Can You Ever Really Cure Anxiety?

Photo: Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Anxiety has become one of the most critical issues in the lives of young women today. Chances are, in these early stages of 2017, if you’re not suffering, someone close to you is.

For those that have fallen prey to anxiety, they'll know that it's an isolating experience, one that jeopardises relationships with family and friends, threatens lives and careers, and can, at times, seem hugely overwhelming.

For those at the beginning of their journey with anxiety, attempting to imagine a life where it is under control can often feel fruitless.

So, for those people, we ask what does managed anxiety look like? Is there a life after it? Can it ever really be 'cured' in the way that a broken leg eventually heals?

Four individuals with first-hand experience answer our questions...

Lily*, 29, has been suffering from an anxiety disorder since her early 20s. She is currently in therapy for the second time and is on antidepressant medication.

“I think ‘cure’ is the wrong word. I think some people can learn to manage it. For me, when I’m doing well, that’s when I can be like, ‘That’s an irrational thought’ and push my mind towards something else.

“I’ve been through really bad times with my anxiety twice. The first was when I was 21 and the second was the year before last. I was in such a bad place then that I thought I would never feel normal again and it took a long time to understand that it [my anxiety] could one day potentially become a background thing in my life. You know like when you’re in the middle of a bad period or sickness and you think you’re never going to feel normal again? I suppose I didn’t understand it when I first had it – and now I do more.

My dad said, 'You're going to get through this' about four times a day and eventually it became true.

“A really helpful thing for me was that I have good friends with anxiety. Going to therapy was really helpful and also reading a lot about the scientific side of things – understanding that it was a natural human process and hearing what other people had been through helped me normalise it. Last Friday I had a meltdown at work and I told a colleague and she was really helpful because she’d been through it all before when her dad died and she gave me loads of tips. My family were useful, too, because my dad’s side has a history of mental health problems and he was like, ‘You’re going to get through this.’ He said this to me about four times a day and eventually it became true.

“The last time I had a really bad time, as much as it was uncomfortable, it alerted me to a lot of things that were not serving me so well in my life. I changed them and I think my baseline confidence has gone up. I will say that the fact that I have anxiety has made me a more empathetic person, too. I think because I’ve been through tough times and come out the other side I can, most of the time, fundamentally envisage a life ahead of me without it.

“My advice to those at the beginning of their journey, or going through a particularly bad phase would be that time really can help. Imagine it’s like someone just took a layer of your skin off, you feel really exposed – sorry this is a gross analogy – but it will grow back and it does grow back stronger than before. Also – there’s help out there. Don’t suffer alone, don’t suffer in silence.”

Chloe Brotheridge has suffered from anxiety and is a hypnotherapist and anxiety expert at Calmer You. She has written a book called The Anxiety Solution which is out soon.
"The NHS use a test called GAD7 which doctors use to decide whether you have a diagnosable anxiety disorder. If you get a low score on the test you can consider yourself 'cured'. But I don't really like the word 'cure' when it comes to anxiety. We all have mental health and we are all on the continuum from having good to poor mental health and it could change at different times in your life. You're never going to be perfectly calm all the time and a certain amount of stress or anxiety is normal depending on what's going on in your life.

"Of course, it is possible to manage anxiety to the point that it's not ruining your life and holding you back anymore. It's possible to learn to manage symptoms and calm yourself down, heal traumas from the past, grow your confidence and self-belief, change your perspective and be much calmer and happier.

When we realise that other people are as self-critical as we are we can start to see that the self-criticism isn’t legitimate. It’s not just you.

"At the beginning of my journey with anxiety I was in denial! My main strategy for coping was avoiding anxiety-provoking situations, or using alcohol to feel braver and less nervous about things. Not great long-term techniques! I think something that really helps is when people know they’re not alone in how they’re feeling. That can be a huge relief. When we realise that other people are as self-critical as we are we can start to see that the self-criticism isn’t legitimate. It’s not just you.

"Taking care of my mental health will be a lifelong pursuit I'm sure! There are times when I feel a bit anxious, but I've made a tremendous amount of progress. I make taking care of myself my top priority – I meditate nearly every day and if I'm struggling with something I'll go and talk to a therapist or a coach. I have a lot of tools at my disposal so I know that if I ever do feel anxious I know how to handle it – which usually means slowing down and being nicer to myself.

