this book is challenging the stigma surrounding anxiety
As "Anxiety for Beginners" hits bookstores, we talk to its author, Eleanor Morgan, about coming to terms with mental health issues and why attitudes are starting to change.
Eleanor Morgan has always been an anxious person. As a kid, she'd fixate on contamination and germs, but it was nothing like the kind of anxiety she'd come to endure as an adult. At 17 her appendix burst, leaving her bedridden, and unable to feed and clothe herself. It wasn't until she returned to school that she suffered her first panic attack, in the science wing bathrooms.
Desperate never to feel that same kind of fear, she fell into a pattern of avoidance, which in turn got her anxiety going. After years of learning to deal with her anxieties, Eleanor decided to channel her experiences into her writing. While senior editor at VICE UK, Eleanor commissioned The VICE Guide to Mental Health, working in association with Mind to publish a week-long series of articles exploring the state of our mental health in 2015. Resonating with individuals around the world, it eventually led to a book deal. As Anxiety for Beginners hits the shelves, we talk to Eleanor about coming to terms with mental health issues and why the stigma surrounding them is changing.
Do you find it difficult to talk about your own mental health?
I didn't tell anyone, apart from my partners and my best friend [about what was going on] — although I couldn't bring myself to tell them everything — for a very long time. Over a decade. I somehow managed to hide what felt like an entire internal weather system from nearly everyone I knew. I was so scared of being pitied, seen as out of control, labeled "mad" or the dreaded Hysterical Woman. Today, that nervousness is (mostly) eclipsed by the realization that unless frank conversations happen, the stigma that still lingers over mental distress will remain.
How has writing about your own mental health helped you?
I think doing the research and expanding my knowledge has helped me the most. Learning about how the brain works and what is going on when I become anxious has made a massive difference. A defining aspect of anxiety is feeling out of control of your psychological and physiological processes and, for me, learning about the brain and condensing that information into something that is accessible sort of bludgeoned me into accepting what goes on inside me. It's made it easier to realize, for example, that, although my brain wants me to run for cover and "protect" myself when I start to feel panicky, I can sit with it, because I know what's going on. In a more general sense, writing and being open with the ways I've struggled with anxiety has made me feel closer to the people I know and love because of the domino effect: in being open myself, others are open with me. The amount of people I know who have come to me and said that either they've struggled with something similar or someone they know has, is startling.
Why do you think there's such a stigma surrounding discussions about mental health?
It's difficult to give a simple answer. I've explored the roots of our stigma around mental distress and how it continues to linger at length in the book. But it has a lot to do with the way mental illness has been understood and treated in the past and how misinformation and assumptions trickle through generations. Also, the way the tabloid media continue to create a sensational us-and-them rhetoric around those in mental distress (the diabolical splashes and headlines we saw in the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, for example).
The sad core of stigma is a lack of education. People fear and become defensive about things they don't understand, which applies to both those experiencing mental health difficulties and those surrounding them. The ground is shifting but there is still a lingering fear of being open about our vulnerabilities in case they come to define us; make us be viewed differently, pitied, talked about. With that comes shame, perhaps the most uncomfortable and pernicious emotions a person can feel. The clear and evidence-proven reality is that millions of people are living high functioning, fulfilling, impressive lives across the world with mental health problems. Not only that, but that we all have mental health [struggles] because we all have brains. No one is 100 percent well 100 percent of the time. As education and awareness continues to improve, we will get better at seeing mental distress as something that sets us apart from the pack. The whole pack suffers sometimes, just in different ways.
Do you think attitudes towards mental health are changing?
I think the sense of shame surrounding mental health problems is starting to disperse. It's still there because it takes generations to undo collective conditioning, but each generation is becoming much more open and understanding. Young people are leading the way. It's optimistic, but I do believe that my children's children will talk just talk about "health" — not under the separate headings of physical and mental.
Is modern life making us more anxious and depressed?
It's not that simple. Mental health problems like anxiety and depression are multicausal — no one thing "makes" someone become depressed or have an anxiety disorder. The media likes to be simplistic about things, which can be very dangerous. Suicide, for example, deserves careful and considered reporting, but so often we see headlines that link people taking their own lives to one thing — debt, divorce, etc. The reality is that a confluence of factors are at play when someone experiences mental distress. Many things contribute. Genetics is part of the picture, as is our environment — what happens to us throughout our lives, what we do. A better word to use is vulnerability. Aspects of modern life, if we are already vulnerable to mental distress, can contribute to exacerbating it. We can look at statistics about more people being diagnosed with anxiety or depression than ever and believe that modern life is making us all ill, but what is more likely is that we're getting better at recognizing and accepting when we become distressed and doing something about it.
What are your key tips for mental wellbeing?
Personally speaking, prosaic as it may sound, acceptance has been the biggest thing. Accepting that there is no cure, that anxiety has become a part of who I am and that constantly fighting it has not helped and will not help me in the future, has been seismic. This cannot be condensed to any one activity — it's a process that has come through finding a therapist I trusted and felt comfortable with, being committed to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies and doing mindfulness exercises. But in all the many people I've interviewed who have suffered with anxiety, this is a running theme. People begin to get better at living with their problems when they stop expecting anything to neatly take them away for them. Boring as it sounds, too, it's about remembering that the body and mind are one — we have to maintain ourselves as a whole. For me this means exercising in some capacity every day, getting a lot of sleep, not letting myself get really hungry (hanger is my personal hell), regularly being in natural, green spaces, and getting better at leaving my phone face down for longer stretches of time.
"Anxiety for Beginners" by Eleanor Morgan is published by Bluebird Books on June 2.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Clare Shilland