Anxiety has a cost, but can also be a power for good ABC Health & Wellbeing

Antony Funnell for Big Ideas, 26 August 2018.

Anxiety doesn’t recognise class or race. It ignores age and gender. And it gives no deference to talent, wealth or perceived success.

Journalist and lifestyle blogger Sarah Wilson has a long check-list of mental health issues. Over the years, the former Cosmopolitan magazine editor has been affected by them all, from bulimia to bipolar disorder. But anxiety, she now realises, was always at the heart of her illnesses.

“It’s ever-present, it’s a beige buzz that is the background to my existence, and then it flares out of control for apparently no reason,” she said, speaking on a panel about anxiety at the Byron Writers’ Festival in August.

A popular blogger, a media celebrity, but still at odds with the demands of the life she has chosen, Sarah talked of the terrible toll taken by modern life:

“Anxiety is on the increase. We are overstimulated.

“We used to have boundaries, and we had cultural mores and structures that protected us from these kinds of primal blowouts.

“We had a Sabbath because we all had an understanding that we needed a day of rest just to be able to cope with the toil of hoeing a field, and also to spend time with family; and we had set bedtime hours and we had set work hours. There were boundaries that were placed by our culture and structures. That has gone out the window in literally less than a generation.”

In the past Sarah shut herself away, taking time off from the outside world — a forced retreat. But her new way of dealing with her anxiety is to embrace it. To acknowledge its dangers, to be wary, and then to try to harness it to her advantage as a tool for positive change.

“[Anxiety] drives us forever onwards. And sometimes that drive for some of us can just be so intense that we ricochet off into the stratosphere. But when it’s harnessed and when it’s got a sense of purpose, it creates incredible beauty in this world,” she said.

“I actually distinguish between two different types of anxiety, between what I call almost ‘fair enough’ anxiety, the anxiety that is required, where you need a flight or fight response. And then the kind of anxiety which is in your bones.”

A bit of anxiety in the right place at the right time could be a positive thing, agreed Black Dog Institute clinical director Josephine Anderson — within limits.

“A little anxiety, for example, will generally improve our performance — whether it’s running a race, working to a deadline or performing at a writers’ festival — and of course, the flight or fight response saves lives every day.

“But too much anxiety can really get in the way of our doing what we want or need to do.

“When anxiety threatens to overwhelm our minds, then doing something mindful — meditating, exercising, writing, for example — can help us focus, calm and filter out distracting, distressing anxiety-driven thoughts.”

Sarah manages her mental health by detailing it in book form.

But that too comes at a cost. While writing her latest book, she reverted to medication.

“I had two suicide attempts while writing the book, so it was something that was very, very real,” she explained.

“The two constants in my life have been meditation and walking. They are both free, they are both accessible, they are both things I can take with me anywhere in the world. But with medication, I’ve done the full cocktail over the years.

“And I have people around me who can tell me when I need to go back on it. It goes in cycles, sometimes six months, sometimes I can go for a couple of years. And my mania is generally the thing that will just blow up.

“For acclaimed British novelist, Matt Haig, catastrophic thinking, brought on by anxiety, has been a lifelong burden.

“It’s a total vicious circle, this is a total mental illness thing. With my health, it’s often hypochondria,” he said.

He told anecdotes about finding himself stuck — paralysed with indecision, caught by the fear of making a wrong choice:

“My first thing was panic disorder. It was like hitting a total brick wall. I’d been physically ill before, I’d had various things happen to me.

“I’d accidentally set my leg on fire before, which was a drunken moment of stupidity when I was 16 years old, but nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the experience of anxiety and depression and panic.

“I’d have swapped any minute of panic and depression for having had my leg on fire.”

The human brain, said Matt Haig, struggles to make sense of our frenetic and chaotic world, where enough is never enough.

“We are still essentially cave people. We haven’t actually evolved for 30,000 years, and we are all trying to run the software of 21st century society on our systems and we need to switch ourselves off-and-on again a few times.

We live ever more unnatural lives, he said, and often the best solution is to declutter, to undertake what he calls a “life-edit”.

“We are in an overloaded world and an overloaded culture and we’ve got overloaded lives,” he said.

