The power of sharing stories about anxiety and depression

by Marc Wilson / 24 May, 2018

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People assailed by anxiety or depression need to know they're not alone – and stories shared by both celebrities and non-celebrities go a long way in helping.

When I was a child, I occasionally had the feeling steal over me of impending doom. It was an oppressive sense that something bad was going to happen, accompanied by a tightness in my chest.

I remember in my late twenties going through one of those patches, times a hundred. The black cloud of doom descended, accompanied by the need to Get Out Now. It was a panic attack – and a harbinger of others to come.

The attacks were mercifully few, but worry became a constant presence in my life. For a couple of years, I took anti-anxiety medication. Did it help? Did it what. Decapitated the anxiety. Bloody marvellous. Oh, but the nausea. I still feel queasy riding the bus, because it brings back the feeling.

Many people who are anxious are also depressed. When the two occur together or close in time, they may be described as “co-morbid”. About a third of people who are clinically depressed can also warrant a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder. Two-thirds experience panic attacks. In my case, I mainly felt anxiety, but I wasn’t exactly a box of fluffy ducks either, and the drugs helped with that part of my mood as well.

But this isn’t all about me. In fact, the point is that my experiences are not special. Recently Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, of the bouncing pecs and tree-trunk biceps, has spoken about his own experience with depression.

I think it’s great – not that he was depressed but that he and other celebrities are talking about it. I have tremendous respect for those in the public eye who open themselves to the potential trolling that comes with acknowledging a very human experience.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Photo/Getty Images

I also know that many people face the challenges of ­anxiety and depression but without a national stage from which to talk about it. The downside of that is we may think of depression or anxiety as the province of either people we are close to (family and friends) or very distant from (professional wrestlers who became movie stars). What about the chef at your favourite restaurant? The bank teller? Your boss? Your co-worker?

I think this is important because these people can tell stories of strength, and those stories also need to be acknowledged.

In a project to raise awareness of the issue, a group of eight cyclists will ride the 2018 Tour de France course a day ahead of the real tour. Coached by Olympic and Commonwealth Games medallist Hayden Roulston, who rode in the 2009 tour, the group is being organised under the aegis of the Mental Health Foundation.

Anyone who thinks that being depressed or anxious is a sign of weakness has probably not ridden 3500km on French roads, many of them mountainous.

Among the plucky participants is Victoria University business school senior lecturer and associate dean John Randal. On his Tour bio, he writes candidly about his long bouts of depression. Before he embarked on this project, though, many wouldn’t have had a clue that he was anything other than a warrior-monk: an intellectual in the halls of academia from Monday to Friday and a weekend cyclist.

Randal also highlights the role that cycling plays for him in helping manage his mood. Again, he’s not alone – physical activity is one of the best ways to bolster mental health.

I think it’s pretty cool that Johnson talked about his episodes of depression, but I’ve never met him face to face. It feels more powerful to know that Randal and his teammates not only share bits of my (rather more limited) experience but are telling the world about it and boosting the profile of the Mental Health Foundation at the same time.

This article was first published in the April 28, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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