Sunday, 18 March 2018

It's OK not to be OK // My Anxiety Disorder

Hello lovely people,

Today, I want to talk to you about something that I haven't spoken about before; anxiety. I've had anxiety and panic attacks for approx. 8 years. It's something that I've never felt able to share because I suppose, a part of me was too afraid of what people might think of me. To be frank, I have a lot of internalised shame and stigma about my own mental health. If someone asks me how I'm getting on, the answer always has to be 'good' even if I'm struggling. We have a cultural aversion towards vulnerability and as a result hiding in the shadows can seem like the only option. Even with the best of intentions, we simply don't know how to respond to sadness, anxiety, frustration, grief etc. because we've never been taught how. Keeping quiet and hoping that problems will magically go away never, ever works and yet somehow it is our default response.

My anxiety came about as a result of various traumas, and could generally be categorised as 'social anxiety'. Since rejecting my eating disorder behaviours, I've felt pretty vulnerable, like all my insecurities are out in the open. Without that (albeit unhealthy) coping mechanism to cling on to, my negative emotions are loud, clear and obvious. I can no longer pretend that they don't exist. I can no longer turn my back on my mind, body and soul. Healing involves a great deal of discomfort. Scratch that - life involves a great deal of discomfort. We need to normalise this discomfort and share our vulnerability with others (provided there are healthy boundaries in place). As shame and vulnerability researcher BrenĂ© Brown says 'Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you'. Despite the fact that approx. 1 in 6 people experience mental health problems, like anxiety, we are reluctant to talk about our experiences.

So, without further ado, here's mine.

For me, anxiety is a feeling in my gut, that spreads to my stomach and travels up and into my chest. It's like the ground underneath me is unstable and the air is suddenly very thin. A churning in my stomach, that hardens into a knot accompanied by the urge to rush to the bathroom or vomit out my guts. My whole being shakes, my fingers and toes become fidgety, sweaty and cold. My thoughts are racing so fast I can only catch every fourth or fifth word: 'failure' 'embarrassment' 'humiliation' 'shame' 'hide' 'escape' 'loser' 'loner'. It feels as though the world is swimming in front of me as I float out of my body and detach from the present moment (aka derealisation).

My body senses danger - high levels of danger and it's getting ready to run very, very fast away from the danger but this threat is only perceived to be true and most of the time, there is no external threat to my safety. Therefore I can't run and don't run, so instead I sit, or pace, or toss and turn and let this surge of adrenaline rattle through my bones. It's even harder if I'm with other people - all I can think is: what if I panic in front of them - they won't understand what I'm going through - they'll think I'm a freak. And so, the cycle continues, the fear of having a panic attack, of being judged harshly, creates the panic attack, which then fuels the fear of having one....

Experiencing anxiety and panic attacks is exhausting (physically/mentally/emotionally). The best way I can describe it to those who have never experienced anxiety is that it's like the music from Jaws is playing in the background on loop, 24/7. Needless to say, that sense of impending doom, accompanied by catastrophic thinking, gets in the way of daily activities. Anticipating the worst and believing the worst about myself makes the world a much scarier place than it actually is. For me, catastrophic thinking can range from 'they'll hate me' to 'the world is going to end'. The amygdala (part of the brain involved in fight, flight or freeze response) is overworked, overactive and overhyped to the point where it persistently interrupts rational thinking with alarm bells indicating a perceived threat (and possible threat to life).

That's the difference between 'normal' levels of anxiety and 'chronic' or 'high' levels of anxiety. Many people experience anxiety around activities such as exams, going to the dentist, meeting new people etc. but it doesn't disrupt their daily life, it is situation related and will pass once the event is over. For me, my anxiety disorder means that I'm anxious all the time: about answering the phone, getting the bus, meeting friends, eating in front of people, sitting in waiting rooms and being in any kind of situation where I'm not in control.

As you can imagine, since I've experienced anxiety for such a long time, I've become very good at hiding it, exemplary even. I would say that I am an Anxiety Masking Pro. I'll put on a mask, talk a lot, laugh a lot, all to distract from how I'm feeling inside. I often get comments like 'but you don't seem/look anxious'. I want to respond with 'duh, that's the point'. People with anxiety disorders aren't always crying in the corner, they aren't always shy and they aren't always unsuccessful. They could be at the top of their game, have a high-flying career or always the first to turn up to parties. Who knows? You can never know what somebody else is feeling from their outward appearance or behaviour.

Panicking and feeling anxious becomes a habit, a coping mechanism, almost. A defence mechanism that can keep you from getting hurt, or in reality, from feeling vulnerable.

The reason I'm writing this blog post is to firstly, challenge myself to be vulnerable, to try and dig out all that internalised shame and stigma about my anxiety and panic attacks and let it go and, secondly, to try and reach out to anybody else who has had similar experiences. Like eating disorders, anxiety disorders feed on shame and secrecy and honestly I am soooo done with hiding.

I've been putting off writing this because I thought that I should wait until I no longer have anxiety before I write about it. That I should wait until it's all a distant memory and only then, I'd be ready to talk about it. In every interview/book/article I've ever read related to anxiety, the person in question has only shared their story once they've healed/cured themselves/gotten over it somehow, without telling anyone up until that point.

Well, I believe that an attitude like that is not going to get us anywhere. We need to admit when we're struggling, while we're struggling. Every damn person on the planet struggles with something at some point in their lives. In fact, I would say that everybody struggles with something (even if it's a small something) every day. We need to cultivate empathy within our lives by opening up and being honest with ourselves and others.

Beware of social media and its glorious superficial frontage. Everybody - celebrities, sportspeople,  bloggers, TV presenters, authors, friends, family - filters their content to only show the 'best' of their 'best' days (whilst omitting the 'worst' days and pretty much anything in between). Those days exist, even if we don't tweet about 'em.

So, when I felt panicked and vulnerable the other day, I took this picture and I'm posting it here as a reminder that perfection doesn't exist in anyone's life and that's absolutely OK:

I hope you have enjoyed reading this post, and that it encourages you to be open and vulnerable in your own life. I will be writing a separate post about creating your own DIY Anxiety kit (since this post is long enough as it is) so stay tuned.

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

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