Living with panic attacks: 'Accepting my anxiety changed my life'
In conversation with Ann who struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. She shares her experience and hopes it will help others...
1. What does it feel like?
"Anxiety is a very physical sensation, like a tightening around your lungs like being wrapped in a vice of thorns. It is quite restrictive, and you feel like you can't catch your breath. You can see people who feel anxious often taking big deep breaths or sighing deeply as if they feel like they can't get enough oxygen. Mentally, it is a feeling of doom and dread that comes from nowhere and is really hard to get rid of. That feeling causes panic. If you have it for a long time, the feeling is less 'episodic' and becomes, instead, a general everyday feeling of grey that almost nothing can penetrate. You end up asking yourself what's the point of going through life feeling like this."
2. How do you go about tackling it?
"For me, the first step was recognising that these feelings were anxiety. Not knowing what it is was the most frightening part for me. The second step is knowing it is ok to feel like this. Sometimes the world puts pressure on you to think everything should be amazing all the time. You 'should' feel great because you have a new job or a new boyfriend or a new baby. But anxiety doesn't care. It creeps up and takes hold of you no matter what is happening in your world. What certainly doesn't help is the picture-perfect lives people are portraying on social media like Instagram. It is very isolating. But it is important to know that most people have their 'thing'; anger, insecurity, body issues, trust issues. We are human, and we are flawed. Accepting you have anxiety, you are not alone and that you can manage it takes the panic out of it. That was the beginning of how it changed my life"
3. What advice would you have for anyone who is in the thick of it?
"Your first stop should always be to tell a friend or family member or your doctor. You are not asking them to fix you - but the chances are that they know you the best and having someone else understand you are feeling like this is really important. It might sound silly, but I think being out in nature has helped me greatly. It gives a sense of perspective and a sense of something that is greater than the feeling you feel. I used to hate when people would say 'just go for a walk' it seems so ridiculous when you are basically having a mental breakdown, but I'm telling you it does really help.
Even though you don't want to do ANYTHING or be with anyone, you have to be strict with yourself as the temptation to crawl into bed is so strong but that will make you so much worse. Getting into a healthy routine was key for me to managing my anxiety. I regained some sense of control over how I was feeling because I was controlling certain aspects of my life like nutrition and exercise. Meditating too is very helpful. There are loads of 'apps' like Headspace that can really help you focus and relax.
But long-term the most helpful aspect I found was doing CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) This changes the way you think and the way you worry. There is no quick fix for these grey feelings, rather it's a process of acceptance, of small changes and routine. Please remember to take pleasure from the little things, your nieces laugh, a new top, a good song."
4. I'm sure it can be quite isolating...
"Whenever I tell anyone I have anxiety, 100 per cent of the time they say "oh me too" or "so does my sister/cousin/mum". We have to stop this culture of being secretive or ashamed about it because it doesn't help. You end up feeling exhausted trying to cover it up all the time. I want to tell people today - you are not alone"
5. You say there is a social responsibility - what do you mean by that?
"We have a duty to share our feelings and to call our mental health to attention. It takes courage to recognise you have it, it takes even more to share your story with others, but by doing so, you really could save a life. We have to stop making people feel like they have to be perfect all the time. Not everyone has to fit in all the time. I want people to know that you can come out the other side even if you think you can't. I still struggle ,but accepting that is just who I am helps me move forward and to really focus on the good aspects of my life."