'You don't know it's not normal': Less than half of us recognise anxiety symptoms
I'm just a bit messed up and highly strung. This was the view I took of myself before I knew that anxiety was not just a normal part of who I am.
It turns out that I'm not alone in this confusion.
Anxiety affects one in four Australian adults, yet less than half of us recognise the symptoms when they occur. Like me, many people confuse their symptoms with something else, like a lack of sleep, or simply think that the unsettling feeling of chronic stress is their "normal".
"I had a pretty anxious childhood – my household was pretty frenetic and you don't know it's not normal because that's all you know as a child," says Sydneysider Camilla Martin.
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Growing up with an alcoholic mother and a hot-tempered father left Martin feeling "forever on edge".
"In hindsight, I've had this low-level anxiety that's been part of my blueprint for as long as I can remember," the 45-year-old change manager says.
There was always the shallow breathing and the sensation of a weight on her chest, the dry mouth, the shaky hands – like the adrenalin rush of too much caffeine – and the "foggy sensation" at the front of her head.
"It's a bit like a hangover without the alcohol," Martin explains. "Simple things are suddenly very difficult."
And, when it takes hold, she wakes up at two or three in the morning, her mind on a hamster wheel.
"I'll be checking and rechecking conversations and ... my mind will be in overdrive like there's a race on."
Her mind also plays the role of draconian judge and jury.
"No-one would ever speak to me like that and I would never speak to someone else like that but inside my mind I've got my judge and the judge is on my case," Martin explains. "The judge says 'you're an idiot'; 'you should know by now how to deal with this'; 'I'm really disappointed in you Camilla' – it uses my name; 'It's not good enough – you need to try harder', 'you're weak', 'you're pathetic'."
Despite all of this, it was decades before she realised that her experience was not normal and not the result of her being exceptionable.
First, while living out of home at university, she realised that not all domestic situations are angst-ridden, then on her 30th birthday in Barbados she found herself in paradise but still feeling terrible.
"I thought everything should be perfect, it couldn't be a more beautiful place, but I couldn't have been more anxious, more depressed, more overweight and more lonely," Martin recalls. "I thought this is not equating at all. That was eye-opening."
But it wasn't until her parents died within 18 months of each other when she was 37 that Martin finally took action.
The grief gave permission to fall apart for the first time and, in turn, seek professional support.
WHY WE THINK IT'S 'NORMAL'
New research by beyondblue, an Australian non-profit organisation that works to address issues associated with depression, anxiety disorders and related mental disorders, found that one in three people endured symptoms for at least 12 months before recognising their problem as anxiety.
"There's this massive lag with people going 'this is just part of my personality', 'I'm just a bit stress-y' and not taking the symptoms seriously enough and thinking they are not treatable and they are normal," says Beyond Blue CEO Georgie Harman.
On Sunday, beyondblue launched its Know When Anxiety is Talking campaign, which runs for three years and aims to help people to recognise the symptoms of anxiety.
"This campaign is about exploding the myths," Harman says.
"Anxiety is tricky because feelings of stress and anxiousness are common, healthy things to feel in certain situations and I think there's a conflation of those very normal feelings we have as human beings and what we're talking about which is serious, often debilitating anxiety conditions and that is when those feelings don't subside even when the stressful event has passed."
There has also been a lack of understanding – as much in the mental health space as in public – about anxiety. But that is changing.
"Anxiety conditions are twice as prevalent as depression – two million of us every year ," Harman says. "We expanded our remit a few years ago because of the increasing data around the prevalence of anxiety."
'YOU DON'T THINK YOU CAN HANDLE THIS, BUT YOU CAN'
Understanding the symptoms, understanding that it did not need to be her "normal" and understanding it was not her has helped Martin to manage her anxiety.
She meditates to relax, breathe and distance herself from her "own movie reel", she takes prescribed medication, she practises self-compassion, and pays extra attention to her sleep, diet and exercise when she sees a "tsunami" coming on. In calm moments, she also works on the bully in her brain.
"The judge has a valuable function," Martin says.
It helps her judge when not to run over the road and get hit by a car, it judges when she's had too much to drink and reminds not to drive the car and it judges if she needs to apologise if she's said something mean. But, she is working on putting boundaries around her judge so it remains constructive, not destructive.
"That's very powerful because the negative self-talk is probably the toughest of all the symptoms," she says.
While the anxiety "ebbs and flows" depending on external triggers, she now recognises the symptoms much earlier and addresses them immediately.
"I'll stop and take some deep breaths to calm the mind and then I'll take stock of what I'm dong in that hour, in that day to figure out where do I need to put my energy and what can wait.
"It's always in the background but it's lower-level than it's ever been and the spikes are less spiky than they ever have been ... I'm mindful that there are always new things that will throw me but I'm now in charge of it."
The once suffocating grip of anxiety has loosened to the point that she can confidently tell others "You don't think you can handle this but I promise you, with patience and kindness, you can."
Harman believes so too.
"Know when it's normal and know when anxiety is talking to you – there is great treatment available," Harman says. "People get better and if they don't completely recover they learn to manage it very effectively."
Where to get help:
The Mental Health Foundation's free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812) will refer callers to some of the helplines below: