Tag Archives: anxiety

I’m Okay…

It’s 3am in late November 2017 and I’m lying awake in my little bedroom in my parents’ house. I’m a week away from my 33rd birthday, and I’ve been living with Mum and Dad again for two years. On this particular night, the deafening silence is oppressive, like a weight closing in around my head, attempting to crush me. The heating has been off for four hours and there’s an icy chill in the air – or at least it feels like there is. It’s a scary place to be. There might be two other people in the house, but it feels as if they’re an entire universe away at this moment in time.

I pick up the phone and dial 111. If you’re not familiar with 111, it’s basically a way for people in Britain to dial 999 without dialling 999 (if you’re not familiar with 999, it’s basically a common-sense version of 911). It’s a hypochondriac’s dream. A way to call 999 without actually calling it and clogging up the real emergency line so people having actual heart attacks (as opposed to the imagined kind) face an increased risk of, well, death. Medical advice on tap, 24/7. You’re never more than a phone call away from being told you need to see a doctor because nobody can possibly diagnose you over the phone. Superb.

Fast forward to 6am and I’m leaving the house. The weather is a good metaphor for my state of mind – angry, wintry gusts, and spasms of sideways hail. I’m headed for the train station on my way to see the only available out-of-hours GP I can find. Without a car, all I can do is get the train to Southport and then walk a (mentally) agonising half an hour to what I hope will be salvation. I should know by now that salvation isn’t doled out in ten-minute appointments. To cut a long story as short as I can do, I’m told I probably don’t have Multiple Sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease or any of the other terrifying diseases I’m convinced have befallen me, handed a prescription for some diazepam, and told not to worry. Some chance!

Before I developed this obsession with my own mortality (because that’s what health anxiety really is), I used to think of hypochondria in clichéd terms to do with “attention seeking” and “irrationality”. Hypochondriacs were people with nothing better to do and were just desperate to be noticed. If that doesn’t sound very empathetic, think of how hypochondriacs are depicted on TV. Here’s a hint – it’s never kind. I remember the Harvey Corman character in hospital-based sitcom Scrubs, who used to frequent Sacred Heart convinced of his imminent demise at the hands of all manner of outlandish diagnoses, including, at one point, kuru, a degenerative brain disease not seen outside of tribal Papua New Guinea. His repeated visits and baffling worries illicit mockery and eye-rolling incredulity from those obliged to treat him. Reassuringly, during a medical exam ordered by the taciturn Dr. Cox in an effort to scare poor Mr. Corman off, he is eventually diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. Even hypochondriacs get unlucky sometimes. I forget what became of him after that.

The truth about hypochondriacal breakdowns is that they are about far more than wanting attention. The all-consuming fear of imminent doom – the certainty that imminent doom is coming – is a huge distraction from thoughts about whether or not people care enough about you or not. In fact, if it were possible, you’d probably accept a bargain in which people stopped caring about you, if it meant you could feel well again. To put it simply, hypochondria – health anxiety if you prefer – is hell. It’s a spiral of torment and despair and, in my case, MRI scans and endoscopies, in which each symptom triggers more worry, which triggers more symptoms, which trigger more worries, until you can’t see a way out.

I guess you could say I’m a lucky guy. I have parents prepared to put me up and look after me almost as if I were a child again in my early thirties. I’m sure they felt powerless to help, but I’m much better now, which suggests otherwise. I got better the way countless people get better from anxiety and panic – therapy, medication, patience, and time. I still experience similar thought patterns, but I’m in control of it now. I’ve found some degree of comfort and happiness again. In many ways, my relapse followed a similar pattern to my previous anxious collapse – panic attacks, fear of death, worsening physical symptoms, medication initially making things even worse, therapy, a small chink of light, room to breathe, some semblance of normality, recovery. Perhaps it will happen again, perhaps it won’t. Who knows? I’m not going to worry about that right now.

In a previous post, I rationalised that there was no shame in anxiety disorders because they are illnesses that we don’t choose and we can’t fully control. I absolutely stick to the view that there should be no shame or stigma attached. However, when thinking about my own experiences, I wonder if the notion of anxiety as an illness is insufficient. I am not expert enough to say one way or another what anxiety is. At the end of the day, the mind is a part of the body, and if a part of the body begins to function in a way that leads to suffering, that’s illness, isn’t it? Anxiety has severely limited the last two years of my life. In fact, it’s caused me suffering ever since I was a child. And brain scans show that anxious people tend to have larger amygdalae – the amygdala being the fear-processing centre in the brain. It’s also been shown that there are weaker connections between the amygdalae and the part of the brain responsible for rationalising our instinctual thoughts and feelings. So it must be a mental illness, right?

