anx·i·e·ty (/aNGˈzīədē/): a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
World Mental Health Day was on October 10th. Of course, Voicing Realities was only in the creation process at that time, so the article is a bit late to the party. However, it only felt right to the team that mental health was one of the first subjects covered by the magazine. Although we hope to share more testimonies in the future and have the intervention of a psychologist or a specialist, today’s article about anxiety will be my own story. Nonetheless, I believe that it can help many of you as I will go into factors, symptoms and more.
The above definition of anxiety is the meaning that most people would know as it is used in so many situations. In psychiatry, the definition of anxiety or anxiety disorders is slightly different:
anx·i·e·ty (/aNGˈzīədē/): a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks.
I was diagnosed with anxiety disorders when I was fourteen, a transitional age tough enough as it is. I wish I could say this was the only mental illness I have suffered from but it was never going to be that easy, was it? Eating disorders and depression are issues that I have also been battling with on and off for the past ten years. I always find it funny to say those words because I believe to be a very sane person… I was just born in a very insane world.
My anxiety disorders took about a year to be diagnosed by doctors. Because symptoms started with constant stomach cramps, they would run test on me for potential ulcers or diseases. I also have asthma so, at first, shortness of breath and chest pain were put down to that. Relatives and friends were starting to wonder if I was not imagining the pains or even faking them. I doubted my sanity without knowing how ironic my doubts were. It took one doctor and one little, insignificant symptom to put everything together. That day, when I came back to see him with the same stomach ache, I also told him about my right eye beating uncomfortably. A series of questions then followed: are you having troubles sleeping? Do you feel agitated? etc. And that was it. It was nothing serious, just anxiety. And I guess that, in the grand scheme of things, anxiety is a less serious condition that cancer or other lethal diseases. But I would like to take a minute to tell anyone out there suffering from anxiety disorders that it matters and that no one can disregard it just because you are not in immediate danger of death.
What can trigger anxiety and panic attacks? Well, it is hard to say as people react differently to all kinds of situations. However, overthinking tends to play a big part in everyone’s anxiety disorders. As far as my anxiety is concerned, the future and fear of failure are strong factors. It is also triggered by situations where I lose control. Small/closed spaces and crowds have become deeply unnerving for me. I used to love being in the pits at rock concerts but after fainting twice in the middle of the show, it has now definitely been ruled out. Shopping in jam-packed malls or centers or shops or markets has also become quite a challenge. Living in big cities such as Paris and New York has its drawbacks too, especially when it comes to the subway during rush hours. I like feeling invisible and anonymous but I hate feeling suffocated.
Before telling you a bit more about my social experience with anxiety so far, I would like to focus on symptoms. I know you can easily lay your hands on lists online but I sometimes find them extremely lacking in content.
Here’s what my panic attacks have looked liked in the past ten years: stomach cramps, nauseas, chest pain, suffocation, hyperventilation, heartburn, different muscle spasms, shivers, vasovagal syncope, sleep deprivation, temporary sight and hearing troubles, hot flush, tachycardia, dizziness, mood swings and crying fits. These are the patterns that have come back on a regular basis but I may have forgotten some occasional symptoms. Yes, it is possible to feel them all in one panic attack. And while I have no idea what dying feels like, a vile panic attack can scare you to death. When something as innate as breathing is no longer an instinct but the most excruciating sensation in your throat, you barely dare inhale for air. So naturally, your mind wanders to a dark place where your family is already planning your funeral.
When you are a teenager, it gets overwhelming pretty fast… especially when you feel alone and know how ignorant, judgmental or mean others can be. When I got to high school, things got to a whole other level of bad. I had just turned fifteen when my anxiety kicked off and went from uncomfortable to overpowering. I would have panic attacks every other day in class and would be completely unable to sleep at night. I endured insomnia almost every night from February to June during my freshman year of high school. Thing is, the less I slept, the more I would get panic attacks. The more I would get panic attacks the more I would be terrified. The more I would be terrified, the less I would be able to fall asleep. It was a vicious circle. I have always loved summer time but I was particularly thankful for the two-months break that year. My sleeping schedule improved and I started taming my anxiety. Indeed, I learnt that summer that you can control your anxiety to a certain extent. It is about mental concentration and muscle tension. It is still painful and exhausting but, at least, I was not a freak anymore… except for the lovely étiquette that follows you, of course.
After that, I tried to master my anxiety as much as I could. It has not been perfect but there were periods when I could go without any panic attack for months. Those times were amazing because I finally felt strong. The lingering impression of being weak was sometimes even harder to swallow than the actual disorder. However, anxiety is not something you can easily zap out of your life. These last few months have been particularly tense and challenging. The panic attacks have come back with a vengeance in October and I always find it hard to adjust again after a quiet period.
I wish I had gone through the first years of my anxiety disorder with someone who had experienced the same thing. I have always had my mom’s support – which we are not all lucky to have, I admit – but what can she do really? It was only in 2012 that I realized I was not alone when YouTuber Zoe Sugg made a video on her own anxiety disorder. If you are suffering from panic attacks, please know that you are not alone. Find someone to talk to – whether it is a family member, a trusty friend, a nurse or a psychologist. If you know someone who might be suffering from panic attacks, please be understanding and seek for someone’s help as well.
One thing that has helped me overcome some of my panic attacks was humor. If you can make an anxiety-prone person laugh, go ahead. The aim is to make that person think of anything but his/her panic attack. If you are alone while going through a panic attack, read a book/magazine and play videos/movies that you know will make you feel better. Habits and safe bets are better in those moments because they are familiar and have already proven to be efficient. Try your best to drive your mind out of the anxious situation in any way you can.
Now, I know I have not mentioned any treatment in this article and, to be honest, I have a strong opinion on medication when it comes to mental illness. I am well aware that some illnesses cannot be treated without drugs but I was fortunate to be taken care of by a doctor who only believed in self-help. Well, he just figured that it would be too risky as I could develop an unhealthy addiction. He also explained that the younger you are when you start taking pills, the more complicated it is to stop. It could lead to other health issues and because I was already struggling with so much at the time, I agreed wholeheartedly. I do not consider myself to be a strong person but I have always been able to channel some strength from different things so that my anxiety, my depression or my eating disorders did not call the shots. I came close to losing control multiple times when I was a teenager but I now know better. I am glad to never have been under the influence of a treatment that could have altered my perception and feelings. Everything that I have been through has made me who I am today: vulnerable, alert of the bad and appreciative of the good. However, please talk to a doctor – or multiple – before jumping to any decision. I do not have the power or diplomas to tell you what to do but it is important that you are informed and know all your options.
Raising awareness on mental illness is extremely important and we hope that this article was somewhat useful to some of you. Please feel free to reach out to the associations linked below and to let us know in the comment section if there is such existing associations in your country so that we can add them to the list.
United States: ADAA
United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation
If you want your story to be featured on a future post on mental illness and anxiety, please go to our contact form in the Submit Your Story section.
Featured image: #Inktober’s Generalized Anxiety Disorder – October 31st, 2016, © Shawn Cross via Facebook