Let's Talk About Anxiety: Rosanna Chipkin
Everyone gets anxious, so why does talking about it feel so icky sometimes?
Anxiety is apparently the most common mental disorder in the world according to the World Health Organization, but then, that right there might explain why talking about it is so stigmatized. After all, who really wants to admit they’ve got a mental disorder to their bosses, coworkers, clients, or even friends and family? Those words haven’t historically opened many doors or brimmed with positive connotations.
But, we’re on a mission to change that, because all of this internalizing and individualizing is clearly not helping. Our Let’s Talk About Anxiety series is all about sharing anxious encounters and pushing the conversation into the open so we can problem solve together and take back that power anxiety holds over us when we feel alone.
For the next three weeks we’ll be sharing stories and discussing anxiety. Unabashed and unfiltered. So read what others have to share and join in on the discussion on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram so we can create a living document that shows just how powerful working together can be in the fight against anxiety.
INTRODUCING: ROSANNA CHIPKIN
Rosanna is our Communications Manager and the one who first brought forward the idea of doing a series on anxiety.
She grew up with parents who screamed more than talked, she survived two sexual assaults in her 20’s, and has worked most of her life in the construction industry – which values toughness and testicles more than anything else – and that means this is a subject that is near and dear to her heart; because she understands how corrosive anxiety can be when you feel you have to go it alone.
So this is her, putting it all out there in the hopes it makes a difference for someone else and starts a conversation that shows you don’t have to fear saying you have anxiety, because she still very much does.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST REALIZE YOU WERE, OR HAD BEEN EXPERIENCING ANXIETY?
When I was in grade 3 we had an exchange teacher from Australia who really seemed to enjoy yelling at children, so I developed this intense fear of school and was eventually taken to a child psychologist by my mother. This was the first time I was told that I was experiencing anxiety, but I don’t think there was ever really any kind of real substantive connection in my mind between the words my psychologist said and the physical effects of what I was experiencing until I was much older.
When I went to university for the first time I remember having to leave my books in the lecture hall while I sprinted out of the room to find a private place where I could put my head in between my legs and practice breathing exercises (because making sounds you’d hear in a Lamaze class while having tears stream down your face isn’t really something you’d like to do in public). But, again, I’m not sure I would have called it anxiety then if you’d asked me. Probably more just shit scared by UBC and how big it and my classes were.
It has really only been in the past few years, as I’ve focused more on personal growth and developing my sense of self-worth, that I’ve come to understand that I am an anxious person and that I experience anxiety on a regular basis. Realizing that has allowed me to really take stock of a lot of the physical and psychological experiences I have on a regular basis and marry them to the concept of anxiety.
I don’t just understand anxiety as an abstract definition anymore. I see how it relates to my life now and understand it on a much more personal level.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU REALIZED IT?
While there wasn’t exactly a lightning bolt moment where I realized I had anxiety, I can say that coming to understand my anxiety is an ongoing process. For the most part what I struggle with is accepting it, because now that I really understand it I can reflect on how long it has been a feature of my life and the ways it’s impacted it and that makes me very worried for my future.
Anxiety has made certain parts of my life very difficult. I am a very driven person, but constantly wanting to push harder, put your best foot forward, and take on new roles is not something that meshes well with anxiety. It actually lies in stark contrast to the actions I need to take to keep my anxiety at bay, so I am always treading this fine line between the two and it’s incredibly frustrating.
In so many ways I feel like anxiety holds me back, prevents me from being the real me, and until I find a way to make peace with it, I will continue to feel controlled by it.
HOW DOES ANXIETY MANIFEST OR FEEL FOR YOU?
For me, it feels like there is this insane, relentless onslaught of adrenaline coursing through my veins. It feels like someone is sitting on my chest and like no volume of air will ever come close to nourishing me, so there is a continuous desperation to take that next breath.
It makes me want to rip my skin off, so I often grit my teeth hard or dig my nails into whatever piece of flesh is immediately handy to control it. That helps me hide what’s happening until I can retreat to a place where it’s safe to meltdown.
The whole experience is entirely suffocating and when I’m feeling anxious the rational side of my brain also just completely shuts off. It makes feel like there is something deeply wrong with me and makes me hate (and I do mean hate) myself and my biology. There is a constant barrage of thoughts that run through my head during these times about how stupid I am, how unaccomplished I am, how ugly and undesirable I am, and more than anything, how pathetic and weak I am for having anxiety.
