A post inspired by some wonderful and insightful words on anxiety from two very different people: TV chef Nadiya Hussain and novelist Robert Harris.
“It’s got to a point in my life where that’s all I am now. I’m just the panic, I’m just the anxiety. And I don’t want to be that anymore.”
This is TV chef and all-round gentle and delightful soul Nadiya Hussain, talking about the anxiety that has been a constant and unwelcome companion for most of her life. She speaks these words in her May 2019 BBC documentary Nadiya: Anxiety and me. Up until a week or so ago, I had no idea that Nadia suffered with anxiety. She always seems such a radiant force for good in this world. Sunshine in human form. It is horrible to learn that she suffers in this way.
A feeling of unease
The NHS website offers the following definition of anxiety:
“Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. […] But some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives.”
Up until a few months ago, I knew that I was sometimes prone to anxiety, but I believed I could generally keep it under control. It had certainly never occurred to me that my anxiety was or could be a serious problem. But as February 2022 tipped over into March 2022, my stress levels peaked and my anxiety boiled over. I wrote about this in Into the infinity of thoughts. Nadiya’s words about feeling that she had become “just the panic, I’m just the anxiety” perfectly describe how I felt at that point.
I first learnt of Nadiya’s extreme anxiety by belatedly catching up on her October 2019 appearance on Jay Rayner‘s Out to lunch podcast. Nadiya speaks openly to Mr Rayner about her anxiety. She also reveals that her black headscarf (which she wore when she won Great British bake off and for most of Nadiya: Anxiety and me) was black for a reason. She would wear the black headscarf as a form of colour-coding her feelings, to signal to herself and to her family when her anxiety was at its worst. Nadiya tells Rayner that she decided to make the documentary as a way to confront her anxiety, and perhaps to move past it, or at least find a way to reduce its impact.
Over the past few months, I have attempted to be as open and as honest as I can about my own mental health journey, via the words I write here on this blog.*
When my anxiety boiled over and became intolerable a few months ago, I finally knew that I had to seek professional help. The doctor diagnosed me as suffering with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder (I didn’t know that you could stack up conditions in this way, but it turns out that you very much can). I was prescribed antidepressants for the first time in my life. A few months later, when the anxiety came back strong, I was additionally prescribed heart medication. I continue to take both to this day.
When I first sought medical help for all this, I found it hard to put what I was feeling into words. I still find this difficult, even months into writing about this unexpected mental health journey.
You are your own worst enemy
Early on in Nadiya: Anxiety and me, she offers a concise and accurate description of what it feels like to suffer with anxiety:
“Having anxiety is probably one of the most lonely, most isolating things to have, because you are your own worst enemy and you live inside your head. And I know there are thousands of people out there who suffer just like me. And we need to talk. That’s half the healing. We need to talk.”
Talking is so important. We first have to find a willingness to be open to others about what we are going through. Then we must try to put it all into words. Later, Nadiya describes another aspect of anxiety that I have not yet attempted to put into words, but one with which I have become familiar these past few months – what some (but not all) other people expect it to look like. Nadiya says:
“I might seem happy and relaxed. But that’s not how I feel. That feeling of worry is always there, it’s so heavy, and it doesn’t go away.”
Over the past few months, I have at times spoken to people who seem to expect that those who are suffering with anxiety and/or depression will be in a constant state of visible and perhaps even melodramatic distress. All weeping and anguish, all the time.
Each individual who suffers with anxiety and/or depression will have their own unique experience of it, and their own way in which it manifests itself in their behaviour. It may not be detectable at a surface level. It may not even be obvious to the poor soul suffering with these conditions.
I suppose that anxiety has been something of a constant companion for me, for more years than I probably realise. Anxiety always felt like something I could manage. Until I knew that I couldn’t. I suppose that over the years, in the interests of being able to get on with everyday life, I must have found ways to try to mask the symptoms of anxiety, the turmoil that I so often feel inside.
Occasionally over the years, people have told me that I come across as calm. I know that inside my head I am anything but calm. I was nodding along in recognition as Nadiya described the extent to which her brain feels hardwired to seek out things about which to worry, and to pursue these worries much further than might be considered healthy.
