A few months ago, a short, satirical piece was published in The Sunday Times, titled: ‘24 Hours with a Beauty Blogger’. An easy shot. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve seen written by journalists (read: educated and legitimate writers), targeting the work of bloggers (read: vacuous twenty-somethings, lacking the credentials to voice a legitimate opinion). The tone was ever the same – a passive aggressive account of a blogger’s contrived attempts to get likes, laughs and adulation from her Instagram followers. No doubt the article was an easy win for an established journalist, writing in a broadsheet to an audience who I presume were not ardent Zoella fans.
Whilst the piece wasn’t hugely offensive, there was one aspect that stuck in my throat. Throughout the article, references were made to the fact that this fictional blogger felt anxious. She also mentions being trolled and feeling vulnerable – something she might make a vlog about. The journalist was referencing something I’ve seen an increasing amount of – the teasing of those bloggers who have spoken about, or have referenced, their battles with anxiety. One tweet I saw last year, glibly remarked that in order to be a blogger, you had to have anxiety. An added bonus if you could throw depression in too.
Apparently anxiety was no longer a recognised mental health condition, but a badge of honour; something to be appropriated by the blogging community as a hallmark of a real ‘influencer’. Their worries and panic attacks made them special, relatable and ultimately, authentic.
I’ve watched this storyline play out across social media with feelings of both anger and agreement. Anger because, and wait for it – I too have suffered with anxiety (what a cliché) – and agreement because yes, many bloggers do seem to suffer from it. Huge amounts, in fact. When I googled ‘anxiety blogs’, it returned over 12 million search results. Perhaps there is something to be said for an anxiety crisis amongst the blogging community.
Before we go into the ins and outs of why this might be (aside from the obvious factors of shrinking economies; our inability to get on the property ladder; the realisation that we won’t retire until we’re over 90; the growing threat of terrorism and what’s going on state-side), one thing should be said: anxiety is not to be scoffed at, soft-peddled or belittled. At its worst, it is humiliating, incredibly distressing and enormously unsettling. One thing that I’ve certainly objected to is anyone who has used the term glibly, casually or as a way to gain a sympathetic following. Whilst normalising any mental health condition is great – normalising it to the extent that it becomes a bizarre accessory or PR plug, is not so great.
I’ve spoken before about suffering with anxiety, and how travel particularly has helped me. The first time it reared its ugly head was when I was 22. Fresh out of university and a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I had a clear idea of how my life would go. It involved a good career in London and that enviable London lifestyle. Whilst I got the job and the flat, not everything went to plan. I struggled to make London my home. Fast-forward to an ill-fated trip to Topshop and the stress of change came to a head. Carefully examining a dress, I suddenly had the bizarre sensation that I was no longer in Topshop: but watching the whole scene play out via a television screen. My heart started to thud, adrenaline flooded my body and I couldn’t catch my breath. Physical symptoms aside, I also felt terrified. I wobbled frantically down the stairs, trying to make my legs work – looking like I’d either drunk too much or had an unfortunate accident – and managed to get to my car, where I sat shaking (embarrassingly, I’d also walked out the store with the dress in my hand. Disclaimer: I did return it).
After a summer of CBT, however, and I was coping well, again. I tried to not give panic attacks the attention they demanded (a bit like a spoilt child), and they faded. However, a few years and one bad relationship later, my anxiety was back – but this time in a new guise. The Artist Formally Known As Panic Attacks was now delighted to announce its return through patterns of unhelpful, worrying and irrational thoughts. Life became a blur of miserable days, marked by incessant worry. I remember driving home knowing that although there was nothing wrong with my life, I felt like I couldn’t get my head above the clouds of worry to see it. A tearful appointment with my doctor followed and I was prescribed anti-depressants to help.
Now, a word of warning to whoever not only jokes about anxiety, but jokes about people who take anti-depressants for it: please don’t. When given that packet of pills, you’re helpfully informed that things ‘might get worse’ for a while, until they start to work. Such great news! A few days in and I felt crazy. I’d wake up at 4am, feeling sick with anxiety and not be able to eat. My weight dropped to under 7 stone and I spent much of my days wishing I was my cat, who seemed to be enjoying life more than I was. The whole thing was humiliating and meant I couldn’t even visit Tesco without a family member accompanying me.
The high point of this miserable period was when I eventually decided to call a helpline, who claimed to help anxious people. After nervously listening to the phone ring out, a lady from Leeds answered. Before I had a chance to talk, she had a dramatic coughing fit, before telling me that she’d just quit the ‘ciggies’ and I’d have to excuse her. She sounded like an extremely ill drag queen. I began to tell her how I felt, probably muttering about how happy the cat was, when she stopped me and asked had I tried some deep breathing? Or lavender oil? I’m no medical professional, but given that I was so anxious I couldn’t eat and had begun to idealise the life choices of my cat, I think I was long-passed the benefits of deep breathing and aromatherapy oils.
I hung up.
I had one more encounter with anxiety, a few years later. After a stressful few months I headed to Paris, where I suddenly became incapable of leaving the hotel without panicking. Again, I barely ate and slept, and googled the possibility of being air-lifted home. However, equipped with the knowledge of how to deal with anxiety, it didn’t take a strong a hold. I had weaned off the anti-depressants and had made sure that exercise, healthy eating and the ending of a bad relationship, meant that I was managing it well. Since then I’ve been OK – good – happy, even. Of course, it may come back, but I have a much better understanding of it and an improved perspective.
