Looking back at my childhood, I was always fairly anxious. At the time, I didn’t label it as anxiety, or anything really because it didn’t strike me as abnormal. I placed a ridiculous level of pressure on myself, even from a very young age and to a certain extent, I still do now.
When I was in year two, I made myself physically unwell because I was so overwhelmed by anxiety about SATs and not being good enough. As exams go, they weren’t terrifying in that we didn’t all have to sit down in the school hall in silence, my memories of the tests were being taken out one by one with the class teacher and doing various tests in a small room. I fell apart in my reading test and my ordinarily above average reading age came out as almost illiterate because I just could not do it. I was seven, I am now in my twenties and I can still vividly remember this.
Thankfully, I’m now past sitting exams and lead an exam free life but my self doubt, combined with high expectations does hold me back because the thought of failure or not succeeding is such a major factor in trigging anxiety. I am in the process of applying for a masters degree at university; I am over half way through the application form but have stalled because I’m too scared to submit it because I’m scared that I won’t get in and will therefore have failed. Next week, I am due to start an evening course at college and I can’t begin to describe how anxious I am about it. New people. New place. Not knowing where I will be going. Not knowing anyone. What if I can’t do it?
Over the past weeks and months, I have noticed that I have been struggling more and more with anxiety. Whilst I have always been anxious, identifying as “having an anxiety disorder” is different, because it marks a change between being anxious and managing and being anxious and it having a noticeable impact on my day-to-day life. Anxiety isn’t just hyperventilating and not being able to breathe, although that does happen.
I find anxiety really hard to explain, mainly because in my head I don’t understand it myself. The way that anxiety manifests from person to person can vary, it is rare that I start hyperventilating and more likely that I will freeze and not being able speak, which makes explaining how I feel pretty difficult. I zone out, I disassociate, I start sweating even though I feel cold, I can’t stop shaking, I feel sick, I fixate on things that are totally irrational. I convince myself that I will die or that something awful is going to happen. I obsess about hygiene and dirt and spend hours and way too much money cleaning because I’m convinced that I will get ill.
Situation 1: I get on a bus.
What if it crashes? What if I counted my money wrong and I actually don’t have the right amount? What if there aren’t any seats? What if I’ve got one the wrong bus? What if the driver isn’t really a driver and is actually going to kidnap everyone and torture us and kill us? What if there is a terrorist attack? What if suddenly I feel unwell?
Situation 2: Someone coughs or sneezes near me or I come into contact with someone who I know is infectious.
I need to wash my hands now. I need to clean where they have been sat. Oh God, they have touched the door handle, that needs cleaning. What if I get ill? My body is crap at fighting infection. WHAT IF I DIE?! I feel sick. Oh shit, now I am ill. Where is my anti-bac? Is it rude if I use anti-bac now? Will they notice? Will they hate me?
Situation 3: I have heartburn.
This is unpleasant. Nothing is helping. I am going to die. I am having a heart attack. I’m going to die and no-one will know. My left arm hurts. Okay, I am definitely having a heart attack. Do I need medical attention? God I hate hospitals. I’m not going to hospital. But I am dying. I feel sick.
Situation 4: Part of my body hurts [related to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome]
What have I done? This is new. Have I injured myself or is this just EDS pain? What if this ends up with me needing an MRI scan? What if I need surgery? I don’t want surgery again. WHAT IF I DIE?! What if there are complications during surgery? What if I’m ill post surgery? What if recovery is awful? How long will the waiting lists be? I don’t want to tell anyone for the above reasons. People are going to think I’m making it up.
The above scenarios are ones which I have faced recently. Unpicking them and putting it down in black and white, it almost looks and sounds comical and as I was writing it, I can’t deny that I am thinking that I need to chill the fuck out and stop panicking about everything, but it isn’t as simple as that. Most of the thoughts that I jump to are completely irrational, but my fears about needing MRI scans and surgery are for logical reasons and my fears about becoming unwell are also semi logical because my immune system isn’t the best and I do become unwell very quickly. That said, I don’t need to spiral into an anxiety attack and the internal monologue of convincing myself that I will die because someone has coughed or sneezed. And I certainly don’t need to get my anti-bac out to clean the door handle in my office at work because I was freaking out about infection.
When my mind is racing with irrationality, trying to calm down or ground myself is close to impossible, often because I can’t recognise for myself that I am having an anxiety attack until afterwards. It becomes a negative cycle of thoughts, feelings and actions, which then leads to levels of anxiety of increasing.
I don’t have the answers in how to stop this, as with everything it is going to take time, work and set backs. Anxiety, like every other mental illness, is not glamorous. It isn’t a beautiful girl, crying gracefully under a spot light, with ragged breath. It is snot, sick, sweat. It is obsessing over bodily changes and fearing the worst: heart burn feels like a heart attack, pins and needles becomes the fear that you’re having a stroke and stomach ache definitely means that your appendix is about to explode and You. Will. Die. Quite often, my thought processes end up with me convincing myself that I am imminently about to die and it doesn’t matter that I haven’t died the 756830 times before when I have felt like that, because I might this time.
Anxiety: the superpower you didn’t ask for but get given anyway.