As I embark on my journey of growth and healing, I have taken some time for introspection to understand the root cause of my anxiety: I have come to realize that the picture is blurry and unclear, and it seems to have sprung out of nothingness. But there are tiny factors that trigger its episodes, they are not the root cause.
Although I was generally quite an extrovert, I can recall times when I was sad for no reason at all, even ten years ago. When my mother asked me why I was morose, I had no answer. Anxiety feels like a murky pool that one plunges deep into, far too deep to get out easily—and then cries foul.
When I came to the realization that anxiety was more than just an occasional bad day or shift in mood, I acknowledged that it was significantly affecting my mental health and decision-making abilities. Consequently, I started asking myself defining questions, such as: What triggers my anxiety? What physical symptoms do I experience when I feel anxious? How do my thoughts and beliefs contribute to my anxiety? What coping mechanisms have been effective for me in the past?
I discovered that anxiety is a valid issue demanding the utmost attention. Interestingly, my best-written pieces are infused with feelings of fear and sadness. I recall a time when I lost a loved one, and my mourning resulted in a beautiful poem. It seemed that sorrow was my only creative companion. Herein lies another misconception: a developing creative tends to believe they can only function best in a particular state, just because it’s worked a few times.
However, this new development had the opposite of the intended effect. It made me want to run away from everything. My mind began to play tricks on me, undermining my hard work and telling me that I was not good enough. I felt inferior to those around me who were considered to be—and seemed to consider themselves to be—”enough,” and believed that they were made of better materials than I was.
Looking back, the feeling of inferiority was more about me than about those around me, who were simply living their lives, unconscious of my turmoil and most likely wrapped up in their own. People appear to be acceptable by societal standards when they pursue their goals relentlessly, conceal their fears from the world, and are confident enough to live “freely”.
Fear consumed me, and it prevented me from taking any action, even when all I had to do was click send on an email or submit an application. I even experienced a panic attack when I attempted to write a brief for the first time.
Despite my normally outgoing and dramatic personality, I found myself failing to communicate effectively, particularly among intelligent people. I constantly felt insignificant and insecure, and my anxiety was gradually eroding my self-esteem. I was being left behind. Something needed to change. I wondered whether I needed medical attention, because my body trembled at the mere thought of a challenge.
Shining a spotlight on anxiety
I am not alone in this struggle.
Anxiety disorders are a common mental health problem, especially among young women. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 31.9% of adolescents aged 13 to 18 have had an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Contributory factors are: hormonal fluctuations associated with menstruation, dysmenorrhea, history of abuse, postpartum depression… the list goes on.
Targeting misogynistic culture aided by laws that do not promote gender equality is essential. Many women and girls, during their formative years, come to the daunting and unfavorable realization that their realities are different from those of their male counterparts. An unhealthy family or environment can also weigh down on women’s confidence.
A significant moment that shaped my understanding of anxiety was the knowledge that many cases of mental health issues go untreated. Especially in Africa, as people often learn to cope with unfavorable life conditions. Although this may seem like a practical approach, it is not commendable, as it is akin to living with a physical malady. In this case, the emotional nerve center, which makes life more challenging instead of enjoyable.
While some individuals may overcome their anxiety through sheer determination, others may experience a worsening of symptoms as they grow older, as was the case with me as a young woman falling within the age range of 18-25, which is reported to have the highest rates of anxiety in females. According to research conducted by the American Psychological Association, women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
How anxiety is viewed in Nigeria
Realizing that I was not alone in my experience brought a sense of comfort surpassing any other steps I had taken toward recovery. Mental health awareness is very gradually gaining traction in Nigeria and other parts of the world. In an article published by Cambridge University Press in 2016 focusing on mental issues and challenges in Nigeria, interviews were conducted with principal actors and health workers. The responses highlighted the perception that individuals dealing with mental issues are still seen as weak and overly emotional. As such, it remains challenging for me to talk to people about my struggles with anxiety, as I feared being dismissed with the phrase “snap out of it.”
Most often, it is not merely the words uttered, but also the dismissive tone that accompanies them. It is crucial for individuals who are part of the support system to understand that such statements invalidate a person’s genuine sense of being. For example, a person with a broken leg cannot simply be told to “walk it off”. Firstly, it is impossible, and secondly, attempting to do so would likely result in further harm. It’s the same with mental health—it can’t just be “walked off”.
However, in recent years, there have been social programs and initiatives aimed at curbing these issues. One such program is the Mental Health and Wellbeing Program launched by the Nigerian government in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO). This program aims to provide training and resources to healthcare workers to improve their ability to provide mental health care and support to those in need.
Many schools and universities in Nigeria have also recognized the importance of mental health and have implemented various programs and resources to support their students. Some universities have established counseling centers staffed with trained mental health professionals who are available to provide counseling and support to students. Additionally, some schools have introduced mental health awareness programs and have partnered with mental health organizations to provide resources and support to their students.
Nigeria is finally on the road to recovery.
The road to healing
And for me, although I am not yet in a safe place, I too have made significant progress.
I know that idleness is connected to anxiety, but I have learned that keeping busy with tasks is only a short-term solution. Instead, I started keeping my mind busy with positive thoughts and consciously engaging in fulfilling activities. Losing one’s mind goes hand in hand with underestimating its power. I began training my mind to focus on positives and to see the good in every situation. With every anxiety breakdown, I strive to extract a lesson that helps me handle it better the next time, until complete healing is achieved.
Another step is creating happy moments so that I have a lot of pleasant memories to remind myself that I am enough. I dwell on these memories just long enough to create new ones. Setting goals and achieving milestones that resonate with my true self, exploring my potential, helps me push past worry or fear. While there is no clear-cut way to navigate this journey, giving up is the most detrimental—and often easiest—path to take.
It may not be easy, but taking that first step is essential because you have recognized that you have a problem, and you’re taking baby steps to address it. The process might be short, semi-long, or a lifelong project, but I will make it—as long as I remain committed to working on it.