Well, yes, I accept that it must be. However, when I think of my own experiences with anxiety, I sometimes struggle to see it – and to feel it – as an illness. To me, it feels like a natural part of who I am – a consequence of genetics and environment that mean that this is one way my personality manifests itself. Yeah, I might have an enlarged amygdala, but does that mean having a brain difference means having  a mental illness? I do sometimes feel that anxiety – a feeling and an emotion that everybody experiences to some degree or another – is not like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or depression, where there is so obviously something chemically and neurologically wrong.

If you’re reading this and feel that I’m devaluing anxiety as an illness or as a source of suffering, please know that that is not my intention. I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a neurologist. If thinking of anxiety as an illness helps you, then stick with that belief. You’re probably right. And rest assured that I know only too well what it is to suffer with these debilitiating feelings. I’ve felt so overwhelmed with fear that just getting off the bed feels herculean. Some days, the idea of taking a shower is akin to wading across a lake filled with treacle. Mental energy and physical energy – can they really be prised apart?

Almost a year on from that horrible episode (trust me, I’ve only skimmed the surface here), I’m back on my feet, back in work and doing my best to function like a normal human being (whatever that means). I live in Belfast again, which is a place that seems to be good for me and the hamster-wheel that is my brain. My parents can breathe a sigh of relief that, for now at least, their 33-year-old son has found something to enjoy and be happy about and isn’t running back and forth to the hospital looking for the magic words that never come. I have good and bad days. Sometimes the bad days are still quite bad. But they aren’t torture. They’re something to be gotten through by focusing on work or breathing the fresh Irish air or listening to the rain or eating a giant cheeseburger. Things are looking up. And they will for you, as long as you remember to breathe.

 

Anxiety, and why you shouldn’t get into a boxing match

I know I said I wasn’t going to go on and on about anxiety, but at the end of a year which began with my mental health crisis and Generalised Anxiety Disorder diagnosis, I hope I can be forgiven for looking back and taking stock of just how far I’ve come in such a short space of time. In the months that have followed my first panic attack and subsequent hospital stay, doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions, I’ve learned a lot about the nature of anxiety, the ways it affects people, the challenges it presents, the impact it has on the lives of good people, and also about myself and the reasons why I ended up in such a mess.

There is no one single way of coping with anxiety or of recovering from a period of nervous illness, and it is certainly not the case that people, like me, who suffer with anxiety just need to allow more positivity into their lives and all will be okay. That said, I personally began to get better once I started taking steps to improve my mental health, to challenge my long-established ways of thinking, and, yes, by taking a more positive approach to life in general. I hope the next few paragraphs might prove helpful to anyone currently trapped in their own spiral of suffering, and that, if you’re not an anxiety sufferer yourself, this might illuminate what it means to have a disorder of this nature.

Firstly, I want to make one thing clear to anybody who, for whatever reason, doesn’t understand that anxiety is an illness. It is. The problem is that the term “anxiety” also applies to a perfectly natural, normal, often healthy (if usually unhelpful) human emotion. We all experience anxious feelings from time to time, whether it’s over a first date, a job interview or a medical procedure, and many other things besides. This is normal and appropriate to the situation and usually doesn’t cause any extended suffering or harm. But an anxiety disorder is a whole different ballgame. I always felt that my own diagnosis should really have been “Unspecified Relentless Terror Disorder” (but that doesn’t exist as a diagnosis.. yet). An anxiety disorder is all-consuming and the worries and fears that go with it tend to lack any grounding in rationality. Even where it may seem rational to have a particular worry or fear, those worries and fears will be totally out of proportion to the situation, or the sufferer will ruminate on them constantly and obsessively and will feel as if they are unable to handle them. The may need constant reassurance from healthcare professionals or friends and family, but this very pattern of reassurance-seeking only keeps them trapped in their deepening anxiety spiral.

There are many different diagnoses that fall under the anxiety umbrella, from Generalised Anxiety Disorder to Panic Disorder to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (one of the most misunderstood, having absolutely nothing to do with liking things to be tidy), and many more besides. It’s not uncommon for them to overlap. Panic attacks, for example, are a common feature of almost any anxiety disorder you can name. But the point I’m trying to make is that these are potentially serious and very real illnesses that can, at their worst, leave people bedridden and miserable.

