There is a pounding in my chest. Everything else is drowned by the talking in my head. I can’t focus on what people are saying. People are laughing and I try to laugh as well, but I don’t know if this is the appropriate social response. I have the shakes. Thoughts in my head, compulsive, obsessive thoughts are so strong and so present that I am feeling head pressure. It’s not a headache; it’s a kind of pressure, as if something is pushing to get out. Sometimes, I feel it in my eye sockets.
The pressure is so great that sometimes I feel lightheaded and weak, nauseous. There are times where the discomfort isn’t in my head, but in my chest, and in this case, it hurts for real. It feels like there’s a knife lodged in there, crushing my heart with insecurity and panic.
I have anxiety disorder, and I have panic attacks almost every day.
Disorders like mine are the most common mental illness in the USA; it affects around 18% of the population of adults (18 or older). That’s 40 million people that feel the same symptoms as me, and have to cope with it every day. In the UK, mixed depression and anxiety is the most common mental disorder. I felt alone, but I wasn’t alone at all.
Anxiety can lead to depression. That’s what happened to me. Since then, I feel much better by taking the proper medication, going to therapy and working really, really hard to take control of my thoughts. Or simply ignoring them, which takes almost as much effort.
It can also lead to panic attacks. These attacks can last minutes or hours, with peaks every ten minutes. When I started having panic attacks I used to have them every hour of every day, except when I was sleeping.
Panic attacks and anxiety are, as unbelievable as it sounds, defense mechanisms that snap into action when danger or hurt seem to be imminent. My compulsive thoughts are a result of this; my brain is desperately trying to find a way out of anything that might not work out for me. My brain (I treat it as something separate from myself) seems to think I am constantly in peril.
Mental illness can come about for many reasons; life events, genetics, brain chemistry, personality. For me, a few life events left me falling into an abyss of the unknown, and I felt the loss of many things I had counted on before. So I started being scared, all the time, and my brain searched for a way out. One of the paths I constantly thought about was death.
Anxiety starts with fear of something, dreadful anticipation. This anxious feeling searches for some kind of protection that will leave you unharmed at the end of the situation you find yourself in. A way of doing this (and this is undoubtedly what anxiety is) is anticipating all possible outcomes, good or bad, and finding an escape. When escape is impossible, the panic attacks kick off – and they feed on fear.
I am extremely lucky in that I have many people who supported me and helped me get better. But what about those who don’t? There were moments I thought I was going insane. When I started taking my medication, it was as if a wall between me and the real world was destroyed and I could actually interact socially again. I cannot imagine my life now if I hadn’t had that moment of clarity, I would continue to think that I was going insane. And eventually I would become crazy. It’s too much.
What people don’t understand is that anxiety disorders aren’t about feeling a little nervous when you go outside, or when you talk to people. Anxiety is a seriously debilitating disease, with real physical symptoms. There are times it hurts so much I can’t talk, and others I have to force myself to pay attention to the world, otherwise I am just living inside my head. The head pressures are the worse, because it’s not quite pain but it does make me lightheaded and clouds my judgment. It’s one of the lesser known symptoms of anxiety.
If you’re suffering from anxiety, I made a list of a few things that have worked for me.
– Pushing out unwanted thoughts: Try really hard. Push them out, concentrate on it, and don’t give up. Try to separate your thoughts from the defense mechanism that’s bringing you down. Remember, anxiety lies.
– Have a mantra: Just one sentence to repeat over and over again, when you’re being taken by a panic attack. Say it until you calm down. If you don’t, keep doing it. (I owe this one to Make Me a Sammich)
– Watch TV, but also do something with your hands: Don’t just sit there and will yourself to be distracted. Do something. Doodle, knit, write, play Candy Crush. All of your brain has to be occupied at once.
– Exercise: I didn’t believe this until two weeks ago when I started running. It made me feel a lot better about myself and the endorphins kicked out my bad thoughts. It only lasts for a few hours, but they’re a blissful few hours
– Stay on medication if you’re on it: Don’t stop taking your pills. I have and the result was a complete relapse. I repeat, don’t stop your medication.
– A little help from my friends: Rather, your friends. Go out (or stay in) with people who you are comfortable around. Big groups usually scare me, but that’s up to you.
– Don’t push yourself: I know people are always saying that to get better you have to push yourself. But don’t, unless you feel you are ready to do so. I can’t even tell you how many times I tried doing that, because people pushed me, only to come back home in tears, or shaking, or panicking. I wasn’t ready! Do things at your own pace, if YOU feel that you can push yourself you should. But only you can tell.
– Get into debates: if you feel like you need a distraction, try to get into debates with your friends. I do that very often and it gets me out of my little anxiety shell.
This is one of the most personal posts I have ever written, and I hope that with my honesty you get help, or help some one you know that is afflicted by anxiety. I have also written about depression before, and you can read that here.