Alex, January 6, 2016

A YouGov survey last year reported that 1 in 5 people feel anxious a lot of the time or all of the time. From personal experience I know that living with anxiety on a day to day basis can make it very difficult to live a comparatively normal life, so I was surprised to learn that of those surveyed about a quarter of people experiencing anxiety said they would be embarrassed to tell people about it.

How my anxiety started and developed

In my case anxiety first reared its ugly head when I was about 10 years old, causing me to have extremely acute episodes of panic. During the three years when it was at its worst I was unable to attend school for a full day, go to friends birthday parties or take part in groups like Scouts without running away and hiding somewhere secluded (usually a toilet of some description) until my parents found me and took me home.

Luckily as I’ve got older, with the support of friends, family and professionals, I’ve discovered strategies to help me manage my condition. Now I regularly cope with situations that would have had 11 year old Alex shut away in a toilet cubicle faster than you could say ‘panic attack’. However, doing so will never be easy, and it will most certainly never be comfortable. Constantly fighting battles with my anxious thoughts and feelings is incredibly draining, and even with years of experience behind me I still don’t always emerge the victor.

Talking: my go-to way to manage

However, one secret weapon that I will always have when I can’t quite manage by myself is someone to talk to. It might be because it all started when I was so young, but I feel quite lucky that my family are incredibly open when it comes to discussing mental health. Looking back at the times when my anxiety was at its worst, if I didn’t have a network of people in place to help me rationalise the stomach twisting feelings I was experiencing, I’m not sure that I would have had the strength to continue fighting it alone.

With that said my experiences, especially with my peers at school, weren’t always easy. When you’re struggling with an illness that’s pretty much invisible it can be quite difficult for other people to understand. If you have a broken arm you’d wear a cast, if you had the flu you’d be sneezing, but with anxiety all of the symptoms sit in a place where they can’t be seen.

When I think back to the questions I was asked by other children at school, trying to articulate my illness was something I found extremely challenging. Unfortunately ‘parental separation anxiety initiated by a number of historical experiences’ wasn’t an explanation that held much ground, or was a particularly accurate way to describe the impact my anxiety was having on my ability to function normally. But again I was lucky, whilst it’s true not all of my classmates understood or were particularly nice at times, I had a core of friends who accepted that my illness was a part of who I was and went out of their way to support me.

Challenging the stigma attached to young men opening up

It makes me incredibly sad to think that so many of the people fighting their own battle with an anxiety disorder, is doing so alone. In recent years when I’ve discussed my condition with friends, I’ve been surprised to learn that a couple of them have faced similar struggles to myself, but have never had the confidence to talk about it. As a young male discussing the topic of mental health carries a significant stigma. Admitting that actually you’re not ok can leave you feeling very vulnerable. However there has not been one instance where I have regretted opening up to someone about my anxiety.

It is my hope that if you’re currently fighting your own battle with anxiety, you’ll read this and see it as an opportunity to start a conversation with the people who are closest to you. If you’re a friend or a family member of somebody struggling with a mental health condition, it is my hope that you’ll use this as a prompt to ask: ‘how are you feeling?’. They might only be four little words, but for someone like me they can help more than a plaster cast or a tissue ever could.

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