Asking for help, keeping busy, and remembering that I’m not going to die are things I do to fend off anxiety attacks.
Mental Health Awareness Week, which ends today, has anxiety as its theme this year. There was a time when I was blissfully unaware of what it is to live with anxiety. Sure, I was in a right state before going on a date, and I despised reading aloud to my peers at school – but being a nervous wreck doesn’t compare to being in the grip of a full-on anxiety attack.
It’s not unlike having a bit of food stuck in your throat. You can’t breathe. Your head is spinning. Your heart is pounding in your chest and soon a deep sense of dread spreads through your limbs. Your head screams at you to do something, anything. In my case, it wants me to leave whatever situation I am in. It doesn’t matter where I am at the time. Usually, I’m trapped. You can’t abandon a group of friends without a word, or run out of the supermarket. So, you try to act as if everything is normal while you feel sick. You’re in a state of panic and, in the worst cases, you have the deep suspicion you are about to die.
At the height of my illness – because that is what it is – I had anxiety attacks from the moment I woke up until I could finally sleep. There was no break. No relief. I was incapable of doing anything other than survive, and hope for a better future that didn’t include being sectioned. It’s not so bad now. I can go for days, even weeks, without an attack. Of course, the fear of having one always lingers beneath the surface, and worry is my constant companion. It affects everything, and makes my life rather difficult.
Going to the cinema? Impossible. Social events? No, thanks. The waiting room at the doctor’s? I’d rather see if whatever is wrong with me goes away on its own. The dentist? A smear test? You’ve got to be kidding. Job interview? I feel like I’m either going to leg it, or throw up all over the interview panel. All this shows, and it does not make a good impression.
My anxiety disorder is a “gift” from the person who raped me and tried to take my life, combined with a (separate) abusive relationship. It is thought that genetics can play a role – if you have a close relative with generalised anxiety disorder, it is five times more likely that you, too, will experience anxiety at some point. Trauma, domestic violence, child abuse and bullying can trigger GAD, as can drug or alcohol misuse and long-term painful health conditions such as arthritis.
Trying to get help isn’t easy. However, if my experiences sound familiar, do talk to your GP. If you don’t ask for help, you will be dealing with it on your own – so you might as well create some light at the end of the tunnel.
Anxiety is not something you can snap out of. Face the fear is well-meant advice, but when it’s time to bite the bullet you can be filled with such terror that backing out seems like the only logical option. If you are lucky, you’ll have understanding people around you. However, the disorder can alienate friends and family. I cannot enjoy the things others enjoy, and over time the invitations stopped coming. Some of my family members think I am a freak. It’s painful, but I don’t blame them.
There are things that you can do to help you cope. First, it’s important to remember that you are not going to die. It’s just an anxiety attack. Your body’s gone into fight-or-flight mode and it will pass. Second, keep busy. I’ve decided to go for my degree in politics, philosophy and economics, and the focus required keeps anxiety at bay. The Open University is sensitive to students’ individual needs, and the fact that I have taken to philosophy like a duck to water has boosted my confidence. I also do voluntary work online, as helping others helps me. Meanwhile, I’m adding to my CV for when life gets better. I cannot erase the stigma attached to mental health disorders, but I can make myself more marketable and hope for brighter days. They will come. Practically everything can be overcome. It’s important to remember that.
If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, or have a coping technique to share, let us know below the line. Together we can spread awareness, and tackle the fear.
This article first appeared on The Guardian on 18 May, 2014.