Anxiety. A word most of us know too well, yet a lot of us are afraid to talk about. Anxiety can be so misunderstood. So easily can people confuse nervous with anxious. Too easily can people be judged for jumping on the band wagon and 'claiming' to have anxiety. Too often are people told to "just stop worrying". Anxiety is real and it affects over 8 million people in the UK (Mental Health Foundation). More than 1 in 10 people are likely to experience disabling anxiety at some point in their life (Anxiety UK).
I thought this post was quite fitting to write, as soon I will be travelling 8 hours on a plane, which makes me really quite anxious. Anxiety is something I've fought with a lot in life. Whilst mostly I had a very happy childhood, like most of us, things happened which to some extent traumatised me. Anxiety doesn't have to stem from life experiences, it can just simply occur from a chemical imbalance, but bad life experiences don't help. I have my Mum to thank for balancing out the bad with a world of love and happiness. But no amount of love can keep anxiety away.
I can write about anxiety now, because it's something that no longer cripples me. It's not gone, but I can now mostly recognise what's going to make me panic and what it is going to make me anxious and I can try and soften the blow. I now have a panic attack maybe once or twice a year...three times tops.
I've always been a worrier. But then it became an abnormal amount of worry, even by my standards. Worry changed to anxiety. Anxiety became my life. It consumed me. I almost thought it was me. When I first met my therapist I said "I have anxiety". The first thing she did was correct me. No, I did not 'have' anxiety. Anxiety isn't something you catch or something you are. Anxiety is not you. It is something you feel. She was so anti me saying I "have" anxiety, because it implies it's something about you that can't be controlled. Because anxiety is something you CAN change, even when you feel like you can't and everything around you is a black hole. It's not easy to change and unfortunately there is no switch, but it is possible to reduce it, with the right help. I can't promise it will ever fully go away, because even now, when I'm mostly on the other side, it's never gone, never fully, but you can help manage it.
I was at University when I got to the stage where I was riddled with anxiety. It was like ants crawling under my skin, never stopping, never feeling settled. I described it to my therapist as if I was a car with a super sensitive car alarm that went off any time a fly even came near me. I knew I wasn't in harm most of the time, yet I couldn't rid the overwhelming sense of dread that something bad was going to happen.
Anxiety and panic are separate things but often come hand in hand. I got to the stage where I was having multiple panic attacks a week. Sometimes they were daily or even two or three times a day. I'd know one was about to happen because my hands would start tapping. I'd tap a table, or my leg, or my side...anything, I'd tap. Then my vision would start to go. Next the tears would come. And then I wouldn't be able to breathe. I'd be gasping out for air and feel none, which only made me panic more. It all happens very fast, but it feels like a life time. The only thing to do when someone is having a panic attack is let them know you're there. There's no use asking them questions because their brain isn't in a fit state to answer. Their brain thinks they're under attack. What's worked for me in the past, is the person I'm with, touching my arm or holding me tight and deep breathing. Eventually my breathe will then copy theirs. But, everyones different so this may not work for all people.
I didn't have any reason to be anxious about driving. I passed my test first time and family said I was quite a good driver. I just didn't feel it. Frequent panic attacks and constant anxiety resulted in me being unable to drive my car. I couldn't reverse out of the garage without going into full melt down. My brain was already thinking about the crashes I was going to have or the accidents I would cause. There was no rationalising with me. Telling someone who's anxious about something that there's nothing to worry about is like telling someone with a broken leg to walk 10 miles with no treatment.
When I became so anxious that my life was being significantly altered, I was brave enough to go to the doctors. The doctor was luckily really understanding and referred me to the NHS wellbeing service. This service works for some people, so if you're in a position like I was, then definitely try it. But unfortunately for me, it was the opposite of what I needed. Because of the crisis the NHS are in with funding (particularly surrounding mental health) the wellbeing service didn't have the biggest budget.
It was phone consultations, with the option of group sessions if I wanted. Phone conversations. That's one thing that I got very anxious about anyway. Groups. Another thing that I got anxious about - being around people, especially ones I didn't know. The kind lady on the phone also had to go through protocol every session and asked me a series of questions that I had to answer on a scale of 1-10. Try doing this when your brain isn't thinking straight and you have completely lost sight of reality and what is 'normal'. I'm not good at decision making at the best of times.