They also come with an absolute smorgasbord of grotty physical symptoms, from lightheadedness to breathing difficulties to stomach upsets and plenty more. You can spend all day and all night with a general feeling as if you’re on the verge of collapsing and dying, as if you’re literally just waiting for it to happen. They can also lead to strange psychological sensations characterised as brain fog and depersonalisation/derealisation. These are not dangerous states, but they are incredibly frightening to the sufferer, who experiences feelings of being disconnected from their own body and from a world that seems hazy, distorted and strange. All this really means is that the anxious mind needs a break, but the strangeness and unpleasantness of the sensations causes most anxiety sufferers who experience them – including yours truly – to worry that they are losing their sanity, which only makes the symptoms worse and more entrenched.

So if you ever hear of a colleague needing time off work due to “anxiety” or perhaps a friend lets you down due to feeling too anxious to do something you had planned, please bear in mind that this person needs only the best support you can offer. They are not lazy or weak. They are ill, and they are struggling. But please also remember that this person, unable to attend work or throw themselves into social activities, doesn’t necessarily want to be alone, either. If you know someone in your life who has been diagnosed with anxiety, don’t judge them. Do your best to be there for them. Remember that, in the UK and many other countries, mental health services are woefully underfunded in comparison to physical health services. Your colleague or friend might be receiving the bare minimum of treatment and care. They might be on a months-long waiting list for therapy. You could easily be the most important thing in their life and their recovery without even realising it.

A few weeks ago, I posted an analogy in a Facebook group for anxiety sufferers, in which I attempted to explain how I believe one can best live with anxiety and begin to get better, which I’d like to repeat here. It’s a boxing analogy, so please forgive me if any of my boxing references or terminology are inaccurate. It’s not a sport I follow.

Picture yourself being confronted by an angry heavyweight boxer. Let’s go with Mike Tyson, because I can’t think of anyone else right now. For whatever reason, Tyson has taken an exception to you, and has decided to confront you. You find yourself with three possible responses:

The first response is to step into the ring with him. He’s a boxer (okay, he was a boxer) and it seems like the obvious thing to do. But there’s an obvious problem. You’re not a boxer (if you are one, please just go with me on this). You can fight and fight as hard as you like for as long as you like, but Tyson is bigger, stronger, and knows all your weaknesses. All your fighting will do is wear you out and grind you down. Tyson, meanwhile, is still standing, still tormenting you. Was it worth all the expended effort? I don’t think so.

The second option is perhaps the most obvious – try to run away. But this has something in common with the first option: it’s exhausting. While you might feel better temporarily, having escaped the thunderous uppercuts of the erratic heavyweight pugilist, you’ll still be worn out at the end of it all. And he’ll always catch up with you eventually. So this is really no option at all.

Then there’s the much less obvious third option – the one that offers you the best hope of results: realise that Tyson just wants to be friends. He isn’t going anywhere fast, so instead of inviting him into the ring or trying to run away from him, welcome him into your home. I mean, yes, it might be incredibly inconvenient. He’ll crash about and demand your attention and generally make life difficult for you. But at least you’re still living your life while Tyson’s around. You’re living even while he prepares in his room for his next bout or stomps around the building in his enormous boxing shoes (if such things exist). And then, one day, once you’ve gotten used to your new routine and have figured out how to tolerate it, you notice that you’re seeing less and less of Tyson. He’s gradually moving on and getting bored of life with you. Oh sure, he still comes home from time to time to torment you with his cacophonous ebullience, but at least you get the occasional break. And then you realise that you’re seeing even less of him. At long last, Tyson has moved out! He might call in occasionally to pick up his things and see how you’re getting on, but before long, it becomes apparent that he’s gone for good! You get your life back. Tyson is no more.”

If you can’t see what I’m getting at, Mike Tyson is anxiety, your house represents your life, the general noise and inconvenience of having Tyson for a roommate are your anxiety symptoms, and the consequences of running away or fighting him are what happens if you try to run away from anxiety or to fight it. Oh, and you… are you.

