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?