Wednesday, 30 September 2015

#HighFiveForAnxiety



Last week I was fortunate enough to be enjoying an amazing holiday on the island of Mauritius with my husband and, although I was trying to keep off social media as much as possible (which is difficult when you have a perfect wifi connection!), I couldn't help but notice all of the #HighFiveForAnxiety tweets and photos coming up on my Twitter feed. I thought it was a pretty epic sight to see just all of the people out there joining in with Anxiety UK's cause to stand up to the stigma of emotional health issues and so publicly share their battles with anxiety in such a positive way. It also prompted me to blog about my own battles with anxiety.

My Story

I think if I am honest I have always had some underlying anxiety issues but I think like most people I just used to think this was just my personality and part of my character. I have always been the kind of person who likes to be in control, picking my favourite seats out on the plane or at the cinema, situating myself close to exits in crowded places, avoiding public toilets and being quite fussy about what I eat. Yet around two years ago, and following a prolonged period of stress in my life, I unfortunately came to realise what it's like to experience high anxiety and panic attacks. Suddenly out of the blue one evening driving home I experienced my first real panic attack which made me feel like I was going to pass out at the wheel of my car and resulted in me throwing up at the side of the road and shaking continuously for well over 2 hours. This was the beginning of a battle that I am still fighting today.

What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

Nowadays the term 'anxiety' is thrown around quite a lot and whenever I watch my guilty pleasure 'The Kardashians' it always strikes me how loosely they throw around the term and complain that they have 'such bad anxiety'. Or sometimes I might just be reading tweets which in my opinion can really trivialise anxiety. Ever since 'that night' I now know what it's truly like to experience high anxiety and trust me when you have it you really know about it! And it's certainly not something you can joke about. There's a BIG difference between feeling nervous and having anxiety. 

Anxiety for me is a completely crippling and debilitating disorder and when it strikes I feel like I am living in a total nightmare from which I can't escape. Imagine being nervous and now times that by a thousand. Everyone's symptoms can differ in type and severity but for me it begins with a shift in my mind or a fearful feeling which suddenly overcomes me and starts with my chest tightening and my mouth going dry. I then start to feel wobbly like I might pass out and generally get uncontrollable shakes. This is then followed by feeling sick and an overwhelming need to simply 'get out' from whatever the situation may be. Lets now also throw into  all this the fact that I have a phobia of being sick and we have a pretty horrendous situation on our hands! On occasion my anxiety attacks have resulted in me throwing up, which for someone with a phobia is a really terrifying situation. 

My husband always says that he knows when I am anxious as I go inside myself and am really quiet, whilst for me it's like I can't speak or break free from the situation. It becomes a vicious circle where my thoughts create the symptoms, the symptoms then make the thoughts worse and so on. 

Triggers

Two years into my battle and I have become very familiar with what my triggers are but this doesn't necessarily mean that I can control the anxiety. Some people attempt to control it by completely avoiding those triggers which is a risky as it can lead you to avoiding normal every day activities and becoming agoraphobic. In the early stages of my illness I became so fearful of the panic attacks that I really didn't want to go outside of the comfort zone of my home. I was however fortunate enough to have people and help around me to not let it escalate that far. 

For me anxiety generally strikes when I am in situations where I have no control. It could be riding as a passenger in a car, travelling by train or plane, sitting in a meeting or even having someone talking at me incessantly. It generally tries to rear it's ugly head if I feel as though I am in a situation where I can't escape if I want to. I think it also has something to do with being in public situations where it may be crowded or where I worry about making a scene if I was going to start experiencing anxiety symptoms. It can also strike if I am on my own away from home or in stressful situations. And one of the worst parts of all of it is that I never really know when it's going to strike. Sometimes I might be fine in any of those situations and then it attacks when I least expect it to. It can feel completely  unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Coping Mechanisms

When you are in the mist of an anxiety attack it can be extremely difficult to just snap out of it as some people may suggest you should be able to. If only it was that easy! Generally I just have to allow it to run its course and because I have experienced it many times now I know that it will pass and that i'm going to be ok. When you first experience attacks of this kind it can feel like you're going to die or like you're going mad because you don't really have any idea what's happening to you. I have a number of coping mechanisms, or 'safety behaviours' as the professionals may refer to them, which I rely on to help me get through the bad times - drinking water, using the air con, tapping my hands or feet, distraction techniques like looking at photos on my phone and walking or moving around. The most effective one for me though has to be talking through what I am feeling which can be very difficult in the moment, but if I let out how I am feeling to those around me and talk through the fears and worries it does tend to dissolve the feelings much more quickly and helps me to think more rationally.   I also almost always end up crying too which is sad but it actually really helps with releasing all of those pent up emotions. 

