As a new survey finds that anxiety is rife, Joanne Sweeney talks to three people who felt highly stressed but recovered.
Anxiety affects one in every five women and men and is the most common mental health problem experienced in the UK.
Its negative effects can be completely debilitating on an individual's self-worth and physical well-being, and if untreated, can lead to other serious problems.
Research just released by the Mental Health Foundation shows that anxiety is on the increase , with nearly 20% of adults claiming that they feel anxious a lot or all of the time.
Concerns about money problems and debt and looking after children and loved ones were the two main causes for people to be anxious.
Experts now understand that anxiety is an energy-sapping state of mind where it's easy to get caught up in thoughts of 'what if' and negative possibilities. Increasingly, many sufferers are trying mindfulness meditation as one alternative way to deal with anxiety.
The technique teaches people that thoughts are not facts, and that we can be happy in the present moment, by detaching from past regrets or worries about the future.
Meditation has been recommended by the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) for depression since 2004, but very few doctors in Northern Ireland currently suggest that their patients take meditation classes.
We talk to three people who have transformed their anxious state from dealing with everyday problems by using mindfulness meditation regularly in their lives.
'I felt isolated and vulnerable'
Sinead McIvenna (41) lives in north Belfast with her son, Rossa (7). The single mum works as a counsellor and family support worker for suicide prevention charity, Lighthouse. She says:
When I first tried mindfulness meditation I was actually off work, as I had just been diagnosed with acute anxiety and depression about two years ago. It was a horrific time for me, emotionally, socially, physically. It started off that I really isolated myself; I didn't go out, I didn't feel comfortable socialising, and I felt very vulnerable and was always crying.
It even got to the stage that I couldn't even go to the shop without getting anxious, and that turned into a panic attack.
I knew then that with not sleeping and not eating, I needed to do something about it.
My life was very busy, I was giving so much to my son, giving so much to the vulnerable people that I work with, giving to my family, so much so, that you tend not to give yourself anything.
But with depression, you are uite hard on yourself and I really struggled to accept that I was ill.
And I suppose that I didn’t confide in anyone at work as, me being a counsellor, I felt that I shouldn’t have let myself get this ill and I should be able to get through this on my own.
But by neglecting it and avoiding it, the symptoms just got stronger and stronger.
Even going back to the GP who had given me medication, he was great and said that I hadn’t accepted that I was unwell.
Once I accepted that I was unwell, that was a turning point for me.
I was very bad for a couple of weeks and then the mindfulness course was recommended to me by a very spiritual maintenance man who was working at the house I was living in at the time and we began to chat about life.
Now, I think he was someone who was there at the right time and place for me.
It was literally life-changing for me. Meditation is just an amazing experience.
I couldn’t go without doing my meditation now for around 20 minutes about two or three times a week. A valuable lesson which was taught to me during this period was that by giving so much to others in my work, I neglected myself.
I’ve learnt to notice where and when anxiety is triggered in my body and recognise the warning signs of stress.
I’m very thankful now that I’m well and healthy. Sometimes I have to pinch myself at how I managed to get here.”
'I didn’t want to go the medicated route'
Karen Virapen (44) lives in Belfast with her partner and works as a digital instructional designer. She says:
I first started at Bridgeen Rea’s mindfulness meditation course about two years ago and it’s changed my life.
I was just feeling anxious all the time.
I wasn’t sleeping properly, I had a really bad digestive problem for a while and there were times that I experienced short periods of depression and isolation.
It impacted on my work, my social life and my personal life — everything — it was really debilitating.
Sometimes it got so bad that I couldn’t go into work or I wouldn’t go out with friends when I had planned to.
I knew I wanted to do something other than just go to the doctor and go the medicated route. I wanted to find an alternative, something that I could manage myself.
At this time I was doing my masters in education multimedia at Queen’s.
It was a very stressful and hectic time for me, as I was trying to work and do my degree at the same time. The workload was just so heavy and I felt that I couldn’t keep up.
I would be somebody who would be prone to anxiety and worrying in general. If work or life gets stressful, I would tend to get very anxious; it’s just been a feature of my life.
Practising mindfulness meditation definitely helped me, but I do find that it’s something that I have to do regularly to get the best benefit of it.
