After writing my last post about protecting your mental health at work, I received a bigger response than I was expecting. I was contacted on LinkedIn by people congratulating me for speaking openly about my experiences. The term 'coming out' was used, as if I had been hiding in the closet, ashamed. It truly hit home how many people are still suffering in silence.
Over the past four years I've been offered anti-depressants numerous times by doctors. The last of these occasions saw me in the doctor's office, wailing and bloated with tears, telling him I couldn't sleep and didn't feel 'like myself'. My doctor didn't make eye contact with me more than three times during the entire appointment, he simply prescribed me a batch of sleeping tablets and a strong anti-depressant. The whole meeting lasted under ten minutes.
Considering I was suffering extreme anxiety six months ago, it's not surprising that I was (ironically) too anxious to take the anti-depressants. Like a true neurotic, I googled the symptoms continuously and made the (over) considered judgement that I should wait and see whether my change of lifestyle helped me.
It's not you, it's me
One thing I've learned from moving away to cleaner air, more exercise and generally a 'nicer' lifestyle is that the problem still exists. It's within me. Moving didn't eradicate my problem, it diluted it down and the panic attacks still rear their ugly heads more often than I would like.
The anxiety response is completely natural and normal. Without it, humans wouldn't have reached this level of evolution.
The problem comes when our perception of the world shifts, either due to a trauma, loss or a prolonged period of upset. We start to see the world as a more dangerous place and with that, our brain instigates a panic reaction in inappropriate situations.
Avoidance is a key issue when it comes to anxiety. Over a period of time, it is possible to develop a set of unhealthy 'avoidance behaviours'. If going to the supermarket presents an issue, we start shopping online. If panic attacks occur in the car, we stop driving.
Bit by bit, the world begins to narrow and this awful illness begins to erode confidence and personality.
The problem with avoidance behaviours is that they reinforce our panic- we start believing that we're weak and that we need these crutches to survive.
When you feel like you're drowning, you grasp for anything to help you break the surface, but there are management strategies, practical solutions for challenging inappropriate behaviours. These solutions are so logical that you can't help but find them helpful.
'Exposure' therapy suggests that you should slowly introduce yourself back in to situations you find panic-inducing. Once there, remain until you feel 50% less anxious, you will eventually teach your brain that this is not a fight or flight situation.
The best treatment for fear is to face the demon and break it down to its vital parts. Panic is a product of your thinking, not of the external environment.
"Any fool can know. The point is to understand"- Einstein
Making the effort to understand your own physiology cannot be overestimated. Rationalising with science is one of the best coping strategies during a panic attack.
The only way to beat anxiety disorders is to get to know yourself, properly. Admitting you have a problem is different to owning that problem and understanding the conflict between your brain and body.
Once you begin to put the fear on trial, challenge your own thinking, you can begin to heal.