We are no strangers to feelings of anxiety – at certain stages of our lives or in particular situations, we would have experienced anxiousness and worry with relation to our careers, studies, relationships and even our environment. However, anxiety levels may go beyond the healthy norm for some people, and may instead develop into anxiety disorders that may have a debilitating effect on their lives. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), an individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder is described to have “recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns”, where the duration and severity in which the individual experiences anxiety could be blown out of proportion to the original stressor, resulting in undesirable tension and other physical alterations. In this article, we will be exploring a few types of anxiety disorders as well as how they can manifest within us.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a psychological issue characterised by persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety without any known external cause. People who are diagnosed with GAD tend to feel anxious on most days for at least six months, and could be plagued by worry over several factors such as social interactions, personal health and wellbeing, and their everyday routine tasks. For example, an individual with GAD may find himself experiencing headaches, cold sweats, increased irritability and frequent feelings of “free-floating” anxiety. Others may also experience muscle tension, sleep disruptions or having difficulty concentrating. Often, the sense of anxiety may seemingly come from nowhere and last for long periods of time, therefore interfering with daily activities and various life circumstances.
In contrast, Panic Disorders are characterised by the random occurrence of panic attacks that have no obvious connection with events that are co-occurring in the person’s present experience. This means that panic attacks could occur at any time, even when someone is casually enjoying a meal. Of course, panic attacks could also be brought on by a particular trigger in the environment, such as a much-feared object or situation. Some individuals have reported that panic attacks feel frighteningly similar to a heart attack, especially with the rapid increase in heart palpitations, and the accompanying shortness of breath. Other symptoms also include trembling, sweating, and feelings of being out of control. With these panic attacks bringing on sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety, it can be exceptionally terrifying when these attacks reach their peak within mere minutes. However, a notable difference between a panic disorder and GAD is that an individual diagnosed with panic disorder is usually free of anxiety in between panic attacks.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a disorder marked by patterns of persistent and unwanted thoughts and behaviours. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts, urges or mental images that cause anxiety. On the other hand, compulsions are the repetitive behaviours that a person feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought or image. One common example often exhibited in films is where an individual has an obsessive fear of germs. This person may avoid shaking hands with strangers, avoid using public restrooms or feel the urge to wash their hands way too frequently. However, OCD isn’t purely limited to feelings of anxiety due to germs. OCD can manifest in other ways as well, such as wanting things to be symmetrical or in perfect order, repeatedly checking on things (“Did I leave my stove on?”), or the compulsive counting of objects or possessions. While everyone double-checks their things and has their own habits, people with OCD generally cannot control their thoughts and behaviours, even if they are recognised to be rather excessive. They can spend at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts and behaviours, and will only feel the much-needed brief sense of relief from their anxiety when they perform their rituals. As such, OCD can be exceptionally debilitating to one’s mental health.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Persons with Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD, experience high levels of anxiety and fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. They are often afraid of being subjected to judgement, humiliation or rejection in public, causing them to feel embarrassed. As such, individuals with SAD may feel extra self-conscious and stressed out, and try to avoid social situations where they might be placed at the centre of attention.
A phobia involves a pathological fear of a specific object or a situation. This means that one may experience intense anxiety upon encountering their fears and will take active steps to avoid the feared object. Phobias may centre on heights(acrophobia), birds (ornithophobia), crowds and open spaces(agoraphobia), and many others. People with agoraphobia, in particular, may struggle to be themselves in public spaces, for they think that it would be difficult to leave in the event they have panic-like reactions or other embarrassing symptoms. In severe cases, agoraphobia can cause one to be housebound.
The anonymous author of this article is a person in the recovery of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. The views of the author are not those of Promises.
