When I read that British people spend over five years of their lives worrying, I immediately felt extremely worried. Then I thought, “Pfft – only five?! That's nothing. Try climbing inside my brain.” Because, like 86 per cent of British people, I'd describe myself as a worrier, and no amount of Rescue Remedy (the company who commissioned the study) is going to change that. I worry all the time. It's as though I carry around a list entitled Things To Worry About around with me, to be added to and updated throughout the day. The anxious, whiny, niggling voice at the back of my mind is a constant irritant, like lift muzak or tinnitus. So used am I to co-existing with this vague, low-level anxiety that, occasionally, when I experience a rare moment of mindless tranquility, I'll actually start worrying about the fact that I'm not worrying about anything. If that's not a sign of a chronic worrier, then I don't know what is.
Here are some things that I worry about, in no particular order: leaving my hair straighteners on, my boyfriend being hit by a car, being burgled, losing my job, being evicted, my weight and appearance, my fertility, my tax return and, of course, the inevitable big one, death with a capital “D” (mine and that of everyone I love). I also engage in what my mother calls “impending-doom scenarios” – the irrational conviction that everything, no matter how mundane or even positive it might be, will eventually turn spectacularly to shit. Woe betide the family member who fails to answer their phone for a few hours, because it's guaranteed that I will become convinced that they have been caught up in a horrific freak accident. Not long ago, after seeing a news report, I found myself consumed with fear that my dad – who had failed to show up at Watford Junction and whose phone was going straight to voicemail – had been hit by a train. My father – who is, it must be pointed out, not known for being punctual or reliable when it comes to cross-country travel – was left baffled when he finally phoned me back and I answered by saying, simply, “Fuck you.” Being the irritatingly zen and serene man he is, he thought it was hilarious; meanwhile, I had suffered two hours of blind, hyperventilating panic.
So used am I to co-existing with this vague, low-level anxiety that, occasionally, when I experience a rare moment of mindless tranquility, I'll actually start worrying about the fact that I'm not worrying about anything
I have no doubt that there are women out there who identify with this. While I have loved ones of both genders who have struggled with anxiety, it does seem to affect my female friends more commonly, and my worrying definitely runs on the female side of the family (my mother, aunts and grandmother are seasoned worriers). According to the American National Institute of Mental Health, women are 60 per cent more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men. This will come as no surprise to those of you who find yourselves awake at 4am, worrying about relationships or finances or loved ones. It's important, of course, to distinguish between what is a medical disorder and the propensity to engage in more low-level worrying. Though I have never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I have had panic attacks in the past, and periods on medication. I'm mostly fine, but there have been times where my anxieties have spilled over and begun to affect my life more severely. When this happens, it's always worth speaking to a professional.
Studies suggest that anxiety disorders are on the rise, and my own battles with worrying make me wonder how many other women are experiencing the same constant, grinding anxiety, and assuming that it's just a normal part of daily life. I have been anxious since childhood and can't help feeling that it may have been passed down the female side of the family – whether genetically or due to prolonged exposure (“Don't go out of your depth!”, “Don’t speak to strange men”, “Always phone home”). To be clear, I don't think that there is some innate, biological difference between men and women that makes us more likely to worry. It could have more to do with social conditioning. Women are more encouraged to be open about their feelings, but also to invest more emotionally in our relationships with other people – which would go some way to explaining why so many of my anxieties are to do with the fear of horrible things happening to those I love. At the same time, if I do have children, I worry that the whole cycle will begin again – that, by nature of being a worrier, I will make them worriers, too (surely worrying about being a worrier is the apex of worrying?) Then, of course, you've got all the female guilt-mongering that the media engages in when it comes to everything, from body image to fertility to work/life balance. That certainly doesn't help.
“Fear doesn't keep the plane in the air,” said Lena Dunham, when I saw her speak at the Southbank Centre last year along with Caitlin Moran. “Of course, it doesn’t," I thought at the time. “Engines do. And engines can fail.” (A typical worrier's response.) Both Dunham and Moran have been admirably honest about their own personal struggles with anxiety, and such openness can go some way to reducing stigma and encouraging others to get help. I'll admit that I'm a bit embarrassed by my own confession – admitting that you're regularly preoccupied by neurotic fears of death doesn't exactly create a “cool girl” persona, unless you're marketing yourself as a female Woody Allen, which I'm not. But who cares? Sometimes, just recognising there is a problem makes a difference. Though I suspect I'll always live with anxiety, I do my very best to not let it spoil my fun.