*Please Note: if reading about anxiety and anxiety attacks triggers your own mental health or anxiety, do not continue reading. There may be triggers below. Thank you*
I’m very passionate about promoting positive mental health, empowerment, and self-care (it’s probably why I’m a therapist/counsellor), but at a recent pinup pageant I was chatting with some of the girls backstage and the topic of anxiety came up, something very close to my heart having suffered with it for many years. I often hear people tell me that they wish they had my confidence when they go out on stage which makes me wonder how they don’t realize that my own anxiety peaks and most times as soon as I step out on stage, my mind goes blank no matter how many times I’ve rehearsed. Do they not see me shaking like a leaf in the wind? Can they not hear my heartbeat pounding over the music? Can they not notice how my knees are basically made out of jelly and I’m about to fall over? How did I get to this point? Today we are talking about anxiety and my own personal journey with it.
Let’s start with a breakdown of what anxiety is before I dive into my own personal struggles with it. Anxiety is an adaptive reaction that all things experience (yes that includes animals) which alerts us to certain situations, circumstances or triggers which we interpret as danger or a threat. Generally, our bodies will react and respond in ways to keep us safe by helping us to avoid dangerous situations; think of the fight, flight or freeze response. Murphy and Leighton (2009) argue that anxiety is mainly problematic when it becomes “a fearful apprehension that is mainly out of proportion to external circumstances accompanied by autonomic hyperactivity symptoms such as palpitations, sweating and other indicators of the body’s alarm system.”. Basically, anxiety is a normal part of the human condition and it only becomes problematic when the anxious reaction disproportionates the situation and circumstances.
When dealing with anxiety (or a threat), most people switch into our primitive instincts with the fight or flight response. Personally, I agree with those arguing that ‘freeze’ should be added to our bodily options as some people just literally freeze up and can’t react as opposed to running away or getting ready to attack. Anyway, these reactions occur in animals as well as humans and it allows us to deal with a stressful or threatening situation by preparing us for action. When this response kicks in, our sympathetic nervous system comes into action by releasing adrenalin into our bloodstream which causes an increase in heart rate (therefore more oxygen to our muscles so they become tense and ready to act), and our breathing becomes faster and more shallow. Our digestive system also reacts to stress and threat; the whole system slows down to prioritize energy to our muscles and in extreme cases, our bodies may expel the contents of our stomachs and bladder to prepare for a very intense fight or flight response. Another common reaction is sweating which keeps our muscles cool, increases alertness, vigilance and preparedness for some form of physical activity.
Now, the above-listed reaction can all be experienced in many different cases of anxiety but primarily short-term situations. If you can, think back to a situation when you were very anxious about something, did your palms sweat, did your muscles stiffen, did your breathing increase? All these are normal reactions and the body can handle such a reaction in short bursts, the main problem comes in when anxiety becomes so severe that it’s prolonged and impairs daily functions. One in twelve people experience such anxiety (University of Sydney 2007) and means they live in a state of constant fear, worry or scared of situations that they are unable to face. Such a state of anxiety can also lead to further mental health issues such as depression but also result in relationship difficulties and substance abuse (ibid 2007).
If you’d like to read more about anxiety, I have left some references and further reading suggestions below.
I suppose it’s time to share my own anxiety story; the best time to go back to is around 2012/13 when my anxiety was at one of it’s worse points. I had just completed my Honours degree and writing the thesis was extremely mentally challenging as well as physically. I had just been diagnosed with Endometriosis and there were several family problems I had to deal with as well; it all started feeling very overwhelming and my anxiety took over my world. I would have a panic attack when trying to leave the house, it would take me hours to be convinced to get ready for events, I would cancel everything and avoid all contact via online/social media. Life became impossible and I turned into a bit of a hermit; I was really fragile, couldn’t seem to find a medication that could help and I pushed away everyone who tried to help. I wanted to be alone, but the silence drove me mad and further pushed me into the delightful combination of anxiety and depression. It was a very low point and I had some dark moments which still scare me when I reflect. I’m not brave enough to talk about them yet but maybe one day I will. But for now, all you need to know is that I got diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
Having anxiety and depression made me feel like I failed all those around me. There felt to me like there was this huge stigma surrounding being identified as ‘mentally ill’ and I had a friend express to me that I shouldn’t talk about it in case I couldn’t find a job. My life felt like I was just existing and i dreaded waking up because it seemed that I was only going through my day in order to sleep. Eventually, I made a list of things I wanted to do in my life and long story short, I ended up applying for my Master’s degree in Ireland and accidentally winning a scholarship so I just went. It wasn’t until I collected my luggage and was heading to the exit doors of Dublin airport when the reality of my decision hit me. What had I done? I was in a country where I knew absolutely zero people, about to start studying again and I had to figure everything out on my own. I remember turning to look at the departure screens to see if there was a direct flight home but after a mini freak out, I got into a taxi (the driver was an absolute gem and shared much of his Irish wisdom with me) and I arrived at my new life.
The worse part of my anxiety is that I felt I couldn’t do anything on my own. I struggled to get groceries, organise my bills, complete projects and tidy up but now living alone, I did it all for myself because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done. I figured out where to forage for food (oh hey Tesco!), how to get around on the buses, how to get internet and a new phone number, I opened a bank account and successfully enrolled and signed up for all my classes. I did it all on my own when a month or so earlier I struggled to even make myself tea. Now I didn’t cure myself entirely of anxiety or depression but I proved to myself that I could do a lot on my own but I had to make it happen for myself. Eventually, I completed my degree, made some amazing life long friendships and memories, fell completely in love with Dublin and had a wonderful life for about two years. Now, the thing about mental health is that it doesn’t really ever go away; I still had some bad days and lost my sleeping pattern for a good few weeks but I somehow found a way to keep going.
