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LIFESTYLE

Anxiety: what it is like and living with it

Anxiety: what it is like and living with it

    The first time I think I heard about anxiety was in secondary school and I did not really understand what it meant. I did not really understand the difference between struggling with anxiety and simply feeling nervous and to me they seemed like the same thing. I never really gave it any real thought because I never thought it was something I needed to think about and there were so many misconceptions around it anyway that I simply ignored it.

    The first time I remember dealing with anxiety in retrospect (now that I am actually more aware of what struggling with anxiety entails) was when I was 13 years old. It was the night after my family home was broken into. I did not know what it was at the time or know that it was anxiety. But, I remember waking up in the night seemingly out of the blue because I suddenly was extremely nauseous and jittery to go and then throw up in the toilet. I was confused because I had felt absolutely fine beforehand, was not physically sick and had not had any changes in terms of food. I remember my mum woke up and came into the toilet and told me that it was likely anxiety. I did not think much of it after this because I did not have a similar experience for a long while.

    Fast forward to exams a year or so later, and I was also having similar experiences of throwing up before a lot of my exams - feeling jittery, not being able to think clearly, the irrational rush of fear that washed over me that was so disproportionate to the task at hand. I did not know it was anxiety and the fact that other people did not seem to be going through the same thing made me feel alone and embarrassed about it. In fact, I remember I never spoke about it with my friends because I felt embarrassed even admitting that I was throwing up and having these symptoms. It is normal to feel nervous before an exam, but when you are throwing up before a lot of them, feeling jittery and with such intense fear, it is a little more than exam stress. I wish I would have known that this was connected to mental health and that help was available for it. But, no one told me this was anxiety and the misinformation about it meant I felt scared to reach out to anyone about it. In fact, I did not know until I started therapy in January 2021 and was told by the therapist that I had experienced anxiety (having also taken the anxiety test and it becoming obvious anxiety had been something I had experienced).

    I spent many years of my life simply thinking I was just bad at coping with exam stress and that I just wasn’t well equipped enough for it. That I simply couldn’t hack it because others around me, whilst of course being stressed in exam season did not have any of the other more extreme emotions and symptoms I had. I had no idea that it was linked to mental health and was something I could seek extra support with - that it’s not me being ill-equipped and worse than everyone else, I just needed to develop techniques or coping mechanisms.

    It was not until over the last year or so when I started experiencing anxiety on a more regular basis that I actually began to pay more attention to it and educate myself on it. After many occasions over the last year of nausea, throwing up, crying, feeling like I cannot control my mind, shaking so much I actually got even more scared, feeling claustrophobic and feeling like I am overly tense but can’t relax, I have decided to write about my experience.

    Since before the last year and a half, I had never really struggled with anxiety on a more regular basis. It was always very isolated instances so I never really gave it much thought. The isolated circumstances were not really enough to get me to question it properly and connect the dots. They were just one-offs in my mind and something I never really thought about again. Having experienced anxiety more regularly over the last year has really emphasised to me how much of an impact it can have on day to day life. The similar emotions/ familiar sensation also helped me realise that anxiety was something I had experienced before. It had been something I had dealt with before in my teenage years in certain periods, but just not realised.

    Anxiety, although having some common symptoms will be slightly different for everyone and a panic attack will be slightly different for everyone. There is no singular image of what anxiety looks like and it was this idea that for a long time had me confused/oblivious to the fact that I was actually dealing with anxiety. I had a very narrow perception of what anxiety entailed and had not realised that anxiety manifests slightly different for everyone. Just because I might not have an identical experience to someone else with anxiety doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it. For me, the main symptom and worst symptom I have when anxious is really bad nausea, which often results in me throwing up. Although I am lucky in that I usually only go through periods of worse anxiety and it is not an everyday struggle all year around, when I do feel anxious I find the experience incredibly difficult, debilitating and exhausting. I also find it frustrating because you can feel anxious doing a task or something you’ve done many times before and so ordinary and have no idea why your brain goes into panic mode or ‘fight or flight’. 

