Formerly, only film stars knew what it was like to be on a billboard looking marvellous while feeling broken inside. Now that experience is available to anyone with social mediaby Cathy Rentzenbrink / May 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
As I understand the causes of anxiety, we think that there is a threat, so our fight or flight response is activated and our bodies flood with adrenaline and cortisol. That system worked well when we needed to run away from tigers but now means we go haywire in the modern world where there are multiple stressors but no need to physically move. In body chemistry terms, we are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
I’ve been thinking about this because a friend has been signed off work with a stress-related illness. She’s been referred for therapy and asks for tips on managing anxiety in the meantime. With the caveat that everyone is different, I consider myself a veteran of the anxiety trenches, and am happy to share my protocol.
Exercise is good because literally running away from that tiger helps us to regulate. Mindfulness and meditation, once we learn to sit still for long enough, train us to have some control over our thoughts so we can be less hyper-vigilant. We need time off from news and phones and to be careful with booze and coffee, as they add into the unhappy cocktail sloshing around inside. Indeed, caffeine is so pertinent that to describe anxiety to a non-sufferer, I’d suggest they drink six espressos on a hangover and then get on a rollercoaster.
For me, anxiety manifests as a thudding heart, tightness in the chest or feelings of nausea. In the past, I’d often not clock it as anxiety but think I was succumbing to asthma or had caught a bug and would go to the doctors to be told there was nothing wrong with me. I’m not alone in this. Another friend has been to A&E three times in the last two years convinced that he is having a heart attack.
These days, therapy and abstinence from alcohol help me manage. I don’t hyperventilate any more but still it grumbles on, mainly as nausea. I feel well when I’m surrounded by people and exceptionally well when I am teaching or on stage. It is when I’m alone that it bites, and looking at social media can tumble me into a spiral of clammy despair. I don’t fully understand why. It’s partly what I call “avataritis,” a condition arising from our complex selves being represented by a collection of images. Formerly, only film stars knew what it was like to be on a billboard looking marvellous while feeling broken inside. “They go to bed with Gilda and wake up with me,” said Rita Hayworth. Now, that experience is available to anyone with a social media account and we all worry we won’t measure up to our curated and filtered alter-egos.
It’s also that people behave so horribly to each other online and witnessing it feels like I’m watching bullying in the playground. I miss the bright lights of Twitter but when I imagine, say, sharing this column, I want to throw up all over my shoes. What am I frightened of? That people will shout at me, I suppose. I can’t bear the way people squabble online about how we should look after our mental health. It makes me anxious.
And then there is Trump and Brexit. There is something particularly insanity-inducing about both of those subjects because they seem more the stuff of satire than reality. Sometimes I think I’m stuck in a long nightmare and will wake up. Would I feel less anxious in that parallel world? Maybe. Though I’m 46, and I read recently that anxiety rises in perimenopausal women. So am I responding to the state of the world or is my body taxing me for being a woman yet again? I don’t know. Maybe I should go to the doctors again.
Talking helps. My friend who ends up in A&E works in a high-profile role in the City and daren’t tell any of his colleagues. His few confidantes are all women. When I ask him why, he makes a face. “I couldn’t talk to another bloke about it,” he says, and I see that the very thought is distressing him so I leave it alone, but think how sad it is. There will be other men he knows who are equally troubled and equally secretive. They could be helping each other.
Normalisation is a useful word my therapist taught me. Our biggest fear is that it’s only us. The reality is that many people are struggling to adjust to a world where we are able to livestream humanity at its worst whenever we pick up our smartphones. Modern life as we know it is anxiety-inducing and there should be no shame in learning strategies to manage it. Lots of us are being stalked by an imaginary tiger—I’m off to run away from mine.