I really wish I had found this earlier in my life as it’s so relaxing, it’s almost like going to a spa. It’s like you are really doing something good for yourself and you are taking time for yourself.
You change from thinking about all the things you have to do to just being, sitting in silence, and focusing on the now.
It’s surprisingly simple, but it’s so relaxing.
It’s a real stress reliever, as it gets me to concentrate on the moment and how I’m feeling.
'You can read all you like but practice is vital'
Bridgeen Rea (39) runs mindful meditation courses in Belfast through her business www.|immeasureableminds.co.uk. She has studied extensively with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master who is world renowned for his teachings, and trained on the Masters in Mindfulness programme at Bangor University in Wales. She says:
The concept of mindfulness is very simple: we train our minds to stay in the present, we use the breath as the vehicle to keep us ‘here’, and we gently and kindly return our minds back to ‘here’ whenever we drift away (which happens often).
Of course knowing this intellectually is one thing — practising it is another. You can read all the books you like, but regular mindfulness practice is essential to feel the benefits. Even 10 minutes’ practice a day has proven to have beneficial effects.
Mindfulness practice calms anxiety by helping us detach from anxious thoughts and letting them pass by.
Neuroscience is now showing that mindfulness practice shrinks the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for flight or flight) and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is essential for relaxation.”
Bridgeen’s tips to banish anxiety
- Give yourself a time and space to ‘be’ with the anxiety
- Be practical — ask for help to solve problems
- Accept uncertainty
- Change the CD in your head — you can choose to replace anxious thoughts
- Ask yourself — ‘am I sure?’
- Write it down, journaling can be really effective, when we see thoughts on paper it creates a distance
- Learn mindfulness
- Acknowledge and observe your anxious thoughts and feelings. Don’t try to ignore, fight or control them. Instead, simply observe them as if from an outsider’s perspective, without reacting or judging
- Let your worries go. Notice that when you don’t try to control the anxious thoughts that pop up, they soon pass, like clouds moving across the sky
- Stay focused on the present. Pay attention to the way your body feels, the rhythm of your breathing
'It's not a cure-all technique, but the science is proven'
Paul McCarroll (27) is from Antrim and works in Belfast as a cinema attendant. He says:
I have prior knowledge of mindfulness, as in my teens I had pretty severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which is basically an anxiety condition.
I don’t want to say too much but at that time my anxiety, depression and stress was so bad that I actually was taken out of school.
But with the support of my GP, family and friends, I began to help myself and dealt with my OCD using a mindfulness-based approach.
For me, it’s the acceptance part of mindfulness that really helps me, such as recognising thoughts are just thoughts and by doing my breathing exercises.
I had always wanted to try the meditation part of it, so I recently completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation stress reduction course about three weeks ago, so it’s another tool that I use.
There is a saying in mindfulness meditation that you come to it when you’ve tried everything else and yes, I did try everything else. I have tried other avenues and I did take anti-depressant medication.
Don’t get me wrong, it worked to a certain degree and it did help for a period of time, but mindfulness is a great adjunct even if you are on medication or in therapy.
Mindfulness is not a magic pill, it’s not a cure-all technique, but the science is proven and it not only helps with psychological problems but with everyday living.
The first thing to I would say to other men who suffer from anxiety is not to see yourself as abnormal, or strange.
The problem evolves when you try too hard to get rid of those feelings of anxiety and you might try other ways of dealing with it, like alcohol, or zoning out or suppressing it.”
Minding your mental health
- To mark Mental Health Awareness week (May 12-18), the Public Health Agency has been advising people experiencing anxiety, distress or despair to seek help.
- Dr Stephen Bergin, consultant in Public Health Medicine with the PHA, said: “Rather than being a sign of weakness, it takes real strength to talk about your mental health issues”.
- More information on looking after your mental health and the support which is available across Northern Ireland can be found at www.mindingyourhead.info or you can also talk to your GP.
- Alternatively, if you or someone you know is in distress or despair, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000.
- The helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
- Mindfulness meditation classes and courses are available in Northern Ireland, however, the Mental Health Foundation offers an online course for £60. For further information visit www.mentalhealthorg.uk