It was late January into early February when I had my breakdown. I don’t mind calling it that. That’s what it was. It came out of the blue with a massive panic attack while at work, which was a winning combination of terrifying and embarrassing. I don’t want to focus too much on what I actually experienced as I’ve covered it before and it’s history now. But I did end up in hospital and went through a spell of deep, deep fear and desperation for some kind of release from my suffering. I went through a three-day spell where I presented to A&E each evening, convinced I was developing a severe mental illness and begging the doctors to admit me to a psychiatric ward. All I came away with each time was a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and a handful of diazepam (Valium).

I began to get better only once I achieved some insight into what was actually wrong with me, combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and an SSRI antidepressant (specifically sertraline, also known as Zoloft and Lustral, among other things). I was very lucky to get into therapy so quickly as even people deep in despair can be forced to wait six months or more before a slot becomes available. I only had to wait two weeks after referral. I built up a rapport with my therapist who helped me understand what was happening to me and taught me ways to relax, to calm my mind and to tolerate and accept the way I was feeling. His help was invaluable.

I recently returned home to live with my parents again. At 31 years of age, I could, if I wanted to, feel insecure about needing to do this. However, I feel it’s important to be honest about mental health. Anxiety is one of the most commonly-diagnosed conditions, and anyone can get it. I am not currently convinced of my ability to handle the day-to-day stresses and responsibilities of work, so moving home and focusing on my continued recovery in a caring and relaxed atmosphere (where all my meals are cooked for me by my ever-dedicated mother) is the best thing for me right now.

I’ve also picked back up my running hobby, something which I got into while in Belfast, but which fell away completely as my mental health declined and collapsed. In a very short space of time, I’ve noticed improvements in the way I feel both physically and psychologically. It’s great to have a challenge to focus on, something that draws me away from ruminating on how I feel and whether or not I’m about to die. Exercise is not an anxiety cure, but science shows that it plays a part in mental health management – and everybody, no matter how well they are, manages their mental health. I’ll be running the Liverpool Spring 10K in Sefton Park in May, which means I have something to look forward to and to devote my energy and effort towards. Am I back to full health? No, but I’m on the right road.

Thanks for reading. Please be kind to people. It’s been a shit year, hasn’t it?

 

I am not anxiety

A couple of months ago, I decided to begin what I would call my “Anxiety Diary”, in which I would document my thoughts, feelings and experiences of the condition. Well, this will be the second and last ever entry into the diary.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I thought it would help me get things off my chest and to relieve tension and stress. Writing your thoughts down is a pretty common part of treatment for anxiety and other psychological conditions. However, since I had my first panic attack in January, I’ve done a lot of thinking. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about panic attacks and anxiety disorders. I would probably have to confess that my ignorance left me unsympathetic – as if people needed to ‘snap out of it’. But here we are in the month of May, and I can now say that I am well versed in the subject, both through personal struggle and my own research, and I can say that it certainly isn’t that simple. The one thing I now want to avoid is giving anxiety too much respect. It’s not a heavy load I have to haul around. It’s not an inevitable part of my character that I have to be proud of. It’s not a part of me at all. And it certainly isn’t me. I started this blog because I felt I’d found a subject – travel – on which I had something to say (feel free to disagree with me on that one!) and which I would enjoy thinking about and writing about. So why inject more anxiety into my life by making the condition a part of that? Why spend hours or days coming up with blog posts about something that doesn’t matter? If you blog about anxiety and panic, I’m not saying that you too should stop. Anxiety is an extremely subjective and personal journey and we all handle it in different ways. What helps one person may not help the other. But I thought, to draw a line under the issue for me (at least as far as blogging goes), I’d share some things I’ve learned as a result of the condition, whether it’s about what helps me to feel better, what anxiety is really about or just what I’ve found out about myself, and then leave it at that. All of this is based on personal experience rather than expertise or study, but if it helps even one person feel better, that would make it all worthwhile. It would even make my own suffering seem worthwhile.

Anyway, in no particular order…

A) I’ve been doing this to myself: Nobody asks to have panic attacks. Why on Earth would they? Nobody asks to feel ill all the time, to feel anxious, to wrestle with unpleasant thoughts. So when I say that I have done this to myself, I don’t mean that I have made a conscious choice to suffer, or that you have. However, anxiety is not an external force or a nasty infection about which I can do little other than to wait out. I’ve not been randomly chosen to suffer. I have, however, created my own anxiety through years of unnecessary worry and fear, of unhelpful thought patterns and too much concern for things that may never happen. Of course, there are genetic and environmental factors about which we have no control, but neither of these things mean we have to suffer. I can now see how everything in my life has been leading to this moment. And being able to see this is extremely powerful, because it allows me to begin to change it.

