Panic attacks and extreme anxiety are things that you cannot understand or relate to until you've experienced their absolute horror. And right now, they have me in their grip.
I've been suffering from anxiety for a few months now, brought on by a series of stressors towards the end of April, which, unfortunately, set what would follow in motion - more tears than I ever thought my body could produce, physical symptoms ranging from the shakes to the worst kind of pain from tension in my upper back, a very sick stomach, truly terrifying panic attacks, the seemingly concrete belief that I'd never feel like me again and the associated emotional upheaval and depression that all of this can bring.
Believe me when I say it, if you've experienced anything like I've described, you are not alone. It. Is. Horrible.
I'm normally a very happy, contented person, and so wasn't prepared for the constant low mood and all of the self doubt that the anxiety would bring to the fore. But it isn't me, and it isn't you, it's just the anxiety tricking you into believing that you are not okay. One of the direct effects of anxiety is catastrophic thinking. 'What if I can't go to work anymore?' (I couldn't), 'What if I never get better?', 'What if I have to go through this all of my life?', 'How will I ever cope with having to look after a family if I'm dealing with this?', 'How will I cope with a stressful day at work if I'm suffering with anxiety?'. The list just goes on.
If you too are experiencing a bout of anxiety, what's of crucial importance from here on out is that you begin to learn how to identify what is a normal thought and what is an irrational catastrophic thought, because as sure as your mind will go there, so too will your body. If you can identify that you are thinking catastrophically and that your body is feeling the effects of those thoughts, try to just let it happen, try to believe that it's just the anxiety and that as sure as it rises, it will fall.
If anyone is to doubt the link between our emotional state and our bodies, then they may as well doubt that world is indeed round. For me, I've tried (and I'm still trying) to look at my body's sensitivity as less of a hindrance (though it sucks at the best of times) and more as an early warning system. If I felt nothing, and my body never reacted to stress in the short term, then I'd probably continue in whichever cycle it was that was doing me harm, before the inevitable self implosion when the stress eventually causes you to crack.
I suppose really I should be grateful that your body tells you when something isn't quite right; look at it as though there's a train coming right for you, and know that your body is smart enough to tell you to get off those tracks before it's too late. Whether that means leaving the job that's giving you sleepless nights, taking it easy and having plenty of nights through stressful periods, or confronting an issue that you've been ignoring, such as a past trauma, this is your body's way of communicating with you.
And for me, it starts with a dodgy tummy, for others it might be a continuous headache.
The greatest problem with anxiety, and of course I can only speak for myself here, is the fear of the fear itself. I'm not afraid of tight spaces, I'm not afraid to fly, I'm not afraid of dogs or of massive crowds. My fear is that this crippling anxiety would stop me in my tracks and make me suffer any more than I already have. Recently, after a series of acupuncture treatments, natural supplements to help right some wrongs in my system (more on that later) and a few months with a therapist, I felt as though I was winning the battle. I started to sleep again. I started to be able to eat again (these are the most wonderful, simple pleasures in life that I will never not appreciate) and most importantly, I just felt like me.
But while I seemed to have made a miraculous recovery, there was always this lingering fear that at any moment the dark hooded figure that I imagine my anxiety to be would just rear its ugly head, and rob me of all the progress I had made, and all the good things I had gained. Had I really dealt with how that period of anxiety had affected me? No. Had I accepted it? No. I was still absolutely terrified that I'd wind up back there again, but of course I tried to ignore it.
And then, just like a self fulfilling prophecy, whilst enjoying a meal with my family on Saturday evening, sitting in front of the telly, I felt a little bit funny and got the fright of my life. 'Oh crap, this feels little too much like how I used to feel, why do I feel anxious just sitting here? Why is this happening?' And of course, the fear of the fear itself took over, and I experienced the mother of all panic attacks, so petrified that the last six weeks of feeling wonderful could easily be undone.
Today, admittedly, I'm a little bit ropey. Here's what I'm trying to acknowledge: everybody has little relapses and it's normal. I'm trying my hardest to accept that it's just a little bump in the road and believe that with what worked for me before - acupuncture etc - I will be able to get back to myself again and that my progress thus far hasn't gone to waste. Pretty soon, the connection to that really terrible bout of anxiety I experienced a few months back will fade, and I'll gain more and more confidence until I've completely owned it.
Whatever you're going through, surround yourself with a strong support network, be sure to keep talking, get some help if you feel you're having a particularly bad time with it and know that you are not a weak person for experiencing this, you're human and you're stronger than you will ever fully realise. Though this is a subject that I could delve into for page upon page (I may pen a book about it when I feel I've eventually gotten a proper handle on it), I'll wrap up here with one of my favourite, very simple life quotes from, of all places, Dori in 'Finding Nemo'.
'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swiiiiiming, swiiiiiming, swiiiiiiming.'
Do you have any tips to help deal with anxiety? Is that surge of overwhelming panic something that you've experienced? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.