I feel like with any illness, whether it be mental or physical, there is always a denial period. For some this will be short and for others longer. For me, it was years! In this article, I’ll take you through my own personal story of anxiety: looking at how it gradually got worse and the ways it impacted my life. I’ll then walk you through some of the coping strategies that I found to be the most effective.
The First Signs
Anxiety can be difficult to spot. As a child, I was always shy and introverted. I wasn’t anxious about speaking in front of people (I often took part in school shows or poetry recitals) and I had no problem interacting with people socially, but more often than not I just chose not to. All my friends and family were used to me being this way so how could they be expected to spot my step into anxiety if even I couldn’t? Looking back, I can now point out some of the earlier signs. For example, I remember at a young age getting my younger brother to phone my friends’ houses for me because I couldn’t do it myself. Shyness is one thing but I physically and mentally couldn’t bring myself to do it. Yet I was fine in all the areas you’d usually imagine anxiety to creep in. Exams are a perfect example of this. In high school, I had no problem taking exams. I didn’t find them intimidating, I never had any anxiety symptoms while sitting for them and waiting for results was never a concern for me.
When I was 18, I moved away from home to go to university. I can look back at my time at university fondly but it was also where my anxiety started to pack a punch! I knew absolutely nothing about anxiety at this time in my life. In high school I had never explored that aspect of mental health, if any aspect at all. I was studying psychology (including clinical psychology), and while my knowledge of schizophrenia, depression, psychopathy and other disorders improved, anxiety was never covered.
So it came as a pretty horrific shock when I had my first anxiety attack during one of my exams in first year. When you don’t know what anxiety or an anxiety attack is (or even when you do) it’s an intense and uncomfortable experience. Something that starts-off as just a strange feeling quickly turns into terror. If you’ve never experienced an anxiety attack, mine tend to go a little like this:
At first, I start to become aware that something isn’t right. My body feels off and usually my stomach starts to churn or tighten. This usually leads me to the nausea, which is usually the worst part. I hate being sick and doing so in public is genuinely one of my fears. Of course this doesn’t help matters and I tend to spend so much time worrying about it that my breathing either stops or becomes erratic, as my heart rate tends to shoot through the roof. Anxiety is basically your body entering the fight or flight response without any reason to. Just as I start getting cooled down, I then become frozen and have to work on warming up only to overheat and have to cool down – all the time sweating!
These are just the physical symptoms though. It’s hard to describe what’s going through your mind during such an event. It’s like your mind has just entered into Def Con 1 and the panic sirens are blaring, the red warning lights are flashing and all work has been exchanged for freaking out. It took me over two years to realize that I’d been experiencing anxiety in most of my classes as well. I missed many, many classes because of this and since I didn’t understand or explain my anxiety to anyone, I regularly received emails about my attendance. Eventually in my third year, my anxiety attacks became so bad that I couldn’t put off getting help any longer and so I visited my GP. I was prescribed propranolol, which made sitting exams normally a reality again.
Of course, dealing with anxiety attacks is one thing but what about the anxiety itself? I only took propranolol before exams or plane journeys and as such, the effects were limited to those situations. My anxiety is most noticeable during social situations. It used to really bother me that I couldn’t communicate with people at a normal level. It can take me weeks or even months before I feel comfortable enough around someone just to be able to talk. At shops I would always choose self-service machines over people, I stopped going to my gym when my card was temporarily broken as it meant I’d have to speak to the staff every day to explain the situation, it’s hard to form relationships of any kind when the initial interactions with strangers are so challenging. When I finished university, I couldn’t get a job because the mere thought of interacting with people every single day terrified me. So I moved back to my parent’s house, I burned through all my savings and essentially hit rock bottom. Many people don’t associate anxiety with suicidal thoughts but I can assure you, they do creep in. Having your own brain fight against you is a battle that at times just feels unwinnable.
One of the major issues with anxiety is that it becomes impossible to ask for help. It used to tear me apart inside because I just wanted to function at a normal level and yet my brain simply wouldn’t allow me to talk to anybody about it. If you think that somebody is suffering from anxiety, my advice would be not to confront him or her directly about it. I think for many people, they have to find their own solutions so the best thing you can do is find ways to provide them with resources.
