When Eleanor Morgan was 17 she suffered a panic attack so powerful she thought she was about to die.
It was the first of many such episodes, a downward spiral that led, eventually, to two serious breakdowns where she “just gave up”, utterly exhausted by anxiety.
Despite this handicap, she managed to forge a career as a journalist, notably for the Guardian and Vice.
A first-person account of her struggles, Anxiety For Beginners is a candid investigation of what it’s like to experience mental health problems.
Often shocking, often extremely funny (where else will you see Judy Murray’s face described as looking like “an impaled owl”), it offers a no-holds barred insight into a condition that – for far too long – has been seen as something to be ashamed of.
What does a panic attack feel like?
For me personally, it’s very digestive. I don’t actually vomit but I feel constantly on the brink of it. It’s very unpleasant.
Essentially, your brain is telling your body that you’re in danger, so the “fight or flight” response kicks in.
Chemicals rapidly circulate causing symptoms like nausea, diarrhoea, sweating, heart palpitations, dizziness and fainting.
How many people suffer from them?
The World Health Organisation [WHO] estimates that one in three people will experience some kind of anxiety or depression.
You wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at them, as it’s possible to be “high functioning” in your everyday life even if you are quite unwell.
A male friend of mine committed suicide last month, and he was an incredibly successful photographer.
The correspondence he left behind indicates that he wanted help, but he felt too ashamed to ask for it.
He chose to suffer in silence until it was too late.
Why do men fear talking about their problems?
It’s a cultural thing, the idea that asking for help is weak or feminine.
That’s why some depressed men are actually violent – they prefer to get drunk and have fights.
The anger they’re exhibiting is actually an expression of the fear inside them, or rather a way of avoiding facing up to it.
Sometimes, they self-harm, too.
What causes anxiety?
It could be in your genes, or come from the way you were brought up, or from a single traumatic incident like post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].
Is there a cure?
No. Depression isn’t like a tumour that can be cut out by a surgeon, but there are many effective treatments that make it easier to live with.
The most common pills prescribed for anxiety are SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors].
I’ve taken them at two crisis points in my life, and they did help me step outside the disastrous cycle of thinking I was stuck in.
You have to persist with them, though – they can have side-effects.
How about therapy?
It works, but it can be daunting for men, because you need to be really honest about your frailties.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [CBT] addresses the here and now, and teaches you techniques that help you catch yourself before you get too anxious.
That’s also incredibly useful. Sometimes it gets hijacked by lifestyle gurus and watered down into nonsense, but it is absolutely founded in empirical science.
When we concentrate on being in the moment, and on our senses and our breathing, it calms down the part of the brain that deals with “fight of flight”.
Looking at brain scans of people who practise mindfulness, neuroscientists can see greater activity in those parts of the brain that calm us down.
Where can men seek help if they don’t have time to see a doctor?
One guy I spoke to uses a football forum to talk about his depression.
A lot of men go there, apparently, and they are very frank about their issues because of the anonymity.
It’s a brilliant first step for admitting that they’re not feeling great, and much easier than having a real-life conversation with your friends or partner.
I can also recommend the CALM [Campaign Against Living Miserably] website, which is a charity that works on raising awareness of male suicide.
They’ve got helplines, and they’ve even bus stop adverts to bring the subject out into the open.
Doesn’t using the internet make depression worse?
Social media is not going to make someone ill, but if you are prone to depressive rumination, then yes, there are elements of it that are bad.
You can feel inadequate when you judge yourself against other people, especially if they appear to be far more successful or happy than you.
But, of course, everyone is presenting a cherry-picked version of their life on Facebook, the outward impression they want others to see. It’s not genuine.
People looking at your profile are probably feeling jealous, too!
Why is depression still a taboo subject?
I’m certain that one day we will look back on the tabloid media’s treatment of mental health and think how diabolical it was.
All those “Bonkers Bruno!” headlines when Frank Bruno confessed to having mental health problems, they’re so irresponsible.
The trickle down effect of this simplistic reporting is seen every day in offices and building sites, and it makes it so much harder for a depressed person to own up.
After the Germanwings air tragedy, when the pilot flew his plane into a mountain, the reporting in some tabloids practically suggested that all depressed people were a danger to the public, which is absolute nonsense.
Anything that shrouds mental distress in fear and derision is terrible.
Will science crack depression eventually?
As humans being we are prone to anxiety by design. We would have to evolve as a species, and that takes time.
But in terms of living with depression, it will get better.
Therapies will be tailor-made for each person, rather than using a “one size fits all”.
Doctors will look at their gene type and identify whether they will respond better to therapy or drugs, and design a course to make their lives much easier.
Learn about the RMIT Counselling Service