    Some of the symptoms I have had when anxious include:
    • Intense wave of panic
    • Nausea and throwing up
    • Feeling sweaty and really hot
    • Feeling cold
    • Jittery or shaking uncontrollably
    • Needing to go to the toilet a lot
    • Feeling very trapped/ claustrophobic and like rooms are suddenly really stuffy
    • Not being able to think clearly
    • Heightened sense of everything happening around you (this can make ordinary things like waiting for something feel unbearable)
    • Finding it hard to breathe

    Although I have an idea what might have triggered anxiety more generally for me with the experiences I have had over the last two years, often in the specific moment I am unaware of the trigger/ why I feel anxious. I have sometimes felt anxious in situations I usually have never ever felt anxious in before and ordinarily have been fine in. Sometimes association (if I have felt anxious before in a similar situation) can trigger anxiety, but sometimes it comes seemingly out of the blue. I had really bad anxiety once on a work shift to the airport. It was completely unexpected to me as I felt fine beforehand, but as soon as I reached the airport, I felt a sudden immense wave of panic, felt jittery, like I couldn’t think and very very trapped and I threw up in front of everyone also working the shift with me. This was such an awful experience with such intense emotions and physical symptoms that the prospect of going through anything remotely similar is terrifying. The anxiety was also so bad that in the last few times I have been in an airport, I have felt anxious because my brain is making the association and a connection to a similar experience where I also felt anxious.

    Living with anxiety

    Honestly, I am still learning to navigate what works best for me when I do feel anxious, but I have learned a few things that work for me and I also wanted to put out there.

    Fresh air

    Fresh air and going outside massively helps me. When I feel anxious, places I am in suddenly feel very stuffy and like they do not have enough air. Going outside and focussing on breathing and feeling that fresh air really helps when I have been nauseous and feeling more claustrophobic.

    Carrying sick bags

    One of the things that makes me more anxious is knowing that I throw up out of anxiety and not having anywhere to do that, especially when I am in a public place. I hate the idea of potentially making a scene or making a mess. You don’t always have access to a toilet or can’t always go outside. Knowing that I have a sick bag I can use if I need it is a huge relief and just affirms to me that it doesn't matter even if I do need to throw up. Even if I don't end up needing to use it, just carrying it with me is comforting. 

    Tell someone if relevant 

    I used to hate telling people if I felt anxious and would avoid it at all costs. But, if you are anxious, it is important for relevant people to know so that they can take steps to make your life easier. Whilst there are some people who are not understanding about it and will make you feel worse, there are also people who are very understanding about anxiety. I remember one occasion where I was anxious at the hairdressers and telling my hairdresser was so helpful - she was so understanding. She gave me as many breaks as I needed to go and get fresh air, water and checking in every so often. People cannot do this however if they do not know and sometimes people adapting / putting things in place to help you can prevent your anxiety from escalating more. 

    Slow down 

    Feeling anxious can make your thoughts go at 1000 miles an hour and make it feel like you don't have time to do anything and everything is just happening to you and very quickly. But just because your brain is telling you should be racing through everything does not mean you should listen to it. When we are anxious and everything seems to be happening so quickly and thoughts are so quick, slowing down even a little bit can make a difference. Do things in your own time and don't impose strict schedules on yourself. 

    Distraction

    I know this might not work for everyone, and sometimes if I am already at the peak of anxiety it does not make much of a difference. But, focussing my mind on something completely different can help me forget/ignore more that I feel anxious. Often you will know when you are starting to feel anxious and will recognise the symptoms. This can lead to you spiralling and your anxiety getting worse. Distracting yourself, whether it be by talking to someone or listening to music can sometimes make a huge difference.

    Medication

    Although this is a very personal choice and not a magic problem solver, there is medication that can help. I personally would recommend it to help you out if you have had really bad anxiety, but not as the only thing to try in isolation. I have been prescribed beta-blockers and although not a substitute for learning to cope with anxiety, I have found that they have helped me a lot with the symptoms. 