Not All Doom and Gloom
This isn’t meant to be a horror story though (although at times it certainly felt that way) and there is a happy ending. Over my many years of dealing with anxiety, I found certain techniques that helped and others that were less successful. It’s important to be open-minded when trying these out. There is no magical cure and while this isn’t a fun thought, if you go into certain techniques expecting to be anxiety free after, then you’ll be disappointed.
It may sound a little clichéd but mediation is a wonderful way to reduce the effect of anxiety. I was skeptical at first because I was very narrow-minded about anything that always seemed to be grouped with chakras or gemstones. If you’re the same, then let me inform you that mediation is simply changing your awareness. You focus on something until you reach such a point that you can see your thoughts as they appear. It’s incredibly calming. There’s no magic and no need to associate it with religious or spiritual practices. You get varying types of meditation and I found mindfulness (focusing on the here and now) meditations to be the most effective. If you’re completely clueless about how to meditate, there are plenty of guided meditation videos on YouTube as well as apps you can download. I’d recommend this Sam Harris guided meditation as it’s the most simple and easy to follow that I ever came across.
This one is more related to dealing with anxiety attacks or preventing them. If you’ve ever seen someone panic in a film, you usually hear the advice “take slow deep breaths”. It’s safe to say that you shouldn’t listen to films as this advice is horrible. The most effective breathing technique I found is known as box breathing. It’s quite simple: you breathe in for 4 counts, you hold it for 4 counts, you breathe out to the count of 4, and then you hold it for 4 and repeat. This is similar to meditation, or at least the initial steps of meditation. It works in two ways: 1) You focus on your breathing so much that eventually everything else just becomes background noise and 2) Controlling your breathing prevents you from breathing in too much or too little air. This won’t work in every situation but I found it very useful when an attack was brewing. So if you spot the early signs then I’d recommend doing this.
If you find yourself living inside with the curtains drawn and the lights off then you and I both know that you’re only making matters worse. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there. But one of the most useful techniques for dealing with anxiety is regular exercise. Set a target for yourself and work to achieve it. For me it was building up my strength as well as the speed at which I could run 5 kilometers. Giving yourself this focused aim changes other aspects of your life as well. I found myself eating healthier (which of course helps as well) and I was less prone to just sitting on the sofa all day.
Speaking of diet, I can’t recommend enough that you avoid caffeine. In fact, you want to cut caffeine, alcohol and nicotine out of your life entirely if possible. The odd coffee or night out here or there won’t make too much of a difference but having either of those 3 as a habit won’t help your anxiety one bit!
Leave your Comfort Zone
This is the most difficult technique but also the most effective. Occasionally you have to leave your comfort zone. It’s scary and intimidating but chances are that with anxiety, your comfort zone is a rather small area. If you can’t bring yourself to get a job, do what I did and search for something you can manage. I started-off stacking shelves but eventually covered every single aspect of the store including being a cashier, checking membership cards at the door, and covering the major appliances department. Once you get comfortable in one role, push yourself to the next level. For me, I went on a month-long trip to Cambodia. I’d never left Europe before and I’d never been on holiday without my family so every single aspect of it terrified me. I can safely say I came back a lot healthier (perhaps not physically but certainly mentally).
My next step was moving out from my parent’s house. I moved to Spain with my girlfriend (whom I’d only met after coming back from Cambodia) and now I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language. It’s sort of like starting back at square one but I just look at it as having the potential to continue to improve my ability to manage my anxiety. It may never leave me completely but I’ve come a long way over the last few years.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll happily share any insights or advice that I can!
If you or someone you know experiences problems with anxiety or other mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: Cameron Madden is a psychology graduate from Scotland who is currently living in Spain. For him, writing is both a job and a hobby! Ranting & Raving: A blog about films, games, politics, theories, questions about consciousness, and everything in-between. You can follow his Twitter here to keep up to date with blog posts, short story and novel updates and releases!
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc.
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