I sat in my therapist’s office and squeezed a soft cushion hard against my chest. The tears came down in floods — like heavy rain seeping from clouds that had blackened the sky for one too many months. I sobbed uncontrollably. My therapist had never seen me sob before — ashamed, I worried about what she’d think.
She was used to me sitting upright, painfully poised, talking myself around in circles and refusing to give into the pain that my illness caused me. When she’d prod too deeply, I’d shuffle around uncomfortable in my chair and bite the insides of my mouth as I spat out defence mechanisms like arbitrary insults to her.
She knew I was breaking, but I wasn’t ready to be unravelled.
On this day I had no choice — I was lifeless and wounded — the pain of my emotional obstruction was knifing me impenitently. On this day I could no longer hide my shame and vulnerability. On this day, I was broken. The synchronised sobbing and hyperventilation were the rawest reflection of my undoing.
Up until that point, I couldn’t understand why I’d been feeling so numb. I’d stare at my reflection as I moved through life in automation, floating, almost secondary to the thoughts that trapped every sense of my being. I felt empty and completely detached, so far removed from myself, my life and everyone in it. I had lost complete control of my thoughts, my body, my actions.
I ran through the motions of everyday life like a robot — I woke up, hit play, and hoped that the autopilot function within me would take charge and see me through to the end of another day. I was entirely incapable of thinking about how to do this myself.
My therapist told me that my body had developed its own coping mechanism to deal with the persistent ache of my severe anxiety. As it turns out, you can only sustain enduring the fight or flight response so many times before it renders you depersonalised, altering your entire sense of conscious awareness to protect you from your adrenal malfunction.
Those who have suffered severe anxiety know exactly what I’m talking about.
My anxiety had always been something I’d managed relatively well.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder at 19. My doctor wrote me a prescription, explained my symptoms to me, and sent me on my merry way. It was like having a temporary virus — but one that infected my mind.
I studied this anxiety thing compulsively like most sufferers do. Change your thinking, how to beat anxiety, the art of thinking clearly, peace in your pocket and changing minds are just a small fraction of the quick fix ‘please save me’ literature that takes up too much space in my apartment.
I educated myself like a manic obsessive compulsive — the unexpected is anxiety’s worst enemy and when dealing with it, you must always be prepared. I wanted to outsmart my anxiety and manipulate it with reduction techniques each time it’d arrive — I had to control it. What I didn’t know at the time was that attempting to “control” your anxiety actually creates anxiety about having anxiety so in my doing this, my compulsion to control was my tipping point to losing all control.
My psychologist has since banned me from ALL self help literature — we’ve established that I’m acutely self aware — and too self aware can be problematic.
Back then, I did find some methods that worked, I regained a sense of “control” and I shared my story with those closest to me and moved on.
Anxiety no longer — a pill a day worked wonders at keeping it at bay.
I would still relapse a couple of times each year. An unexpected event or a sustained period of high stress would see my anxiety flare up and attack me like a cold hard punch to the face. Riding those waves has always been hard. Sometimes when things are going too well, I jolt on “oh shit” moments fearing what the free fall will feel like next time. From this high up it’s gonna hurt.
The people I love often ask me — how do you feel when you’re anxious? They want to understand what I’m going through when it’s really bad. On the outside I appear to be fine — what goes on inside my head? The magnitude of its intensity is something that I struggle to articulate.
The physical symptoms of an anxiety attack are terrifying. It doesn’t matter how many times you experience one — each time you do, you’re convinced that the end is near — you KNOW that you’re going to die.
Your heart races at an unnatural pace and interferes with your ability to draw breath. This lack of oxygen makes you dizzy — you fear losing consciousness.
Your hands shake, and you’re overwhelmed by clamminess as your body rises in temperature a few hundred degrees — it’s highly distressing and very disturbing.
Next comes the torture from your mind. Your thoughts race at lightning speed and collide with each other as they reproduce in masses. You can’t keep up with them, you can’t make sense of them and you become completely convinced that you’ve lost your mind. You’re a nut case, you’re crazy — you feel like a weak minded mess as your thoughts catapult and implode.
It’s a truly horrendous experience and the irony of it is — you can’t cry for help because you know, even if within only a small part of yourself, that you’re behaving in a completely irrational way.
You try your hardest to move through your meltdown without anybody noticing — hiding it well is important.
This is why anxiety is deceiving — you can be completely crippled by it and appear to be high functioning. I don’t “look” like someone who struggles with anxiety. I’m loud, I’m vivacious, I’m enthusiastic, I’m confident and in-your-face. When my anxiety is at its worst it’s hard for others to detect. I overcompensate and do everything I can to hide it.
Anxiety does not have a face and it certainly doesn’t fit a stereotype. Over achievers, academics, business owners, yoga teachers, absolutely everyone in all walks of life are affected by this. One in three to be exact.
I’ll probably always have it and that’s something that I’ve learnt to accept. Surrendering to it does take some of the pain away — resistance is a self defeating prophecy for anxiety sufferers — it just makes its every sensation feel so much worse. Learning how to accept and surrender has been helpful for me.
I used to view my anxiety as weakness — I felt guilty and ashamed by it. How could something render me so powerless? I was invincible before it arrived.
But the thing is, anxiety is pretty good at telling lies. It makes you think that you’re weak — a subordinate human. It whispers venomous profanities to you when you’re trying to embrace your vulnerabilities.
It can be a nasty beast but as Sarah Wilson says in her new book about anxiety — first, we must make the beast beautiful. And she’s right — embracing your anxiety and accepting its presence enables you to regain a sense of control. If you permit its company and normalise it — you take some of your power back and anxiety always flees when you start to enjoy it being around.
Please do not believe the lies your anxiety tells you. Easier said than done I know, and years of intense therapy has helped me with that. Just know that if you relate to what I’m sharing, you are not weak, you’re so incredible and strong. Getting through a day, let alone years, of recurring panic attacks takes pure courage. It takes infinite strength to endure that and to keep your brave face on while you do.
Your anxiety makes you a stronger version of yourself. It tests your patience and your resilience and each time you experience it, you will accumulate invaluable coping strategies and life skills.
Feel like a burden? Lighten your load — the good thing for the people around you is that your anxiety ensures you ALWAYS give a shit — you’ll be an attentive friend, lover and employee — a well rounded intuitive person who’s never lazy in relationships or with communication. So lean on people when you need them.
Life’s other problems will seem a walk in the park to you — I promise you you’ll do a far better job than anyone else in life at blitzing those. Someone else’s “stresses” or “problems” will seem increasingly manageable to you.
Don’t banish your anxiety — don’t wish it away — learn to love it and welcome it, especially when it surprises you. Live unapologetically in its company and make it feel safe when it’s around you. It can linger, that’s no worries. Keep inviting it in, make it beautiful, and in its own time — I promise you — it’ll always find the exit.