If I had a superpower it would be leaping to conclusions in a single bound.
Until about 18 months ago, I had never really suffered from anxiety. I’d been anxious of course about an exam result or an interview, but didn’t recognise the difference between that and actual anxiety.
The first time it hit me was on a flight from Majorca to Jersey, when I knew that whatever happened after I walked through arrivals was going to determine whether my marriage was really over. I found myself sitting in baggage claim, head between my knees, heart pounding, trying desperately (but not altogether successfully) to stop myself from a/ crying, b/vomiting and c/ hyperventilating. You don’t want to do those last two at the same time, believe me.
I didn’t know what was happening at the time, aside from the fact that it really wasn’t ideal, but I’ve come to realise that it was a full blown anxiety or panic attack. Luckily the first time was the worst time, and I’d only describe one or two of the incidences since then as ‘attacks’, with ‘episodes’ seeming a more appropriate and less violent word to describe what takes me over every so often.
From time to time since that day in the airport, I’ve been gripped by feelings of anxiety for anywhere between a few hours and a few weeks (the 3 weeks after my Grandmother passed away were a challenge). By day the feelings manifest in a relatively manageable way; low level nausea and loss of appetite, lack of concentration, tearfulness and a slightly increased heart rate. I thought I might have been imagining the latter but I’ve checked, and it’s a thing. Pretty standard regular symptoms for a lot of Women.
It’s by night that the full effects really kick in. Chronic sleeplessness is fuelled by my mind running at 1000 miles an hour, replaying conversations word by word, analysing any situation over and over and over again, and jumping wildly to irrational conclusions. An off the cuff comment at work can easily become an imminent sacking, and if a friend hasn’t replied to a message or email I become convinced it’s because they’re dead, they hate me, or they’re hiding something from me, probably because they hate me. The innumerable completely rational reasons for their delayed response don’t even register, I convince myself of the worst, and can’t be persuaded otherwise.
Mostly however I worry uncontrollably about the future. Whilst normal, level-headed rational Me knows that things will be ok, that an unknown future is actually quite exciting, and to take one day at a time, anxiety stricken Me is utterly incapable of thinking straight, instead inventing all kinds of future scenarios for myself, none of them particularly good, and scrutinizing every past event from my childhood until yesterday that has led me to where I am. The best way I can describe it is that my mind is taken over, or starts to self-destruct. As hard as I try I just can’t pull myself back into reality at these points.
Sleep, when it finally arrives, barely helps as I’m prone during these episodes to nightmares, waking up sweat-drenched and tear-streaked, heart beating out of my chest at whatever horror my subconscious has thrown up.
18 months in I’m slowly learning what can trigger these spells of chaos. Too much time spent in solitude, especially when I’ve not planned to, is almost guaranteed to set me off, I’m more likely to start to spin out when I’m hormonal, or by allowing myself to get stressed by work or life.
Despite the above I try and keep in mind that I’m one of the lucky ones; 99% of the time I’m completely fine. These episodes are intermittent and often I can go months without a sleepless night or an irrational thought, whilst I have friends who suffer with varying levels of anxiety all the time. I’m so sorry that I didn’t understand until I experienced it myself, and dam girls I don’t know how you get out of bed in the mornings. You have my utmost admiration for carrying on.
I’ve been reading up on what steps I can take to manage anxious feelings, and am already cutting back on alcohol, caffeine and nicotine which can aggravate the problem, eating well, trying hard to accept what I can’t control, letting go of disappointments and beginning to practice mindfulness and positivity exercises to keep my head on the straight and narrow. I already knew that exercise and keeping myself busy and sociable is a guaranteed way to get back on track, but that can be tricky at 3am in the dead of winter.
Certain friends now recognise when I’m not myself, one will make sure I’m eating by bringing me food to work, and another two will bombard me with messages, jokes and gifs designed to make me laugh. I don’t think any of them know how grateful I am, so I hope they’re reading this.
I’m optimistic that in time, as my life settles down and whatever path I’m on becomes clearer, that these bouts become fewer, farther between and easier to extinguish. Until then I’ll keep talking about it, and keep asking people to read about it, because nobody should ever be ashamed to admit that they’re not ok.
I’ve included a few helpful links about anxiety below, and for anyone reading this who recognises the feeling and believes they need further support can call Anxiety UK on 08444 775 774 or MIND on 0300 123 3393, or speak to your GP.