Moving forward a few years, I was back in Australia when I finally decided to start pinup or at least dressing vintage. I found the Perth Pinup Community and decided to go to one of their coffee meet-ups; I think I sat in the car for at least 20 minutes trying to talk myself into going. My anxiety was mainly activated around new people most of it stemming from being bullied as a kid. I was so nervous when I finally walked up to the group but I somehow managed to talk to people and start making friends. I was very lucky that on that day there were three or four new people who had never gone to any events so it was nice to not be alone. Now my anxiety still peaks when I’m around the pinup community; I’m quite a nervous person and social anxiety is very difficult to deal with. It always amazes me when people tell me that they wish they had my confidence when in fact I’m internally screaming.
My anxiety is present every day, it’s the little things like avoiding messages and phone calls, struggling to leave the house and getting overwhelmed by all the work I have to do. I know my anxiety harms me in the long run but it always feels like I can’t help it. How do I? I understand the irony of the situation, I’m a counsellor, I help people deal with this issue all the time yet I can’t always fix my own. Personally, sometimes anxiety cannot really ever be fully fixed but it can be dealt with. When I’m working I go into ‘professional mode’ and all anxiety gets pushed away. It’s only when I’m dealing with my own personal things, such as incoming emails, that I sometimes find it hard to deal with. I know a lot of it stems from being severely bullied as a kid (maybe one day I’ll talk about that) but it might be the fear of what the message is because it’s not always going to be good. I have a fear of upsetting people or letting them down so I do fear to get messages in case they’re not good. I don’t ever want to be bullied ever again and fear it most days.
I still get really bad anxiety attacks although they aren’t overly often anymore. It feels like a wave of dread that washes over me, I am both hot and freezing at the same time and my body shakes uncontrollably. I feel dizzy, nauseous and confused and I often can’t eat or sleep for several days. When the attack takes over me, I don’t know what to do; let’s say all I needed to do was something really simple, I just can’t do it. I don’t know why. I suppose my body goes into the ‘freeze’ mode and I just retreat. It’s not to avoid responsibility or anything like that, it’s just how I react and something I can’t help. It’s also super frustrating because it slows down productivity and no matter what triggers the attack, I blame myself. I’ll always see it as my fault for causing the issue that resulted in the attack. I’m trying to work on that but it’s really not easy.
So why did I write this post? Firstly, I feel like there is so much more I could have added but I don’t want this to turn into a ‘woe is me’ kind of article. I really just wanted people to see that although I love my shoots and pinup pageants, I’m still very anxious and fearful underneath it all. We often don’t know what someone is going through even when they look put together. That’s the saddest part about mental illness, it’s hidden in plain sight. No one knows that I come home, bawl my eyes out and then the next day I’m on stage smiling and swirling. No one knows that every time I see an unread message from someone I don’t know, I panic about opening it. It’s just something I have to live with. My anxiety is a lot calmer than it used to be but it took me a long time and a lot of work to get it to that point. Even as I’m writing this, I’m overthinking all the possible interactions; will people understand me better? Will they think I’m trying to be something I’m not or am I just an attention seeker? Will people relate and open up themselves? Yeah… I can feel my anxiety peaking.
If you have anxiety and want to be a pinup (or anything similar) you can do it. It will take you time and a lot of believing in yourself but it’s completely do-able. In most cases, the vintage community is really supportive and you’ll soon find you’re not alone in feeling anxious. If you’re reading this and have anxiety but big aspirations, it might be worth connecting with a mental health professional and coming up with some goal planning so you can figure out the baby steps it takes to reach your goals. I have written an article on goal setting if you are interested but also don’t be fearful of disappointment.
Where to go for help, National helplines and websites:
Information on symptoms, treatment and prevention of depression and bipolar disorder.
1800 242 636
Short-term counselling and emotional and psychological support services for carers and their families in each state and territory.
A national platform for multicultural communities and Australian mental health services to access resources, services and information in a culturally accessible format.
1800 650 890
Free online and telephone service that supports young people aged between 12 and 25 and their families going through a tough time.
1800 55 1800
A free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25.
1300 78 99 78A telephone and online support, information and referral service, helping men to deal with relationship problems in a practical and effective way.
An innovative website that can help you find free and low-cost, trusted online and phone mental health resources.
1800 61 44 34
An online and telephone clinic providing free assessment and treatment services for Australian adults with anxiety or depression.
Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and Aboriginal Medical Services in each state and territory.
1800 184 527
QLife is Australia’s first nationally-oriented counselling and referral service for LGBTI people. The project provides nation-wide, early intervention, peer supported telephone and web based services to diverse people of all ages experiencing poor mental health, psychological distress, social isolation, discrimination, experiences of being misgendered and/or other social determinants that impact on their health and wellbeing.
1300 364 277A provider of relationship support services for individuals, families and communities.
1800 18 7263Information about mental illness, treatments, where to go for support and help carers.
Information, resources, counselling and group support to those bereaved by suicide. Education and professional development to health, welfare and education professionals.
Support groups and online forums
Talking about what’s going on with others who understand – or may be going through something similar – can really make a difference. Our friends at Black Dog Institute have a list of support groups in every state and territory that can help you connect with groups of people who meet regularly to discuss their experiences, their problems and their strategies for coping.
The Beyond Blue online forums are also a great way to connect with people online, in a safe and anonymous environment, to discuss anxiety, depression, suicide and a range of life issues. Anyone in Australia can participate in discussions, connect with others and share their experiences with our community.
Further reading and references: