I’ve struggled with anxiety for about six or seven years now. I started having panic attacks during my GCSE years at school, and before long I developed agoraphobia (a fear of being away from somewhere I feel safe in case I can’t deal with it) and depression (out of frustration at myself for not being like everybody else). I’ve battled with all of these throughout university, and have experienced a journey that’s taken me from awful lows to tremendous highs, as I’ve felt myself get on the path to defeating it once and for all. I came off medication for anxiety a few months ago, after being wrongly prescribed a combination of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication that could have been life threatening. I understand how it feels to live your life around this demon, and I therefore know how it can rule your life.
Many people are confused about what it means to have a problem with anxiety. It’s actually quite straightforward. Anxiety is your body’s way of surviving. We all have a capacity for it and we all will have felt that feeling of butterflies at some point or another, whether before an exam, an interview or something else we’re worrying about. When faced with a potential threat, our body injects our bloodstream with a kick of adrenaline, preparing us to either tackle the threat (fight) or flee to somewhere safer (flight). This becomes a problem when there’s no obvious threat, and your body tells you otherwise, triggering an anxious response to something that isn’t dangerous, such as a spider (arachnophobia).
A panic attack is when the level of anxiety reaches a peak, and your body and mind feel as if they’re ready to explode. Different people get different symptoms caused by the excessive oxygen you have in your brain from breathing too heavily in preparation for the danger. Mine have varied from palpitations, dry throat, feelings of unreality and dissociation, blurred vision, feeling like I’m ready to faint, feeling like I’m going mad to feeling as if the world is caving in on me. In short, they’re awful. They tend to last between a few minutes and about 40 minutes. When you start to experience these regularly, and are unsure what is worrying you, you should start seeking help.
So what is it actually like suffering with an anxiety disorder? It’s very hard to explain, because for me it’s normal to have thoughts chirping away at the back of my mind like “Where am I?” and “What am I doing?”, constantly checking if I need to be worried about where I am and what I’m doing. I can’t remember what it felt like before this started. Your brain should be your ally, but for people with conditions like mine, you feel it is attacking you all the time. All of the time. There is no break, because according to your mind, there are threats everywhere.
My agoraphobia developed as a result of hiding in my house and not leaving for six months from pure fear, having had a breakdown at school, hence making me nervous of being away from where I previously felt safe. When you walk down Queen Street, you probably are concentrating on the shops and where you want to go next. For me, I have to control myself to make sure I don’t panic, because it feels like my worst nightmare has come to life. Other sufferers have described agoraphobia as feeling rooted to a spot, which is very accurate. When the panic kicks in, and you realise you aren’t near somewhere safe, like a car or your home, you feel as if everything is closing in on you. Occasionally it gets so bad I am genuinely convinced that it’s game over for good. I have previously collapsed in public from blood pressure dipping from severe anxiety, but this would be different for everyone, and is very rare.
Social lives are the most difficult part in my opinion. I sit at the front of lectures. I don’t drink because it brings up feelings that remind me of panic attacks. I have never been to a nightclub. I have to make excuses for not attending bigger social events. I therefore feel as if I don’t have any close friends. I know deep down that I do, but it’s hard to lie in bed at night listening to people going out and not feel different, particularly when you feel that it’s robbed you of years of your life. All of this is because of fear of what might happen. That fear is the trigger for more fear. You then feel physically drained from the constant battle, which makes you worry even more, and a cycle develops. I feel as if I’ve broken this cycle now, but I’m having to make up on lost time, and it’s desperately tough to keep motivated to experience a ‘normal’ social life.
So what can you do if you’re struggling? The first step is to talk to someone close to you. I only recently opened up to my flatmates about how I really feel and they were wonderfully supportive. They spot when I don’t feel too good and can help me tackle it. There’s usually underlying issues that can cause an anxiety disorder, so it would be worth having a chat to your GP about receiving counselling. Counselling often gets called a waste of time, but I can guarantee that it isn’t. I gave up on it after my councillor suggested I might be autistic because of how sedated my medication made me appear, but after trying again three years later I regret not taking it up earlier, because it could have helped me get much better sooner. I even started a mental health campaign on campus before I admitted that I could do with someone to talk to! It’s basically a glorified chat. You’re sat in a room with a lovely man or woman who listens to you, and talks to you in a friendly way. You can say anything to them without judgement, and without feeling bound like if they were family or friends.
Be wary of medication for anxiety; I strongly believe it should be a last resort, when all else has failed, unlike in my situation. Finally, and most importantly, you aren’t going mad. You’re very sane, and you’re not as different as you feel.
If you’re interested in helping us make a difference with mental health of all varieties on campus and beyond, get in touch with ‘The Mental Youth’ on Facebook, or look at our website: thementalyouth.org. We need to break the stigma surrounding mental problems and help people realise that we aren’t mad, odd or beyond help. We’re normal people just like them. We just have a few different challenges to tackle.