The spectrum of anxiety is diverse. It’s difficult to explain the impact that anxiety can have on someone’s life. It can strike at any time: Birthdays, work meetings, job interviews, first dates, funerals and wedding days. It’s unpredictable and can instil a consistent feeling of trepidation for someone wondering when, or if, an episode will occur.
Learning about a person’s experience with mental health is the most personal way to empathise with someone about what it’s like to live with an anxiety disorder and the challenges that come with it. I met Matt Curnow, the creator of Mind the Noise, to gain a greater perspective on dissociation within an anxiety disorder. Mind the Noise is a mental health awareness Facebook group that has grown around Matt’s candidness of his experiences with anxiety and how it has changed over his life.
Caption: Matt Curnow and Stuie Steele at a Talk Out Loud event in April.
So what is dissociation? Psychologically speaking, dissociation is the experience of detaching emotionally from your physical environment without the loss of consciousness. I spoke to Kate Henderson, founder of The Panic Room SA, for a clinical perspective and she explained: “The two most common forms of dissociation are depersonalisation and derealisation; which gives a sense of ‘unreality’ of what is going on around you.”
I asked Kate how some people get to a point where their brains dissociate: “There can be many different triggers. Some of these can be responding to a physical symptom, it could be linked to a childhood trauma, or it can be tied to an event. When people are triggered by physical stimuli, a memory or overwhelming emotions and don’t know how to control those emotions, they enter a dissociative state.”
Matt’s first experience with dissociation occurred when he was 17. He remembers being with friends, skating and smoking weed and later that evening he experienced what he describes as ‘an out of body experience’. “I just thought I was high,” he said, “but it kept happening even when I hadn’t been smoking. I was never fearful, I didn’t freak out, but I just didn’t really know what was happening.” It wasn’t long before Matt knew that his reactions were very different from those around him. The episodes tended to be short lived but he had no real concept of how long they lasted as it always varied. As time went on the effects Matt felt during an episode increased. Matt experienced paranoia, which lead to self-harm and a suicide attempt. “I was very numb, I didn’t know where I was and I was dissociated.” Despite struggling to find the words, Matt describes the feeling as, “I know that I’m me, I’m conscious, I can talk to you, but nothing was in focus.”
Image: Luna Godfrey Instagram: @lunagodfrey
For Matt, a key trigger was the smell of marijuana. “Even after I stopped smoking it, if I was at a festival and could smell it, my mind would go into overdrive. I’d have this sense of panic and before I could do anything I felt myself separating out (mentally). I remember one time, I was walking past a bus stop, and this was years and years later, and I got a faint sense of the smell of marijuana from the guys sitting there. It took every bit of strength I had not to stop in the street and start panicking because I felt I wasn’t able to control what was going to happen to me.”
How can we support someone who experiences dissociation within anxiety? One of the key elements is trying to understand what they experience during these episodes and what the best way to keep them safe is. While dissociation is unique to each individual, the nature of the dissociation can lead to emotions of sadness, anger, social withdraw, violence, self-harming and suicide attempts. In fact, an individual can be so deep in their dissociation that they may have no memory of the episode itself until they become aware that a significant period of time has passed.
How do we manage dissociation or anxiety and depression in ourselves and others? Firstly, I highly recommend looking into a clinical form of support. Consult with your GP, work on a mental health support plan and find a counsellor or clinical psychologist who has experience in dissociation. Secondly, practicing mindfulness techniques and finding something positive that allows you to burn the excess energy and adrenaline that anxiety creates. For Matt, this is running. And by running, I mean he runs a lot. When I spoke to Matt he was preparing for a 100km ultra marathon in the Flinders Ranges. Running is cathartic for Matt, it’s his release, his time with his thoughts, and his way of strengthening his resolve by pushing through both physical and mental pain barriers. Of course, running isn’t everyone’s idea of stress release. It can be anything that helps to calm you and that you enjoy, such as: yoga, cycling, reading, study, martial arts, film, gaming, and art.
Image: Luna Godfrey Instagram: @lunagodfrey
Matt Curnow is inspiring. He speaks with passion and openly shares his personal experiences. His Facebook group now has over 2000 followers and he has created a community that encourages open dialogue on mental health. The site provides a platform for members to share their own mental health experiences in a non-judgemental space. The online community also acts as a way of providing support for a group of like-minded individuals that ‘get it’.
On May 20, Mind the Noise is hosting a Mental Health Awareness Walk at Kuitpo Forest. It’s a 3km stroll through one of Adelaide’s most beautiful landscapes and Matt is expecting up to 200 people to attend. I’d encourage you to get along to this event, not just for your own wellbeing, but to be part of a community standing up against the stigma of mental health, and normalising an issue that has been neglected for far too long.
MAA would like to thank:
Matt Curnow from Mind the Noise www.facebook.com/MindTheNoise1
Kate Henderson from The Panic Room for her clinical perspectives www.thepanicroomsa.com
Adelaide artist Luna Godfrey for her impressions of dissociation