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‘A suffocating feeling of dread’: What it’s really like to struggle with anxiety and depression

They say waking up every day is a struggle. That it’s like fighting a battle day-in, day-out. And that often the hardest part is trying to hide it.

Over the past few years, more and more people have been speaking out about mental health and the topic has had increasing coverage in the media.

No longer seen as such a taboo topic (amongst women at least – there seem to be fewer men discussing problems with mental illness), just how common it is to suffer from anxiety and depression is gradually being realised.

Celebrities are leading the way and the rest of us are following, with people realising mental health struggles are nothing to be ashamed of.

Yesterday, doctors from Britain’s leading mental health organisations wrote an open letter to The Independent urging the Government to stop suspending the benefits of hundreds of thousands of claimants each year or risk soaring rates of mental health problems.

It’s a worrying time for people already struggling with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses.

But if you’ve never struggled with your mental health, it’s incredibly hard to understand. So we asked people to try and explain it.

What it feels like to have anxiety and depression

A suffocating feeling of dread

“It’s a suffocating feeling of dread and foreboding that affects you physically as well as mentally,” said 30-year-old Londoner Chloe Brotheridge, who suffered with anxiety and panic attacks from the ages of 15 to 24 and has now written a book, The Anxiety Solution: A Quieter Mind, a Calmer You.

“It can feel like it’s hard to breathe and your heart might be racing even though you’re just sitting at your desk. It can be very isolating when loved ones don’t understand or tell you to snap out of it or pull yourself together,” she explained to The Independent.

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I could quite happily just self-destruct and die

“For me, depression is when I don’t care about anything and I could quite happily just self-destruct and die there and then,” Dane Cobain, who’s struggled with anxiety and depression since he was a teenager, told The Independent. “Anxiety is the opposite – I care about everything, and I’m convinced that I have cancer or some rare disease.

“I start to panic and have plenty of physical sensations – such as the shakes and palpitations – that seem to reinforce the belief that I’m about to die at any second,” 27-year-old Dane from High Wycombe explained.

Nothing brings you joy

“Suffering from anxiety is like having a constant sense of fear, even when there’s nothing to be scared of, and your mind makes you feel like there is always something to worry about,” says 22-year-old Emily McMullin from Essex, who’s struggled with eating disorders, anxiety and depression over the last seven years.

“It makes you over-think and dwell on things and the physical effects can be crippling – insomnia, no appetite, breathing difficulties and panic attacks,” she explained to The Independent.

As for depression, Emily says that it “sucks the life out of you and everything around you – you are constantly tired, unenthusiastic and sad. Nothing really brings you joy and you become quite isolated and withdrawn.

“On their own and combined they are exhausting and overwhelming.”

An all-encompassing feeling of helplessness

“It’s different to being ‘sad’ or ‘under the weather’. It’s an all-encompassing feeling of helplessness, staring into blackness and feeling completely unable to pull yourself out of it,” says 25-year-old Alex from Preston who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression a few years ago but is managing much better now.

“Yet, it can be the simplest things that can help someone suffering,” he told The Independent. “Reach out to them, make them smile, make them see they’re not alone. Invite them out. Don’t give up on them. Just be there for them and it will make a bigger difference than you could ever know.”

Every day is like living a lie

“Some days are excruciating and my escape is to put on my makeup and pretend that I’m coping. Every day is like living a lie and everyone sees me as a beautiful confident woman with her own business and career.  No one sees me in my room at night crying and alone and wondering if there will ever be a day it doesn’t hurt,” Bethany* from Birmingham, who’s struggled with persistent depression disorder since 2010, told The Independent.

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“I choose to cope alone because the few times I’ve tried to explain it to people they give me the usual ‘pull yourself together’ talk or don’t understand why I would be depressed.  It’s easier to suffer in silence than seek help amongst the few friends I have. No one must see my vulnerability or that I am dealing with such mental turmoil.”

Things that should be a passing worry can expand quickly into consuming fear

“Living with anxiety is a little bit like that creeping sense that you left the iron on when you left for work. Except you didn’t use the iron this morning, you’ve more or less stopped using the iron, you started wearing shirts that don’t crease so you never have to think about whether the iron is on.

“And yet there it is, the sense that the iron is on, burning a merry hole in your curtains and setting the upholstery alight,” says Sarah*, who was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression 18 months ago, despite having suspected it for a decade.

“Things that should be a passing worry can expand quickly into consuming fear. So I spend a lot of time trying to avoid things that are triggers, usually with very little success,” she explained to The Independent.

A constant pressure

“With my mental health problems there’s a constant pressure to prove that I can do things – it makes those moments where I don’t do well that make dealing with them harder,” says 22-year-old Sophie Dishman from Sunderland, who has OCD, social anxiety and health anxiety.

“It’s not easy battling your mind daily, added on top of low confidence, but I’m not brave or inspirational for doing it,” Sophie explained to The Independent.

“I’m a normal person whose mind may be a little abnormal but my mental health problems aren’t me. They don’t define me. They are part of me but they aren’t part of my identity.”

Many celebrities have hit the nail on the head for people struggling with mental health, reminding us that no one is alone.

“For me, depression is not sadness. It’s not having a bad day and needing a hug,” Kristen Bell wrote in an article last year.

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“It gave me a complete and utter sense of isolation and loneliness,” she continued. “Its debilitation was all-consuming, and it shut down my mental circuit board. I felt worthless, like I had nothing to offer, like I was a failure.”

What’s more, Carrie Fisher’s musings on mental health were widely shared online after her death at the end of 2016: “In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls.

“At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.”

But perhaps a lesser-discussed topic is how mental illness affects the family and friends of those suffering.

For Steve*, whose girlfriend of 18 months developed depression and body dysmorphic disorder, life became really difficult.

“It got so serious that she needed specialist treatment, I was the only person supporting her and I went through awful times,” he told The Independent. “I found my family and friends didn’t understand and lost many close relationships as a result.”

Steve stayed with his girlfriend until she was “better”, but found he himself had “a lot to get over” after the relationship ended.

Even though more and more people are being open about their mental health, depression and anxiety affect more of us than we know. Never forget that you never know what someone’s going through.


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