To bring attention to a mental health issue which has affected more than 8.2 million people in the UK, my post today is one on anxiety. Anxiety is a relentless and dread-inducing illness that leaves its victims battling to keep up their work, education and relationships. It can come in the form of social, generalized, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive and panic anxiety disorder, to name a few. Its physiological and psychological symptoms are often exacerbated by a society (members of which can include our friends and family) which at times does not take this excruciating illness seriously.
Where it all began for me
I have always been a very shy person, a propensity which was perhaps provoked into developing further by certain traumatic childhood experiences, leaving me mentally in a state where the slightest incidences may have triggered the anxiety. My journey with social anxiety began at the age of fourteen, when I was suffering with undiagnosed and untreated depression, reflected by my bad grades and poor attendance. Due to my severe shyness, I didn’t make many friends during secondary school, and it was at this point in my life that this shy tendency rocketed, developing into a fully fledged, extreme fear of social situations. I can recall sitting in my form classroom, with this extreme, irrational fear that everyone was looking at me, judging me, that every laugh was due to a joke made at my expense, that something awful was on the verge of taking place. Whilst I have personally never suffered panic attacks, these psychological fears were exacerbated by symptoms of nausea, shaking, dizziness and heart-palpitations. Apart from one good friend, I kept everything to myself and desperately tried to battle the illness by myself. I was treading water, and the all-consuming illness that is anxiety eventually left me to drop out of school at the age of 15.
Following my leaving school at an early age I was referred to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), to no avail. I think this was partially to my own not wanting to talk and making it difficult for people to help me; you can’t help someone who won’t allow you to help them. However, the social worker who I was referred to came across as very patronizing and I felt she didn’t take me too seriously because of my age. I think she saw my condition as “teenage angst” and my dropping out of school as, perhaps, a bit of rebellion. I remember her offering a piece of advice that if I felt depressed, I should “go and stroke my pet cat” in order to feel better. Frustratingly, that was probably the most helpful thing she said to me in all of my appointments with her.
After cutting this “treatment” short, followed a phase of me progressively leaving the house less and less, and during the peak of this condition, I ventured out of the house on maybe three separate occasions at the most. It was a depressing, lonely and utterly dreadful time for me, leading me to feel deeply suicidal and even planning how I would go about acting on this desire to not be alive anymore. I didn’t really have anyone in my life who helped or understood, yet when my Dad and his side of the family tried, unsuccessfully, many times to reach out to me, I closed myself off. I didn’t speak to them for years, one of my biggest regrets, yet I was simply just too consumed with my illness, a shell of my former self.
Fight or Flight: What was going on?
Humans have evolved in such away that if we are faced with a threat, we are psychologically equipped to react in order to protect ourselves from such dangers. When you feel as if you are being threatened, hormones, such as cortisol or adrenaline, are released in your body, making you more alert and allowing your heart to beat faster in order for blood to be pumped quickly to where it is most needed. This is a natural, biological response that our bodies should experience when our lives or well-being are genuinely under compromise. If, however, you experience these symptoms when you are not in any true danger, then something is going wrong. So, even though it felt like the exact opposite, in a very twisted way, the anxiety I suffered during and in anticipation of social situations was my body’s way of trying to look out for me, only when I didn’t need it to. I was experiencing my fight or flight response going off at the wrong time, so really, my body was trying to warn and protect me from danger, ending up with the opposite of the desired result; It stopped me from seeing my friends, family working, studying and leaving the house.
Things started to change for me a few months after turning 18. I had managed to book a telephone consultation with a GP, who prescribed me with anti-depressants. These tablets were life-changing for me; even after one day of being on anti-depressants my whole world perspective had changed and I almost felt like a child again, the person I was before I ever experienced the slightest inkling of mental illness. I even managed to push myself out of the house to visit my GP in person and I even went to have a look around the shopping centre afterwards (this was a massive, massive deal for me!). I was able to do something as simple as read a book, my appetite returned, I enrolled myself on a full-time college course and, most importantly, I wanted to live.
My life has changed significantly since that time and sometimes it’s easy to forget that. Therefore, on bad days or moments, I have a tendency to put myself down, pushing myself into a rut. I still have anxiety and depression, and I am still in the midst of an 8-year-long-and-counting-battle with my illness. I do still struggle to get out of bed and I sometimes feel terrified when out in public. Now, however, I have my meds, I have perspective and a deeper understand of what is going on inside my brain and body, allowing for me to have an objective, third-person perspective on my illness. I know now that my anxiety does not define me.
Please let me know of any thoughts or experiences you have had with anxiety!