This Mental Health Awareness Week we look at one person’s experience of what it is like to live with anxiety as a vegan and what they do to protect their mental health.
Trigger warning: mental health illness
Living with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a different experience for everyone. For me it is a bit like living in the mind of someone who is dreading an upcoming event; something worrying like a job interview, daunting like an exam, or upsetting like the funeral of a loved one. As well as a feeling of continuous anxiety, panic attacks that feel indistinguishable from heart attacks can hit out of the blue.
I wake up every morning, Monday to Sunday, with a jolt. My mind instantly begins to whirl as it tries to identify the source of the anxiety. Has someone died? Did I argue with a friend yesterday? Do I have an important presentation or a looming deadline? Once I have eliminated every possibility, I am faced with having to accept that this is just how I feel. There is no logical reason for it. The heart palpitations, tight chest and short breath are not going to stop, not in an hour, not by this evening, not by next week.
According to the NHS “people with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed.” Worrying is a useful and necessary process, but for people with GAD, worrying is unhelpful and uncontrollable. When you are undergoing therapy for GAD you might be asked to evaluate if your worry is practical. When you bring in veganism, a belief system which is not shared by many people, including the healthcare professionals who are treating you, you can encounter some challenges in getting the help you need.
For me veganism, or rather my reasons for being vegan, are just another worry to add to my infinite list. I know from speaking to other vegans, both with and without mental health problems, that I am not alone with this. Vegans live with a version of the world that is not shared by a majority of society. Representation of vegans in the media is often negative, leading to the polarisation of vegans and non-vegans. We do not have a shared rule book, place to gather or a leader to unite us. Yet despite this lack of community and support, we believe that we are living in a society that unnecessarily and violently kills 77 billion sentient, individual beings a year. This is a phenomenal weight to carry.
For me, this weight manifests in nightmares and intrusive thoughts. I have vivid dreams about what the horror of being slaughtered must be like from an animal’s perspective; I have intrusive thoughts about what kind of personality the pig had who is now in my friend’s bacon sandwich and what their death was like. I watch a housemate cook chicken and as the skin crisps I imagine that it is my own flesh.
Being vegan in a non-vegan world
For most of us, our friends and families are consuming the bodies of those sentient creatures as naturally and comfortably as we eat vegan food. For me, the cognitive dissonance that people who eat animals must maintain, is akin to the cognitive dissonance that vegans must sustain whilst knowing and loving these people. It is crippling.
Veganism is about compassion, and I believe it is crucial that this compassion extends to non-vegans too. Most people were not born vegan, so they can and should understand the perspective of non-vegans. I think this understanding is invaluable for those of us who find the truth of what is being done to animals unbearable. We should regularly remind ourselves that there is no such thing as a perfect vegan. Non-vegans do not believe that they are participating in a cruel system. If we don’t keep this at the forefront of our minds, we will become consumed with horror at the behaviour of others.
Believing that the people you love and respect are facilitating the deaths of animals who you also love and respect, is a hard reality to digest. That is why I think that it is vital to remember that sadly there are many other systems of oppression still being upheld and maintained today, and many non-vegans are engaged with fighting and challenging these. We as vegans may be particularly aware of one form of suffering, but we may be equally unaware of, and even complicit in another. This truth reassures and scares me. There are so many other causes to champion, so many other things that I could be doing better. Most systems of injustice overlap. Fast fashion contributes to the oppression of humans, animals, and the environment. But if we as individuals try to ensure our every action is an attempt to mitigate the effects of these systems, it can take a real strain on our mental health.
For someone with GAD the more we expose ourselves to learning about injustice and challenging our internal biases, the more we can start to feel paralysed by guilt, this can lead to a continuous negative thought chain. Here is an example:
“The production of animal products is accelerating the effects of the climate crisis.
Animal farming is contributing to water shortages.
I’ve just boiled enough water for two mugs of tea when I was only making one, therefore I have just added to the increasing threats of the climate crisis.
It’s all very well me having plant-based milk in my tea, but if more people don’t also switch to using dairy alternatives then the world as we know it is going to end.
This probably means I shouldn’t have children.
Does this teabag contain microplastics?
Oh god, I’ve just killed a whale.
By 2050 there is going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish.
I should be collecting all the unrecyclable plastic and finding a new use for it.
I need to only shop local and independent.
I should write to my MP.
What is the point in recycling if I’m going to get on an areoplane?
10,000 birds are killed by commercial flights each year.
Maybe I don’t deserve this cup of tea.”
Counselling can help you to understand why you feel what you feel. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to understand how your thoughts affect how you feel. Medication can dull your emotions or slow down your thumping heart. But there is no cure for the reality that millions of animals suffer needlessly at the hands of humans.
I have no medical training or qualifications in mental health illnesses so any advice I give in this section is based only on personal experience. However, I do believe that although we cannot just stop caring about animals, we can ensure that we also care for ourselves. Access to comprehensive mental health support is limited in the UK, and significant government funding is needed to change this; but this isn’t a reason not to make the most of the services that are available.
When seeking professional help there are a lot of different routes to explore, most begin with your GP. Remember that if you choose to use talking therapies, they should always be non-judgemental. Just because a therapist does not share your views that should not be a barrier to them helping you. The Counselling Directory, an online search tool, gives the options to filter for therapists who are ‘vegan allied.’
Therapists can help clients who hold philosophical or religious beliefs which they do not share. However, because veganism is less well understood than other belief systems, it is important that you get reassurance from your therapist that they understand and respect your belief. Otherwise, you may find that they try to challenge the belief, instead of your worries. It is a good idea to think about what is important to you and to raise this with a counsellor when you first meet them or before you choose them (if you get to choose). It is not your job to make your therapist comfortable, so it is best to be upfront about your views early on. Something clear and simple like ‘I believe that it is wrong to kill animals’ should be sufficient for a good therapist to be able to understand and accept your perspective without challenging you on it.
The NHS website explains that “GAD is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.” This means that when looking for professional help you aren’t just looking for a therapist that understands veganism.
A balanced perspective
When anxiety has you in its clutches, it is easy to think that you will never think or feel differently. But the human brain has a remarkable ability to change and adapt, and with the right support it is absolutely possible to continue being a dedicated vegan without having intrusive thoughts and obsessive worries about animal cruelty. History is filled with the suffering of human and non-human animals alike, but it is our choice as to how much we allow this reality to affect our quality of life.
Taking back control is possible. It is also a good idea to surround yourself with a positive narrative so that you can maintain some balance in your perspective. Follow accounts on social media that only post images of happy and safe animals, adopt a companion animal if you can, and put your energy in to giving them a secure and peaceful life. You can also continue to support The Vegan Society, safe in the knowledge that they will continue to advocate for the rights of non-human animals on your behalf.
By Volunteering and Engagement Officer, Kaya Gromocki