I have struggled with Self-Harm since I was a kid. Most of us are aware of the tantrum’s kids put up when they are upset. They hit others, drop to the floor, scream, and cry. When I felt overwhelmed by certain emotions, in particular anger or sadness, I would use my hands to hit my head. I had trouble identifying and regulating my emotions. My primary school counsellor told me that I have anger management challenges when I shared with her how I find myself unable to control my anger and would hit myself or the well. Little did I know that these behaviours were early signs and symptoms to what would become a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder given to me in my 20s.
When the word ‘Self-Harm’ is mentioned, most people think about ‘cutting’. A very common and increasingly concerning the mode of coping for persons in distress, more so for young people, even children. Fortunately, I never turned to ‘cutting’ until I was 23. I was actively suicidal from the stress of battling my illness while also trying to excel in my degree. I began with a penknife and one cut. Soon, that one cut led to many and I found myself with a new problem.
I struggle with Self-Harm till this very day; however, I have come a long way with the help of medications and therapy to reduce the frequency of Self-Harm. I have been trying to replace Self-Harm with healthier coping methods such as exercise.
When I do not wear long sleeves, I end up exposing the scars on my wrists to the world. Generally, I tend to feel ashamed of my scars and it took me some time to embrace them. However, responses from others who have noticed my scars have caused discouragement to me and led me to feel ashamed once again. Ironically, this does not deter me from ‘cutting’; instead, it increases the urge because I develop self-hatred and feel like I deserve to be punished and scarred for my behaviour.
Through this sharing of my experience, I hope to send a message of love to peers who are challenged with Self-Harm, whatever form it might take on. I also want to raise awareness among members of the public on what were some unhelpful words and behaviours people have made towards me, more so out of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of concern. I have learnt to forgive them, and at times have also made the effort to voice my discomfort over their words and actions. Here are five things people have said or done to me that were completely unhelpful, and very likely also to be unhelpful to anyone else challenged with Self-Harm.
1. Touching me without permission I get it, you notice the scars and you get worried. Without thinking, you grab my arm and go “what is this? Did you cut yourself?”. Leaving the question for later, the very act of grabbing my arm to look at my scars without permission is a big ‘NO’. I am hypersensitive to my scars and it takes much courage for me, even till today, to deliberately lift my arm to show my scars. What may surprise you is that, often, this act comes largely from my own parents and also the professionals I see for help. It is good practice to always ask someone for permission if you wish to touch them, even if it means to give a hug. Because some of us who have challenges with trauma and dissociation are hypersensitive to touch. Hence, do be mindful of those around you and remember: If you do not like people grabbing you to see something (on you), it’s the same and perhaps even more, for those of us learning to accept our scars.
2. “Doesn’t it hurt?” No, it doesn’t. This answer may come as a surprise to many, but when I am under extreme stress and emotional distress, the act of physically inflicting hurt on myself gives me relief. The greater the physical “pain” the greater the relief. For me, this goes for any act of self-harm be it ‘cutting’, punching the wall, or knocking my head against the wall until it starts bleeding. I can only compare this to someone who meets with an accident. The body goes into shock to the point the person may have a broken leg; however, he or she is not feeling any pain. I do not have a formal education in psychology or biology, but I believe my brain “shuts down” the part that feels pain which aids me to self-harm without feeling the actual pain.
3. “The scars are so ugly! Why do you enjoy this? Can’t you stop?” This is a three-part question, but it often comes to me in one line of questioning. First, I want to say that I do not enjoy this. Not at all. I would love to have clear and beautiful skin too. Every time I look down at my arm to see the scars, I feel hatred towards myself. “How could I do this to myself? I am a horrible person”. And yet, I find that I cannot stop. A coping method I have turned to, since childhood, to cope with the traumatic experiences and intense emotions is self-harm. It has become the default and almost automatic ‘subconscious’ act whenever I am in distress.