When people look for a solution to things, they are often wanting something to be added into their life, but if you are in an overloaded culture, the solution is often just taking things away.

“It’s that whole deathbed thing, you know, what would we look back on from our deathbed and regret not doing and regret doing. And none of us are going to think, oh, I wish I’d have had one more popular tweet, or I wish I’d have emptied my inbox more often.”

For first-time novelist Jarrah Dundler, being a finalist in this year’s Vogel Australian literary award brought pain, as well as a sense of achievement. A feeling of anxiety along with the accolade.

But that was to be expected. His novel Hey Brother centres on a cast of characters dealing with the complexities and frustrations of mental illness; and as a peer-support mental-health worker, he has his own and others’ experiences to draw upon.

His personal experience of anxiety centres on fixation, where thoughts get “stuck in his head” and become so exaggerated and urgent that they often lead to physical, as well as mental illness: “I can be stuck on something for a week, and that’s the only thing I can focus on.

“For whole days that’s all I’m thinking of. Insane stuff and really getting completely worked up about it.”

Jarrah lives and works in regional northern New South Wales. He acknowledged a change in the way society now deals with mental illness, but there’s still a stigma.

“There’s a lot of people I work with who really would benefit from seeing psychologists, all that kind of thing, but they often don’t because of this fear of the stigma around it,” he said.

For Jarrah, like Sarah and Matt, writing about mental illness is as much a form of therapy as it is a literary decision.

“I can’t write when I’m depressed, I can’t write when I’m anxious. I can try but … so it helps for me because I get a lot out of writing, like the buzz from when you are writing.

“It’s also a very mindful activity. When you are in the flow of writing, you are lost, and your mind is occupied on something, focused on something.”

But anxiety, he said, is never far away. A last-minute decision by his publisher to change the name of his book saw him spiral into catastrophism.

Trying to decide on a replacement, he says, made him physically as well as mentally sick.

Michael Abelman comes from a farming background, but his career has morphed over the years into what his website calls “social enterprise” work.

He still gets his hands dirty, but these days the sweat and toil is spent on the urban farming project he runs in the Vancouver neighbourhood known as Downtown Eastside.

It’s the largest such urban farming scheme in North America. And as he told it, it’s about producing healthy, affordable food, reconnecting with the environment and helping the disadvantaged deal with their anxiety and mental health.

“It’s where the term ‘Skid Row’ was actually coined,” he explained.

“It’s about 20 square blocks, entirely inhabited by folks who are dealing with long-term addiction, mental illness and material poverty.”

The project is now 10 years old and has inspired similar ventures in other North American cities.

“I’m not a mental health professional, addiction expert or social worker,” said Abelman.

“We produce 25 tonnes of food on four acres of pavement, and we do it with the hands of people that no one ever expected could accomplish anything. These are the untouchables.

“These are people that you see in broad daylight on the sidewalks with a needle in their arm or pirouetting in the middle of the street high on crack. And yet, this work has provided a reason for people to get out of bed each day, kind of a touchstone, a place to go.”

Michael didn’t set out to try and change people’s lives. His empathy for the mental health of others comes from his own struggles with anxiety and depression.

“For most of the people we employ, and these are paid jobs, this is the only meaningful engagement in their lives.

His project, he said, not only gives people meaning, it grounds them in an increasingly artificial and superficial world.

“And there is another level to it, another layer, and that is those of us who have been farming a while have suspected that at the end of a day of playing in the dirt, you just felt better.

“It’s powerful medicine. The physicality of it, the open air, the soils, the food, these are very healing aspects.”

Echoing the words of Sarah Wilson, he described anxiety as a gift: “For me anxiety has been the trigger, the thing that gets me up every day and gets me out there doing good work.

“And if I didn’t feel that way, I probably would not get out of bed.”

Dr Anderson from the Black Dog Institute urged people not to try to weather anxiety disorders alone.

“It’s important to remember that anxiety disorders are common and can be severe and impairing,” she said.

“If, despite your best efforts, anxiety is interfering with your life or your relationships, then it’s important to get help. There are many effective treatments available so don’t delay — speak to your GP and or your mental health professional.”

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