Anyway, skip ahead a few sessions and I'm told I'm depressed. Probably because I was crying every session and things I was saying may have seemed that way. But I really didn't feel depressed. I knew myself and I knew I wasn't. I just needed to speak to someone in person. The strategies they suggested over the phone just weren't working. They may work brilliantly for some people, but I needed to get to the root cause of what was making me so anxious and help fix that.
So, I reached out to a friend at University and they told me the name of their therapist. I wasn't really sure what to think at first because it was a hypnotherapist. I had visions of laying on a couch in a trance whilst a pendulum swung above me. But at this point, I was desperate for anything and trusted what this person said.
Going private isn't cheap. It really isn't. But if you can afford it and you've already tried the NHS and it doesn't work for you, then I urge you to try it. If you can't afford it, research hypnotherapy strategies for anxiety. One strategy that really works for me is imagining my anxiety (mine is always a black spikey ball in my chest) and spinning it round and round and on the count of 3 spinning it out of my body. Anyway, back to the cost of therapy. Being a student is usually the time that you have the least amount of money. But I was lucky because I was living at home so didn't have rent to pay and I didn't go out drinking so I didn't spend my money there. I spent my money on therapy.
Hypnotherapy was hands down the best decision I've ever made. It changed my life. My therapist was blunt and to the point, but so loving and caring. Everything she said, I knew she had my best interest at heart and she listened. She really listened. We spent months working on the route of my anxieties and it stemmed back to childhood. I can't even fully say how my therapist helped me, but somehow, she just did.
There are still some things that I don't do because I get too anxious, but nothing too debilitating. For example, I still can't go into a crowded shop or a busy street without my heart pounding out of my chest and the beginnings of a panic attack. But I can control it much better. I no longer see myself as someone with anxiety or an anxious person. Yes, I overthink things and I worry, but this isn't the same as anxiety. It can lead to it, but it doesn't have to, if I use my strategies.
One of the key things my hypnotherapist taught me, is that we all have our own life boats with our own manuals. I was spending so much time trying to impress others around me and getting frustrated and upset when people didn't act in the way I expected them to. I was expecting people to have the same brain as me, therefore think and act the way I would do. When you realise this and focus on your own life boat, life becomes a lot easier to manage. As my therapist put it, I was trying to hop out of my life boat and fix someone else's, but I didn't have the manual to theirs. In the mean time, my boat was sinking.
I'm now 5 years on from therapy and still managing my anxieties fairly well. A recent discovery for me has been mindfullness. I'm finding this can really help me keep a check on how I'm feeling. I can recognise when I'm starting to feel a certain way and act on it, non-judgementally. For example, I now notice that when I begin to get anxious and panicky, my chest tightens and my brain becomes flighty. I can't think straight and everything becomes muddled. Instead of panicking about panicking, I just notice it and think about what I need. I've created my own coping mechanisms for different situations. One commonly used one is to use my to do list that breaks things into 4 categories: must do, should do, could do, would like to do. I urge you to try and think about the signs that you're getting anxious and stressed and then think about what you need in that moment to help calm you. I learnt this from a brilliant mindful practitioner during a mindfullness course I recently did. It was a really flexible course online from the comfort of my own home. You didn't have to join each week and could instead watch the videos on catch up, which is perfect if you feel too anxious to join a group. Though, the group we had was so small and welcoming that I actually felt very comfortable participating. Gemma has her own website and blog which you can find at https://www.thehappinessbranch.com/ if you're interested.
The way we interpret things isn't fact, it's just our perception. For example, someone you know might be walking down the street and not say anything to you. Your mind could go into overdrive and think of all the scenarios you met that person in before and whether you've annoyed them, but in reality, that person just hasn't seen you. Our brains are highly intelligent, but sometimes they can really mess things up for us. Anxiety is real. Anxiety is a mental health disorder. Anxiety isn't something you can just wish away or sweep under the carpet. You can get help.
Please, if you need to speak to anyone, then the following helplines are available:
No Panic: 0844 967 4848 . nopanic.org.uk
Anxiety alliance : 0845 296 7877 (10-10 daily) anxietyalliance.org.uk
Anxiety UK : 08444 775 774 anxietyuk.org.uk
MindInfoline: 0300 123 3393mind.org.uk