I really admire the courage it took for Nadiya Hussain to make the documentary about her struggles with anxiety, and I applaud the way it was presented because it showed very clearly that anxiety is complex and not always logical.
Understanding the complexities of anxiety is hard enough as it is, especially for those who have never experienced severe levels of panic, and I think this was handled beautifully, especially when Nadiya met up with her sisters. These are the people who have been closest to her, and they had no idea how bad her anxiety was; they saw her behaviour, such as counting off the names of her family members on her fingers each night so that none of them would die, but they had no idea why she was doing it. Their reactions were of genuine surprise; what does a voice in your head sound like?
The most important message was that anxiety is different for everyone; it’s not about genes or any malfunction in the body, it is based on our individual experiences. I always use breathing techniques to manage my panic and I was so surprised when it had the opposite effect on Nadiya and actually caused her to panic; but as the connection was made between breathing (or not being able to) and the trauma of having her head flushed down a toilet it all made sense, and matched what I have learned about how the brain attaches emotions to memories.
Nadiya’s coping mechanisms are also quite different to mine; I struggle with routine, timing especially. I have my morning routine, which I finish around 10am and afterwards I can feel exhausted and struggle to motivate myself to do more. I try to keep busy, but the addition of depression sometimes stops me in my tracks.
The documentary got me thinking about a lot of things related to anxiety that I want to explore in more detail:
I was a little dismayed to see David Clark from the University of Oxford state that the most effective treatments for anxiety are medication and CBT.
I’m no scientist, so not on the same level as Mr Clark, however I would question medication as an effective treatment; it helps….. sometimes…..
My problem with medication is that it can’t really be called effective if it comes with a whole list of side effects. I am taking Sertraline, and have been for 3 years; I have been lucky not to experience really bad side effects, but it certainly didn’t remove the anxiety and panic, it just made it a bit more bearable.
Recently I tried to come off the Sertraline by reducing the amount I was taking by 50mg every 30 days; I was taking 200mg every day and only got down to 100mg before I found it really hard to function, so I ended up going back up to 150mg. I now feel afraid to try again, and I am left asking if I am actually addicted to these things now? Surely an addictive substance cannot be an effective treatment.
There are natural alternatives, which do not come with the list of side effects, so why aren’t these recommended by the NHS? They do the same thing and are kinder to the body. I wish I had started on the natural route from the beginning, but I felt pressure to be ‘on medication’ and I didn’t really know what I was dealing with in the early stages, I thought it would be like a course of antibiotics and I would feel fine after a week or two. I also felt that if I was not taking pills it would affect how work viewed my attempts to get well, and more recently the employment tribunal and the department for work and pensions, would they approve benefits if I was on Siberian Ginseng, or do I have to be on medication to qualify? Was I really trying? I need to find out the answer to this.
I did try CBT; I was referred by my GP but it didn’t really work for me; my therapist tried to get me to allocate times to everyday tasks, and I could not physically put pen to paper to do this. The number of sessions was limited and I wasn’t getting anywhere because I was fighting my company at the same time, so any progress was quickly undone.
This is a therapy I want to explore again and learn more about; Nadiya’s experience was really interesting and it showed that any treatment is long term, and there is no quick fix. Her therapist was very clear in stating that panic disorder can be cured, and that she would not be anxiety free (which is what she dreams of), because that is impossible.
School can be a brutal place, while I never experienced the level of bullying Nadiya did, I never fitted in. I hated school and it got worse in my last couple of years after someone in my year sprayed ‘I’m a Wanker’ in deodorant (when it used to stain white) all over the back of my school jacket. Quite rightly my mum and dad were not happy when they found out and called the school. From that time I was called a rat and excluded from the group of friends I had been in; I made other friends but that stigma followed me around until the day I left. Like Nadiya, I told no one, my parents had more important things to worry about, and I thought it might make things even worse.
It is great to see that some schools are taking mental health more seriously, but it is annoying to see that they have to scrape together the funding themselves in order to accommodate this level of support. The head teacher of Hove Park State School is an inspiration and it begs the question; if he can do it with a very limited budget, then why can’t companies offer this sort of support to their employees?
Kids really do deserve a lot of credit for what they have to deal with, there seems to be so much pressure on them, especially on girls and the way they look. Mobile phones were not around when I was at school (I’m only 39), and I am relieved they weren’t. When I got home I could forget about school and didn’t spend much time on the phone to friends, but now that connection is there 24/7.
Letting Go of Control:
I don’t think this is just limited to those suffering with anxiety, I think all of us struggle to let go. Nadiya’s husband was brilliant; in fact he was great throughout the whole documentary. Two questions he asked have stayed with me:
‘What are you thinking right now?’ – this is such a good way of asking what’s wrong, and you may have noticed the CBT therapist asking the same question, and it is a question my wife asks me as well. It helps because it makes you stop and think about what may be causing anxiety or panic at a specific time; most of the time I don’t know but it helps to think about what I am thinking about, if that makes sense rather than looking at something as ‘wrong’.
‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ – Brilliant, because again this makes you think, what is really the worst that could happen, and what are the chances of that actually happening. Where anxiety and panic are concerned, worst case scenarios are so extreme that the chances of them happening are highly unlikely, so to hear yourself try and explain them can really help, because you see how ridiculous they can be.
One of the key messages I took from the documentary was that “it’s ok to feel tense; it’s about understanding it’s not necessary”. It sounds simple, but most ideas behind reducing anxiety are as simple as this; the problem is that it takes time and a lot of perseverance in order to make significant changes.
It is about breaking patterns, and taking small steps, and that’s just what Nadiya did when she wore her glasses at a cooking demonstration in front of thousands of people. For me, I would love to be able to work again, but I know that just trying to get a job would stress the hell out of me, so I have to do it in small, roundabout ways and keep looking for those little glimmers of hope that will lead me to where I want to be.
Thank you Nadiya,
Thank you, thank you, thank you.