Friday 27 September 2019

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Anxiety and Me

A photo taken from inside a building of a girl leaning up against a dirty, frosted window from outside - the side of her head pressed onto the window, as are her right hand, while her left arm is up against it as she reaches upwards, hand outside view of the window
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Anxiety and Me

Today I want to talk to you about my anxiety. I've mentioned in in the past when reviewing books featuring characters with anxiety, or when it's effecting my blogging, but I haven't spoken about it specifically. I think talking about mental illness is just so important; the more we talk, the more we break the stigma.

I was diagnosed with anxiety three years ago, but it first raised it's ugly head five years ago. I had recently found out my nan's cancer was terminal, and while I was absolutely devastated, I was actually doing relatively ok day-to-day - until I had a sudden panic attack on the way to work. I didn't know it was a panic attack at the time, though. All I knew was that something was very wrong; out of nowhere, my chest felt very tight; I was struggling to breath; I was very hot; the bus, which was pretty empty, was far too busy and far too small, there wasn't enough room and I had to get off. I sat at the bus stop hoping the cold air might cool me down, but it didn't. I couldn't breath, and something was very wrong with me. I was scared because something was wrong, but also scared for reasons I couldn't explain. I managed to get home and to my mum, who had had panic attacks in the past and she helped me through it. Over the next few days, I would start to panic again trying to get into work. Mum actually took the journey with me one day, and was in contact with me the whole time on a few subsequent journeys. After a few days, the panic attacks subsided, and completely stopped.

Until five years ago. My dad had had a relapse with his depression, and was signed off work for several months. Because of this, he wasn't getting paid as much. This meant we were starting to struggle financially, and my brother and I had to pay more rent to over our bills. I wasn't so much worried about not having much money of my own, but I definitely started worrying about whether we had enough money, period. Would we be able to buy food to eat? Would we be paying enough rent? Are we going to get kicked out of our home? If we are, what am I going to do? I can't afford to live on my own, and we won't be rehoused as a family. Am I going to be homeless? Around and around the thoughts would go. Things actually weren't quite as bad as I thought, we definitely had enough money, and even if we did, things would never have got that desperate as family would have helped out - and if we were kicked out, we could still find a home for all of us, which I didn't know. Things weren't so desperate. Even so, I started having panic attacks; at night when I was trying to sleep; when I was going to do grocery shopping; whenever I looked at my bank account. I realised something was up, and after talking with some friends who had mental illnesses, I thought I probably had anxiety. I told my mum, and tried to get myself an appointment with my doctor.

Weeks went buy before I was even able to get an appointment booked, and then there was the wait before my appointment came round. Those weeks were hell. I'd now started to have panic attacks almost daily - and always whenever I was on my way to work. I'd be fine once I got there, but the journey to work really hard. I didn't stop going, because I instinctively knew that if I avoided it, things would just get worse. It was absolutely terrifying; our financial difficulties was the only thing where there was a reason for my anxiety. Once we were out of that, I didn't know what was causing it - no overwhelming, uncontrollable thoughts. Just anxiety and panic attacks. I felt like a ticking time bomb, that I could go off at any second for some unknown reason. I was always on edge, wondering when it would happen. But once I saw my doctor, she advised me on how to self-refer for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and also prescribed me some anti-depressions just to help while I waited for my appointment; I was told I could be put on a waiting list, and it could be weeks, even months before I got an appointment. I knew I just couldn't carry on as I was for months, so I asked for the medication. Fortunately, I didn't wait too long before I got an appointment for CBT, and it turned everything around.

Simply understanding what was happening to me during a panic attack was such a help. Learning that my body was actually trying to keep me alive, even if it was overreacting, was a comfort. Learning techniques to manage my anxiety, and what to do when a panic attack struck made such a difference. It helped me so much. Within a matter of weeks, my panic attacks were greatly reduced. I came off the anti-depressants a few months later, and I've been fine on my own ever since.

What I've realised is that my anxiety is actually mild, in comparison to other people. While I was having panic attacks pretty much daily, a lot of people have multiple panic attacks a day. I was able to see a real concrete difference in a matter of weeks, and no longer needed any help, while others have to work with therapists for months, if not years. Touch wood, my anxiety has overall been pretty manageable since.

I've learnt a lot about how my anxiety works; my anxiety isn't triggered so much by what I'm actually thinking - I very rarely get the illogical, overwhelming thoughts. My anxiety is triggered more by what's happening in my subconscious, so it seems to me that when it strikes, it's coming out of nowhere, because I've not been doing or thinking about anything that worries me. However, I've noticed patterns of things that trigger it. Severe stress is one of them. Not your everyday kind of stress, but the stress that comes with exceptionally bad news; like when I was told my grandma had days to live last year, like the year before when a friend had absolutely devastating news. Things I can do absolutely nothing about tend to trigger my anxiety, which of itself is kind of annoying; if there where positive changes I could make or find ways to deal with my anxiety around what was triggering it, that would be good. But I can't stop someone from dying. I can't change the past. I'm not a doctor, nor a miracle worker, there is literally nothing I can do about these situations that trigger my anxiety. Which means I just have to live with it when it appears.

But the CBT helped so much, that now, unless something major happens, I can go a whole year without a panic attack, and months can go by without feeling the tightness in my chest. It only really becomes "a thing" when awful things are happening. Earlier this year, it was announced redundancies at work were being made, but weeks went buy before we had any real idea who they would effect. While, of course, it would have been awful if I was made redundant, I wasn't so worried about being made redundant - my anxiety was triggered by the uncertainty of not knowing. I just wanted to know one way or another, and the delay really had an effect on me. Again, I was having panic attacks almost every day, out of nowhere, while I was reading, watching TV, walking down the road. It got to the point where I thought I might actually need some help again, because this was becoming too much again. Unfortunately, strangely enough, it took some major, completely devastating news, finding out my uncle has terminal cancer, to actually knock my anxiety on it's head. If you'd asked me before, I would have sworn such bad news would have made my anxiety worse, but it actually had the complete opposite effect. In the great scheme of things, losing my job really didn't matter. There were bigger things to worry about. A week later, I received even more worse news, and my anxiety completely stopped. I had a period of being absolutely devastated, despairing, and feeling like the bottom had come out of my world, but my anxiety was nowhere to be seen. And I think that's because the terrible news I've had isn't imminent. The worst is to come, but it's not happening right now.

And I'm doing ok now. I'll probably be fine until things become more serious, or there's another episode of major stress. Otherwise, I'll have my moments of manageable anxiety, months apart, and carrying living my life as normal.

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So that's me and my anxiety. What are your thoughts on talking about mental illness? Do you have any questions about my experiences? I'm happy to answer any! Or would you like to share your own experience? Let me know in the comments!

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