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“Know that I’m always, always, doing my best to not be anxious, but most days I’ll fail.”

What we want people to know about our anxiety disorders

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health problems that include generalised anxiety disorders, specific phobias and panic disorders. Approximately 1 in 4 people have an anxiety disorder that needs treatment. It’s important to recognise everyone experiences anxiety and fear at times, but 1 in 4 experience excessive and irrational anxiety that becomes ongoing and distressing and that interferes with everyday life (Better Health). It’s also important to recognise that even when we are very anxious, we are aware that our anxiety is not necessarily rational. Although self-awareness can help in implementing strategies for self-management, an anxiety disorder is not something that you can rationalise away.

With age, experience and the advice of great psychologists, we can get better at spotting early warning signs (or “low fuel light”) and better at managing our health. With chronic anxiety, however, it is important to learn to live well, in spite of the effort it may take to get dressed and out the door on some days. As we head into a new academic year, it’s important to remember that whilst other staff and students may be anxious about change, some will be managing anxiety disorders.

What it can be like for us

S1: Know that being anxious doesn’t make me stupid. I’ve had a lot of practice functioning well (not at my best perhaps, but who would know!) while in a state of high anxiety. I don’t need other people to tell me what I need, or what I can or can’t do when I am anxious. I know myself, and I need understanding and respect for my skills and for my ability to manage my condition and to know my own limitations.

S2: One of my anxiety triggers is driving, which seems ridiculous to a lot of people who breezed through their driving test at their first attempt. Fortunately one of the medications I now take for my OCD helps relieve some, but not all, of my anxiety when driving. It’s the stress of the unknown and hilly routes that cause problems. As I visualise what might happen at each turn, my hands begin to sweat on the steering wheel, my breathing becomes ragged and I have to pull over. If I have to travel unknown routes in the dark, I mean deep dark countryside driving, the anxiety returns. It was a long time before I was able to even drive because of the visualisations and fear. Even now with medication, I can’t drive for more than five hours in a day.

How does it feel?

An anxiety disorder is exhausting. It is as much a physical state of alert as a mental state. Muscles are burning, heart is racing, gut is… bloating, cramping and threatening diarrhoea! We get home and hit the couch with utter exhaustion most days. We protect our rest breaks, holidays and sleep times with a fanatical ferocity that other people might not be required to do. I’m not being pedantic about my hours. I’m defending my very real limits. Our fight and flight responses are, after all, making us work double time!

S1: Avoiding the anxiety trigger, or having the anxiety trigger removed, isn’t always the best thing to do. If I set out to avoid everything that caused me anxiety I’d rarely get out of bed, let alone leave the house. There’s a great deal of power and satisfaction in doing things despite how hard it is, or in overcoming the difficulty to succeed at anything while anxious – getting up to give a speech, or to deliver training sessions, all while you’re shaking and sick and breathless and the rest. I think people have a better understanding of this concept as it applies to people with chronic physical pain, thinking that sometimes it’s best to still do things in spite of the pain because pushing through can help alleviate it or distract you from it. Sometimes this is not the case, of course, but the same principle applies to anxiety, and it’s not often helpful to have people want to take away everything that is hard for you, because those are often also the things that make life worth living and make it possible to keep going.

S2: On the bad days I revert to my OCD rituals. I have a stereotypical fear of germs. A few years back when I was stressed and anxious I wore different shoes in each room of my home so that the floor germs didn’t ‘move’ around. I literally shuffled in thongs to the edge of the doorframe or change of flooring and put on the next pair. It was time consuming, but it brought peace when everything else felt out of control.

S1: On my bad days, I don’t “look anxious”… when you’ve had anxiety for years or decades, your “anxious face” is just your face. I can be very highly anxious and distressed and not actually be presenting that to the world. I think people expect that if someone is in a lot of pain or distress, physical or psychological, that they would be crying or have some clear outward behavioural indicator, but that’s often not the case for people with long term conditions.

What do we need?

  • Respect. If we come forward to say, “I need to tap out”, understand that this is the last thing we want to do, but if we’ve found the courage to say we’re not coping, understand the effort that took, and let us step away gracefully. Know that stepping away from one thing on one day, doesn’t mean we’re stepping away from everything forever.
  • Respect. Know that some days I have climbed ten storm wrapped mountains before breakfast and dragged myself on my elbows to my desk. Understand that those days are not hard because I am weak; they are hard because the weight of trauma and anxiety is so immense. On those days I am mighty and so strong, just because I was able to turn up.
  • Trust. When we say we’re struggling, it means we’re struggling, even if we don’t look like it.
  • Respect. I know how to do anxiety. I know me. I know my limits and I know when I can and can’t push through. Trust and respect my self-awareness, experience and skills to manage myself and support me to do that.
  • Kindness. Just know that I’m working really hard just to keep up appearances. That if I ask for a concession or flexibility, it’s because I absolutely need it, not because I’m taking advantage.

February 2022

Dr Scott Rickard, is a staff member with disabilities, is an Education Designer in the Education Design team – one of three teams within the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT)
Other contributors are a staff member with complex PTSD (S1) and one with OCD (S2)