Anxious about anxiety

Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe depression. Depression and anxiety aren’t in opposition: they’re comorbid, with a person who suffers from one being much more likely to suffer from both.

It’s getting to be almost acceptable to be depressed. Public awareness has improved immensely over the last few years, and while people with depression still face a great deal of ignorance and discrimination, I think the corner has been turned. Every day sees some celebrity coming out as mad; even famous footballers are admitting to being depressed, even suicidal.

I can’t say the same about anxiety, particularly generalised anxiety disorder. Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe depression. Depression and anxiety aren’t in opposition: they’re comorbid, with a person who suffers from one being much more likely to suffer from both.

And as I sit here writing I am really suffering. Anxiety is more difficult to describe than depression. Everyone is occasionally a little down, and can at least begin to imagine depression by magnifying the feeling. I don’t think there’s a healthy equivalent of anxiety. Perhaps the flutters you feel when you’re late for a train or plane or having to give an important talk or public speech. But for me anxiety and nerves are very different.

Severe anxiety is just as crippling as severe deoression. You don’t want to do anything because you can’t. You don’t want to travel. You don’t want to talk to people. You don’t want to catch a train. You don’t want to go into town. You don’t think you can give the talk you’re just supposed to be giving. You don’t want to go outside. I hate the outside. I can just about manage the garden, but the village shop? It might as well be Antartica.

The Wikipedia entry talks about excessive worry, and worry is part of the problem, but there is also a huge physical element: sweating, racing heart, breathing shallowly, and shaking. But the bit I hate most is the shrinking of consciousness, the narrowing of the mind, so that you can’t concentrate on anything. Oh, and the irritability. I am not a nice person to be around around at the best of times, but when I am anxious – avoid me.

I know there are things you should do, including mindfulness, relaxation, and deep breathing, but these activities all presuppose that you have enough focus to be able to begin to focus. There are drugs, but they make you feel sleepy and brain dead.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

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