B) The right information is crucial: For such a common condition, it is astonishing how many people receive that wrong information and go on to fall into a cycle they don’t even know they’re in or cannot break free from. I’m still waiting for a medical professional to give me a proper explanation of the condition. Doctors seem to want to throw pills at you and call it good. Of course, what works for one person out there won’t necessarily work for another for all sorts of reasons, but at its heart, anxiety and panic is easily understandable, can be treated, and would hold far less fear for sufferers if they could truly see what is going on. There is so much self-help information out there, some of it excellent, some absolutely useless. I’m of the opinion that you don’t need shelves full of anxiety literature. The last thing I want is to come home from work and see bookshelves full to the brim with the subject. For me, the work of Dr Claire Weekes and Paul David is all I needed. All the information that would allow me to begin to recover is in their books.

C) I can have the life I want right now: Anyone who’s read Paul David’s books and follows his blog might recognise a lot of what I say, so for the record, I’m not looking to pass off other people’s ideas as my own. However, I cannot escape the fact that this man’s advice has proved invaluable. If you can truly understand his message, you will begin to recover. His central message is that, despite the awfulness of anxiety, you don’t need to stop. Claire Weekes was saying much the same as early as the 1960s. So many people put their lives on hold because of how they feel. The problem with this is that it can make things worse. If you take to your bed because you feel unwell, you’ll create behaviour patterns and safety methods that mean it will get harder and harder to get out of that bed. I was headed that way before I picked up ‘At Last A Life’, the first book by Paul David. His simple message that I didn’t need to wait to feel better to do things got me back on my feet almost immediately. I know it’s done the same for others. I’m not saying it made me feel instantly better. I had to go through some hard times, and I still feel rubbish occasionally. But it showed me that none of what I felt was actually a barrier to me getting out of bed and living. This in turn helped me to create the right kinds of behaviours.

D) Anxiety isn’t actually that bad: Anxiety is a massive lie our minds and bodies tell us. If you’re healthy, feelings of anxiety are an accurate reflection of how you feel and the feelings associated with it make sense. But if you’re like me, it pops up in the wrong situations and dominates your entire day. It’s a great big lie! I’ve felt an absolute array of symptoms, from loss of sensation in my limbs and face, dizziness, feelings of inhibited consciousness, depersonalisation, derealisation, a total and complete loss of my ability to feel emotions, nausea, muscle pain and spasms, perceived (but not actual) loss of bladder control, jelly legs, headaches, eye floaters, insomnia, hot spells, cold spells, crippling but unspecified fear, stomach pains, choking sensations, palpitations, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, upsetting thoughts, low mood and more. So I’m not going to say that anxiety isn’t horrible. It is. But when I rationalise the situation properly and truly, from the very pit of my being, accept and believe that it is all being caused by anxiety rather than anything more sinister, it loses its power. I’m not saying it goes away, but you stop fearing it. Without fear, it has so much less to feed on, and recovery begins. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve suffered for a short time or if you’ve been struggling for years, recovery is possible for anybody. But you have to lose that fear and allow yourself to feel rough at times. Anxiety and panic can’t and won’t hurt you. See through the lie and you’ll begin to beat it.

E) Worry is a waste of time: Again, Paul David is my guru here. It’s human to worry, of course. It’s all part of our make up. But how often do the things we worry about come true? And when they do, how often is it as devastating as we anticipate it to be? I’ve always been a worrier. I can’t always put my finger on what my worries really are, but I’ve always lived with one eye on what could go wrong. You can’t live your entire life on guard like that and not expect your in-built defences against threats to ignore it forever. That is what has happened to me. I’ve triggered that ancient part of us that prepares us to fight or to run away, and it won’t go away unless I allow it to. The way to allow it to do that is to stop living as if there’s a threat around every corner. I’m not going to start bungee jumping and I do still plan to look when I cross the street, but I don’t plan on seeing distant life events or minor issues as something to spend hours trying to figure out.

