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Mental Health Awareness Week: Living with Anxiety

Happy Friday world - I hope you have all got some exciting weekend plans ahead of you but for now, I want to take the end of my working weekdays to consider something that I've seen a lot of online pals talking about this week and certainly something that impacts me too and that is mental health. This week (8th - 14th May) it has been Mental Health Awareness Week which is a campaign ran by the Mental Health Foundation every year to do just as it suggests - make us all more aware of mental health - and this year's theme is "Surviving or Thriving?". On MHF's website, they state:

"Good mental health is fundamental to thriving in life. It is the essence of who we are and how we experience the world. Yet, compared to physical health, so little is commonly known about mental ill health and how to prevent it. That must change. Good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem. This year, rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems, we will seek to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health."

I'm not one to keep my mental health to myself over here on NB and I've quite often mentioned my anxiety and social anxiety in particular but I've never really talked about it in a focused way and I certainly haven't questioned whether or not I'm surviving or thriving despite my mental health barriers. So, if Mental Health Awareness Week is all about awareness and just being open and honest and sharing our stories, then what better time to really get down to the nitty gritty of it right? Anxiety is an awful thing to deal with. Despite mental health becoming more openly discussed in media, online, and general day to day relationships, anxiety still seems to have a lot of stigma attached to it. It is something that often frustrates those who don't suffer with it or understand it but I can assure every one of you in that camp that it frustrates the hell out of those who live with it even more. My anxiety has been something growing like a dark storm off the coast since I was a teen and it's blowing closer and closer to the shore as the years go by. All poetic shite aside, I can see that my anxiety is getting worse as I get older but sometimes I don't know what do about that - do I tackle it? Do I let it consume me? Do I make up excuses in some odd attempt to normalise it? It seems like I tend to do a lot of the latter.

As a teen I wouldn't say I was confident but I was kind of comfortable. I was one of the quieter girls in my group of friends and for the most part, was relatively happy, incredibly social and didn't really spend any time alone unless I was sleeping, showering or shitting. If I look at myself now though, that extrovert lifestyle has completely disappeared and it's morphed into an introverted way of life that I definitely feel comfortable in but I also know has became a crutch for my crippling anxiety as it doesn't demand a lot from me. My biggest struggle is social stuff. If you had spoken to me only 4 or 5 years ago, you would deny me the chance to say the words "I'm a homebody and an introvert" because ha, I was out drinking, dancing, smoking - you name it, it was all the goddamn time. I wasn't happy though. That was the norm for me as a teen but heading into my twenties I just couldn't think of anything worse but it was still expected of me so I bullied myself into doing it all.

Doesn't sound so bad does it? Forcing yourself to go out and have a good time? But that was exactly the issue; it was forced. I was forcing myself to do things against my own interests and it impacted on me mentally a great deal. Panic attacks became frequent things. I had more in my first year of university than I'd ever had before or ever had since and it was because of the pressure I put on myself. I was terrified to say "no, not tonight" to people in fear of letting them down. Letting myself down. Putting myself in a situation of staying at home with Netflix and actually feeling pretty happy but then swamped with guilt because I was letting others down and actually *enjoying* the situation?! What a terrible person! It's so clear to see why this massively impacted my mental health now but at the time I just kept pushing myself. Sometimes it got too much and I would skip a lecture because that meant 2 more hours of just my own company but then the anxiety would flare up again and in my mind I'd cycle through all of the things people would be saying because I wasn't there. "I bet they're saying I slept in. I bet they're all saying I'm lazy. I bet someone has said 'Well it's nicer not having her here anyway' and everyone has laughed, nodded, and agreed." - this was a cycle I went through far too often and unfortunately, still do on a regular basis.