All of those thoughts then make me feel particularly alone and removed from everyone around me too.
Then the rumination kicks in and I start to play out scenarios of what could be over and over again in my head and my mind ALWAYS goes to the worst place with these. It’s like my brain thinks that if it can just prepare itself for every single possible (and implausible) outcome, things will get better, but all I’m really doing is obsessing over, now, completely imagined problems.
The adrenaline can stick around for hours and hours after the initial event and, when it finally does pass, I’m left feeling completely empty and drained. It takes days to bounce back and, when anxiety is a regular feature of your life, that means I can go weeks and weeks in this state. You pretend that everything is fine, but inside you’re one shitty comment away from bursting into tears.
HOW DOES IT AFFECT YOUR WORK OR BUSINESS?
It gets in the way of my career aspirations all the time.
I get so worried about the unknown that I regularly make decisions that I believe to be the safe bet for my future, even though that choice isn’t really what I want or what will ultimately make me happy.
When I worry like that my self-confidence takes a hit too, so I often don’t believe I’m capable of success and will just quit before I even start because then I’m not risking a potential failure.
Sure, I’m not a dummy and I’ve built a good little career for myself managing operations for a large mechanical contracting company (and communications for a wonderful design studio of course - which I actually do love), but I really don’t care about mechanical contracting and I’d much rather be out there doing something creative. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out how to get past all those bad thoughts and the rumination that my anxiety brings on, so when I think about actually pursuing my dreams, I just end up telling myself it’s not possible or that it’s something I’ll think about later on because it’s causing me too much stress now.
HOW OFTEN DO YOU EXPERIENCE IT?
I experience anxiety often. I’d say near daily basis, but often that’s because something happened one day and then I’m on edge for days after because of the effects of the adrenaline, so then even a simple task, like having to get groceries, becomes overwhelming.
That said, if you talked to anyone I know, they’d probably be shocked by that because I’ve developed a lot of coping mechanisms that help me keep this all private. My therapist would say a lot of them probably do me more of a disservice at this point and extend the longevity of an attack, but I’m so worried all the time that people will discount my other abilities and see only the anxiety, so I’m finding it very difficult to let those more corrosive mechanisms go.
DOES IT INCREASE AT CERTAIN TIMES OR WITH CERTAIN EVENTS?
For me, it’s always been fairly consistent. Change and new situations, where I don’t know what to expect, are probably the most anxiety-inducing for me and that’s really all life is so I feel anxious pretty frequently.
I know those are trigger points for most people, but because my brain likes to ruminate (even to the point where it’ll wake me up from a deep sleep just to worry some more), these situations can throw me so off course that it becomes a long road to get back to normal.
Being yelled at is also a huge trigger for me. There was lots of yelling in my house growing up and I’m pretty sure I’ve got PTSD from it because even when I hear my neighbours fighting, or even just stomping, I get incredibly tense and worried that they’re going to burst into my apartment just to yell at me too. Needless to say, I’m constantly checking that our door is locked.
WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND HELPS YOU?
There are lots of tricks I’ve learned along the way to cope with anxiety, but a lot of them are just stop gaps or workarounds that don’t really help in the long term. A lot of the time these techniques involve adopting a who gives a shit attitude, eating some kind of food that’s terrible for me, or even starving myself to regain a sense of control; so they’re not exactly healthy options that I’d advocate someone else try.
That said, there are three things that have been enormously helpful to me when I’m dealing with anxiety that are worth sharing.
The first is breathing. This is something I learned when my mom took me to see that psychologist all those years ago and it’s something I now end up doing instinctively when I start to get worked up. Focusing on how I’m breathing and endeavouring to take deep, regular breaths means I’m not thinking about things that are outside of my control. In fact, I’m not thinking about anything but my breathing so I’m able to pull myself out of that near manic state and regain some sense of rational thought.
The second is talking to loved ones about what’s making me anxious. Often verbalizing the problem makes me realize how silly it really is or, at the very least, it allows me to talk through and understand what about that problem is making me anxious. Other people will also offer alternate perspectives and will just generally give me the emotional support I’m not really able to give myself in those moments.
