I’ve lived with anxiety and panic disorder for pretty much as long as I can remember, and it’s become a big part of my life.
I don’t usually tell people that I’ve got it – partly because there’s still some stigma attached, but largely because unless something major happens, I feel I should be able to manage it myself, or if necessary, with a health professional.
But managing it does take a fair amount of time and effort, and can be quite draining.
‘People with anxiety never go out or do anything.’
Not everybody with anxiety is agoraphobic. There are many different types of anxiety disorders:
• Generalised Anxiety Disorder
• Panic Disorder
• Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
• Specific Phobias: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, arachnophobia etc
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
• Social Anxiety Disorder
Some people will have a mixture of these.
While some anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia or social anxiety, may affect your ability to go out and do things, it’s not the same for everybody. Personally, I struggle mostly with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks. A large part of this is ‘free-floating anxiety’, which is defined as extreme dread that is often ‘for no discernible reason’. Put simply, I usually don’t realise what is going to set it off, or why. There doesn’t seem to be a discernible pattern. This is pretty disorientating; I can quite easily have a panic attack when I’m just sat on the sofa watching a movie.
But on a positive note, this also means that my plans aren’t really affected.
As someone who has fairly common panic attacks, I’ve got pretty good at learning when to make a dash for the nearest bathroom, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference if I’m at home, or out and about – so I just go on more or less as normal. I’m sometimes a little shaken up, and it can take me a while to calm down again, but it’s usually nothing that a cup of tea can’t fix.
So yes, I have anxiety, but I’ve learned how to handle it and get on with my life.
‘Does your anxiety make you flaky or awkward around people?’
As I’ve got older, I’ve become more confident being around other people, so social anxiety isn’t so much of an issue for me anymore. Now I usually do well at making plans and keeping to them without cancelling.
However, my anxiety about other things can sometimes cause problems with communicating – when it’s bad, I might find my head feels foggy or jumbled, which can make it hard to process things or trust my own judgement.
During a panic attack, I can even struggle to recall certain information, or process things said to me. This is because when it’s bad, there’s a constant background noise of thoughts which can make it difficult to focus.
But most days, I get on with other people well, I enjoy working with my team, and I’m happy to speak up in meetings. I’ve still got to work a bit on presenting in front of a camera, and meeting large numbers of people, but I’ll get there!
‘Does your anxiety affect your behaviour?’
There are lots of ways that behaviour can be affected by anxiety:
• Mood swings – including fear, tearfulness, and/or irritability
• Sleep – disturbed sleep pattern; difficulty getting to sleep, waking up during the night, etc.
• Compulsive behaviours – OCD behaviours can range from washing hands to pulling out hair
• Withdrawing from friends and family
Most people with anxiety learn to manage their symptoms in their own ways and have their own coping strategies for their symptoms.
I personally get a few of these symptoms in different ways; I get mood swings from time to time when my anxiety is especially bad. They often come hand in hand with migraines. On those days I usually don’t leave the house, as the migraines can be quite draining. I also experience compulsive behaviours – struggling with skin excoriation disorder or dermatillomania (skin picking/scratching).
And I’m not always the best at making myself go out socially; I can get anxious around too many people, so sometimes I withdraw for a couple of weeks when I feel overwhelmed.
But I’ve found ways to manage these symptoms.
• I practice meditation and mindfulness for mood and anxiety management.
• I’ve taken up knitting to keep my hands busy and stop me picking.
• None of us can go ‘out out’ because of lockdown at the moment, but I’m making the effort to keep going outside for walks.
The little things help!
‘What does a panic attack feel like?’
Panic attacks manifest in different ways for different people, but all are characterised by an intense feeling of dread.
Some common symptoms include: a sense of impending doom, chest pain, a headache, chills, light-headedness, fear of loss of control or death, and a feeling of detachment.
For me personally, the first signs are a tingling, hot sensation on my face, light-headedness, and my vision going slightly cloud and white. Everything feels far away, and I get so absorbed by fear that it becomes hard to focus on the world around me. The thoughts come so fast and strong that I find it difficult to control them, quite often experiencing visual images of ‘disaster-scenarios’.
As a result, panic attacks can cause mood swings, so be aware that if you’re around someone having a panic attack, they will be feeling extreme fear, and this may cause a range of behaviours including crying, irritability, or distrust. This will pass – just reassure them that they’re safe and that you’re there for them.
The process of de-escalating can be slow; it usually takes at least an hour (if not longer) before a lot of people feel ‘normal’ again.
After an especially bad attack, I often feel very fatigued; sometimes I can sleep for 3-6 hours afterwards, and wilI feel physically drained and exhausted (perhaps with a migraine), for up to a day.
‘If I am having a panic attack, what should I do?’
• Make sure you’re in a safe place, and phone a friend or relative for company if you don’t feel safe alone.
• Breathe slowly and deeply; there are a variety of breathing techniques that you can use, such as 4-7-8 breathing, deep diaphragmatic breathing (i.e. belly breathing), or yogic pranayamic techniques. Try a few and see which work for you.
• Try distraction: find something comforting to take your mind off the distressing sensation. Depending on what’s more powerful for you, you may want to watch a gentle movie, listen to relaxing music, run a bath, or use aromatherapy oils. Some people find it helpful to use ice cubes or put their face in cold water. Mostly, I listen to meditation music when I have an attack.
• Low blood sugar levels can contribute to anxiety and panic, and hypoglycaemia can be a similar experience to a panic attack. Ensure you eat regular, low GI meals to prevent blood sugar dips.
• Do NOT drink alcohol! Panic attacks and alcohol do not mix.
• Avoid caffeine – it can increase the ‘jittery’ sensation of anxiety.
If you’re struggling to manage your panic attacks and/or anxiety on your own, then please see your GP!