14 May Mental Health Awareness Week Series: My Journey With… Anxiety
Fuck me, let’s get on the anxiety train, shall we?
In case you don’t know, this is the last train home that you rush to get on and the second you’re on the packed carriage, it goes from zero to out-of-control in less than 20 seconds and you wish you’d never got on.
I was 21 when I had my first panic attack.
I really knew how to pick ‘em in my uni days and I ended up coming out of a pretty shitty relationship that I didn’t realise until afterwards coincided with the start of my panic attacks. Even after it was over they stuck around, and I remember two years later one of the worst attacks ended up with me nearly passing out because I was hyperventilating so badly.
But even over the years when I stopped having quite so many, I still had this anxiety that seemed to keep coming up. It just wasn’t as easy as I thought to just shake it off and move on (no Taylor Swift references, please, this is a Real Country Music household).
I didn’t feel very resilient.
Which, when you already feel anxious and realise that, makes you feel even worse. To be honest, I just felt pathetic. Which is ridiculous because feeling anxious has no bearing on who I am or what I’m like as a person – I can still be a good friend, sister, person and feel anxious sometimes – but try telling that to your anxiety.
I remember my summer temp job at uni where I’d gone in my first week to find that no one was particularly friendly and they sat me down at a desk to just ring a bunch of numbers and I discovered I had some kind of aversion to ringing a bunch of complete strangers on the phone. I had such a bad panic attack that I ended up in front of a doctor who told me (super helpfully) that I obviously just didn’t want to work and that I should read a self-help book.
So, you know, when you’re already feeling like a total loser who can’t handle day to day life, when your GP tells you to buck your ideas up, it weirdly doesn’t magically fix it.
After a while, I just got used to it.
I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t feel anxious or worry on the reg, and even though I’d still wake up in the midst of a panic attack now and then, it felt manageable. It was like that friend of a friend that you don’t really like or get on with and everything they say kind of annoys you, but they’re just there every time you hang out and you’ve got somewhat used to them, so you tolerate them.
My least favourite part was always the pounding heart and palpitations – my chest felt so uncomfortable, it’s like I could feel my heart moving around and it was trying to kick my ribcage in. AGH, I feel weird just thinking about it. I couldn’t breathe properly. I’d get the shakes and sometimes hyperventilate so hard that my hands, feet (and nose, weirdly) would get pins and needles and I’d usually be pretty light-headed. I’d end up dizzy, sweating, and all over the place.
It was such a sexy look.
I remember the first time I spoke to my counsellor, and she had this really stereotypical soft soothing voice – it made me feel a little bit like a child but (full disclosure here) I was actually kind of okay with that. Let’s be honest, if we all treated ourselves like upset children who just needed a little love, we’d probably be in much better mental health most days.
Going from all-or-nothing, the-world-is-ending, mountains-out-of-molehills, criticising-yourself thinking to just being… I dunno, normal? (whatever that is) isn’t always easy. It’s actually only as I look back that I realise so much of that thinking was just my brain trying to protect me from anything bad happening to me again (I mean, jeez, after one incident I couldn’t get on a train alone without a meltdown for years, now I’m back and forth to London most weeks).
It was kind of it to protect me but it’s the cobra effect in motion – the solution only made the problem worse. My mantra, which I haven’t used in a while but it probably wouldn’t hurt to crack it out now and again, was… it’ll be okay. Everything is going to be alright.
It’s hard work to convince an anxious brain that, actually, everything is going to be okay. And even when it’s actually really not okay… it’ll all still be alright in the end. But the truth is, it will be. No matter what, it will be okay – even when it’s hard to believe, it’s still true.
And in case you’re wondering… it will be okay.
What’s the best way to beat a panic attack?
- Sit down before you pass out, you monkey.
- Relax your muscles as much as you can.
- Take each breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, and just make it a little longer each time. Breathe as low down as you can.
- It helps to have someone with you – they can remind you it will pass and you’ll be okay. Either that or you can keep a reminder on a note or your phone that you can write out – put down short phrases that will remind you that nothing bad is happening and it will be over soon.
- At the time I also found it was helpful to cut out caffeine for a while because that definitely didn’t help the increased heart rate bit.
- Practise doing things that you find daunting – confronting your fears when you feel a little safer (e.g. when you’re with someone or when you have more time) helps show you that things aren’t as scary as they seem.
- Mindfulness helps – being able to control your thoughts when you don’t really need to paves the way for being able to control your thoughts when you really, really do need to.
What should you do if someone is having a panic attack?
- Don’t tell them to breathe slower – if it were that simple, they’d be doing it. You could try telling them to focus on you and match your breathing, and then slow your breathing down. Get them to place their hand on their diaphragm and breathe into their stomach instead of their chest.
- Be careful with saying it’ll be okay – they feel like they’re having a heart attack and dying and they definitely do not think it’ll be okay so this may or may not work. Remind them it will pass and reassure them that you’re with them.
If you want more help, you can speak to a professional, visit the No Panic organisation here, or get in touch.