So, my sob story aside, I fully sympathise with those bloggers who do, and are, genuinely suffering with anxiety. I take my hat off to anyone who is honest about it and willing to let others know that it’s something that can be overcome. It’s important to share these things and to support those who previously felt alone (or in my case, forced to confide in a drag queen from Leeds).
But why, then, are so many of us ‘bloggers’ anxiety sufferers? Initially, the answer seems obvious. There are daily headlines about the detrimental impact that social media has on our mental health. Since 2015, reports have documented the rise of anxiety and depression amongst millennials and regular social media users. Our feelings of self-worth have decreased as the number of our tweets, Instagram posts and snapchats have increased. A study from the University of Pittsburgh found that those who checked social media most frequently were 2.7 more likely to be depressed, while participants who spent the most time online had 1.7 times the risk. It would seem obvious that bloggers – individuals whose lives and often livelihoods are dependent on the trappings of social media – are therefore most likely to experience its wrath. I’m sure we all remember the case of Essena O’Neill, who dramatically quit all social media due to the stress, pressure and anxiety it brought her.
I’ve absolutely experienced the negative consequences of social media. Whilst on a ‘bloggers’ trip to Mallorca last year, we were tasked with ‘creating content’ whilst out to sea on a beautiful boat. All we had to do was play in the water and paddle athletically on SUP boards. It didn’t take long for insecurities to set in. Around me were dozens of gorgeous girls diving effortlessly into the sea; taking shots of themselves in challenging yoga poses on their SUP boards; and flicking their hair back as they left the water. They looked like Bond girls. In comparison, all I had was a collection of disastrous photos of my attempts to dive and efforts to swim underwater. Rather than looking like an ethereal mermaid, I look like a Beluga whale – shining white and brightly in the murk – bloated and bobbing close to the surface. I felt inadequate and immediately wanted to go home to see my cat (whose life I still admired).
However, whilst the negative consequences of social media are undoubtedly true, I doubt that it accounts entirely for why so many bloggers experience anxiety. So, let’s instead turn the argument on its head. Rather than falling victim to their own blogs, or social media accounts, are bloggers in fact using these platforms to help overcome their anxiety? Blogging isn’t the cause of their ‘illness’, but their cure.
This has certainly always been the case for me. My blog and Instagram account have always provided me with a fantastic, positive and constructive distraction from my personal woes. Rather than sitting and mulling over concerns or worries, I can instead focus my mind on writing; on photography; or simply reading the adventures of others. If there’s one thing that anxiety sufferers know: distraction is key. Whilst journalists may scoff, creating and maintaining a blog takes an incredible amount of work – requiring you to stay driven in order to create new content. From experience, this has provided me with a fantastic distraction and a cause in which to invest my energies, rather than becoming caught up in the endless cycle of anxiety. Blogging also gave me confidence: anxiety’s worst enemy. I remember seeing my therapist during a difficult time and she asked me who I’d like to be. I described a girl who was confident in her own skin, willing to take on new adventures and explore the world. As it was fairly evident at the time that that wasn’t me (my Mum had driven me to my appointment), she asked why didn’t I then adopt that personality for a while, even if I didn’t necessarily believe it deep down?
‘Fake it till you make it’, she told me with a smile, ‘and the rest will follow’.
Whilst I don’t suggest you should necessarily promote an entirely fake alter-ego on your blog, Twins That Travel allowed me to focus on being the person I wanted to become: the person who could travel without anxiety, enjoy the world and feel confident. And, lo and behold, as more and more people read and liked our articles and photography, so I became more confident: beginning to feel like the real deal, rather than an anxious fraud.
Lastly, with anxiety comes the inevitable shrinking of the parameters within which you live your life. I went from someone who lived and worked in London, to someone who didn’t venture far from my family home. I could have got a compass out and drawn a 5 mile radius around my house, to highlight my boundaries. However, part of overcoming anxiety is to challenge these ever-reducing parameters; ensuring you’re experiencing new sights, new experiences and new people. Exposure, in this case, would be the therapist’s choice word. Slowly, as our blog grew and we began to travel more and attend events, my exposure to new things increased. In Orlando a few weeks ago, I was watching the sunset from my hotel room and thought back to when my life was contained within my lounge. I could have never imagined that I would have made it confidently, safely and successfully to Florida. Yet, here I was – alive, well and happy. I have no doubt that it was my blog that had got me there, not just literally, but mentally – helping me on my way to becoming the confident girl that my therapist told me to pretend to be.
When reflecting on why so many bloggers seem cursed by anxiety or depression, I wonder if we have a classic case of the chicken or the egg. It’s regularly been assumed that bloggers are the victims of their own success: reduced to anxious and vulnerable messes by the social media world that they’ve created. I’m not sure I agree. Whilst I have no doubt that social media has a lot to answer for and can have an undeniably negative effect if not managed well, it is also a cause for good: a tool that’s enabled bloggers, like myself, to overcome anxiety and grow in confidence. My blog didn’t come first and my anxiety second: quite the opposite. I wonder if this is the case for many others out there.
I am a blogger who has anxiety, but I certainly hope that doesn’t make me the cliché described in the Sunday Times article. I’m also a blogger who overcame anxiety with the help of my blog – a story that is rarely written about, but one I’m sure is shared by many an anxious blogger out there. I don’t believe that I have to have anxiety to be a blogger (contrary to those ridiculous tweets), but I do feel that much of my blog – its creation and the work I’ve put into it – has been down to my anxiety and my determination to kick its butt.
How’s that for a silver lining?