Roll up roll up, welcome to the ride of your life… it will appear from nowhere sometimes when you least expect it. You will feel things you have never felt before, you will hurtle from exhilaration to desperation in moments. If you enjoy feeling out of control and utterly bewildered then this is the ride for you. This ride will completely change your life and things will never be the same again. Sounds fun eh?
Sadly, for me and I’m sure many others, this is my experience of anxiety. It is a rollercoaster of emotions that I often have no control over. I am never entirely sure when I will get on the ride and then how long it will last. The great thing about it is that no two rides are ever the same so you can’t even really brace yourself as there is always at least one surprise along the way. As soon as I step on the ride I lose all control of my rational brain, my breathing takes on a mind of its own and I have an uncontrollable need to pace up and down. I can’t settle, sit down or find any peace which when you are riding a rollercoaster is not at all what you need. When the ride is going really fast my heart can be racing, my chest can be heavy and it feels like I can’t breathe, my core temperature rises and I can feel hugely unwell. Although I cannot relate to this myself, I can easily understand how others may mistake these feelings for a heart attack or some more serious ailment. If you didn’t know what was happening, then you could easily believe that this ride was going to kill you.
It all sounds a bit sinister and dramatic but that is the sad reality of anxiety. Your mind has the power to make your body think you could die!
Without treatment and support, prolonged exposure to anxiety and the physical ramifications of it can be very detrimental to the mind and body. A panic attack is both physically and mentally exhausting, your body and mind go through so much even during the shortest of panic attacks that you can end up feeling like you ran a marathon. Not to mention the psychological damage caused by repeatedly feeling out of control and wanting to run away from your own head.
Luckily for me, once I had identified there was a problem – and this actually took a lot longer than you might expect – I was able to seek support from a therapist who worked with me in the early weeks to develop a range of coping strategies that I could implement when I felt panicky or anxious. The most important of these strategies being breathing – which seems like the most unusual strategy because after all we breathe all the time. But actually, there are many types of breathing, some good and some not. The breathing I would display during a panic attack would be fast and shallow, not really taking in much oxygen leading me to feel as though I couldn’t breathe and consequently I would become more panicky which led to faster breathing and it was a vicious cycle.
The therapist taught me to slow it down and take back control, this meant slow and steady deep breathing with my mind focussing on the act of breathing in and breathing out in a rhythmic way. Ill be honest, the entire strategy was actually around mindfulness and there was more to it than just the regular breathing. But I have found that I have had to adapt some of the strategies to fit in my life and what works best for me and I think shaping strategies to meet your needs is really important. There is no point trying to do something or use something that isn’t going to fit in to your everyday life or that isn’t actually that helpful to you.
Breathing is a really clear strategy for me and definitely the first one I will turn to when I feel panic or anxiety approaching. Personally, I find that I only have to focus on the rhythm of breathing for a couple of seconds and it reminds me that I am ok and I can do this.
Management of anxiety and panic is about taking back the control of your mind and convincing yourself that actually you are ok and you are stronger than this attack.
I am 6 months in to my anxiety ride and I can report that it has become a lot better. The feelings of panic and anxiety are less frequent now (although some of this is due to situational changes I have made) and I have now find that if a panic attack is coming that I am actually able to stop it before it starts. Unfortunately, I can then sit on the edge of a panic attack for a while (much like a car whose brakes kicked in just before it fell off the cliff and is now teetering on the edge) but I take comfort from the fact that I haven’t fallen over the edge for quite a while.
I can credit this partly to the breathing techniques but also to a few other strategies such as the fact that I have finally learned to take some time and step away from situations that can fuel the anxiety. I also find writing can be hugely cathartic – not always a blog post like this- sometimes just noting down a few things that are swimming around my head. I find that anxiety thrives on the mass of thoughts that swarm my brain when a difficult situation arises, but actually if I write some of them down and remove them from my brain the anxiety can lessen and I can then start to rationalise and make sense of what is going on. However, the most important thing I have learned is to just be kind to myself. This is a part of me at the moment, no matter how much I don’t want it to be and I don’t know whether it will ever go away so I have to accept it as part of my current make up. I hope that if you are caught on your own anxiety ride that reading some of my ramblings has helped you in some way and feel free to reach out if you feel you can. I am always here so that no one feels alone on this difficult ride.
I’d like to get off this ride one day and I remain ever hopeful that it will stop at some point. I wonder if I can ever get back some of what I was before but that is a discussion for another day.