• Could naming your mental health issues make you better? (Flickr/Katia Romanova)Source: Flickr/Katia Romanova
Carolyn Tate decided to give her anxiety a name, and in the process stumbled upon a way to feel a whole lot better.
Carolyn Tate

3 Feb 2017 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 12 Aug 2020 - 10:52 AM

I’ve lived with clinical anxiety most of my life, and it’s something that has permeated every aspect of the way I live: my relationships, my career, my social life. I’m the one you see at parties standing firmly near the snack table so I have something to do – that’s if I turn up at all.

But I'm not alone. One in seven Australians has had some kind of anxiety disorder just in the past 12 months. Alarmingly, rates of psychological distress among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are double that of non-Indigenous Australians. And about three per cent of the population has the pleasure of sharing what I have: Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

If we had met back then, you probably wouldn’t have had any idea this was all going on inside my brain. I was (and still am) boringly normal on the outside, for the most part.

Basically, GAD makes me feel worried or anxious most of the time. It’s not about anything sensible like the current international political climate, interest rates or my young daughter’s love for shoving small objects up her nose. It’s just a general feeling of worry about all manner of things, and it interferes with my everyday life - but not nearly as much as it used to.

I’d been living with GAD most of my life, before I got a handle on it a few years ago. If we had met back then, you probably wouldn’t have had any idea this was all going on inside my brain. I was (and still am) boringly normal on the outside, for the most part.

But anxiety used to affect me every single day. It stopped me going to parties and job interviews, and it stopped me from talking to anyone but my mother on the phone. Hell, some days it stopped me going to the corner shop to buy milk.

A few years ago, I learned a trick that changed my relationship with my anxiety and created a buffer between my mind and what can sometimes be a debilitating condition. It was life changing.

I gave my anxiety a name.

Clive. ‘Clive the Anxiety Monster’.

I wasn’t even looking to achieve anything in particular, except trying to make light of my crippling inability to operate as a normal member of society so my friends wouldn’t feel uncomfortable and stop coming around.

But a funny thing happened. I started feeling more comfortable as well. Giving him a name may seem silly, but I had accidentally stumbled onto a technique called cognitive defusion.

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Dr Sasha Lynn, a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland, explains cognitive defusion way better than I can. “Cognitive defusion is the practice of taking the heat out of a serious concern,” she says. “It could be a ruminative thought, persistent emotional issues or mental health struggles. The aim of defusion is literally that - to defuse the situation, allowing someone the chance to step back and observe it for what it is.”

Dr Lynn says the premise of creating an alias for an issue can be very useful.

“Naming your anxiety Clive has allowed you to externalise the issue, rather than be the issue.”

So basically, rather than being anxious, Clive has allowed me to recognise that I have anxiety and that anxiety is separate from me. It has helped me divorce myself from a situation that was overwhelming and consuming, and allows me to see that there is a me with and without anxiety.

“Naming your anxiety Clive has allowed you to externalise the issue, rather than be the issue.” 

It’s given me enough power to take a stand and show Clive who’s boss.

So now Clive and I have an arrangement. He knows his place. I know he’s there and I don’t battle with him anymore, and he agrees to leave the everyday thinking to me. The stuff that means I am confident in myself, that I can buy milk from the corner shop, meet new people and take the occasional phone call – all without doubting who I am and what I am capable of.

I wear the pants, Clive, not you.

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