    Doing what you had planned anyway

    For me, one of the worst things about anxiety is that it stops you going about your day to day life normally (making everyday tasks you have done a million times like getting on a train or bus suddenly really difficult) and it can stop you enjoying things you would otherwise enjoy. I find that one of the most unhelpful things with anxiety is the sensation/sometimes perception that others can have that you just can’t do a task. You can always do something when anxious, you just have to find a different way of going about it and for me one of the things that has helped my anxiety is doing all the things I had planned anyway even though I felt anxious. There is a limit of course and sometimes you will have to adapt things and take days off. But, I think where possible pushing yourself little by little to still do what you had planned is important in sending your brain the message that you can do it in spite of feeling anxious. Cancelling because of anxiety can actually make anxiety worse in the future when you’re faced in a similar situation because you then remember that you weren’t able to do something because of the anxiety. Doing tasks despite anxiety highlights to yourself that no matter how anxious you feel you can do it. No matter how bad you might have felt, you made it through and you still did what you had planned. Feeling anxious does not equal to being stuck at home and being unable to do things. No matter how intense the emotions and symptoms, you still survived and so even if you feel anxious again it will eventually be okay. Sometimes it is unavoidable to change plans because of anxiety, but pushing yourself every time you can is so important for coping with anxiety in the long run. It builds your tolerance to the situation. It stops you getting into a cycle where every time you feel anxious you just don’t complete the task, which can have a massive impact on your life and stop you living as you normally would.

    Relatively recently, I remember a day where I had a work shift scheduled and then volunteering. I had felt anxious throughout the night, been nauseous and very jittery. I ended up throwing up on the morning before my shift and it was really difficult. The prospect of leaving for my work shift whilst feeling anxious and having felt so anxious beforehand was daunting. I have only ever cancelled once out of anxiety (which was because I had thrown up, was still nauseous and was physically shaking so much and so jittery I couldn’t realistically work). Whenever I can, I always push myself. I told myself that I was going to do my shift anyway and I was going to do the volunteering I had signed up for because these were all things I wanted to do. I did not want to let my anxiety win and feed into the idea that because I am anxious I can’t do something. I completed my shift and volunteering. Although it was difficult to begin with, keeping my mind busy eventually helped and highlighted to me that despite feeling awful in the morning and no matter how awful I felt I could do it. It is incredibly difficult to do this and can take a lot of effort but this is so worth it.


    Dealing with anxiety is honestly one of the worst and most exhausting things I have gone through. If you are reading this and struggle with anxiety, no matter how often it is, you should give yourself credit for carrying on. You should give yourself even more credit if you still go about your day to day life as normal. It is rarely spoken about just how much more effort an anxious person has to put in to do the same work as someone who is not anxious. Now that I have experienced both what it is like to do things when anxious and also when I feel fine, I can appreciate how brave and how incredible it is for people to still do things when struggling with anxiety. You also do not have to battle through anxiety alone - if you feel you can't cope there is no shame in going to your GP and seeing what they can do for you. Not everyone will be helpful, but if you are persistent, you will eventually find something. 

    Don’t let anyone tell you cannot do something because you have anxiety. You can - you just have to find techniques and ways of adjusting / different ways of going about things for times when you feel this way. It is doable and while lots of work, worth it. You only have one life and as hard as it is, you cannot let anxiety control your life. 

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    • Inês A Inês A :

      Amazing reflection on anxiety! Especially on its physical consequences. It's shocking how we tend to underestimate or even ignore something that is obviously so real and with such serious consequences. Thank you for sharing your experience!  

      4 months ago 
      • Teresa . Teresa . :

        Thank you! I think a lot of people do not realise how connected mental health and physical health are and how mental health can result in physical symptoms.   

        4 months ago 
        • Inês A Inês A :

          Absolutely! And, at the same time, it is really sad that, for most people, the physical consequences need to be there for them to take mental health seriously, right?

          4 months ago 
          • Teresa . Teresa . :

            I feel like that is true - even for me, it was only when I had more frequent and intense physical symptoms that I started paying more attention to it!  

            4 months ago 
    • Epsita M Epsita M :

      These are some great reflections, Teresa! It is so important to pay attention to these changes in us. Thank you for another great article.

      4 months ago 
      • Teresa . Teresa . :

        Glad you enjoyed! Thanks so much for reading and commenting! 

        4 months ago 
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