands of Irish people, anxiety disorders can be debilitating - and women are twice as likely to suffer as men.

Today marks World Mental Health Day, no longer an obscure date in our yearly calendar. In 2016, we have never been more aware of our mental health, thanks in part to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Amanda Seyfried and Lena Dunham, who have lent their voices and shared their own personal stories of living with anxiety.

Selena Gomez just recently announced that she was taking time off due to panic attacks, anxiety and depression. While closer to home, Vogue Williams has openly discussed her battle with stress and crippling anxiety.

Vogue Williams
Vogue Williams

'It's okay not to be okay,' has become the catchphrase for millenials because the truth is, everyone feels anxious at certain points in their life.

A first date, a big exam, an important meeting - it's a natural emotion that we can all relate to. But what happens when we can't brush off those pre-date butterflies or a looming deadline leaves us so incapacitated, we begin to self-medicate to make it through the week.

Danielle Ward (32) from Dublin says: "Last year, staff cuts in work and unrealistic deadlines meant I was doing three people's jobs at once. The only thing that got me through the day was knowing I could go home and open a bottle of wine in the evening, added the mum-of-one from Tallaght who works in the banking sector.

"It was the perfect way to dull the stress. It was only when I began to take sick days and felt that I was unable to cope that I asked for help."

Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence

If you've ever self-medicated with one-too-many cocktails over happy hour, went to town on the buffet or popped an unprescribed Xanax to ease those feelings of panic, you're not alone.

Fashion, fitness and lifestyle blogger, Dominique Nugent, who is known by her alias 'Fashion and Fros', experienced her first panic attack in her late teens.

"Growing up, I was always an anxious person but my anxiety reached new levels when I spent two years in Australia away from my family.

"Living on the other side of the world away from my loved ones and missing out on important events and milestones really affected me - everyday stressors suddenly became a trigger and panic attacks slowly began to become a normal part of life.

Dominique Nugent
Dominique Nugent

"At the weekends, I blew off steam by socialising with friends over the occasional cocktail.

"Since coming home, I've completely changed my lifestyle and overhauled my diet and fitness regime, which has given me so much more control over my mental health. I think everyone can relate to everyday anxiety, it's a normal part of life - but when anxiety manifests itself in panic attacks, you need to take action and understand that it's not normal."

Everyone gets nervous or anxious from time to time, so how can you tell if your everyday anxiety has crossed the line into a disorder?

Psychologist David Kavanagh of Avalon Consultants says: "It's not easy. Anxiety comes in many different forms - such as panic attacks, phobia, and social anxiety - and the distinction between an official diagnosis and 'normal' anxiety isn't always clear.

"Chronic anxiety affects the quality of your life - people are frozen by their fear and they can't perform normally as a consequence. Day-to-day anxiety however, is a temporary state. This anxiety is a normal part of life.

"It's hard-wired to our brains as part of the body's flight-or-fight response, which prepares us to act quickly in times of danger.

"It's only when common everyday events bring on anxiety that interferes with your life, that you may have an anxiety disorder."

So we know that work, relationship and childhood stressors can cause anxiety but are we exacerbating the problem?

"One of the major problems that we have in Ireland is the drinking culture. We are told that we are overworked, we are told we are anxious, we are told we are stressed, and then we turn to alcohol, food or drugs," explains David. "Where as we should be looking to mindfulness, exercise and professional help from qualified counsellors and therapists.

"Hold your hand up if you go home after work every night and drink a bottle of wine, you're not in the minority.

"It's the cure that you often choose to combat your anxiety that causes more problems and can lead to a more chronic form of anxiety.

"There is a Sober October movement and I would love to challenge every Irish adult over the age of 21 to go sober for the month of October and see how that affects their anxiety levels, how it affects their clarity and their motivation."

The leading therapist adds: "People take medication but they don't go and talk to a therapist or a counsellor so they never learn to deal with the issues that are actually the root of the problem, they just take a pill which stunts their brain from feeling the anxiety but it doesn't change the circumstances of why they are feeling anxious in the first place.

"Smart phone and social media addiction are also a huge problem. If you find validation in social media, how many likes and how many interactions you receive will cause your anxiety levels to increase."

So how can we battle anxiety?

"We need to reconnect with nature; trees, forests, woodlands the beach: the outdoors should replace social media and the drinking culture.

"Mindfulness has also been proven to deal with anxiety much more effectively than antidepressants. By drawing attention to what's happening to you at the present moment without judgement, without trying to change anything, and becoming aware of what you are thinking and feeling, is key to combating anxiety. Practicing mindfulness techniques allows you to tolerate stress."

Exercise is also key, actress Lena Dunham - who created and stars in the New York drama Girls - has documented her battle with anxiety and depression, and is a huge proponent of working out.

"To those struggling with anxiety, OCD, depression: I know it's mad annoying when people tell you to exercise, and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen. I'm glad I did," wrote Lena. "It ain't about the ass, it's about the brain."

Emma Stone
Emma Stone

While Hollywood starlet Emma Stone practices mindfulness through acting: "The first time I had a panic attack, I was sitting in my friend's house and I thought the house was burning down," said the actress. "I called my mom and she brought me home, and for the next three years, it just would not stop.

"There's something about the immediacy of acting," she said. "You can't afford to think about a million other things. You have to think about the task at hand. Acting forces me to sort of be like a Zen master: what is happening right in this moment?"

Meditation and mindfulness were also key to Irish beauty blogger Grace Mongey's recovery. The 28-year-old was placed on antidepressants in 2014 but later turned to alternative treatments.

"I lasted four months on antidepressants," she said. "For me, speaking to a counsellor really helped. Now I practice mindfulness and try to meditate everyday or listen to calming music if I find myself becoming anxious.

Anyone interested in completing an online mindfulness course, can visit www.mindfulnessexercises.ie

Grace Mongey
Grace Mongey

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