Australia needs a human face for anxiety

Writing this piece is frightening.

The national mental health initiative beyondblue has launched a new campaign aimed at addressing ignorance and stigma about anxiety in Australia. Get To Know Anxiety seeks to better educate the public what anxiety is and how prevalent it is in our community. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics around a quarter of Australians will experience an anxiety condition at some point in their lives.

Writing this piece is frightening because I am one of them. I have been managing anxiety for over two years and many years beforehand unknowing, undiagnosed and unsupported.

According to beyondblue anxiety is:

“…more than just feeling stressed or worried. While stress and anxious feelings are a common response to a situation where a person feels under pressure, it usually passes once the stressful situation has passed, or ‘stressor’ is removed.

Anxiety is when these anxious feelings don’t subside. Anxiety is when they are ongoing and exist without any particular reason or cause. It’s a serious condition that makes it hard for a person to cope with daily life. We all feel anxious from time to time, but for a person experiencing anxiety, these feelings cannot be easily controlled.”

Anxiety is not easy to talk about publicly, because of the stigma and ignorance about the condition. You worry that your family, friends and colleagues will treat you differently once they find out you have anxiety, you worry employers will consider you unemployable because you’ve spoken out about your mental health and you worry that people will assume it’s “just a bit of stress” and it’s “all in your head”. However despite all these worries, speaking out about anxiety has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

In fact, if it weren’t for a close friend telling me about her experience of anxiety I probably would have never sought help. It was through hearing her experience that I began to recognise my own behaviours and coping mechanisms weren’t working. I was ignorant about what anxiety actually was and didn’t think it was something that affected people like me. Thanks to her sharing her story I made a visit to my GP and started learning what anxiety really was and how to manage it as part of my life.

After careful thought and consideration late last year I “came out” as a person living with anxiety. After a particularly bad experience managing my anxiety whilst travelling overseas I decided to write about it and share my experience living with and managing the condition. In the months since, I’ve been quietly contacted by a slow, but steady trickle of friends, family and strangers each with their own unique experience of anxiety. Many have contacted me to ask for my help and advice or simply to say “I read your story and sought help as a result”.

What really struck me from this experience is just how diverse a condition anxiety is and how much we need to hear each other. No two people experience anxiety in exactly the same way and too many of us are afraid to talk about it. A diverse condition needs a diverse range of strategies, solutions and stories. Our stories have the power to take the suffering out of mental illness and foster a more understanding and supportive culture.

The survey that has sparked beyondblue’s latest campaign has shown that up to 40% of Australians still think that anxiety is “just stress” and up to 50% believe it’s just a part of people’s personality. The only way we can change this stigma and misinformation is to put a human face to anxiety. It’s hard, but if those of us who feel comfortable and supported enough to share our stories do so we can change the public’s understanding and perceptions of anxiety. The better we as a community understand and support those living with anxiety the more people can seek and receive help.

Writing this may be frightening, but it’s completely worth it. If my words and my experiences can help others to seek help and change how the community understands anxiety then it’s worth fighting through the stigma, the ignorance and the fear to make sure that others going through the same experience don’t have to feel alone.

-JB

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