The hardest thing about having anxiety for me is the constant worrying and self-neglect/abuse. I genuinely wear myself out and can feel exhausted after specific anxious outbursts because my mind just can't shut off. I create scenarios in my head that I'm *convinced* are going to happen as if I'm some sort of crystal ball reading, premonition magician who can see how it's all going to play out and guess what? I'm always at the ugly root of it and it's always my fault/impacts me in the worst way. That's just the way it happens. It was only this week that I almost had a panic attack on the train to work because a young lad sat behind me, then got up, walked to somewhere else on the train, came back, then went away again. Maybe other passengers wondered what he was doing but me? I convinced myself he'd planted a bomb on the seat behind me. Maybe he had come back because he actually realised he could easily slide both of his arms around the seat and slit my throat. It all played out in my head and made me panic because there was nowhere I could go. I would also sound insane explaining it to a total stranger if they asked if I was okay. This is what my anxiety is like.

Other aspects I have to deal include: thinking everyone at work hates me and they all talk about me behind my back but say otherwise to my face, unrealistic concerns about family members' health deteriorating, being absolutely terrified to answer the phone - even if it's a family member or close friend who is calling, constantly checking social media (I know) because I'm worried that something I've said will be taken the wrong way or offend someone I like speaking to, worried to answer the door when I'm home even though I know it's the lovely friendly postman... There's so many small aspects to my anxiousness that all adds up and makes it something my mind is in constant battle with. It's not only a difficult thing for myself to deal with but those who care about me too. Luckily for the most part, I have understanding friends and family who are aware that I might cancel plans at short notice because I just can't face going outside or being social. However I've had my fair share of friendships break down and completely disappear because it's been a big ugly problem sat between the two of us and that's just something I have to deal with too.

I think being comfortable to talk about mental health - however big or small your barrier is - is incredibly important. Not only does it help make others aware, but through that process you can help educate others and just take some weight off your shoulders. I would never use my anxiety as an excuse for something but being able to clearly explain it so others know about it is a fantastic outlet to utilise. It helps you realise you're not the only one and it also introduces you to potential new techniques to tackle it that you can experiment with as we all have tried different approaches to overcome our various differences and similarities.

I'm never apologetic for my anxiety. I'm never sorry for it being part of me but I am apologetic for some of my actions as a result of it and mostly? I'm apologetic on behalf of those who say "oh stop being a baby and just do *insert one of the millions of things anxiety can sometimes hold you back from doing*" or "it can't be that bad" or (here comes the whopper) "don't be so boring". I've heard them all and I just feel disappointment and shame for those who are so dismissive instead of being actively curious as to how to aid the person in any which way they can and that goes for all mental health grievances, not just anxiety. It is also becoming commonplace for people to question the authenticity of individuals' mental health. As MH is more readily talked about, it unfortunately seems to be followed by people wanting validation of it being a genuine barrier and to those who do question it, please know you are never within those rights. You would never question someone with any sort of physical barrier so please don't do it and think it is acceptable just because you can't see it. Mental Health is a real issue for many worldwide, it is not some shitty paranormal show on daytime TV that needs a sceptic. So please use Mental Health Awareness Week as a means to learn. Use it to meet and converse with others who may feel similarly to you or who may suffer from MH you struggle to understand. I'm so pleased to see how openly discussed mental health has become in say the last 1O years but it still has a long way to go and as the much-needed help out there is forever facing further cutbacks, don't let ignorance and misunderstanding be something that fuels those cutbacks and secrecy further. Talk about it.

And as for the theme of MHAW this year - "Surviving or Thriving?" - where would I place myself on the scale? To me if you're surviving you've overcome something; you're fighting, you're hanging in there. If you're thriving you've taken that all one step further - you've moulded it to your advantage, you've figured out a way to live with it, you manage it. Whilst I think I've got some way to go to fully squish it and manage it completely, I have a job that involves being confident to speak in front of people. I travel alone. I no longer worry about speaking to strangers even if my heart feels like it's crawling up my throat and just about ready to do the leap of faith using my tongue as a springboard - I still manage for the most part. So I guess I'd say I'm thriving in my survival and I'll take that for the time being.

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