Everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their life. It might be on the eve of an exam, or while they’re waiting for the results of a hospital scan.
It’s that feeling of nervous agitation, a bit like a knot in your stomach. But for those suffering from anxiety or panic disorders the impact is far more severe and can ruin their lives.
According to statistics published last year by NHS Digital, at any one time a sixth of the population in England aged between 16 and 64 has a mental health illness. It’s also estimated that around 13 per cent of the UK population will suffer an anxiety attack at some point during their life.
Writer and comedian Aaron Gillies is among them. He has been living with anxiety for the past four years. “It came from a place of nothing,” he says. “I was very outgoing, I enjoyed going to the pub and being centre of attention and was a bit of a clown and then I developed anxiety. Mental health disorders don’t play by the rules, they just appear out of nowhere and then they can go away when they feel like it.”
For Aaron it was a new, and deeply unsettling, experience. “I became shut off from the world and was trapped in a place of self-loathing with no self confidence. Every little thing that went wrong I over-analysed, to the point where I was convinced that everything was going to go wrong so I didn’t put myself in these positions any more. It meant I missed out on experiences which is what a lot of people with anxiety deal with on a day to day basis.”
It reached the point where he stopped leaving the house. “I got into a rut and eventually I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and that helped, because beforehand you just assume it’s part of who you are, but once you have a name for something you can start fighting it.”
With the help of medication and therapy he was able to recover. “I got to a point where I could go outside and have conversations. I still find them quite daunting sometimes and I’ll go through them in my head (like I’ve done with this interview) to make sure I don’t sound stupid.”
Gillies has written extensively about mental health issues and his book How to Survive the End of the World (an Anxiety Survival Guide), which is published next week, helps shed light on a subject that is still misunderstood by many people.
He will be discussing the issue as well as his own experiences and how people can fight back at a Berwins Salon North talk in Harrogate later this month. “Depression is getting talked about a lot in the media, which is great. But anxiety is still very much seen as this weird subsection, it’s not really regarded as a serious condition that could ruin your life.”
He hopes his book, which uses humour to address what is a serious issue, will help in the same way he found listening to other people’s experiences helpful. “I find making a joke out of it really helps so I write about it in a tongue in cheek way. I want to bring the issue to a new audience and to offer some little ideas that can help and also to say to people, ‘you’re not alone.’
“For me, reading about other people’s experiences was invaluable because I could figure out what was going on in my head through what other people were saying.”
As he points out, though, what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. “There’s no magic cure that will fix you. For me it was watching bad Nicolas Cage movies from the 90s and going out for nice long walks during the day. It’s little things like this that can make a difference.”
Anxiety, says Gillies, covers a broad spectrum of emotions. “It’s a perfectly normal feeling. Everyone feels anxious, whether it’s before a job interview or meeting your in-laws for the first time. But extreme anxiety is the heightened version of that. It’s your brain worrying about something and expecting the absolute worst outcome - there’s no sense to it, it’s just the brain in overdrive.
“There are triggers that can cause these feelings to come on, but the fact is it’s all down to brain chemistry and you can’t help the way your brain is wired, so you should never feel guilty or blame yourself. You’re just a bit tangled up and you need someone to come along and help you get through it.”
It’s perhaps no coincidence that as the world seems to move at an ever faster pace, so the number of people suffering from anxiety orders of one kind or another has risen. “It’s being spoken about more widely which means more people are relating to it and more people are getting diagnosed. Awareness has risen and that’s made a positive difference.
“However, we do live in confusing and scary times. We’re bombarded with bad news on pretty much a daily basis and it’s very easy to look at everything negatively and start panicking about every little thing in our lives. We have this predisposition to terror and an overarching sense of worry that encompasses everything we do.”
Gillies feels there’s still a social stigma attached to mental health issues. “Back in the 60s, anti-anxiety medication was known as ‘mother’s little helper’ and anxiety is still often seen as a feminine disorder.”
The media doesn’t always help, either. “About five or six years ago one of the national newspapers ran the headline ‘mental patients kill 1,200 a year,’ and it was later found to be completely false.”
Nevertheless, he believes perceptions of mental health conditions are shifting. “Over the last decade we’ve seen this influx of high-profile people speaking about their own experiences which has been invaluable. When I was a kid you never read about a rock star being depressed or stopping touring because of anxiety, but nowadays you do.
“A few months ago Bruce Springsteen was talking about it and only the other week Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson was talking about his own battles with depression, and they’re reaching huge audiences that have never had the opportunity to delve into these issues.”
Anxiety, as Gillies points, can afflict anyone regardless of age, gender wealth or religion. “You can be the happiest, richest person in the world but if your brain chemistry flies in such a way that you’re not getting enough serotonin you may end up with depression and anxiety.
“So now it’s about making sure that we’re in a position where everyone has access to the advice they need. And it’s also about raising awareness so people realise this isn’t just happening to them it’s happening to so many people and that there is help out there.”
Aaron Gillies is appearing at The Crown Hotel, Harrogate, on April 26. Tickets cost £18. Tel: 01423 562 303 or go to harrogateinternationalfestivals.com
His new book - How to Survive the End of the World (an Anxiety Survival Guide) - published by Two Roads, is out on April 19.
Anxiety - facts and figures
Anxiety is a natural human response, however it can become a mental health problem if it impacts someone’s ability to live their life fully.
For example, if they avoid situtions that might cause them to feel anxious, experience panic attacks, and find it hard to go about everyday life, or do things they used to enjoy.
According to the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Report, (APMS) published by NHS Digital, anxiety affects almost six in 100 people.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the UK – it’s thought that around one in 20 people will experience anxiety each year.
While around one in 10 are diagnosed as having mixed anxiety and depression.