Heart slamming inside chest, mind racing, eyes blinded. Breathless. This could be an electrifying chase scene from Skullduggery Pleasant, the book I am regularly stealing from my son’s room after he’s fallen asleep.
Actually, it describes my experience at a Barwon Heads community forum. As a speaker, I have since shared the story of the violent, unexpected and uncontrollable leg wobble that threatened my calm four minutes into a five minute presentation. Luckily, the lectern hid the guilty limb from the audience and my nerves were only visible to my fellow panellists.
The great lesson for me that day was that every speaker had a ‘tell’. Without exception, there were shaking hands, thready voices, shifting feet and shuffling paper. And, thrillingly, a momentary loss of composure did not matter at all.
Some people can’t believe that I used to be cripplingly shy as a kid, probably because I naturally do the bubbly chatty babbly thing to a reasonable degree. But I clearly recall my loathing of public speaking, my fear of the stage and many a mumbling, blushing presentation.
Every day before secondary school I felt nervous. Butterflies in the stomach and shortness of breath were as familiar as the hot face of embarrassment, the awkwardness of making new friends and the fear of being rejected by old ones. I was nervous about riding my own horse, intimidated by parties, scared of tough older girls, of judgemental boys and I was chronically inadequate with fashion and music.
I had more hang-ups than the proverbial wardrobe. But I consider I was a fairly typical teenager.
Now older, with the freedom to like myself - including my cringeworthy, cranky and cynical moments - life has become blessedly easy.
The new beyondblue campaign about anxiety is as intriguing as its choice of chairperson. It launched with a stunning performance from acclaimed actor Ben Mendelsohn personifying anxiety.
Although the campaign statistic focuses on the ‘one in four’ that need help, it’s useful to know that everyone experiences anxiety at some point. Given the mental health picture in the Geelong region, particularly among those under 24, this can only be positive knowledge.
With suicide now the foremost cause of death in the 15-24 age group, maybe some can recognise ‘early onset anxiety’ before it reaches a severe level or goes on for a long period.
I remember hearing that my so-called ‘leadership type’ tends to experience constant low-grade stress. That struck a chord – I struggle to relax and make space for mindfulness. I am always aware of the time, often to the minute, and I have a constant ‘to-do list’ in my head for the short term and long term.
It could be part of being hyperactive and feeling overly responsible, it could be a latent avoidance issue – but that’s my own adventure. Unless this engine of concerns starts to bother me, or those around me, I use this energy to advantage. Am I anxious? Possibly.
When to start worrying about worrying?
I struggled to find the definition of anxiety on beyondblue’s six (yes six) page fact sheet. (Gosh, when will the health industry learn simplicity?) In wading through the types of anxiety that led to more fact sheets, I was starting to feel anxious about my ability to find information.
What struck me was that nearly all symptoms and causes listed are what I would consider normal for most people, especially young folk.
I finally found that to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder it ‘must have a disabling impact on the person’s life’. Given that ‘disabling impact’ is quite an individual measure and understanding that my assessment of ‘normal’ may be completely off the mark, I reflected on a superb definition of bullying I came across a few years ago.
It was along the (contextual) lines of “bullying is sustained behaviour that causes negative psychological or physical impacts”. For me, this made bullying about the impact on the person who is suffering; not defined by who or what caused it, nor by the subjective degree of suffering.
In my brazenly non-clinical opinion, anything that impacts the way someone feels most days for more than a few weeks and affects their ability to lead a relatively happy life should be discussed and possibly treated. On that basis I am currently more hyperactive than anxious.
It hasn’t always been that way, I went through depression in my late teens when my parents moved overseas and one morning about seven years ago, just after I had a cup of coffee, I had a panic attack out of the blue. I felt like a duffer thinking it was a heart attack but the ambos were simultaneously concerned and reassuring.
When it gets to calling 000, the message is pretty clear that finding time for mindfulness is a priority. Let’s work on seeing a need before then.