When planning my series of blog posts, it struck me that anxiety is something I have never really openly discussed before. I haven’t avoided doing so as my diagnosis is something I often mention, but only that – a diagnosis, a label or maybe the odd mention of a panic attack. But never before have I really expressed anxiety in a sense of how anxiety makes me feel or affects my day to day living.
Today, that will change.
Of all the mental illnesses I have suffered with over the past 8ish years, although a comparatively ‘new’ experience, I honestly believe that it is the most debilitating illness of all. My own experience with this illness over the past three years has appeared to evolve in a cyclical manner, with each spiral of fear and anxiety becoming continuously more and more intense.
My anxiety developed very gradually. At 11 or 12 years old when my mental health first began to decline with eating behaviours manifesting and symptoms of depression showing, anxiety would not ever have even been in the question. I was always a confident, bold and courageous child with this evident through my determination to reach the top of the climbing frame, playing the star role in every drama production, performing solos in music concerts or simply being the centre of a large group of school friends. I barely even felt nerves before performing in a production or concert, let alone showed a single symptom of what would in a few years become a crippling anxiety and then panic disorder.
I guess you could say my first symptoms of anxiety were those revolving around food, so breaking the boundary to whether or not these were a disorder of their own or simply an element of my eating disorder becomes a blurred line. For example, becoming quickly incapable of eating in public through the fear of being judged or being seen in a lunch queue could easily be part of either illness. Such symptoms however did begin to spread through various aspects of my life leading me to cancel plans of going out with friends at last minute through the fear of being surrounded by too many people or losing my confidence to raise my hand in class in case of providing the wrong answer and being mocked by classmates, but still, I wouldn’t have said they changed my life in a dramatic way. That is, until I became an inpatient after which I do to some extent feel that a prolonged process of institutionalisation over nearly seven months sent those slight anxious tendencies into brute force.
I remember the first time I truly suffered from symptoms which would meet criteria for an anxiety disorder in their own right on a day trip from the hospital grounds. It was a sunny, summer Sunday and staff took those patients of lowest current risk on a day out to a local beach. Having been unable to leave the ward for more than just a walk round hospital grounds or to a pub at the other end of the road with my parents, being out in an open space really, really unnerved me. The day trip in fact turned out to be counterproductive as I spent the entire afternoon panicking. I couldn’t even really pinpoint what was making me feel anxious. All I knew was that my heart was racing, my body sweating and my stomach threatening to empty itself at any given moment.
To me, anxiety feels captivating; it is my commander and I am it’s slave. Anxiety may not always be present but when it is, I am imprisoned by it’s spell. I have often heard people describe sleep terrors whereby they are screaming in their sleep, but feeling suffocated and trapped from moving. That is how anxiety feels. Except you are fully conscious and know that nothing is physically holding you back. You won’t just wake up and the terror will be over; instead you have no choice but to ride it out because in that moment you have absolutely no control. You know that logically you can move and everything is okay but that anxious part of your brain convinces you otherwise. A million thoughts race through your head of all the negative things which could possibly happen. You feel trapped and overwhelmed, like your life is a cave and anxiety is everything around you collapsing, each aspect of your life an independent rocks, crushing you further and further until completely buried alive.
After years of extremely gradual building up of anxiousness, my anxiety worsened very quickly. By the time I was discharged from inpatient at a healthy weight and free from current self harm or suicidal behaviours, although in most senses much more mentally healthy, I was in fact an anxious wreck. Returning to school I began to experience panic attacks. I cannot even begin to express how awful panic attacks can be. The panic attack is that ‘buried alive’ moment where your anxiety has reached it’s peak and has no way of relieving itself without a full blown attack.
Panic attacks are entirely different for each individual and this is a really important fact. Therefore my experience as I am about to depict is simply that, my experience.
My panic attacks can be as a result of a trigger or sometimes the result of no trigger at all but a switch in my mind that decides I am going to have an attack. In the space of my own room, in a familiar home or friend environment or in public surrounded by strangers, my panic attacks do not discriminate. They can build up gradually beginning with maybe just a raised body temperature and clammy palms, leading to constant movements of my head trying to absorb every piece of information of my surroundings from where people are or what they may be doing, to a shortness of breath, followed by intensified loud noises – a whisper across the table feels like a threatening voice bellowing directly into my ear or a closing door like an exploding bomb – to increasingly irritability, and then a heart which feels like it will escape through my chest as it beats so violently and eventually, hyperventilation to a degree where if left uncontrolled can lead to a total loss of consciousness. If I must prefer one at all, I prefer a panic attack which builds up in this manner because it means I have warning.
