Suddenly, one day, a light switch is flicked. The light goes out and you are left in a bubble of fear, of loneliness and being scared of your surroundings. You think you are going mad, so you curl up, crying, day after day, just waiting for it to pass. But it doesn't. Time after time, your body is gripped by an invisible force, your heart races, your breathing becomes shallow and you sweat profusely.
Welcome to an anxiety attack. Welcome to anxiety.
Since the 3rd of December 2010 at roughly 9:45am, I have had an anxiety condition/disorder/thing. I was 16 years old at the time, and life was going great. I had a job at the local Waitrose (highly sought after!), was just starting my A Levels and had discovered my love for coffee. I was drinking a lot of coffee. Mistake Number 1. I was also very busy with various side projects and extra things I did, a trait I have had from a very early age, I had a need to work constantly. I have a great passion for music and at the time when this event happened, I was playing in a Christmas concert in the local town centre, with a cup of Creme brûlée coffee (it tastes better than you think!). During the concert I started to feel very nauseous, I started to shake, something wasn't right. Once the song we were playing finished, I walked out of the tent. That was when the anxiety started.
Therapy and Medication
"Your own mind is the scariest place you can be, especially if it isn't working properly"
I cannot put into words how lucky I have been in the support I have received during the time I have had the anxiety. From staff at my sixth form, to medical professionals and University academics, everyone has been quite understanding. Most of the time. Sometimes, select people find it very difficult to understand what is happening, and can be quite nasty. They cannot see the anxiety, it's not a tangible thing, so they either insinuate you are making it up, or tell you to 'man-up'. I despise that phrase. This is why we must be so open, courageous and sharing, to remove this stigma and raise awareness. One in four adults have a mental health condition, it is not something to side-step.
It took several months to realise that I needed professional help for my condition. I found it difficult to get on a bus, which worsened to me not being able to get to class which inevitably meant I found it difficult to leave the house. "It's all in the mind", some people would say. Let me tell you, your own mind is the scariest place you can be, especially if it isn't working properly. If you fell over and broke your leg, would I turn around and say "get over it, it's all in your leg"? No, that's just immature and stupid.
I was referred by my GP to the NHS (National Health Service) mental health scheme at the time, and given I was 17, this was the children's service. The waiting time for that was around 6-8 months, which was ridiculous, so I went private for some time. I had a psychotherapist, who was kind and for the first time, I genuinely thought someone understood me. And this was where talking and writing really came to light. Today, I make sure the immediate people around me, know that I have an anxiety condition. Firstly, it makes it far less likely that I'll have an anxiety attack. Why? Because half the anxiety comes from being anxious about having an anxiety attack. Pretty meta, right? Secondly, it helps people prepare for if I do have to leave work, or leave the situation or wander around listening to Einaudi for half an hour. This further reduces my anxiety. I also write a lot, and despite me wanting to have written this post months, if not years ago, I'm glad I didn't as I have a much better view now than I did then. In the early days I used a tool called OhLife which emailed you everyday, and you could reply back with whatever you liked. It was great, I could put my thoughts somewhere, and didn't have to keep them all to myself. More recently, I use a gorgeous app on my MacBook called Day One. Primarily it's a journaling tool, and I just write essays of brain dump whenever I feel like it. It is cathartic and liberating.
Back to the psychotherapist. I am the type of person who likes to substantiate things, label things, I really don't like in betweens, so I had to get a diagnosis for it. I needed to know what was wrong with me. He said I had severe Generalised Anxiety Disorder and mild depression, the latter due to the former. "Generalised"? You can imagine how disappointed I was, a person who dislikes ambiguity just got diagnosed with the most ambiguous medical disorder. Anyhow, I set about a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for some time, whilst he prescribed me two drugs, Propranolol and Sertraline.
Propranolol is a Beta Blocker, usually prescribed to those with high blood pressure. During panic/anxiety attacks, a person goes into a state called fight or flight, a autonomic physiological response that prepares us in case of attack. One part of this response, is the release of norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) which causes our pulse to go through the roof. Propranolol blocks this from happening. I take 40mg of this up to three times a day as required. You can feel it working, some of the time. Sometimes the anxiety can be so great, that it overrides it and the attack simply snowballs. However, I know that by taking this, I reduce a lot of my anxiety.
Secondly, I take Sertraline, an SSRI. This increases the amount of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, found to be deficient in those with anxiety and depression.
These drugs gave me the time to go about therapy and understand some of the potential root causes of my anxiety. We found that I had an issue with control. I found myself very anxious when I was out of control, for example when on public transport. The second theory is due to my parent's divorce. At the time, around 15/16, I put up an emotional wall, and didn't really react. This may have caused an emotional relapse further on, triggering the anxiety, which is how that emotion manifested.
Tips and Tricks
- I quickly learnt the benefits of drinking iced water, which for me is a life saver. I believe there to be some medical backing for this. For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of being sick, so drinking water, especially in an anxiety attack can help suppress this feeling. You will be hard pressed to find me out and about without a bottle of water to hand.
- No alcohol. This is more of a recent thing I have been trying, and it's worked well. Alcohol can actually kickstart an anxious thought, snowballing into a fully fledged attack. For the last month, I've been staying away from the stuff, and feel a LOT better for it.
- Music. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn and play three instruments, clarinet, flute and saxophone from an early age. Music has always played a large part in my life, and I cannot get through anxiety attacks without it. In the early days, Harry Potter soundtracks saved me from feeling completely isolated.
Now and The Future
"Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain"
It's okay :) . Anxiety and Depression and mental health are illnesses. Just like a cold, just like a broken leg. It is okay to be upset sometimes, to feel isolated, to feel anxious. We are human beings, and we are emotional, sensitive and most importantly, not perfect. This week, I went to The Web Is, which was organised by the fantastic Craig Lockwood (thanks!). I stayed for three days, two nights, in a hotel, in a city I didn't know, with people I didn't know. It is a MASSIVE milestone. I felt very little anxiety over the conference, just little twangs to "get out", but for the most part, I felt great. Two years ago I couldn't dream of doing that.
I'm currently working for JP Morgan Chase during the third year of my degree. I still suffer from anxiety. Every morning. But I can still do this stuff, and you can too. It takes baby steps, from answering the door, to taking a step outside, to buying a sandwich at a shop. It all takes time, but it can be done.
At the start of the article, I didn't say that I suffered from anxiety. Why? Because, despite it being a medical condition, and has given me a lot of difficulties and obstacles, I believe that I am a better, more open person because of it. I am happy to talk to people, to help people. It's just human. It isn't easy, but living in fear and isolation cannot be an option. We have to live fulfilling lives and whilst that may mean managing a mental health condition, we have to try. There is so much life can offer us. "Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain".
Geek Mental Help Week is a week-long series of articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the web about mental health issues, how to help people who suffer, and those who care for us. Follow @geekmentalhelp and share #geekmentalhelp. Make a submission for this site on Github.