Mind Matters – A pandemic of anxiety

Why don’t we hear talk about stress?

I’ve noticed that as news intensifies around COVID-19 infections, Brexit, Climate Change and the US election all the media channels are intensifying focus on mental health. I wonder whether this might be because those working in the media might be struggling themselves or whether this is entirely directed by a proportionate ground swell of rising psychological struggles?

I suspect it’s both so I would like to sound a note of caution that as we are in this for some time to come yet there is a danger of both “compassion fatigue” and causing people to start to doubt themselves and become suspicious about whether they have a mental health concern. Are we stressed or developing anxiety?

The phenomena of compassion fatigue is one often talked about in the helping professions when people experience numbness around people in pain, whether physical, psychological or both. I have been particularly struck by constant coverage of anxiety and feel alarmed that we might be in danger of applying such a significant word to everyone’s daily experiences without fully thinking through the consequences.

I wonder whether we are in danger of creating an anxiety pandemic; in a similar way to how negative talk in financial markets can lead to panic trading.

Anxiety is conventionally thought of as something experienced from a pronounced and intense period of stress. Whilst enquiries to our counselling and psychotherapy services are showing significant increases in anxiety driven struggles it almost feels as though everyone is being told they are not normal unless they have anxiety at the moment.

I’ve also spotted that when people say they feel anxious at the moment it is rare that people are asked to say what they mean by that. As a psychotherapist the first thing I do when people talk with me about why they come to see me is to explore their experience. If they say they have anxiety we will talk through exactly how they experience that, for how long it’s been around and whether there are any external factors to which it is connected, for example a bereavement. More often than not the idea that they have anxiety is often a source of difficult feelings in itself so understanding it is key and part of treatment.

The existence of a word as powerful as anxiety can lead people to feel overwhelmed and powerless. Personally I can’t understand why the word stress is so rarely used at the moment. I think for many people, to be able to say they are stressed makes much more sense because we all know that we are prone to stress. We have behaviours that tell us when we are stressed and activities that help us to relieve it. It is also easier to think of things that we can do in the various parts of our every lives that are positive and supportive.

To be readily accepting that we are suffering from anxiety is potentially to lose control of the problem, allowing it to escalate and possibly colluding with behaviours that we might otherwise find easier to combat. For example if you go to a busy place and you say it was stressful you are likely to take a rest to feel better. However if you say you felt anxious going shopping then you might not find it so easy to identify a way to recover. Maybe you will start to avoid going shopping?

For sure some people are really struggling right now and need additional help and support. If you are finding you are not coping then make and appointment with a GP or a psychotherapist /counsellor. However if you are finding that you are starting to struggle then the first thing I suggest is you spend a little structured time writing down how you feel and what parts of your life come up in your thinking. Maybe its work, loneliness, money etc. Then take a good hard look at what you’ve written and think about what is not there – you might not have put health or tiredness.

As a psychotherapist and counsellor people often tell me they have come because they are struggling with a particular aspect of life, however as we explore and work this through we often end up talking about something that was previously not part of their thinking. So when I am listening to someone I reflect not only on what they are talking about but also what they are not.

At the moment, whilst we live in this challenging time of change, uncertainty and for many actual specific hardships around health, money and isolation, it is really important to pay attention to keeping a balance. To focus on the things we can do something about and avoid spending time worrying about those we cannot.

Pay attention if you find yourself suddenly thinking that a new project, health regime, or learning a life skill is the answer to all your problems – instead think about the important aspects of life and look to do make small improvements and progress in each. Here I am thinking about health, relationships, what makes you feel secure (work/finance), your interests and your spirituality.

If one area is particularly under threat, for example you have no work at the moment, you might have to pay considerable attention to finding solutions however you will also need to support yourself by setting yourself some achievable challenges in the other areas. Maybe you need to increase zoom coffee dates with friends, increase your daily exercise, schedule time to just sit and daydream.

Getting through may well be easier if you fine tune your existing sources of support than fall into the trap of thinking you need to make a huge change – unless you do of course?

In summary then: It’s good to think about psychological well being and mental health but be careful that constant exposure to bad news and media reports of mental illness do not leave you feeling overwhelmed and powerless. You might find it helpful to think about stress rather than anxiety, focus on the everyday than the bigger picture – but if you aren’t coping there are many of us who are ready and waiting to help.

Nicholas Rose
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach

UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych

Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.


Read more blogs by Nicholas Rose

Read the next in the series – Mind Matters: Back where we started?

Read the previous one – Mind Matters: The importance of boundaries

See all Nicholas’s Mind Matters blogs here

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