F) Trying to chase anxiety away only makes it worse: I absolutely believe in seeking help when you need it, and there are plenty of treatments for anxiety, from various forms of therapy to medications. I take anti-depressants and beta blockers and have been having a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I have found the pills useful in so much as they have given me the space to see so much of what I’m explaining in this post. The therapy has helped me to see how thought triggers emotions that trigger behaviours that trigger physical sensations. However, I have no interest in chasing around hundreds of therapists trying to find the one who’ll say the things that make it all go away. Nor do I find the constant burden of carrying pills around, trying to remember to take them, especially helpful. Ultimately, I can see how this creates behaviours that actually teach your mind that something is wrong, which only sustains anxiety. And that is why this is my last post on the subject (unless I feel very strongly I have more to say on the matter).

G) What people think about you is not the be all and end all: I’ve had to wait until 31 years of age to finally realise this. No matter who you are, you’ll never suit one hundred percent of the people you meet. If you get over fifty percent you’re doing quite well. Obviously, if you’re going for a job interview, you should be trying to give your prospective employer a good impression and you won’t win many friends if you’re not a half-decent person (is that true? Some of the most popular people I’ve known have been absolute shits).But the point is, stop worrying about what people think. This is especially important if you have anxiety, because it means you’ll stop fighting to keep control and you can drop the veneer of calmness and allow however you feel to just be. I’ve always hated situations in which you have to make a first impression. I never feel comfortable and this makes me feel awkward and brings unpleasant sensations. It makes it hard to concentrate on what someone is saying to you if your focus is entirely on yourself. I find that it triggers a real slowing down of my cognitive functions, to the point where I’ll slur my words and suddenly struggle to think of a single interesting thing to say. I guess you could call it Chandler Bing Syndrome. All of this is caused by nothing more than worrying too much what people think.

H) Just because you think something doesn’t make it true: This is a really important realisation that everyone with anxiety needs to have. Anxious people tend to make everything into a catastrophe. We over-analyse and worry what certain thoughts could mean about us. We sometimes feel a loss of control in our thinking that makes us worry we are experiencing something more serious such as psychosis or Schizophrenia. Or it could just be that you turn every sensation or blemish or symptom into its most dire possibility. A freckle you’ve never noticed before (or even one you have) becomes melanoma or your churning digestive system means cancer. This is one of the ways in which anxiety bullies us, and if you don’t break the cycle that begins with these unhealthy thought patterns, you’ll do yourself no favours. I was heading in this direction until I saw through the anxiety lie. Too many people – even those without anxiety – give their thoughts too much credibility. And by doing this, you can make things worse. If I have a worry or a thought I don’t much like, I examine it for what it is and now I just let it go. Instead of worrying about every little feeling, convincing myself I have a brain tumour and letting Dr Google ‘confirm’ it, I accept that almost everything you’ll ever feel will be benign and that, if one day I do have to receive bad news, I’ll find out the old-fashioned way – through a doctor. In the meantime, my mind is allowed to create whatever fictions it wants because I’m no longer listening.

The key to my progress has clearly been the message of understanding and acceptance. This is not some kind of newfangled method I’ve hit upon that is going to change the world. Dr Claire Weekes, who passed away in 1990, was writing about it for decades before her death and her work continues to help people to this day. Paul David, a former anxiety sufferer who spent ten years in the absolute mire, follows up on that message. I don’t believe sufferers need much more than the work of these two people and then to truly buy into what they have to say. That’s what I’ve done, and it feels like the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that what I’ve said here proves helpful to someone and I can go back to writing about my holidays. No, I am not anxiety, and neither is anybody else.

My New Friend

This is the first in a series of pieces about my experience dealing with anxiety. If anyone suffering with anxiety/panic attacks comes across it and wants to comment or contact me, please do.

I recently made a new friend. I say ‘friend’ – I actually mean callous, mean-spirited, wearying and troublesome bully. But I guess I’m going to characterise him as a friend anyway. Perhaps it will make things a little easier, because we’re going to have to get along.

A couple of weeks ago I was sat at my desk at work, doing what I do on a daily basis, probably feeling quite happy with where I found myself in my life. It was Monday lunchtime, I was tired from my usual Sunday night lie-awake-athon, and was just getting ready to go to the canteen. The next thing I know, I’m calling out for an ambulance. I’d felt a strange feeling or tingling in my left arm which somehow got to me. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t in fact having a heart attack and that it was probably just the position I’d had my arm in all morning, or perhaps my blood pressure was low. Sadly, my sympathetic nervous system didn’t get the message.