I can sense the early signs of the attack like the warmth of my body or easy distraction by what may be going on around me and can thus remove myself from the situation I am in before the attack exacerbates further. It may give me the opportunity to ground myself and stop the attack altogether or simply enable me to follow the attack through in privacy. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. 50% of the time the attacks consume me without any warning at all with all symptoms developing in a matter of seconds. These are the most humiliating and most intense panic attacks I experience as they usually end up manifesting themselves in public such as during a lecture, in a supermarket, on a bus or at work and last significantly longer as the audience only causes me to panic further.
It is within this past year whilst at university that I have experienced anxiety and panic attacks more paralysing than ever before with these attacks occurring so frequently in around November time that they warranted a diagnosis of panic disorder instead of the previous diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). My attacks were occurring up to seven or eight times a day, preventing me from building strong relationships with my peers as I struggled so much with socialising, preventing me from attending lectures after experiencing numerous attacks in a sea of hundreds of students, and ultimately completely draining me as having a panic attack uses so much of your physical energy. By Easter, my anxiety and panic disorder were so severe that I spent an entire week locked in my room, so consumed by fear at even the thought of going outside in case I experienced another attack in public. The list of triggers for an attack became endless – confined spaces, open spaces, large groups of people, public transport, speaking in front of people (not even strangers, even people I know quite well), presentations, simply being in a situation where I can’t leave urgently if I have to, loud noises, a knock on my door…
I have personally found that many people ignorant to how anxiety actually feels often describe anxiety as being that ‘cute’, ‘shy’ girl who nervously giggles from time to time and this annoys me greatly. Anxiety is not cute, nor is it just being a bit shy. What it also isn’t, is normal pre-exam nerves. It is debilitating and humiliating and it takes over your entire life. Anxiety isn’t something you can just switch on and off whenever suits you. In fact it usually develops in the most inappropriate of situations.
One of the symptoms of my anxiety disorder which I despise the most is an entirely physical symptom. As my anxiety grows or during a panic attack, I begin to scratch at my hands unconsciously. I have no awareness of what I am doing until I have scratched sufficiently enough for me to be brought to consciousness by fingernails dripping with blood. This scratching doesn’t just look temporarily unattractive, the scratches scar and because of their location, are extremely prone to infection. My hand is a constant reminder of the times I am consumed by my anxiety.
This lack of awareness I experience during high levels of anxiety or a panic attack can also leave me in vulnerable and potentially dangerous situations. With my body in full fight or flight mode I have been known to react in full ‘flight’, physically running away from the situation causing me the anxiety which can be an issue without an awareness of where I am going. Most notably, on my second night of university in an entirely novel town 300 miles away from home I experienced a particularly severe attack following an attempt to audition for a college musical (the audition lasted no longer than 5 seconds before I made a run for it). This attack lasted approximately 90 minutes whilst most only last for a maximum of 20 and thus when I eventually managed to ground myself, I had no idea of my whereabouts. I was standing in the middle of a dual carriageway with absolutely zero recollection of how I had got there. Not even which direction I had come from. My friends from my accommodation were absolutely lovely in attempting to find me but luckily not long after a police car happened to pass me and drove me back to my accommodation. As it turned out, I had ran in a massive circle and as a result wasn’t far out at all, but in the moment it was terrifying. This incident was not in isolation as on other occasions I have ended up in other places such as different towns altogether or even railway stations.
Is anxiety still cute? Endearing huh? Not in the slightest.
But what anxiety is, is manageable. It takes tools, perseverance and more than anything, courage but it is 100% possible to take back the control which anxiety and panic strips you of because after all, choosing to recover is also choosing to live, not just survive.
Whilst knowledge of yourself is critical for each individual, I would like to share some of my own personal tips which have been helping me to better manage my own anxiety and to ground myself in times of attack.
