That’s where my demons hide: Understanding anxiety.

*I am not a trained mental health professional, psychologist, psychiatrist etc. This post is about my lived experience and what has helped me. Please do not ignore medical advice that has been given to you by professionals.*

I have become very slowly more open about my struggles with mental illness but just now there is still a lot I am not ready to share. I will one day because I want to help break taboos; I don’t want to live in shame or cause others to think that they should be embarrassed about having mental health issues. I know how much others sharing their stories helped me; and finally because I can’t truly highlight the issues, hidden problems, and improvements I would like to see in mental health care without sharing my story.

This post is interspersed with pages from my bullet journals. I think that is the best way to share what anxiety feels like for me and visuals are easier for some people to follow than text.

Now there is a difference between mental illness (diagnosed medical condition) and mental health (everyone has mental health). In terms of anxiety there is a big difference, which I did not use to understand, between nerves and Anxiety Disorder. I will be discussing anxiety disorder and how it effects me but the tips should be helpful for anyone who has worries and fears.

It’s funny because I completely rejected the anxiety label when my GP first raised it. In fact I was so angry at her for even bringing it up (just another example of how we absorb taboos). I have always been very good at public speaking, presentations, debating etc. Surely I wouldn’t be able to enjoy doing those if I had anxiety? More than that though I felt weak, like the fact someone thought I might have anxiety meant I wasn’t tough enough or trying hard enough. It would shake me from my path of striving from the top. I wondered if I had been complaining too much, that I simply wasn’t able to cope with the world. It was easier to pretend my GP was misled and carry on in denial.

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Part of the reason I could be in denial is that I had so many blood tests and consultations. There were several reasons for this but the biggest one was because I was having episodes where I shook so badly and my heart rate went so high Doctors thought I was having fits. My whole body would be violently shaking. When this happened when I was a hospital inpatient they would rush and get the ECG machine to try and find a cause. Now I know what was happening was very sever anxiety attacks and the more medical attention I got the more anxious I became and the worse the ‘fits’ got.

It’s scary actually how long it took anyone to suggest there could be a psychological cause. I was just passed from specialist to specialist and my symptoms got worse and tests kept coming back fine. I have been diagnosed with more than Anxiety Disorder but I am not really to talk about that yet.

So if it wasn’t public speaking what were my anxiety symptoms? I am not a medical professional and this information and lists are just from my own experience:

Catastrophisation and thought spirals
Hyper vigilance
Micro-analysing my behaviour
Worry about letting people down
Very high standards of behaviour I have to meet
Poor sleep
Nightmares
An inability to sit still or relax
Very high heart rate, shakes and nausea
Panic coming out of nowhere with no clear cause
Nervous tics. For me tapping my fingers, bouncing my leg, small sways forward and back.
Shaking
Overthinking and over planning events and plans

I won’t go into detail of all the symptoms. But for me panic waves are a key sign of Anxiety Disorder. We all get nervous, terrified sometimes, of certain things we have to do, be that a difficult phone call, sitting an exam, attending an important meeting etc. etc.

With panic waves they come out of nowhere. I will be sitting there reading a book or eating my lunch or out for a walk and suddenly panic will overwhelm me. My heart rate will shoot up, I’ll start shaking and I feel like the world is falling in around me and that I won’t ever be the same again. These can happen several times a day or something go away for some time then suddenly come back. Which means I then get panicked about the panic which becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. All I can do is just try and take really deep breaths and remember the feeling will pass in a few moments if I accept it. It isn’t easy though.

Panic tsunamis, more normally called panic attacks tend to happen at times when I am under continuous stress over several days and those are pretty incapacitating. I want to pull my hair out and scream and don’t know whether I want to run away or curl up in a ball and hide. I will hyperventilate and sob and just generally feel completely out of control of my emotions and the world. It isn’t pretty and I find it pretty humiliating if people see me. I know that shame doesn’t help anything but none the less I feel it.

All I want to do is somehow remove myself from my own brain. I have found medication helpful for those really bad moments. Remember there is nothing wrong with taking mental health medication. I had a long journey to accept that but it really is not a personal failure.

Coping strategies

Bullet journal. Mine are called my ‘Mind Meanders’. I am currently on notebook number three. I found keeping a diary too much pressure and I could never stick with it. I felt like I had to record every little detail that happened in the day. But with a bullet journal I can just write down little individual things and it doesn’t have to be everyday.

Write down your feelings and thought spirals and a calm approach to the fear. When you begin to panic your thoughts start to go very quickly and before you know it you can have jumped twenty steps forward in your head and arrived at some catastrophic conclusion without really knowing how you got there. Writing things down lets you see all the steps and forces you to slow down and process your feelings. Bullet journaling can also just be a nice place to write down inspirations quotes or happy memories.

Try to ride the panic wave. If you fight it it will get worse and last longer. Imagine if you were trying to block the sea and stop the tide. Even if you managed it would take you so much effort and each new wave would be a new fight. So rather than being hit with one wave you are trying to stand up against wave after wave after wave.

I find it helpful to imagine my worry as an inflatable beach ball (see drawing below), if you keep trying to push the ball (your worry) under the water it will take a lot of effort and eventually bounce back to the surface and probably smash you in the face. But if you leave the ball floating and just accept that it is there, it takes a lot less effort and you can begin to pay attention to the other things around you at the beach (your mind). Basically try not to focus on and analysis your worries. Just let them be (although I realise this is easier said than done).

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Write a clear list of distraction therapies that work for you and have it easy to access. When anxiety gets really bad you can’t think clearly and often won’t be able to think about your coping strategies. Mine include: Making sure I don’t spend too much time alone in my room; Getting outside; Doing an easy low thought task; Speak to someone, it doesn’t have to be about mental health just distract your brain; Do a workout. If high intensity is your thing then maybe that will be a run or circuits. If you like things more steady then do a walk or some stretching.

Conclusion

Knowing that my experiences might help others feel less alone and challenge stigmas gives me a real lift. Every cloud has a silver lining. I know support for mental health is not what it should be, believe me I have learnt that from experience. But do try and reach out. Be that to your GP, family, friends or call a helpline. Keeping things bottled up is easier, it seems braver and you don’t want to burden other people. I know. In the long run though it will make things worse, not only for you but for those around you. You don’t need to say anything exact like ‘I think I have anxiety’. Just choose a really clear struggle and share that to begin with.

I am sending all of the care and positive vibes across the internet. Look after yourselves everyone.

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