Anxiety and depression, the terrible twins: what they are and how to spot them

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 27/11/2019

Paying attention to your mental health

By the time I worked it out, it was too late. It took about six months, but by the time depression descended on me, there was no going back. Even now, feeling better about life, I look back on that time in horror – horror at the place I went to mentally, and horror at what I put my family through.

Two things are clear to me now. Firstly, although humans are remarkable, our brains are faulty in the sense that unless we pay attention to them, there will be payback in terms of mental health. Secondly, notwithstanding this, our current educational context makes teachers extremely vulnerable to mental health issues.

The way I see it, anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin – one fuels the other. Once you get your head around that relationship, you can begin to understand and be wary about the warning signs. Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism designed to help us stay out of danger; the only problem is that problems we now perceive in the modern day are of a different nature to those we evolved to survive.

The physiological consequences for too much anxiety and stress are long term. Over a long period of time, too much of it leads us to feel differently about the world, and there is an evolutionary basis for depression too.

During the six months I allude to above, on reflection, there were some fairly recognisable symptoms. And when I map it onto the types of things one might do to keep going and survive, I did something foolish: I turned from a human being into a human doing. In other words, I chased the tick-list. I chased the completion of tasks. I chased getting to the end of a workload that was an impossibility.

How I became a human doing

How did this manifest at home? Anything related to being a human became an inconvenience. I stopped watching my nutrition. I stopped talking with my wife. And I stopped spending time with my family. When my little boy cried in the night, my stomach would lurch and send me into a panic because I’d be terrified of not getting my work done the next day. The thought of spending time with my family became terrifying, not an escape or a welcome distraction. There was simply no escape from my newly crafted mental hell.

All the while, I ramped up the pressure on myself to keep on top of the fight I’d never win. My sleep deteriorated – I’d wake up during the night five or six times to check my ‘to do’ list. Slowly, cracks appeared at work, and I couldn’t keep up. An email could send my heart racing, or a student falling behind would induce me to a breathless panic. Effectively, my brain lost the ability to truly distinguish between credible threats and the things less worth panicking about.

The key? Sweat the small stuff. Notice your emotions, their triggers, and what you can put in place to alleviate the strains.

Download the resource 10 golden rules of mental health wellbeing for ten actions you can put in place right now.

Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons is a Head of English and author of The Compassionate Teacher (@andy_samm).