The art of life
These past few weeks, I have been reading Robert Harris‘s outstanding novel Imperium, the first in his trilogy set in ancient Rome and concerning lawyer and statesman Marcus Cicero. At one point, Harris gifts us a beautifully written description of how an overactive mind can take almost any thought, find something in it about which to worry, then fan the flames of this worry into a state of high anxiety. Harris’s narrator (and Cicero’s slave) Tiro says:
“I doubt whether there was another senator in Rome who would have tried to peer so far into the future – who would have piled up so many ifs and discerned a reason for alarm. Certainly, when he explained his anxiety to Quintus, his brother dismissed it with a laugh: ‘And if you were struck by lightning, Marcus, and if Metellus Pius were able to remember what day of the week it was…’**
The other day, I stumbled on some words that I wrote earlier this year, for a blog post that I couldn’t seem to finish. I had attempted to describe how my tendency to worry intensified when my anxiety was at its worst:
For various reasons, this has been a stressful and anxious time for me. It is not over yet. It feels awful. Sleep patterns disrupted. Waking in the dead of night with surging adrenaline. My mind is blank for a sweet moment on waking. Then it seems to reload the concerns of the previous day, plunging me once more into the infinity of thoughts. Why does the mind – well, my mind – feel the need to throw all this at me once again? Why does my mind decide that the time to work through all my worries in minute detail is in the wee small hours, when the thing that would actually be of most help would be to rest and to recharge? I cannot be the only person to whom this happens. Perhaps your mind does this, too? If it does, how do you deal with these moments?
I am pleased to report that, for the moment at least, these symptoms have abated. I know that this is in the main due to the medication I am taking, and that my process of recovery is ongoing.
At the end of Imperium, Cicero is at last able to find some perspective on anxiety and worry. Cicero says:
“The art of life is to deal with problems at they arise, rather than destroy one’s spirit by worrying about them too far in advance.”
Hear hear! (Although this is of course easier said than done.)
Help is out there
I dread to think what might have happened, where I might find myself now, if – those few months ago – I had not at long last realised that I needed to seek help. That I needed to open up about the stress and anxiety that was making my life miserable. That I needed to talk. That I needed to try to find the right words.
I applaud Nadiya Hussain for her bravery in being open and honest about her anxiety. Her words and her example have been a huge help and inspiration to me, as I suspect they have also been for thousands of others.
I would like to conclude with some words from my post Into the infinity of thoughts, which feel just as relevant today as when I first wrote them:
Help is out there. My treatment is now underway. It is not over yet. It has barely begun. But I feel that I am at last moving in the right direction. Even if I left it too long before calling it in.
Gentle reader, I urge you to take your mental health seriously, to acknowledge what your mind might be really trying to tell you, and to take action or even seek help, if that is what is called for. Anxiety and stress need to be taken seriously, before they become overwhelming.
The grace and the chaos exist in the same moment. May the grace outweigh the chaos for you, today and tomorrow.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
- Mental health (NHS) Information and support for your mental health from the NHS.
- Information and support (Mind) Resources from Mind, the UK mental health charity.
- NAMI Homefront (NAMI) Online resources from US charity NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
- SANE Australia Visit the site of this “national mental health charity making a real difference in the lives of people affected by complex mental health issues”.
* I have written about my ongoing mental health journey in the following posts: Into the infinity of thoughts; Renewal; and No words?; Mental health first response; Glorify; In our darkest hours; and At the heart of things; No feeling is final; and Relax harder.
** The irony for poor Cicero is that, on this occasion, the issue that had sent him into this state of worry and anxiety is entirely justified. But a little before his worst fears are realised, Cicero dismisses these worries, deciding that they were groundless. Tiro says:
“I thought at the time that this was the sort of remark which proves there are gods, because whenever, in their celestial orbits, they hear such complacency, it amuses them to show their power. Sure enough, it was not long after that Caelius Rufus brought Cicero some disturbing news.”