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The age of anxiety: How can a growing problem have no solution?

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Anxiety is the most common mental health condition Anxiety is the most common mental health condition

Anxiety is a lot like pollution: there’s a lot of it about, but unless you are one of the ones living next to a lake that smells of feet or have to wear a face mask in order to keep your lungs from falling out as you go to work, then it’s fairly easy to ignore. Or write it off as something relatively harmless like shyness or having to just believe in yourself.

Fortunately, medicine is taking anxiety disorders seriously. It has to – one in four people in the UK are experiencing a mental health issue each year, and according to Mind the most common of these is mixed anxiety and depression. It stands to reason that a lot of money and resources have been allocated in order to help develop new ways of combating anxiety, ones that the patient will feel comfortable engaging with, ones that are easy for GPs and medical staff to confidently administer…

I will now pause for laughter.

Figures from across 43 NHS trusts last year showed that funding aimed at mental health treatment has dropped by almost 10%. Which means that research into new methods of treatment has been put on the back burner, leaving people with anxiety or depressive disorders with only two real options: pills or talking therapy (an approach which can be likened to chopping off your left arm if the right one has been torn off by a leopard.)

Here’s an interesting fact: one of the main side effects of the treatment for social anxiety disorder is anxiety. Seriously, look it up. The social phobia section of NHS Choices states that one of the effects of the antidepressant medication that will inevitably be prescribed is 'feeling agitated, shaky, or anxious'. You may also feel sick, dizzy, and lose your sex drive, something which will make finding something to do while experiencing the added insomnia even more difficult.

The alternative, of course, is talking therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Identifying harmful thoughts and beliefs and learning how to change your behaviour can be a very effective way of dealing with anxiety disorders in general, but like medication before it, it can actually be a cause of extra anxiety and stress. I’ve been in group therapy where the object of the exercise was not so much healing as just keep staring at the table for an hour and hope to God no-one asks you if you have done the homework. Naturally this is very frustrating for the people running the groups because their charges simply seem to revert to their original twitchy and quiet selves as soon as they leave the room each week.

The problem is that these treatments are a one-size-fits-all approach to a problem that is unique from case-to- case. For example, my main triggers for an anxiety attack are (in no particular order) changes to my routine, meeting new people, and food. Which is probably why they turned down my application to be on Masterchef. In contrast, cooking a meal and doing something outside their comfort zone might be the perfect way to calm someone down. I’m not saying that the current CBT treatment doesn’t encourage finding out what a patient’s likes and dislikes are, but after a few weeks it can fall back onto generic ways of approaching the problem.

In order to be effective, therapy needs to be an agreement between the medical professional and the patient. The patient needs to agree to put the work in, to try and get better – but only if the medical professional agrees to try and help them, not just a list of symptoms they could have pulled off Wikipedia. Not everyone is scared of the same thing – but the huge problems that come with living with an anxiety disorder are the same, and the only way that someone with anxiety will feel strong enough to change is if they know that their own set of issues will be addressed.

Adam Langley is a blogger at Adam Ranting

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