4. “It doesn’t look too bad” I know that this statement is in direct contrast to the one above. But I have had this said to me by peers and sadly, professionals. There is not much need for me to elaborate on this statement as it is obvious that it is unhelpful. This statement makes me feel like a failure and makes me want to hurt myself even more. The ‘Depression voice’ is always on standby, ready to jump in with a “See, you are useless at even trying to hurt yourself? You call that a cut?! You are a coward. Go and do it again”.
5. Taking away or hide the sharp items that I could use to hurt myself This is probably most relatable to parents and caregivers supporting someone who is challenged with self-harm. It is very natural to become protective and do what it takes to stop your loved one from hurting themselves. “If I take away their means to hurt themselves, then they have no choice but to stop, right?” Unless you tag along with your loved one 24/7, it is very easy to drop by the nearest bookstore to buy a new penknife. More importantly, in doing so, you are taking away the one thing that I have which keeps me from jumping out of my window or overdosing on my pills. Until I learn to safely stop self-harming in therapy, to take it away from me by force, will throw me into an emotional turmoil that will only make me feel worse.
So please, next time you notice someone with scars that look like they might be from the act of cutting one-self, please be gentle and kind to the person. Be extremely mindful of what you say. Perhaps, a guiding thought could be: If you cannot entertain the idea of causing pain to yourself, imagine how much pain the person must be in to be able to cause harm to themselves. When I self-harm, it is a desperate means for me to stay alive. It is a cry for help: for attention, for love, care and non-judgemental support.
If you know a loved one who self harms please do gently prod him/her towards seeking help from a trained professional.
Think of the following scenario: you have friends over at your place and you serve them drinks. Before they can place their cups on your beautiful coffee table, you exclaim and dart out coasters underneath the ice-cold glasses before the first drop of dew can drip on that expensive rosewood. Your lightning-fast reflexes have intercepted what would have been a disaster. Your friends are startled at first, then they laugh and tease you. They say you have OCD – obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This, or a similar instance, may have happened at some point in our lives before. We tidy up a mess in the presence of others, or when our belongings are organised ever so neatly, and we end up joking about OCD.
But in truth, OCD is far from such behaviours that could be written off so light-heartedly.
A person with OCD will have compulsions – they feel the need to perform certain repeated behaviours to reduce emotional distress or to prevent undesirable consequences. These compulsions are so intense that they cannot carry out other daily routines without acting on them. Some common ones include:
Excessive washing or cleaning – They fear contamination and clean or wash themselves or their surroundings many times within a day.
Checking – They repeatedly check things associated with danger, such as ensuring the stove is turned off or the door is locked. They are obsessed with preventing a house fire or someone breaking in.
Hoarding or saving things – They fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away, so they compulsively keep or hoard things, usually old newspapers or scraps of papers which they do not actually need or use.
Repeating actions – They repetitively engage in the same action many times, such as turning on and off a light switch or shaking their head a numerous number of times, up 20 to 30 times.
Counting and arranging – They are obsessed with order and symmetry, and have superstitions about certain numbers, colours, or arrangements, and seek to put things in a particular pattern, insisting to themselves that the layout must be symmetrical.
When Does OCD Become Chronic and What Should You Do If That Happens?
OCD is a chronic disorder, so it is an illness that one will have to deal with for the rest of his or her life. It is difficult to tell when the disorder becomes chronic, as it presents the individual with long-lasting waxing and waning symptoms. Although most with OCD are usually diagnosed by about age 19, it typically has an earlier age of onset in boys than in girls, but onset after age 35 does occur.
A cognitive model of OCD suggests that obsessions happen when we perceive aspects of our normal thoughts as threatening to ourselves or to others, and we feel responsible to prevent this threat from happening. These misperceptions often develop as a result of early childhood experiences. For example, a child may experience living in a dirty and dusty environment, while being subjected to some form of trauma at the same time. He associates a lack of hygiene with suffering from the trauma. At a later stage in life, he may start to feel threatened upon seeing the unhygienic behaviours of someone he lives with, be it his parents, romantic partner, or flatmates. This leads to the reinforcement of the association and to the development of his beliefs that suffering is inevitable when unhygienic conditions are present, giving him compulsions to improve these unsanitary conditions through washing and cleaning.