"If you’re struggling, get some help. Most people don't seek help for anxiety, but anxiety responds really well to treatment. Don't feel ashamed of how you're feeling; anxiety is normal and 22% of us feel anxious all or most of the time, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

"Also, remember that this too shall pass. Even if you're really going through it right now, those anxious feelings won't last. Things are never as bad as your anxious mind tells you they are, remember that your thoughts aren't facts. It's become cheesy to say, but remember that you absolutely are good enough!"
Dr. Rita Santos specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy especially for anxiety.

“In my opinion I wouldn’t say ‘cure’ is the right word – the reason being that anxiety is a normal emotion. So, just as we have emotions like ‘anger’ and ‘happiness’, we also have ‘anxiety’ and ‘fear’ and we can’t cure an emotion that is supposed to be part of us as human beings! But it can also be very debilitating when it gets all over the place.

"What we can do when it’s interfering with your life is to intervene and bring it down to your own manageable level so it feels like you’re experiencing normal anxiety again.

Without sounding like a cliche, it’s about facing the difficulties, it’s not trying to put them under the rug or ignore them or feel ashamed of it, it’s about talking about it.

"The first step would be to talk to a specialist – look at CBT. It’s very effective. It’s a therapy approach that works very well because it takes into consideration not only your physical experience of anxiety but also where your brain takes you with it. It’s about how you think, how it makes you behave and figuring out whether they are actually helpful to each other. It’s teamwork. It’s a very understanding, very collaborative approach between the therapist and the person to see if we can manage the anxiety better.

"It’s very good to talk about it, too, to demystify it. I think we’ve made a massive leap on this in the last 10 years – people understand it more.

"It will be up and down. Think about normal low moods: they don’t necessarily have to be depression. Sometimes we are a bit more uplifted and sometimes we are a bit more down – it’s the same with anxiety. If you are having a lot of stress in your life you might be more vulnerable to anxiety. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be like that forever.

"Without sounding like a cliché, it’s about facing the difficulties, it’s not trying to put them under the rug or ignore them or feel ashamed of it, it’s about talking about it. My advice is be aware, accept it, talk with someone about it, reflect on it and do something about it straight away.”

Stephen Buckley is head of information at mental health charity Mind.

“It is possible to recover from mental health problems and many people do – especially after accessing support. Your symptoms may return from time to time, but when you've discovered which self-care techniques and treatments work best for you, and the particular things that tend to make you experience anxiety, you're more likely to feel confident in managing them.

"It's important to remember that recovery is a journey, and it won't always be straightforward. You might find it more helpful to focus on learning more about yourself and developing ways to cope, rather than trying to work through every symptom of your anxiety. What recovery means to you will be personal, but for most people, the most important thing is to find ways to live the kind of life you want.

"Self-care techniques and general lifestyle changes can help manage the symptoms of many mental health problems, and may also help to prevent some problems from developing or getting worse. A common – and natural – response to anxiety is to avoid what triggers your fear, so taking any action might make you feel more anxious at first. It can be difficult, but facing up to how anxiety makes you feel can be the first step in breaking the cycle of fear and insecurity.

What recovery means to you will be personal, but for most people, the most important thing is to find ways to live the kind of life you want.

"When you’re feeling anxious, trying a breathing exercise, shifting your focus and distracting yourself, or listening to music can help. In the long term, maintaining a healthy diet, keeping a diary, joining a support group or talking to a health professional can be beneficial. Many people wait too long before seeing their GP, discounting social anxiety as just day-to-day stress. It’s important to seek help as soon as possible if you feel like your anxiety is interfering with your ability to do the things you normally would.

"If you feel that you or someone you know may have anxiety it is important to speak to someone, such as your GP or friend or family member, as soon as possible, so you are not alone in dealing with it and can get the right help and support. "

Mind would like to say that they know mental health can be a difficult thing to talk about and invite you to check out their new guide with tips on how to prepare for a first appointment with a GP or nurse.

In a crisis, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123