Finally, I’m learning to plan for my anxiety. I may not have fully accepted it yet and it may frustrate me that I have to even undertake this kind of planning at all, but taking the time to reflect on what exacerbates my anxiety has allowed me to be a lot more realistic about what will and won’t work in my life and adjust accordingly.
It’s this last one that I struggle with the most and which still feels totally unnatural to me because it does mean that sometimes I can’t do the thing that I feel innately driven to do. However, it's probably the one that’s also proving to be the most effective because it’s not just some trick to deal with the immediate; it’s a holistic approach to dealing with something that will presumably be a part of my life forever.
DOES ANXIETY HAVE ANY CONSTRUCTIVE OR POSITIVE SIDES FOR YOU?
Because I am so anxious about change and newness, I end up doing a lot of pre-planning and I suppose that ends up being a positive side of my anxiety.
I got the Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence when I graduated from University for having the top grades in my class and I think that really hit home for me that all that worrying can sometimes pay off.
It’s meant that I’m often overly prepared for things, that I’ve done extensive research and versed myself thoroughly in whatever subject I’m dealing with, that I cannot put forward work that I haven’t put a lot of thought and effort into, and that I am always giving careful consideration to whoever I’m working with.
Also, because I am so averse to being yelled at, I’ve ended up learning a LOT about conflict resolution. Being armed with those skills has only made my relationship with my partner and friends and family that much stronger and it is knowledge I constantly draw from at work.
So, even though I very much view my anxiety as a weakness, I suppose I might not have these strengths if it wasn’t a part of my life. Which is kind of a cool thing to realize, so thanks for asking these questions, because I’m not sure I reflect on that often enough.
HOW DO YOU FEEL AFFECTED BY MEDIA AND SOCIAL MEDIA?
Media and social media have this amazing way of making me feel guilty, unattractive, unhealthy, unaccomplished, and kind of petty all at the same time and I’m fairly certain I’m not alone in this.
Sure, I know 90% of it is BS. I know my friends that post about how perfect their lives are are leading far from perfect lives. I know most images are photoshopped and the excessive followers and likes can just be the work of big marketing budgets or bots, but that doesn’t really seem to change how it all makes me feel.
It puts me in an overwhelmingly negative headspace, so I try my hardest to avoid it. I can’t remember the last time I posted on Facebook and I’ve kind of abandoned my personal Instagram in favour of one that’s anonymous and only posts really ridiculous videos I make of the happenings in my boyfriends fish tank (and follows drag queens and chefs exclusively).
I think the thing I find most troubling about media of any kind is that, more often than not, it prioritizes earnings over mental health. We’re so geared towards this idea of progress, but that progress seems to have little to do with actually making our lives better anymore. Why do we continue to allow heavily photoshopped images of women’s bodies in magazines when we know the results are extremely corrosive and are the cause of so much anxiety and hurt in our society? Why is it that 24 hour news programs are still allowed to be called news even though it’s almost all baseless opinion that just fuels the fires of hatred and division?
Human beings, at their best, can be so dynamic and creative and resourceful, so why do we allow our lives to be mediated by things that actively derail those attributes?
I find it frustrating and infuriating a lot of the time because, so often, I feel bound and encumbered by media and the expectations it puts forth, and yet, there are few ways to extricate yourself without fundamentally exiling yourself from society, so you’re just stuck living with the anxiety it breeds.
IF YOU COULD BRING ONE THING TO LIGHT ABOUT ANXIETY, WOULD WOULD THAT BE?
Honestly, it would be that it is an unspoken reality that is pervasive in our society. Sure, we talk about it sometimes, it’s not entirely hidden like it used to be, but we still have a very long way to go.
And I don’t just mean so we can all feel more comfortable with our own personal anxiety or feel less like outsiders because we have it. Rather, because exposing it and having it become part of the dominant discourse will mean that we can have a more holistic conversation about it.
Anxiety is not and should not be seen as an individual problem. If it were, why are there so many articles talking about how anxiety is on the rise, especially among children?
It is something that is infecting our societal consciousness and should be dealt with as such. When we make it about the individual, it puts the onus on them to deal with it. It tells them that there is something wrong with them, that these feelings have no connection to the external and that’s incorrect. What happens around us has just as much of an effect on us as our own physiology.
It’s like bed bugs. Sure, you can get the exterminator to come and spray your apartment, but if every other apartment in the building has them, you’ll never actually get rid of them.