If one is affected by OCD to the extent that he or she is unable to hold down a job and to manage household responsibilities, then there is a need for clinical treatment as the symptoms have become severe. Like in the above-mentioned example, recurrent and persistent thoughts of dirt will give the individual compulsions to neutralise these thoughts, resulting in repetitive washing, and checking behaviours. This causes distress and significantly affects one’s functioning.
When OCD has become a chronic illness, through a formulation of intervention strategies, the psychologist should extrapolate the client’s pattern of behaviour and expect a positive prognosis for functional improvement.
How Can OCD Be Treated?
A person diagnosed with OCD may seek treatment through a treatment plan that consists of cognitive strategies. These cognitive strategies involve consciously implementing sets of mental processes in order to control thought processes and content. Through these cognitive strategies, we can examine and restrict the thoughts and interpretations responsible for maintaining OCD symptoms. This is conducted in the initial stages of therapy.
Thereafter, Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) methods are carried out once a client is able to understand and utilise these cognitive strategies. ERP requires the client to list out their obsessive thoughts, identify the triggers that bring about their compulsions and obsessions and rate their levels of distress on each of these. Starting with a situation that causes mild or moderate distress, the client is exposed to their obsessive thoughts and simultaneously tries to resist, engaging in any identified behaviours that they have been using to neutralise these thoughts. The amount of anxiety is tracked each time the process is repeated. When anxiety levels for this particular situation eventually subside, over several repeated processes, and when they no longer feel significant distress over this situation, the same method is repeated for the next obsessive thought with the next level of distress.
A client who is able to demonstrate strength in coping with the symptoms has a better likelihood for sufficient recovery.
OCD is Becoming More Prevalent in Singapore: How has it Been Accepted in Society?
In recent years, OCD has topped the list of mental disorders in Singapore, with the greatest number of people experiencing it in 2018, compared with other mental illnesses.
The disorder has been found to be more prevalent among young adults than those aged 50 and above. In terms of socio-economic status, OCD is more likely to occur amongst those with a monthly household income of less than S$2,000 than those who earn above that amount.
It has also been found that the prevalence of people experiencing OCD at least once in their lifetime is higher in Singapore than in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to becoming more prevalent, people who experience OCD are also becoming increasingly reluctant to seek psychiatric help or counselling, making matters worse. There is some acceptance of the condition as normal and trivial by society, because people who do not understand the disorder well enough misconceive OCD as a quality of being clean and tidy, as being clean and tidy is usually seen as a good thing. This misconstrual by society is dangerous for the undiagnosed, and their condition will further deteriorate if they continue to put off addressing their disorder.
The disorder will get worse if treatment is ignored, and there is a need to realise it in its early stages through observing how one’s life is being disrupted. Awareness about its onset of symptoms is important.
Are you feeling tired most of the time despite having a good night’s sleep? Are you constantly feeling low energy and unproductive? These are just a few of the typical symptoms pointing towards unhealthy levels of stress. Constantly feeling worn out could be an alarm that your body is sounding – a message that it is overwhelmed and unable to keep up. Undeniably, we often put ourselves in a constant heightened state of alertness, especially in such a fast-paced society. Our sources of stress may differ, from high-pressure jobs to challenging and taxing relationships. Stress affects everybody – even if you may not be physically attending to any particular concern, allowing it to occupy your mind frequently and fretting over it can contribute to chronic stress. Without proper management and control, chronic stress puts pressure on the body and will ultimately wreak havoc on your physical and mental health.
