There is no shame in admitting when things get a bit too much. Indeed, having the courage to speak up and vocalise your feelings to a friend, family member, or an impartial other (i.e. consultant, GP, anonymous helpline etc.) is one of the single strongest things you can do for yourself.
In light of #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth 2020, I thought I would share my own struggles with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition that is estimated to affect 5% of the UK Population. Since recovering from an eating disorder and MDD (depression), anxiety has been the one that has decided to stay put in my brain; one that I fear may never fully fly the nest…
Anyway, I thought I would document my experiences with anxiety, in the hope that those who feel a similar way may find solace in knowing they are not alone in their thought processes, and that those who have not experienced such feelings can understand a wee bit more about what it is like living with anxiety.
What Is Anxiety?!
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), commonly referred to as just ‘anxiety’ is defined by the NHS website as:
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.NHS England Website, Generalised Anxiety Disorder
Some people find it hard to control these worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives. GAD is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than 1 specific event.
Wherease anxiety is often used to describe one-off feelings of unease or worry, when used to describe a mental health condition, it refers to continuous, ongoing worry that pervades one’s everyday lifestyle. This can be anything from worrying about loved ones, things concerning your job, financial worries, or irrational worries about potential ‘What If’ events.
So now that we have a clinical definition under the belt, I think it is time to get into the meat and veg of my personal relationship with GAD…
When & Why Did My Battle with Anxiety Begin?
This is something that, whenever someone brooches the subject with me, is usually the first question that rolls off the tongue. After all, if you want to learn more about, or even solve any given problem, the starting point is almost always the origins/causes of said problem.
For myself, I cannot pinpoint a particular time when I suddenly became anxious on a daily basis. It was more of an accumulation over the course of my time in secondary school deriving from the stresses of public exams, a few incidents of bullying, and just the general pressure that comes with growing up. By the time I got to Sixth Form (16yrs) , I had developed a consistent feeling of worry in my mind that ebbed and flowed according to what each individual day brought with it.
That is one thing that has remained constant throughout my battle with anxiety: the ever-changing power with which the feelings of anxiousness come with. What I mean is that ever since school, my levels of anxiety has fluctuated on a daily basis according to what’s going on in my life. This changeable nature is what makes Anxiety one of the hardest conditions to nip in the bud….
Social Anxiety : The Eyes That Always Watch
As I progressed into sixth form and beyond, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder that ultimately had a huge impact on my self-image and confidence. After 2 years of suffering with Anorexia, it was fair to say that my self confidence was pretty much in the bin by the time I left school. This lack of self-esteem is what provoked a seemingly exponential rise in a more specific form of anxiety: Social Anxiety…
Social Anxiety – a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations. It’s a common problem that usually starts during the teenage years. It can be very distressing and have a big impact on your life.NHS England, Social Anxiety (social phobia)
When I try and explain what this feels like to my folks (who have always been both supportive and intrigued by my cranky ways of thinking over the years), I tell them that it is like having an imaginary pair of eyes constantly boring into the back of your head. Of course, these eyes aren’t really there; yet you constantly feel that someone is watching you one way or t’other.
At my worst, this wouldn’t just be in crowded, social situations such as pubs or restaurants; it was pretty much anywhere that more than a few people congregated at any one time. The more people there were, the stronger the percieved gaze of the imaginary eyes became, and with it the more intense the feelings of anxiety became.
My folks will testify to the fact that there was a time when I was an absolute nightmare to take out for a drink or a meal, as I would constantly dart my head from left to right, looking for those non-existent eyes watching my every move. When you are trying to have a relaxing friday night out after a week of teaching 8 year olds primary school Geography, that is probably the last thing you needed when trying to unwind…
As a result, I dealt with it in probably the worst way possible: for a good 8-10 months, I avoided any situation that involved large numbers of people. Indeed, it was about 18 months after reaching my worst that I decided to take the first step into a pub…
When The Irrational Becomes Rational
Another thing that I have learnt living with anxiety is the fact that, in spite of the fact that your usual self is completely capable of rational thought, as anxiety begins to increase, so too does your tolerance and acceptance of completely bonkers ideas that are usually the furthest thing from rationality!
When you are in a particularly anxious mood, the line between rational and irrational thought becomes increasingly blurred; things that you would, under normal conditions, consider well and truly ridiculous, transform into alarming reality that creates chaos in your mind and potentially throws you off course. These wobbles are commonly referred to as:
Panic Attacks: a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.
