I had to get out.
I found myself rushing through peak hour traffic to catch a tram. My heart was pounding, pulse racing - I thought I was going to die.
The feeling of being out of control, that my body wasn't going to survive this adrenal onslaught, that I was having a heart attack, escalated my fear and desperation. I wasn't in physical danger, but I was absolutely terrified and focussed on escape, more so than on the basics of road safety and taking time to cross the road at the lights.
I was having a panic attack.
It was my first and most bewildering experience of overwhelming anxiety.
For many Australians this might be just one of many experiences of anxiety and the crippling sensations and fear that are its unwelcome companions. Some young people live beside anxiety everyday. "One in six young Australians currently has anxiety. This equates to 440,000 young people, aged 12-17, who have experienced anxiety in the past 12 months.
Young people with anxiety might feel anxious, on edge or worried most of the time. Feeling overwhelmed or frightened is also common. They may experience a range of physical symptoms as well, such as a racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, muscle tension, shaky hands or perhaps feel nauseous.
Despite the prevalence of anxiety, there are strong indications that stigma still exists amongst young people. A beyondblue survey of 600 young people across Australia revealed the strongest barrier to seeking help remains other people’s judgment; four in five Australian teenagers may not seek support when they are experiencing depression or anxiety because they are worried what other people will think." From Mindmatters https://www.mindmatters.edu.au/about-mindmatters/news/article/2016/05/05/anxiety-in-young-people
Despite the good work done by organisations such as Beyondblue and headspace and the difference made by celebrities and sports stars talking openly about their struggles with mental health, there still remains some negative stereotyping around common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Its not the image of youth or young people with which we like to identify.
Anxiety is a part of the human condition - all of us experience it at some time in our lives. Its when anxiety gets in the way of us doing the things that we want to do that it becomes a real problem. It might for example, stop us from socialising or going to parties, taking risks, doing new things, meeting new people, joining a team or learning a new skill. We learn to dread the unpleasant and debilitating feelings and bodily sensations. We can start to avoid situations where we might experience anxiety. This works in the short term, but in the long term it can make things worse because we don't get to have the experience of successfully managing anxiety or of doing something that might seem scary, but that, in the end turns out OK. Most of the time the bad things we were expecting to happen don't happen, but if we avoid doing something that means a lot to us because we are feeling anxious, then we never get to find out that things will be OK.
Growing up, we learn to manage anxiety through good modelling and through containment, validation and naming our feelings. Our parents teach us how to understand what we are going through, put a name to it and help us to self-soothe. They let us know that it is something all humans experience and that it won't destroy us - even though there might be times when it feels like it will.
Its hard to make anxiety go away just by wishing it wasn't there. Mindfulness, meditation, being physically active, sleeping well, doing the things that we enjoy, and taking small steps towards our goals can help us. Focusing on what we really want out of life and working towards that rather than focusing on our anxiety and fears can show us the way forward. We can learn to live alongside our anxiety and in the process of living it diminishes and ceases to control our lives.
How psychotherapy can help
Psychotherapy can help us manage anxiety in several ways.
1.Psychotherapy provides a containing space where our anxiety is met with empathy and understanding.
2. Psychotherapy can help us to explore what is really going on for us when we are experiencing anxiety.
3. Psychotherapy can allow us to recognise the signs that we are anxious (including the bodily states and symptoms) and to become more understanding towards our own vulnerabilities.
4. Psychotherapy can help us understand the emotions underlying anxiety and why we may have developed anxiety.
5. Psychotherapy can allow us to experience anxiety and understand that it will not destroy us. It can encourage us to follow our own values and life goals (and to work out what they are!) whilst also experiencing any accompanying anxiety, knowing that it will diminish with time and experience.
6. Our therapist can also help us by modelling good ways of managing anxiety and by being a containing presence in the face of our anxiety.