So I end up hyperventilating, feeling as if I’m grappling to stay conscious and, by this point, causing plenty of concern for my colleagues (who I’m sure could do without all this drama on a Monday). As dire thoughts of my imminent and permanent demise flashed across my mind, I could just about make out the presence of those around me as they placed me on the floor and raised my legs. I don’t recall actually losing consciousness at any point, but I’ve never felt so lightheaded and everybody’s voices just sounded so far away. My brain filled with the most intense fear – I really did believe I was dying. I’m only 31. I’ve never even been to Ibiza! I’ll never forget the moment of instant relief when the paramedics showed up and I was suddenly able to get up and walk to one of our side offices. Looking back, that should have been a sign.

To try and cut a long story short, I was checked over by the heroes in green and given a clean bill of health. They didn’t even see a point in taking me to hospital. I found this odd – I’d just collapsed, for god sake! Fifteen minutes ago I was wondering what my funeral was going to be like! And now you want to take your expertise and your fancy kit and tootle off into the afternoon! Needless to say, the whole episode repeated itself as soon as they were gone.

The next few days saw me living in a state of perpetual, bone-chilling terror: lying in bed shaking like a leaf in a blizzard, running through scenarios of what could be wrong with me. Did I have a brain tumour? Some other kind of cancer? Had I had a heart attack? Was I developing a serious mental illness? So many symptoms, so much fear. I’d never known anything like it and I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so little inclination to help me. I took myself to A&E twice and was told that I was in rude health. Well that’s great,  I thought, but I feel like every cell in my body is about to explode.

I eventually managed to get myself admitted. Who knows why they finally decided to do this? Perhaps they thought it better than having me constantly bothering them at A&E. I was observed overnight and my vital signs all checked out. I was hooked up to a heart monitor for about 30 hours and had blood tests taken and some poor soul was even given a perspex pot of my urine to have a think about. I was given a CT scan – a procedure which doesn’t help when you’re wrestling with generalised feelings of doom. But no, everything looked fine. Funny really, that everything should look fine, while I feel like I can’t walk, like I’m losing feeling throughout my body and trying to decide whether I’d rather be told I had Multiple Sclerosis or Motor Neurone Disease. Several times I was tested for a stroke for no other reason than my brain thought I might randomly be having one. I also entertained the idea of early-onset Parkinson’s disease. I didn’t even know I knew all these things existed.

And then, the next afternoon, a junior doctor who contrasted a pretty smile with a professional, stern tone, came along and told me it was time to go home. I think she could tell this was a shock to me because she paused at this point, broke from her brusque demeanour and placed her hand on my arm. “We wouldn’t release you if we thought it unsafe. I know it’s not easy, but try to stay positive. Are you someone who feels anxious a lot and worries a lot?”

And there it was. I could have said ‘no’, but I would have been lying. And then the time came to detach me from the various medical paraphernalia that was stuck to me or stuck in me, and I took my papers and shuddered off out of the ward in a brain fog to the hospital foyer to try and figure out what to do next. Preliminary diagnosis: anxiety/panic attacks.

It’s just over a week since I left hospital and I’m having to deal with the way I feel on a daily basis. I still have an MRI scan to attend, just to be on the safe side, but it looks like I’ve had my first panic attack. I’ve also since had my second, third and probably fourth. Most recently, I ended up back in A&E because I thought I was literally going mad. Needless to say I wasn’t, and if you have anxiety and feel like you’re going mad, you’re not either.

I’ve since allowed my GP to prescribe me some medication, although I can’t escape my own scepticism in this area. Maybe it’ll help, maybe it won’t. I’ll take it for the time being, even though it means I can’t drink, which seems like as good a reason to panic as any.

I have no idea if this will be a long or a short journey. I’ve already discovered Paul David’s book ‘At Last A Life’ and feel very lucky to have come across it so early on. I find his arguments and suggestions very persuasive and would advise anyone with anxiety or panic to at least give it a read. In the last 48 hours it’s already given me a new outlook on this condition I’m stuck with for the time being. Crucially, I understand that I can’t allow anxiety to control me or make decisions for me. And that means trying to live my life as normally as possible, bringing the symptoms along with me if I have to. I guess that’s what I mean by a new friend.

I feel like the internet and this blog gives me the perfect place to put down my thoughts and feelings as I deal with this. Even just sitting here writing about it has proven therapeutic. Anxiety happens to have struck at a point in my life where I couldn’t be happier. Now I could curse that fact and retreat into myself and away from my life and the people who make it so great. But I won’t. I have too much to lose.