Shake it off

by Jane Barber

Panic buttonOne of the most significant symptoms of my anxiety disorder is that I am quick to worry, often about things that don’t end up being a big deal.

A consequence of this that seems surprising is that though I sometimes freak out over small things, in a real crisis I am not just ok, I am great. In fact, a large part of my career is based on my ability to come up with solutions quickly, execute a plan under pressure, and just generally keep my shit together when things are going badly.

So when that 6.6 earthquake hit Wellington, I didn’t freak out. I went to work, and I not only coped, I did an excellent job.

This sounds counter-intuitive., My theory is that years of operating day to day with a higher-than-average level of anxiety means that I have experience operating in a “fight” state. My brain is used to working under pressure and so in a situation that causes most people to have a “flight” reaction, I’m prepared to just get on with things. By prepared I don’t mean willing, by the way. I’m not trying to say that I am super awesome at being a human and that those that buckle in times of crisis are inferior. By prepared, I mean practiced. I’ve spent 30 years operating in low level panic mode; I’ve learned how to cope with abnormal levels of dopamine and serotonin. My normal is your abnormal. A situation that is run of the mill for you might cause an elevated heart rate for me – but what that means is that in a situation that causes ALL of us an elevated heart rate, I’m not surprised or thrown off balance by that.

The reason I want to talk about this now is that it is important to realise that mental illness is not black and white, and that the consequences of living with it are not always good or bad. Let there be no confusion – I’d much rather not have an anxiety disorder. But, and this is a big but (heh), it isn’t all terrible. This is one of the reasons that I write this column under a pseudonym – the first reaction a potential employer might have to hearing I have an anxiety disorder might quite understandably be an assumption that I freak out under stress, that I would be unreliable, that I would require kid-glove treatment. In fact, this makes me good at my job.

Of course many people with anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses are particularly vulnerable during crisis situations, and I’d hate for this to be read as some kind of cover-all description of how every person will react if there is another earthquake. This is just my own experience*.

What I’d like to suggest you do, especially if the earthquakes of the past few weeks have left you unsettled, is to use that experience as a form of practice. Learn from it – what was it that you needed most to calm you down? Where did you want to be? What did you need to know? Use that to make a plan for what to do if another, more damaging quake hits.  And on a more selfish note – use that experience as a small insight into what it is like to live with anxiety. It isn’t about having a weak personality, or about ‘flaking out’ under pressure. It is about chemicals. If you found yourself panicked in the hours and days after the quake, it’s ok – you don’t need to feel fucked up or guilty about being scared.


* I just want to note that I can only imagine what it was like to be in Christchurch, or Seddon, during and after the quakes and that my experience is not at all comparable. Who knows if I can or would be able to hold my shit together in such a situation, or for that matter, the situation that is on-going for everyone down there?


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1 comment

Jamie August 26, 2013 - 11:06 pm

Gosh, I couldn’t agree more. Whilst it’s never been diagnosed, I reckon I suffer from some form of mild anxiety disorder. It doesn’t rule my life, but it certainly shapes it, and whilst I often look in awe upon others who seem to thrive upon the very situations that cause me to panic, seeing such people genuinely freaked out brings them down to a level I’m far more familiar with, and that alone precipitates a clarity of mind that I otherwise rarely experience.
Seeing a bunch of extroverted alpha male colleagues freaking out during the recent quake calmed me to such a degree that I was the one yelling out to them to get under a desk (we had tiles falling from the roof) and take cover. It was weird. I wasn’t afraid at all, and got to experience something I rarely get the chance to – calmness and control amidst chaos.


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