Fraser Wilson: Learning to Embrace My Anxiety
I remember being struck a few years ago by a Nicola Sturgeon interview where she spoke about the inevitability of the media discussing her appearance and what she was wearing in the public eye. She said that she could either choose to not engage with those discussions, or could decide to ‘try to turn it into a positive in some way’ through using that inevitable fact to promote Scottish fashion designers. That concept of turning a negative into a positive stuck with me, and this is something that I have tried to do in various aspects of my life ever since.
This was back in the days where I knew that I got anxious and nervous about things but before I realised that this was anxiety. You know, anxiety. That thing that shows up in the back of your brain when you’re about to do a task, meet up with someone, or do something fun and just sits there, cackling ‘’nah, no the day mate”.
Anxiety regularly made me assume the worst, and made me believe that anything I said or did would be met with disapproval from people I cared about. Anxiety stopped me from feeling fully accepted in my wonderful friendship group. It stopped me from dating. It stopped me from becoming more active in politics in spite of it being my passion. I should at this point make clear that this is what anxiety meant to me, and that what I discuss in this piece might not work for or apply to you, as it affects everyone differently. My experience doesn’t make yours any less valid and vice versa.
I remember making a conscious decision after graduating in 2017 that it was time to properly examine my mental health and work on improving it, despite the protests of the anxiety. “The GP won’t believe you!” “Your suffering is nothing compared to other people who actually have anxiety”, “therapy is the most awful most terrifying thing in the history of the universe” and other such boring, predictable patter were regular protests. It was a long, winding, tiring road, but a diagnosis and two separate rounds of therapy over the course of two years later, I am far more at peace with myself and my mental health.
I think one of the important things to remember when you go to therapy is that it isn’t necessarily designed to make the anxiety or any other mental health issue just ‘go away’. Rather, the process of working through what’s going on in your brain in a safe space with a specialist trained in exploring these issues allows you to develop the skills needed to manage your mental health better.
For me, having someone external to my personal life and circumstances to bounce ideas off was a huge help, and the methods and questioning that my therapist used to explore the underlying issues driving my anxiety and depression allowed me to view my mental health in a different, more rational light. Speaking with a therapist is something I’d encourage everyone to do at least once in their life as it allows you to consider your mental health from a different angle, and learn more about yourself and how you can manage your emotions in order to lead a happier life. This is especially the case for men who are more likely to bottle up their feelings and not express them, which as a result leads to higher suicide rates.
It’s from this experience of therapy that I draw the link to Nicola Sturgeon talking about turning a negative into a positive, as therapy shifted my thinking from “how can I get rid of the anxiety and make it go away” to “okay, the anxiety is a thing, and it’s always going to be a thing. So how can I best go about learning to co-exist with it and indeed thrive with its presence?” It took a lot of time and energy to be able to reach this position, but being able to acknowledge that it is there and it is a fundamental part of me has helped me accept it, and that has been so freeing.
I considered past occasions where my anxiety had flared up, such as exams, job interviews or team calls and meetings at my work. My nerves and anxiousness in these scenarios led me to preparing far more than maybe I otherwise would have (perhaps over-preparing in some cases). After the event is over I always look back with this sense of gratefulness towards my anxiety for kicking me into gear.
My anxiety – I believe - has also made me question myself more often, and – not always but most of the time – has made me give longer consideration to what I say and do, whether that is in a personal, professional, or political capacity. Now let me be clear, I categorically do not enjoy the bombardment of catastrophising that goes on in my head in these moments, obsessively considering every possible negative ramification of my actions. Yet it also acts as a built-in check on myself, and given the choice I wouldn’t give that up. Sure, anxiety may have control over when it flares up, but I feel that I can control how I deal with it.
Obviously I have a prettier smile, nicer headpieces, a better beard and I’m more benevolent but you get the point
All this has helped me to back myself to get more involved in activism and organisations that for a long time I’ve wanted to work with, but my anxiety prevented me from doing. My internal monologue likes to describe it as ‘having the audacity to confront my anxiety head-on’ by throwing myself into scary situations and scenarios in a split-second decision, before my anxiety has the time to say ‘ooft, ye really think that’s gonnae go well, pal? A tad bold, no?”.
A journalistic hero of mine, Nardwuar, a music journalist from Canada known for his unorthodox interviews of musicians who regularly say his interviews are the best they’ve ever done, conveys this idea well in his Ted Talk ‘Do it Yourself!’. It’s a highly inspiring talk where he shares how he managed to get various interviews with superstars like Kurt Cobain, Jay-Z, and Pharrell through ‘just asking’, and backing himself and being persistent in his belief that he deserved to interview these big names. Further, he talked about how the first time he was offered an interview with Snoop Dogg he was scared and didn’t want to do it, but realised that ‘the less you know the better. If you’re nervous, that’s good! It makes you try to find out more information about the person you’re talking to’. In a similar way to Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘turn a negative into a positive’, Nardwuar’s ‘being nervous helps you prepare more’ has been a guiding light for me in learning to co-exist with my anxiety and see the positives that can come from it.
Thanks Nardwuar, very cool!
My best example of ‘having the audacity’ to act despite the protestations of my anxiety was a solo trip I took to Brussels for the original Brexit date in March 2019, an idea that a now good friend and colleague of mine, who at the time I was only friends with on Facebook, also had and who by coincidence was on the same flight (you know who you are, Monsieur Écosse). He was involved in a lot of the EU activism that I had wanted to get involved in ever since I graduated, but never had the confidence to do so. The entire time at Edinburgh Airport and on the flight I tried to build myself up to introducing myself to him, but I couldn’t do it. It was only when we were about to part ways at Charleroi Airport that I was like “ok Fraz it’s now or never”. And I did it. And that split-second moment of bravery where I defied my anxiety has now resulted in me taking a far more active role in EU youth activism and political education and making many, many friends across different EU Member States and beyond.
It’s been a similar story with the YSI – in the few events and socials I’ve attended since my first one in January, I have been anxious before each and every one. But it’s been those split-second moments of putting myself in what feels like the vulnerable position of asking ‘can I come along’ or ‘can I get involved?’ that have led me to getting more involved, and I look forward to getting out campaigning with many of you when it’s safe to do so again.
To finish, it’s a simple fact that I wouldn’t be the person I am today (and I’m told by some reliable sources I’m quite nice) if my anxiety wasn’t present. And it’s taken me a very, VERY long time to get to the point where I can truly say this, but I love me, and whilst I still have horrible, dark days, I feel at peace with my mental health and all that it entails. If I can reach that point, you, dearest beautiful reader, can too.