Friday, 15 November 2013

What is anxiety?


Image: Dreamstime

Imagine the level of fear of being home alone and realising a stranger has just entered your house. Imagine that feeling, but without knowing why. You don't know why you feel that way - so you can't resolve it. So it goes on. Tense. Scared. Alone.

That's how anxiety is for me.

Often it starts because of something appropriate and valid. When I was nineteen that'd be an important essay that was due in. More recently it was feeling exhausted and overwhelmed from my chronic illness.

Even when the initial anxious thoughts subside, the feeling carries on. I'd no longer be thinking about the essay that caused the anxiety - I'd just be generally anxious.

The most recent time, everything caught up with me - and I knew (with a bit of encouragement) that if I was feeling scared about how I'd get through the next day, in a genuinely scared way rather than an "oh crikey here we go again" sort of way, that meant I should probably take a break. I was exhausted and had been cracking on and getting on with things for so long, I'd forgotten I needed to just rest.

So I went home, to rest physically and mentally. The latter part was difficult as I still felt awful. I hadn't experienced anxiety for years, which made it even more frustrating.

I was worried by the future, sad and tired by the past and in the present that manifested by just feeling overwhelmed and so, so scared. 

When I'm anxious I can't focus. When I first had anxiety when I was 19, my ex used to know I was getting anxious when we were out just by looking at me. My eyes would get wider and be flitting around, overwhelmed by my surroundings, and I would get very fidgetty.

That's how I felt when I was at home - except I wasn't at a club I could go home from. I was just at home. 

Everything feels very fast like I can't keep up, and noises seem louder. The most anxious day this time fell on Halloween - so I had the doorbell and fireworks to contend with. Not fun.

Even little things like spilling a bit of water from the kettle would elevate the feeling. I guess it's a bit like feeling guilty, or like you're on the run. Like you've got an awful secret.

It's hard to describe, but basically the world suddenly gets very, very scary.

I've only had a few fully blown panic attacks, around the time I was 19. The first time was when we'd just got out of a bar in town and were sorting out getting a lift or a taxi. 

Everything changed. I couldn't hear what people were saying. I was talking very fast and breathing very fast and I didn't quite know why. We got a lift home and the problem had been resolved but I felt claustrophobic. 

I got home and was pacing and even though the hustle and bustle of town was gone, everything was still very big and very loud. Breathing getting faster, and faster, and tears starting to roll. I was shaking and I was so, so scared.

I called my parents and they sat with me, and got me to control my breathing until I calmed down.

It must have lasted about half an hour. Then I just felt sad, and quite confused.

After that, going out to busy places like bars and clubs I remembered that anxiety and often felt overwhelmed. I'd accidentally started to associate the panic attack with the environment it had started in. I'd want to know I had an escape route, but that was never enough.

I tried to control my breathing but in the panic it'd just be sharp exhales of breath - it was like a tic, and I must have looked quite odd. Luckily whoever was with me would realise I needed some breathing space and we'd get out for a bit.

All of this was after an episode of depression, which is when the anxiety had started. A counsellor once suggested it was a bit like an "anxiety hangover" - that the main symptoms may be gone but this was left behind - maybe part of feeling overwhelmed at what I'd gone through.

Anyway, as time went on it passed. Reading self-help books and looking after myself more helped. Also being in situations I wanted to be in more and learning to say no to things I didn't want to do.

So to feel all those feelings the other week was quite scary. I wondered if I was going to get ill with anxiety or depression again, and that thought made me even more anxious. Luckily the anxiety only lasted a few days, and I'm back to feeling mentally well again.

I've often thought how sad it is that it's only when we break down we really consider and tackle our problems. When we're basically holding it together, we just have a moan then crack on - leaving the real problems unresolved.

As I've become such a positive thinker, I think I took it for granted just how hard this whole chronic illness malarkey has been, and still is. I was so exhausted and putting unnecessary pressure on myself and I didn't even realise.

So in that respect I'm quite glad I felt how I did - it made me stop and think, as well as to really rest.

After that I made changes to the way I was working so I could separate my home and work life, I made my environment nicer (and fell in love with Yankee Candles in the process) and I realised I have to start keeping in touch with people more, and making more plans. I'm also going to start reading a book on mindfulness - so we'll see how that goes.

I count myself very lucky that my experiences of anxiety have been relatively brief, and my heart really goes out to people that experience this in their daily lives. 

If that's you, and you haven't already, please talk to someone and get some help. You're not alone in this, and things can get better.


Further information:

This NHS page on stress, anxiety and depression has lots of helpful information, links to charities and a mood self-assessment exercise.

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