As a natural biological response to demanding circumstances or situations, our body releases hormones such as cortisol, a stress hormone. Alongside adrenaline, cortisol helps to fuel your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct whenever a crisis surfaces. A stressor may be a long term one, such as the routine stress related to the pressures of school, work, family, and other daily responsibilities, or short-term occurrence brought about by a sudden change, such as losing a job, illness, or facing dangerous situations. In an ideal situation, when an individual faces a trigger, the adrenal glands in the body secrete cortisol and a complex hormonal cascade ensues, preparing the body for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Following that, cortisol inhibits the production of insulin in order to increase the uptake and usage of glucose so that more energy is made available to the surrounding muscles. Arteries will also be narrowed, increasing the heart rate and forcing blood to be pumped harder and faster around the body to help you confront the immediate threat. Once the individual resolves and addresses the situation, negative feedback kicks in and hormonal levels will then fall back to the norm.
With this said, when we are constantly under high levels of stress, our alarm system doesn’t turn off. This means that our body is continually in high-gear and cortisol levels will remain high, to the point where it becomes harmful. Small doses of cortisol are safe, and in fact, is important for your health as it also serves to regulate your metabolism and blood sugar level amidst other key functions. However, in the case of chronic stress, constantly high levels of cortisol take a toll on your body’s resources, leaving you exhausted. Over time, continued strain on your body from stress may contribute to serious health problems. Hence, there is a need for us to tackle the root of the problem and ensure that we manage our stress levels to reduce the risk of negative health effects.
You might have been advised to change your lifestyle for the better at least once in your life by a family member or a friend – and we cannot stress this enough. It is essential that you learn to live a healthier lifestyle, which includes stress reduction and learning to manage your hectic schedule. If you continue to live an overly-demanding way of life, it is highly likely that you may succumb to chronic stress or worse, other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. Moreover, can you imagine how hard your adrenal glands will have to work in order to continue producing sufficient stress hormones? Needless to say, the high cortisol levels will also impact your physical health and lead to other conditions such as digestive problems, high blood pressure or sleep issues. This results in a vicious cycle – with less sleep, the more exhausted you feel.
Working on stress reduction can be as easy as doing deep abdominal breathing exercises, and incorporating meditation. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities. They are simple, cost-effective, and are readily available. In this highly technological age, there are many applications available on your devices to further assist you in such activities as well. On the contrary, if you feel that you aren’t quite the kind to sit down and meditate, you can also opt to do some physical exercise to help boost your mood and improve your health. Organising activities with your friends such as playing a game of badminton or volleyball can help you to keep your mind off things, and at the same time, seek the social support you need when necessary. Of course, exercising alone is perfectly fine too, the main point is that exercising produces endorphins – chemicals in the brain that help alleviate stress by acting as natural painkillers.
Watching what you ingest is also equally important. For example, for heavy coffee drinkers, try to cut down on caffeine. Although the threshold for caffeine might differ for every individual if you notice that your excessive caffeine intake is making you jittery or on the edge, consider cutting down on it. Instead, you may want to replace it with other beverages that have a calming effect, such as chamomile, lavender or peppermint tea. Drinking a cup of warm milk before bed can help you get a better night’s sleep too. In addition, you might want to consider eating foods such as avocados, which are known to offer omega-3 fatty acids that can help reduce stress and anxiety. However, we should always remember that everything should be consumed in moderation.
Last but not least, learn to say no, and only commit to responsibilities that you can cope with! Although not all stressors in your life are within your control, some of them are. It is crucial that we manage what we have on our plates, and not bite off more than we can chew. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do. Juggling many responsibilities at once can leave you feeling disheartened and overwhelmed, and this increases your stress levels unnecessarily.
For someone who struggles with emotional self-regulation, what does having a “breakthrough” mean? A “breakthrough” could mean coming to a point of realisation and acceptance of one’s mental state, and taking a step forward to change his/her seemingly challenging behaviour. To achieve this, we’ll need to learn the art of self-mastery in order to transform our emotions, attitude and most importantly, our behaviour.