As silly as it sounds, I remember one particular incident on a slightly busy train coming back from London. It wasn’t even close to the carnage many of you will have experienced on the 7am commuter train from Tunbridge Wells to Charing Cross; it was busy, but not too crowded. However, for no reason in particular, I suddenly started panting and getting heart palpitations; my brain was working ten-to-the-dozen, and I wiped my forehead to find that I was sweating like a pig. I repeat: no particular reason for it. It was just a scarily intense pang of worry and fear, that caused me to get off the train one stop early and bolt it home on foot (and no, I don’t recommend running 8 miles in suede loafers…the blisters when I got home is probably the most memorable detail of this particular anecdote.
If you have found yourself breathless, palpitating, and filled with a torrent of irrational thoughts all in one go, don’t be alarmed: you aren’t on your own, and it is a very normal and common occurence in the modern day…
Closing The Ever-Watchful Eyes
As I mentioned previously, I don’t think I will ever fully give my anxiety the boot, and I reckon that it is something that may stay with me indefinitely. However, I have openly accepted this reality, and have therefore decided to shift my mindset from finding a cure to my condition, to learning how to sustainably manage it so that it does not severely affect my every-day life.
When I suffered from anorexia, I was lucky enough to go on a 6-month course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that involves vocalising your thoughts, identifying faulty ways of thinking and behaving, and subsequently implementing small changes to alter your behaviour and thought patterns for the good. When learning to manage my anxiety, I have definitely applied the principles of CBT in order to change the way I think about things.
What does this mean in practice? Well, say I had known about CBT before the aforementioned incident explained before on the train. In that situation, it’s fair to say that all rational thought had gone out of the window and I had begun to catastrophise (is that a word…?) the situation (the train’s going to fall of the rails, someone’s going to fall off the platform, the train’s going to crash int a bridge etc.).
In that situation, applying CBT-style methods would involve writing down what was going through my head, trying to identify a cause for those faulty thought patterns, and finally determining the likelihood of those events actually happening. Even if it is just on the notes app on your phone, seeing the thoughts and feeling physically written down makes you re-assess the situation and, usually, calms you down to a point at which you can think more rationally about the situation.
Alongside CBT (i.e. thinking about your thinking), I have also used progressive exposure to anxiety-provoking situations over time in order to slowly integrate back into social situations without intense pangs of worry in the mix. I started off going to a coffee shop at a quiet time; then I would go at a slightly busier time of day; then I upped the ante to a pub on a Saturday afternoon and so on and so on.
By gradually increasing the intensity of social stiumlation over time, I finally found myself able to go to the pub for a casual friday night pint without a worry in the world (other than the quality with which the Guiness has been pulled…
Calm Down with Centering & Self-Talk
When it comes to panic/anxiety attacks, the most effective coping mechanism that I use involves controlling your breathing to a slow, steady tempo (e.g. 6 breaths in, 6 breaths out) , also referred to as centering.
By shifting your focus onto your breath, you divert your attention away from whatever situation is causing the onset of anxiety, and reset into a sound state of mind. Furthermore, deep breathing techniques can allow you to take a step back from the situation and think more rationally; this has always helped me muffle the onset of a panic attack!
Alternatively, you could bang out some self-talk. Self-talk is internal dialogue between you and your mind; in the case of solving an impending panic attack, it would involve stepping back from the situation and undertaking a self-assessment of sorts.Take yourself out of the situation, calm yourself down using whatever means possible, and return to the situation ready to take it head on. For me, this would involve closing my eyes and imagining myself at my favourite childhood beach in Cornwall for 10-15s; it sounds a bit potty, but trust me it is the nuts!
The Final Word
Anxiety has been something I have learnt to live with over the past 5 years. I don’t see it as a flaw in myself as an individual, even though I did when I first had all the feelings kicking about. Instead, I have come to accept it for what it is: just another part of my personality that makes me who I am.
If you have concurred with any of the information or anecdotes above, then please don’t hesitate in dropping us a line and sharing your own stories! I personally find openness and honesty about things like this very useful in helping me deal with it on the daily.
Furthermore, if you think a friend/loved one is suffering in silence with anxiety or frequent panic attacks, then go ahead and check out my previous blog post that outlines the ways in which you should approach a friend who you suspect may be struggling.
Big love, Peeps; and Keep The Conversation Going!
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