Before we begin our journey together, I thought it would be polite to introduce myself. My name is Ruth, I love puppies, poetry, physics, philosophy and those YouTube videos of animals from different species being best friends (because come on, who doesn’t).
I also have anxiety.
Let me take you back in time (without breaking the laws of nature or using a Delorian):
On January 24th 2015 I was home alone, and began to feel very, very weird.
I suddenly found that I couldn’t breathe, like my lungs couldn’t get enough air in, in fact rather like my lungs were collapsing. My chest felt so tight that I couldn’t even stand up straight. My heart was pounding wildly and irregularly and it hurt.
I was sweating with clammy hands, feeling cold and hot all at once, my pupils were fully dilated and I could barely even walk on the two trembling limbs that attempted to hold up my body. My head felt foggy and heavy with sharp lightening bolts of pain scattering around my cortexes.
I had no idea what was happening to me.
It wasn’t just the physical sensations, oh no. My mind couldn’t concentrate, it was like someone had painted every thought in black, sticky tar and I couldn’t think straight. Everything felt wrong, I had an impending sense of doom. The only thought my brain could process was: I’m going to die. The feeling lasted one hour, two hours, three hours, getting progressively worse and in one particularly dark moment, my eyes drifted to the balcony. Anything to escape.
Finally, I googled my symptoms. In hindsight, a huge mistake. This is because Dr. Google kindly informed me that I was either having a stroke or a heart attack. I called 999, and on the ambulance’s arrival they informed me that in fact, what I was experiencing was a panic attack. Panic attacks share many symptoms of more serious health problems, making them equal parts terrifying and self-perpetuating. I remember saying: “Great, another thing to cross off of my mental health bingo chart.” I also distinctly remember the paramedics not laughing.
When I arrived at the hospital I immediately felt calmer. But also I felt incredibly guilty that I had wasted the precious time of the medical staff and dedicated doctors that helped me. To stop my heart rate re-spiking at the thought of wasting other people’s time, they informed me that I was not the first person this had happened to. In fact, they said, it happens incredibly frequently, which is unsurprising considering that anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders. But also, until recently, one of the most overlooked.
Since that first panic attack two years ago, a lot in my life has changed, including the factors that led me to that awful mental place, but alas anxiety has remained a pretty consistent feature, occasionally dropping by to say hello. In the months that followed it surrounded me like a terrible smell on a packed bus, a smell that could suddenly suffocate me, cause my brain to become heavy and foggy, that could cause my heart to feel like it was exploding, and that had somehow developed a mouth and a consciousness to inform me of my impending doom.
However, over time and through the methods I used, it got better. So much better. In fact, as I was improving I realised that I was braver, stronger and far more engaged with the world than I had been pre-first-panic-attack. I found things that used to cause me severe stress no longer affected me as much, and that when things did go wrong I knew it was all going to be okay.
I’m not saying that anxiety was the best thing that ever happened to me. Far, far from it. But it changed me, as all hard and terrible things change us, and I suppose one of the biggest lessons I learned from my anxious alter ego is that this affliction forces you to think positively and embrace life, and if you know how, you can use these experiences to your advantage. I still have relapses, times where it’s too much, where I feel my chest tightening and my head spinning, but now I can stop my panic attacks in their tracks, and I have accepted that overcoming this is a process, one that takes dedication and time, but one that is possible.
I hope, with the help of these tips, you come to believe that it is possible for you too.
All my love,