Dear Anxiety

I didn’t plan on this being my first post of 2017, but now is as good a time as any to post this. I’ve been redrafting and rewriting this for a while, and its finally time to get it off my chest.

For the last few months, I haven’t felt like me.

It all started back in September, when I had to call myself an ambulance after a weekend of chest pain, then feeling ill on the way to work. My arms were numb, heart was racing, I had chest pain and I couldn’t breathe. Heart attack? Nope, panic attack.

I didn’t want to get caught in the downwards spiral towards anxiety but it has been hard not to. Something I thought could be just a one off has turned into something I’ve had to battle daily.

Having never suffered with anxiety, panic or any mental health problems, its safe to say the whole thing has winded me slightly. I can’t believe how debilitating it’s been, how something rooted in psychology has produced such a physiological reaction.

I am drained, I have no energy and everyday things have become riddled with anxiety. I can’t sleep without worrying that I won’t wake up, and every time I feel pain anywhere in my body, from toothache to sore muscles, I think there’s something wrong with me.

My brain has not let me think that I am okay. I am frustrated because I should be happy: I have a great job, a lovely family, a good degree… But I just haven’t had the energy to enjoy things at the moment. Even Christmas Day, one of my favourite times of year, was a struggle. As I sat down for lunch, a wave of nausea hit me and I was totally overwhelmed with panicky feelings.

“I think I’m going to die.”

To put it bluntly, every time I have a panic attack, I think I’m going to die. Unless you experience one, it is almost impossible to convey these feelings to someone else. They are bleak, intense, overwhelming and I become totally consumed by a sense of terror. I think I’m having a heart attack or a stroke, or both. Waves of nausea don’t stop and I feel like I’m going to faint. My limbs become numb and I start to get pins and needles in my hands. My lips go cold, my vision blurs and I can’t stop shaking. However many times I tell myself that I am just panicking, nothing can curb it. I have had to ride them out until they cease. Then, I am left exhausted, unable to focus on anything for a good few hours. Even though I know I am safe and my Mum is right in front of me, they are so isolating and I feel totally alone.

Hey, guess what, I’m still here. And I wake up the next morning. And the next, and the next. Yet, there’s a totally unreasonable part of my brain that sends these cursed thoughts through my head that I’m ill. I’m ill because my anxiety is making me ill. It’s sucking the energy out of everything: my immune system, my digestive system, all the bloody systems. It is such a vicious spiral. I am completely exhausted.

Since being gripped with anxiety, social situations fill me with dread. I love my friends and spending time with them, but if it involves leaving the house and spending a night away from home, I start to feel sick and get a familiar and unwelcome tingling sensation down the back of my neck. Nights out have become a chore and I find myself forcing a smile and laughing, whilst my insides are churning. I’d rather be at home, wrapped in my duvet where I’m safe.

But that’s not the way I want to live my life.

Low Battery

After my third big panic attack, I decided that enough was enough. I wasn’t going to hang around waiting for another to strike again. My parents agreed and I went to see an NLP therapist (Neurolinguistic Programming). I had seen a doctor after my second panic attack and she was very understanding. She had recommended lots of self-help options (see the bottom of this post!) but they weren’t giving me a coping strategy. For me, any form of medication was going to be the absolute, final resort. It was pretty worrying that I was offered this after my first panic attack!

The NLP Therapist I have been to see was incredibly helpful. I’ve only had one session so far and have another one booked. She made me feel like I was completely normal and that these panic attacks were a culmination of all the life changes – good and bad – I’ve had over the past year. From graduation, to getting a new job, to losing a family member, to moving back home, my brain has basically been in turmoil, trying to adjust to everything. Having breezed through life thus far, I thought that I could deal with it all and take it all in my stride. Spoiler: I haven’t. So my battery has been running lower and lower, which means that I don’t have the energy to enjoy anything. Good stuff doesn’t make me happy, and bad stuff feels like the end of the world. If was running on full power, everything would be a whole different kettle of fish.

What I’ve learnt about anxiety, is that it can be so deeply rooted that it’s hard to establish a cause. Life has been chipping away at me bit by bit, wearing me down until my brain just said enough. The panic attacks are essentially a biological cry for help, which is why you shouldn’t ignore them or let them go untreated.

Letting go

So, the last few months have been pretty tough and have felt like an eternity. Although it would be nice to think that these things can be cured overnight, they can’t. I know that I need to work with myself to make myself ‘better’ again, and acknowledging this is the first step in beating anxiety. With practice, the coping mechanisms will get to stage where I tell my brain what to think, not it tell me. At the moment, I don’t feel like I’m in control of my emotions at all! It’s all about letting go of the emotions that are making you tense and provoking that ‘fight or flight’ reaction which triggers the panic attack.

I am making slow but definite progress. It doesn’t feel like it sometimes, but I survived a trip up Mont Blanc with my work colleagues! I’m fairly okay with heights, but I was not looking forward to a trip up the world’s longest non-supported cable car. It was fear of the unknown, but this fear results in a brief panic attack half-way up ascending the mountain. But I managed it, I pushed through and I got all 3,842 metres to the top to see the incredible views. I think my panic attack would have been a whole lot worse had I not been using the technique I learned in my NLP session. The panicky feelings I experienced on Christmas Day didn’t manifest into a full blown panic attack either. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but it was definitely a step in the right direction.

I’m hoping I can leave anxiety behind me and start to recover. I don’t fancy it ruling my life for the foreseeable future. It’s time to be selfish every now and again and focus on me, myself and I. I’m very slowly getting there, taking each day a step at a time and focussing on the here and now, not worrying too much about the future. I have good and bad days at the moment, but I know that there will come a time where the good days outnumber the bad. My health is my priority, but then again so is living life, so I just want to kick this in the butt before it stops me from having fun.

My ultimate goal? “Panic attack? Okay. Bring it on.” 

Useful stuff