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‘I can cope’ or ‘just snap out of it’ not the key to mental wellbeing

This week, beyondblue released data that shows just half the Australian population knows anxiety is not part of someone’s personality; and only 60 per cent understand anxiety is not just stress.

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And that makes me, well, anxious. Because that’s a lot of people who’ve got a very wrong idea.

Speaking of lots of people, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows 26 per cent of people experience an anxiety condition in their lives, with nearly 3 million currently experiencing an anxiety disorder, making it more common than depression.

To put that in perspective, 2.83 million people watched the AFL Grand Final which was the highest rating TV show in Australia last year.

This isn’t an isolated problem. But one of the most insidious things about mental health problems is how isolating they are. They have a terrible way of cutting you off from other people at a time when you need understanding and support so very much.

And I get it. If you’re the friend or partner or colleague of someone with anxiety, it’s frustrating to have to deal with their getting stressed for seemingly irrational reasons. Anxiety is tiring to deal with.

Believe me, it’s even more tiring when you’re the one suffering. Imagine being on tenterhooks, lightheaded but leaden with dread, stomach full of butterflies erupting in waves of nausea, tingling in your limbs and an inability to sit still for even a moment. And those are just some of the possible symptoms.

When it wears off, it feels how I imagine it would be to have gone ten rounds with Muhammed Ali after running an ultramarathon. (I say imagine, because I’ve never actually been in a boxing ring or jogged anything longer than a fun run.)

What I do know is that that some days I battle anxiety, but I’m not an anxious person. I have no fear of speaking in public nor traveling alone in foreign countries. I’ve thrived working in the pressure cooker of ministerial offices and newsrooms, and had the time of my life jumping out of planes and abseiling down cliff faces.  

Certain situations, though, cause me more worry than they should. And so I’ve learned how to manage this through exercise and meditation and reaching out for support when I need it. Different tactics and treatments work for different people, but the principle is essentially the same as how an asthmatic might take medication, identify and avoid their triggers, and take up exercise to increase their lung capacity (an approach that worked remarkably well for one Kieren Perkins).

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Part of the problem we have in grappling with these disorders is that the vocabulary we have to describe them is woefully inadequate. When we say “anxiety” do we mean feeling a bit stressed, or full blown panic, or something in between? What about “depression”? Does that imply someone is merely feeling down or flailing in the grip of the black dog?

If the Sami language of Scandinavia has 180 words for snow and ice, surely in our angst-ridden modern age we can come up with a more nuanced terminology to help us clarify the difference between “a brief twinge of worry“, “a nagging feeling that something’s wrong” and “this Oh My God stomach-churning sense of impending doom.”

Which leads us to the second problem – these terms exist on a continuum of emotional and physiological states, and it can be hard to pinpoint the moment where the normal becomes the maladaptive.

One working definition is that an anxiety disorder becomes that – a disorder – when it persistently interferes with your ability to cope with daily life. Or, to put it another way, it’s normal to feel anxious when faced with something stressful, but not so normal to keep feeling anxious when that stressor is removed.

The real problem, however, has nothing to do with semantics and everything to do with the fact that believing that anxiety is a personality trait or an inability to cope with stress takes the issue and pins it firmly back on the victim as a character flaw. You’d be fine if only you stopped being such a drama queen. Just get a grip, get over it, it’s no big deal.

But doing any of those things is as impossible as sternly telling the diabetic to just start producing insulin already. It doesn’t solve anything and in fact, makes it worse by actively discouraging people from seeking help that’s both available and effective.

Encouraging widespread acceptance and understanding that anxiety disorders are common and treatable isn’t a hard ask – but it will make the lives of millions a bit easier. 

Danielle Bevins-Sundvall is a former ministerial policy adviser and writer. She tweets @DaniKBevins. 

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