– For those who also find themselves scratching or picking at their skin during a panic attack, I have found that participating in activities which keep my hands busy as soon as I feel anxiety beginning to rise (for example knitting, crocheting or colouring) prevents me from causing any unintentional physical harm
– Something I have actually learned through my mum is breathing on my finger tips when I begin to hyperventilate. Not only does this help to stabilise my breathing patterns, whilst hyperventilating you can often lose sensation in your extremities so breathing on the finger tips can in fact create a tingling sensation which can encourage grounding
– Listening to music. It may take different music genres to find one which suits you but for some reason, Marina and the diamonds is my ultimate go to and the one type of music which is able to calm me down during a panic attack. It must be through headphones
– Getting my breathing back on track is much easier if I am alongside somebody who can breathe with me. When hyperventilating I can sometimes think I am breathing at a regular pace so watching somebody else deep breathe next to me can help me to find that normal, healthy pace. If you don’t have anybody with you, I know there are GIF’s online specifically designed to move at a pace of deep breathing
– Making lists of things around me. As anxiety and fear tend to be linked to the future and things which may be about to happen, I try to list five things I can see, hear, smell and touch to bring me back to the present
– Fizzy drinks. A support officer at my university taught me that drinking fizzy drinks can help with the physical symptoms of anxiety or panic (hyperventilation, chest pain, racing heart) so I try to keep a can of something fizzy with me at all times
– Preparing for an attack – this doesn’t mean fearing the worst, but just having some plans in place to help reduce that anxiety in the first place. For me this includes things like making sure I sit in the seat nearest to the door when I walk into a classroom/lecture theatre, speaking to those running my course to ensure any presentations required for my course are not expected to be completed in front of students but only members of staff I am comfortable around or making tutors aware so that I am not expected to speak in tutorials or work in large groups, taking headphones/fizzy drinks wherever I go. Planning for anxiety makes it more manageable when the worst strikes.
I am aware that once again I have struggled to write this post concisely, but as I do come to an end I am going to share with you a little piece a friend of mine who suffers with perhaps the worst anxiety of most people I know wrote for me a few weeks ago, when I first began preparing for this post. It is so well written and I think expresses the real crippling effect of anxiety in such a heart felt way, and this is why I believe it is important to share with you:
“Anxiety has been a part of my life since around Year 3/4. In the past few years it has developed so much it can be paralysing. It has ripped my dreams to shreds and it has flipped my life upside down. It feels like someone is both strangling me and punching me really hard in the stomach at the same time. Sometimes it isn’t too bad and is limited to just feeling nervous and on edge and sometimes I feel so panicked I’m thinking 300 different conflicting thoughts in one go and I’m trying to cope and sort my thoughts out but I have to go to school or work and I can’t be late because they won’t take ‘anxiety attack’ as a valid reason for being late but I can’t function right now and all I want to do is run away but where do I run to and how do I even run I can’t even fucking move I am so scared so I just collapse and cry and hyperventilate and cry and choke and cry and wonder if this is will ever end or if it is the end for me right now.If you tell me you know how I feel and then you follow that up with ‘just stop worrying’ then you need to get the fuck out. I know I don’t have anything to be worried about, I know it could be worse, I know it’s all in my fucking head but that is the problem you dicks. You try fixing your unwell mind, using your unwell mind.It isn’t glamorous. It isn’t a choice. Battling it isn’t a matter of me just ‘doing the thing’. It is very difficult to control and it is a real problem. I’m not a ‘drama queen’, nor am I ‘attention seeking’. Anxiety is a mental health issue I face and as draining and crippling as it is, I will not blame myself for it and I will not give up on myself because self-love ygm.”
Once again I remind you of the skydive I will be completing in less than two weeks. By donating to this cause, you are effectively helping people like me who suffer from anxiety as Mind offers a particularly large support network for this particular illness. From online information and self help guides to the Mind InfoLine and most significantly, to the course of talking therapies they provide. In my local area alone, I know that my local Mind branch offers a course called “managing anxiety” – a six week course which runs multiple times a year. Although not having participated in it myself, the great thing about such opportunities is that Mind allows you to self refer and reviews on them are amazing. But these courses and treatments cannot run without funding and this funding is sourced directly from charitable donations.
Thank you for reading x x x