We all know someone who experiences anxiety. A friend, or a friend-of-a-friend. That ‘flaky’ someone who turns up late, or cancels last-minute; who often seems on edge; who takes forever to make a decision; is overly worried what others might think. Maybe a colleague who takes random days off; or struggles with sudden changes of plan. I could, of course, be describing you. If so, welcome to the gang.
Mental Health Awareness Week was recently held in the UK and it’s a sign of a trend towards acceptance of mental health issues. People ‘get it’ that some of us experience anxiety, low mood, etc. to a greater degree than others. But I think there’s still uncertainty about what those things actually mean. How can people understand how anxiety, for instance, might affect someone’s day-to-day life?
I believe that our current, collective experience of pandemic and lockdown can help provide an insight for all.
The emergence of Covid-19, and the controlling measures of lockdown, will surely have caused feelings of uncertainty and fear in most of us.
Whether getting the bus to work or braving the supermarket for the weekly shop, we suddenly have a whole lot more to think about to keep ourselves – and others – safe.
And for those staying home, separated from other humans, it’s difficult not to dwell on the uncertainty and fear, especially with a constant stream of rolling news and Facebook opinions to keep topping it up.
Do you over-plan your trip to the supermarket? Risk-assess each aspect? Rehearse the trip in your mind? When you’re out, do you worry that you’re ‘not doing it right’? That others will be watching and judging? Do you wake at night worrying about relatives, friends, neighbours? Are they ‘doing it right’? Are they safe...?
Exhausting, isn’t it. Some days it’s too much to get dressed at all. And how can you possibly relax with your mind in such an unrelenting spin?
I sometimes get a pop-up message on my smartphone: ‘such-and-such app is constantly running in the background and draining your battery’. That’s how it feels at the moment, right? That whatever we’re doing, whatever we’re focussing our attention on, there’s always another train of thought rumbling away in the background (or the foreground). That’s what coronavirus is: that pesky app that won’t switch off, always draining our energies.
Can you remember the last time you weren’t thinking about it? Seconds? Minutes? Hours? (Unlikely)
So here’s my point: this is all a description of anxiety. And this is how it can feel for some of us every day, pandemic or not.
The preoccupation of the mind, the feelings of dread, the compulsion to risk-assess every little action, the fear of judgment (from others and ourselves), the fear of ‘losing it’, worrying about things even when we know they’re beyond our control… the more we think about them, the more there is to worry about.
Fast-forward a few months and imagine we’re all settled into a ‘new normal’. Pandemic fears have eased; that app have finally switched off and we’ve reclaimed some headspace; anxiety levels have reduced to pre-pandemic levels. Thank goodness.
But hang on. For some of us, ‘pre-pandemic’ anxiety levels were exactly the sort of thing everyone experienced in the depths of the crisis. Let’s try not to forget that. In fact, those of us who had existing problems with anxiety may well have been having an awful time throughout the pandemic, with even more difficult thoughts and feeling than before. Which increases the challenge of adjusting to our “new normal”.
So what can we all do to help?
Let’s return to Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme this year was “kindness”, and that’s really the key: to remember our kindness and compassion.
So when we find ourselves criticising others - why is that person just sitting there at a green light? or blocking my path in the supermarket? or late for my meeting? or not answering my calls – we should firstly acknowledge our own feelings. It’s OK to feel frustrated, we’re all human.
But then try these 3 simple steps:
- Summon your own fear – remember your darkest moments during the pandemic, when you felt panicked or overwhelmed. Keep that memory ready to retrieve so that you can feel into it and remember how it affected you physically and emotionally at the time.
- Be grateful – go on, don’t be shy: it’s healthy to feel grateful. You had a tough time and you got through it. Show yourself that self-compassion.
- Extend that compassion to others, to that person in front of you who is still stuck in the middle of their anxieties. A smile or a kind word might make that person’s day but the beauty is: you don’t need to do anything. Just don’t honk your horn. Don’t tut and roll your eyes. Don’t post snarky comments on Facebook.
Just wait. We’ve all had plenty of practice waiting over recent weeks and months. A lost skill we have hopefully re-learned. If someone is frozen and overwhelmed at the supermarket, if your friend needs several attempts before they can face meeting up, just wait. There is always time.
I promise that if you follow these simple steps, not only will you avoid adding to someone else’s anxiety, you’ll have eased your own at the same time.
Once you choose to stop judging others, you may quickly realise this: that you’ve also stopped judging yourself.
It’s a win-win.