Monday, 8 September 2014

What is it like to live with anxiety?

Telling somebody you have anxiety always sounds a bit weird. "Oh, I'm anxious a lot too - it's rubbish, isn't it?!" I find it quite difficult to explain, even to close friends, but with mental health in the news a lot recently I thought I should give it a go. The more people who understand, the better.

When I was first diagnosed, I thought it was a physical symptom. I'd spent weeks not being able to breathe properly - every time I inhaled, I felt like I wasn't getting enough oxygen. I'd feel like I was breathing really shallowly, but be unable to take a breath deep enough to stop the feeling. It was always worse in the evenings, but at my worst it was there constantly for weeks at a time.

When I went to the doctor, she mentioned that it was probably anxiety, but wasn't especially helpful. It was whilst I was at University, and living in a student area, she was probably used to students being dramatic, panicking about exams, or putting it on to get attention.

There are different types of anxiety, and I suffer from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. This means that there's no real cause for my worries - it's a constant, low-level worry in my brain. I constantly feel guilty and stressed, but can't pinpoint a reason; I get frequent headaches, I go through periods of insomnia, and other of complete lethargy; I stress about completely inconsequential things, to the point where it has a massive impact on my life.

To give you an idea, here are the 'anxiety related' thoughts that go through my head on an average hourly basis:                                                   

"Oh crap, I hope I switched my straighteners off. I did switch them off, I checked. I'd better check again though...nah, I checked, I don't need to check again. Oh it won't hurt to check one more time...oh good, I did unplug them, I knew I did. NO you can't check again, you just checked! What if I didn't send that email last night. What if that customer didn't book on properly. What if everyone remembers the really silly thing I said 2 weeks ago! I hope I didn't offend anybody. Have I got enough money for lunch today? Did I lock the door? I might go back and check. NO. My friend hasn't text me back for a while, I hope they're ok. What if they're ill? What if they're cross at me and I don't know why? I should text them. But what if they don't want me to text them! Is the house tidy? What if the landlord comes in unexpectedly and it's a mess? I haven't cleaned the bathroom for a couple of days... Oh no, I left some washing up in the sink. Oh no, I've just remembered that really silly thing I did about 10 years ago - that was SO embarrassing! Did I switch my straighteners off? I've got a really bad feeling about something and I don't know why. I hope everything's ok! Did I remember to pay that bill? Let me just check - oh yeah, I paid it weeks ago, that's good. Do I have enough money for the rest of the month? I shouldn't have bought that new dress the other day, even if it was from Primark. What if everyone thinks I'm silly for buying something new. Ahh did that email sound silly? Did my friend take what I said the right way? What if I offended her by accident? I really didn't mean to, I should make sure she's ok with me. She hasn't replied, crap crap crap! Ok keep calm, phew she replied. It's all ok. Ah I just missed someone out of the tea round - I hope they don't mind - I'm sure they weren't sat there before! Ok I'd better get back to work,,,"

It sounds silly, and all the worries are really innocuous, but they take up a lot of room in my head, and I have a constant feeling of dread, guilt and worry in the pit of my stomach that I can't pinpoint to anything.                                         

To give you an example of how it affects my life, let me tell you a story from the other day.

My housemate was away for a few weeks, so I was home alone. I like my own company, and it doesn't bother me during the day or evening, but I get a bit jumpy as I'm going to bed. One evening, as I was going to bed (around 11.30pm) the smoke alarm made 3 random beeping noises. I froze in the hallway for about 10 minutes, waiting for it to do it again. Nothing. I walked up to it on my tiptoes - nothing. I sat down underneath the smoke alarm for about an hour, waiting for it to make another noise. My heart was racing and I felt panicky, and I didn't know why. The worst that would happen was that the smoke alarm would go off! I justified it by realising that my landlord (who lives upstairs) is very paranoid about fire, and so would panic if the smoke alarm went off.

I have no idea how I thought sitting underneath the smoke alarm would help, or why I thought it would be such a bad thing. I catastrophised it in my head, until it got to the point where it would literally have been the end of the world (in my head) if the smoke alarm had made another noise). I eventually text my Mum, who basically told me to stop being an idiot, and I forced myself to get off the floor and go to bed. I was on edge the whole night, waiting for the alarm to go off, and of course in the light of the morning, felt completely ridiculous.

Anxiety Comic
Of course there are varying levels of anxiety, and mine is relatively mild compared to a lot of people, but it's still something that affects my life. I can't explain to friends why such a tiny event becomes gigantic in my head, and I'll still be obsessing about it months later. It's getting worse as I get older, but I've always had it to some extent.

My brother and I used to share a room as children, and we had bunk-beds, and we always slept at the same end. If my brother wanted to swap ends for any reason, I'd make him go downstairs and tell my Mum in case she came in later and couldn't find him. In hindsight, this is completely ridiculous of course, but it's always been how my brain works.

How my brain works
It's never affected me too badly at work - if anything, it makes me a stickler for detail and means I work harder than most people. It does mean that, if I make a mistake or have a difficult situation to deal with, I obsess about it, and can't stop thinking about it until it's resolved. I will go above and beyond anything I need to do, just to alleviate the situation, and I'm constantly making mountains out of molehills.

I'm getting better at dealing with it - I recognise when I'm being ridiculous now, and even though it might take a while (as with the smoke alarm) I will eventually make myself stop being stupid, and at least remove myself from the situation, even if I don't stop thinking about it.

How can you help someone with anxiety? To be honest, you might not even know they have it. If you do, there are a few things you can do:
  • Help someone see how irrational they're being. Not in a mean way, but help them see it from a normal point of view and break it down, so it becomes a smaller even
  •  Recognise when someone is feeling anxious and ask if they're OK
  •  Don't get cross someone if they don't respond to you for a while. Chances are, they're doing battle with themselves about how to reply. and feel they may have left it too long and might offend you. Maybe text them again to see if they're OK
  • Just accept them. It's always going to be a part of how I think, and as long as it's not detrimental to my life, it's how I'm going to remain, so even if you think I'm a little odd, accept it! It's just me being me. :)

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