I was invited to write a blog about my anxiety experiences by Lucy Sherriff, whose article on anxiety I recently featured in. You can read the article on anxiety I featured in here but simply I developed a bad case of Gastritis at university. From October 2009 until a few months ago I was anxious to the max. I was fighting a battle I had little idea about, I had few allies around me (because friends just did not understand), and I was scared.
To steal a quote from the article, Dr Paul McLaren, a consultant psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital, Hayes Grove, explains what anxiety is. Anxiety is a state of it being "difficult to concentrate or settle, and if, when you start addressing a certain worry, another pops up and you end up worrying about something else".
His definition is spot on. Anxiety is a state of being distracted and worried, but it goes further than that. It starts as unease, and in fact it ticks away as that unsettling feeling in the background when you suffer for long enough, but it grows like mould. It spreads slowly but surely over time with the right conditions. This is an odd metaphor but I feel it's apt; anxiety like mould isn't the most serious thing, and it can be gotten rid of, but its neglect from those around us that let it spread and with enough of it there it can cause real health problems. Anxiety is far from a weakness in character, and yet to us who suffer it feels like it. We feel like it's our fault rather than an environmental cause (to which I mean surroundings/circumstances not the fault of trees!). We feel like everyone else has a better grip on life and, to bring in an internet joke, can adult better than us.
With the right tools, help, and effort anxiety can be overcome. The problem is that, with the NHS, GP services, and mental health funding the way they are now [read: seriously diminished], most people are left to suffer. Some develop depression too, off the back of such hopelessness. I was one of these forgotten people. I was depressed, anxious, alone. This is why I say surviving in the title because at this point it feels like a battle for survival; a battle to retain sanity and any shred of optimism.
Dr McLaren explains how anxiety disorder is anxiety going wrong and it definitely feels that way. In the past I knew I'd be nervous or apprehensive about things but ultimately able to get on with them if needs be, but with anxiety you just... can't. You lose your nerve. You lose your confidence. Doubts are everywhere and it's a very distressing existence because you feel like a diminished version of yourself. The big question lingers over you: will I get better?
I moved back home so I had family around me but my parents split up, I was learning to drive using Jobseekers Allowance to fund my own self-improvement/this necessary skill, I couldn't land much work - even in the lowest paying retail/bar roles - and I was really feeling the pressure to succeed in not only a harsh recession but also as a fresh graduate, so that I didn't waste my degree's value.
Time went by, finally jobs came (and went), friends... slowly cottoned on to my anxiety problems and began to care a bit more. Over the course of the past five years I have slowly but surely seen my world improve - though a lot of that was down to my manoeuvring and setting up the world around me to best accommodate me.
The answer, fortunately, is yes - I got better, but the degree to which you recover varies per person.
What triggered me?
Hunger was the main trigger for a long time. Stomach sounds would make me feel very self-conscious, and rumblings reminded me of this, as well as the pain involved in the gastritis. The IBS tied into this threw my confidence to be anywhere because of the constant WILL THERE BE TOILETS/CAN I REACH THEM thoughts, as well as a dread of the now common stomach cramps, and both acted in conjunction when I went travelling to visit friends.
This saw me develop anxiety with regards travelling away, and generally I was already shying away from social excursions bar the weekly pub quiz and occasionally playing football. It became an in-joke that I was a vanishing act on the rare nights out we had because, simply, I couldn't tolerate the crowds, the noise, and the stress as I once did. This then spread to work, which made my need to pay my way at home very difficult.
I won't speak much on panic attacks because I am not the most qualified. I had one myself, about six months after returning home from uni. I was in bed, struggling to get to sleep, and I knew I was anxious. I was unsettled, fidgety, and tired. Bad thoughts were running through my mind and I knew I was unhappy and then a switch flicked and I was utterly terrified. Dr McLaren said "we get paralysed and stuck to the spot" and that is exactly right. I was immobile, though I knew I could really move if I wanted. Instead I was just in a crisis mode. Panic had descended. My heart rate was up, I was tense - especially in the chest, breathing was shallower, and I just thought I was going to suffocate. I was overwhelmed for a good 90 seconds before it eased off enough that I could stand up and hang my head out of the window to take in the fresh air and clear my head.
These are the things that helped me. I hope they might help you too. I very much needed them.
- Social media/my mobile phone
You will read lots of articles online saying how social media and mobile devices are ruining our lives but they are truly brilliant. Thanks to Twitter I have made a whole host of friends who have a wide range of mental health problems, from anxiety and depression to things like bipolar disorder. It helps bring more understanding to your own problems, as well as better context to in what ways it could be worse but also there's that extra level of empathy and cognition now about their suffering. It's a reciprocal place to learn but also to be cared for by these friends and care back.
Thanks to my mobile phone I have been able to distract myself with social media, texting, music, videos, word processing... whatever I feel is best to engage my brain to keep it from dwelling on the anxiety. I will challenge anyone who dares to tell people they are diminished by phones/tablets: they stop the freefalling feeling of isolation and being controlled by your illness. They are a salvation.
I am a huge advocate of computer gaming. I was lonely, but I didn't want to be around people. I wanted to talk but not have to make the effort of going somewhere. This isn't a case of being lazy, it's a case of needing every drop of effort to keep myself as close to composed as possible. At the same time, I had no sense of accomplishment or achievement in my life. I felt like I wasn't productive. Gaming fulfils all of these criteria. For my it was World of Warcraft, though in more recent times I've quit because it's time-consuming and I'm in a good enough place to cope without.
It's a bit silly to say "I owe my recovery to Dave" but it's not far wrong. A dedicated comedy/amusement channel was vital to me at a time when iPlayer and similar streaming platforms were just finding their feet. Since then I've broadened my horizons beyond Mock the Week to things like The News Quiz but the simple psychology is that these programs are people laughing, engaging, being generally upbeat and happy. It's distracting for one but it improves your mood too and this helps you relax, which helps you sleep better, which in turn eases the issues of anxiety.
This is where my story sort of ends. Circumstances changed and life got better. My anxiety was ever so slightly less impactful as I've gotten older, though still had plenty of potency, but I landed a new job. A solid, reliable, professional job that was related to my degree and meant I could leave home. I've not had any anxiety bar the odd five minutes in the past five months.
My advice is this: don't give up, because it can and will get better, but don't feel like it's not okay to feel hopeless. I'm nobody special, rather I got lucky. I didn't beat this by being 'mind over matter' but I guess I had more resilience than I thought. I didn't get help but I did ask for it. If you haven't already, ask for help. Don't fight this alone. It's a tough fight. If professional services can't help then do things - like I said above - to cope. Proper sleep and exercise make a monumental difference, but not everybody is in a position to meet these criteria. Instead, having a support network around you is massive. Everybody needs friends who understand, and everybody wants one who understands them.