The Truth Behind The Smile

I thought it was quite fitting to take a photo of myself doing my high five for anxiety whilst on holiday because I was actually really struggling with anxiety whilst I was away. I absolutely love to travel and anyone who knows me will say how much I love my holidays, but unfortunately they can also prove to be extremely challenging. I've never been good with flying but even more so since experiencing panic attacks. Mauritius was an 11.5 hour plane journey which is a long time to be stuck on a plane feeling anxious! It was almost too much to handle. Once we arrived at our hotel it was simply stunning and we had landed in paradise. We couldn't have been happier! Until of course we started to hear that other guests at the hotel had fallen ill with a suspected food related bug. This may not even effect other people but for me, the woman with anxiety and a fear of being sick, it had me feeling on edge and anxious all week. It by no means ruined our holiday and we still had an amazing time but internally for me I felt like I was again fighting the battle. I'm pleased to say we were one of the lucky ones not to fall ill (thank god for being Vegan!) but the thought of being ill didn't really leave my mind until we landed back home. 

So the moral of the story is that emotional illness isn't visible like having the flu or a broken leg and at least 1 in 4 people are fighting these internal battles which are often masked with smiles. I've had people in the past almost disbelieve my issues because I look ok and presentable and because I constantly push myself to lead the life that I want to. My life is a constant battle of wanting to do so much and then nothing at all! It's an age old saying but you really shouldn't judge a book by its cover as what you see on the outside really is only a fraction of whats going on inside.   

Recovery 

I still consider myself as 'in recovery' and since that night two years ago when all of this first began for me i've had periods where I have felt amazingly better and times where I have felt like I am back at square one again. I've tried medication and a couple of different forms of therapy which at the time were relatively helpful but they haven't completely cured me so I am still considering other options of help. I've read so many times that the road to recovery is not straight forward and that there will be highs and lows along the way but I remain hopeful that I can one day beat anxiety for good.

My #HighFiveForAnxiety goes out to all the other people who can relate to my story and who are living it every day. It somehow always manages to help me a little when I read about other people's experiences with this illness because I know I am not alone and in fact it's so much more common than I ever thought but it takes people like us to be bold enough to talk openly about it and help others to realise that it can happen to anyone. Even the one's smiling sunbathing in paradise. 
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3 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this Sarah. I can 100% relate. I have suffered with anxiety for over 10 years now and so many people say to me that they can't believe I do as I'm such a confident person who pushes myself. Most of my anxiety revolves around being trapped (I will tell you about my recent experience with the MRI scanner soon) so as long as I have space I generally feel calm. Over the years my attacks have been up and down with my most memorable in the airport as I left a flight which had just flown through an electrical storm. I collapsed onto the floor and it was hugely embarrassing with people crowding round as I struggled to breathe. When I prepare to travel or when my partner travels away makes me feel incredibly anxious. I guess it is about feeling safe for me. In recent years I've been OK with fewer panic attacks until the last couple of months where I had a HUGE one for no apparent reason in my bathroom at home. Those are the most annoying as there was no reasoning behind it. Big hugs and pleased to hear you still managed to enjoy some of your holiday xxx P.S. Yet another thing we have in common!!

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  2. Yes, thank you so much for sharing. I couldn't believe it when I read what you'd written because I can relate to so much of it, like being in control, not being able to escape from somewhere like a car or a plane. Even the going on holiday aspect of I really want to go but is it worth what I'm about to put myself through and my family. I feel like I'm not alone. The whole high5foranxiety has helped me to realise how common this is and that I'm not some weird screwed up person. Thank you again

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  3. I feel that with having anxiety, if i choose to speak about it people just assume i'm lying. Like you say it's just so thrown around and it makes it worse for me as I can't take to anybody without feeling like people will be like - you have anxiety? yeah, like the other ten people I know. It's getting harder and I can't talk to anybody about it because they will tell me to get over it or think about something happy.

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