Let’s not beat about the bush – the most pivotal factor to attaining self-mastery is for the person in question to understand that he/she needs to take charge of his/her own thoughts, emotions and actions. The model of self-mastery dictates that we should acknowledge and accept that we are the ones who are responsible for changing our own life experiences. It is often said that we are each the author of our own lives, in which we live in whatever we create. At any point in time, we should always be open to learning life skills to deal with whatever life presents us, instead of resisting or reacting against it. We should learn to control what happens to us by exercising creative control over the circumstances that we throw ourselves into. Without the will to take charge and make the relevant changes, this “breakthrough” would, unfortunately, be a tough feat.
There is a difference between control and self-mastery, and it is crucial that we internalise this. Oftentimes, people with mental health conditions tend to display controlling behaviours of themselves or others.To put it succinctly, controlling behaviour arises when we compel others to change their behaviour to cater to our own experiences of life. On the contrary, self-mastery means transforming our own behaviour in order to change our own experiences of life. Practising self-mastery implies that we adapt to what life presents us, instead of quitting or getting emotionally erratic when things become challenging. This involves learning new life skills that we have yet to master in order to carry us through frustrating tough times and eliminate controlling behaviour. Controlling or manipulative behaviour often emerges from within ourselves whenever things don’t go as we expect. We victimise ourselves and push the blame towards others or life in general for what was presented so as to “correct” the situation. The truth is, when you feel that people aren’t showing you the gratitude or appreciation that you deserve, the fault is not with them. In actual fact, you are exhibiting a need to control – to bring your current life experiences to fit your idealised version of it. For individuals with disruptive emotions and impulses, self-mastery may not come easily to them, as a result of the dysfunction of their self-regulation skills. Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is entirely impossible.
Self-mastery means not allowing our past negative experiences to affect our present and future. It is not easy to undo those past experiences, as they are like deep-seated stains on our clothes that cannot be removed. However, we can choose not to wear those clothes again. It is hard to pick up anything new if our hands are full of burdens. Making peace with our past by letting go, forgiving or even forgetting, will give us space for an untarnished and more objective approach to our present and future. Practising self-mastery also includes being mindful of how you interpret an event in a way that reduces the negative thought or completely replacing it with a positive one. This psychological strategy can be understood by looking at a glass and asking yourself whether it is half full or half empty. Instead of focusing on the dark clouds, we should change our interpretative lens to uncover the silver lining. For example, instead of envying your friend’s success, you should see your own failure as a temporary detour and not a dead end.
Being mindful of our actions and reactions helps us see them for what they are so as to reign in any impulsive controlling, or difficult behaviour. Truth be told, we have all displayed difficult behaviour at times, which as a result, might have caused us to burn a bridge or two. However, the display of fluctuating emotions may be a regular occurrence for some individuals who may not know how to work towards a “breakthrough”. In this case, only if we are mindful of our behaviours can we be less reactive and better able to reframe our perception of our current experience in a less emotional and upsetting manner. With practice, we will slowly become better at creating that space which will then allow us to choose our reactions rather than just reacting out of habit or impulse. Of course, this, in turn, leads to happier and healthier relationships, ultimately improving our mental state of health as well.
Last, but not least, a crucial step in developing self-mastery is to start with self-honesty and truthfulness. Do some self-reflection. That is, have an honest assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as owning up to your problems. When you are able to identify your weaknesses, you will be able to direct yourself better to what needs to be worked on and the relevant life skills you’ll need to master in order to find a breakthrough. In contrast, focusing on your strengths will also help boost your self-confidence, and act as a motivation for you to work towards making the change you need (i.e., self-improvement). If it helps, attend a peer support group. Peer support groups are built on shared personal experiences and empathy – it focuses on one’s strengths and helps you work towards your mental health and happiness goals. At the same time, it comforts you that you aren’t on the road to mental resilience and self-mastery alone and that there are many out there like you. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help too, for it could very well be the push you need to help you achieve the breakthrough you desire.