January 2012. I am about to sit an A Level exam. My chair is creaky and uncomfortable, and so I wriggle and fidget in a desperate attempt to find a relaxing position. Sweat starts to build on my face as the combination of our hideous sixth form suits and the stuffy room does its damage. I long to jump into a shower and feel the light touch of water that will cool me down and wash away, just for a moment, thoughts of exams. With shaking hands, I ensure everything on my desk is neatly lined up so that I am ready to start writing.
Am I having a panic attack?
The invigilator gives us the order that it is now time to start the exam and that two hours is on the clock. My heart beats fast as I open the paper with trembling fingers. Glancing at the questions, inside all that I see before me is a blur of jumbled letters. Confused I close my eyes, take a sip of water and breathe, attempting to erase all fears of failure and embarrassment so that I can fully concentrate. Opening my eyes again still I see before me a scramble of letters that is nonsensical. I grow increasingly frustrated with myself and in no time I start to feel dizzy and a sharp pain quickly grows in my chest. Unsure of how it happened, suddenly I am shaking uncontrollably, struggling to breathe, clutching at my chest and feeling the need to throw up with tears flooding down my face. Looking up from my desk the invigilators are next to me asking repeatedly what is wrong, but my mouth is unable to form words. Hands help me out of my seat and gently guide me to the door. The room is spinning and the only thing I can see clearly are the eyes of my classmates following me out with looks of confusion and pity. The next thing I know I am clutching my knees to my chest, rocking myself back and forth, on a chair in a stranger’s office. Several emotions are rushing through my body, but I am mostly overwhelmed by confusion and terror.
I did not know it then, but I was having my first panic attack.
How does stress affect me?
‘Stress’ is a word that is thrown around too casually and too often in society. It is certainly true that everyone will be stressed at many points in their lives as it is natural to struggle to cope with an issue that overwhelms you. But it is a word that is often perhaps overused. Stress is a very individual thing, as what we stress over and how we deal with it, differs from person to person. For every individual around the world, stress is a part of a personal battle with an issue, and when we feel stress everything else may appear and feel insignificant compared to the problem we are currently facing. Like everyone else in the world, I get stressed over things such as exams and starting a new job, all of which it will be natural to feel anxious over. Additionally, like others, I have always been a bit of a worrier, fretting over little things from does this skirt make me look fat to flying on an airplane. I am certainly a victim of hearing ‘stop worrying’ too much.
However, I do not suffer from stress like most people, and it took that panic attack in that exam room to enable me to realise this. Perhaps I had always known it, but that first panic attack hit me like an avalanche with the realisation. I suffer from an anxiety disorder and severe panic attacks, something that I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis and will probably have to deal with for the rest of my life. Often it is hard to define between, what is just stress and what is an anxiety disorder, and there are thousands of people out there who, like how I used to, think that their feelings of stress was not part of a mental health condition. Additionally, there is a wide-range of anxiety disorders meaning those who suffer from one are affected in different ways.
Everyone has a unique experience of anxiety
For me, my anxiety comes out in various ways. Predominantly I suffer from a lack of sleep, lack of appetite and excessive worrying about every little thing, including things that are most likely never going to happen. Some of my characteristics such as my perfectionist nature, obsession with organisation and need to have a clean environment are also attributed to my anxiety disorder. The part of my anxiety disorder that is most affecting though is my continual panic attacks. They differ in severity each time, but the panic attack I described in the opening of the piece is how I usually experience them. It is hideous to go through them, but the most affecting thing about panic attacks for me, is that they are out of my control. It is simply terrifying. I never know when I am going to have a panic attack and they often appear out of the blue even at times I do not feel under any significant pressure. Worst though is when I have a panic attack, I feel detached from my body, like I am floating above and looking down on myself. Like with the one I described earlier, I am never sure what is happening when I am having a panic attack, and it is this feeling of being out of control of my body that is most terrifying.
Seek professional advice and guidance
If you feel that you may have an anxiety disorder then it is extremely important that you go speak to either a GP or a counseling service as they are there to help you. I have always considered myself to be a strong person, and I am always there for friends and family members in need of a hug or advice. I saw my anxiety as a weakness and so it took me a while to admit to my friends what I went through, let alone go see a professional. I think it took me a while to see a professional because I feared being diagnosed with a mental health condition and thought that no-one cared. People do care. Your friends and family want what is best for you and so will, of course, listen.
Even if they do not understand what you are going through, they are good to talk to and sometimes all you need is a hug and a bourbon biscuit. Also, a mental health condition is not a weakness, it is an illness that can not be avoided. But you can do things to help. This differs from person to person. For me, I try to feel good about myself by exercising, eating healthily and overall trying to live a healthy lifestyle. If you feel good about yourself then you are likely to have less self-doubt. Doing things that I enjoy takes my mind off my anxiety, from watching films to having a drink with friends. Recognition is the first step, then it is about easing the pain. Do not suffer in silence.
If you want to find out more about anxiety and panic attacks, both the Mind and NHS websites are incredibly useful resources with plenty of information. You can find out more about Mental Health Awareness Week by visiting their website.