Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. The following is a reflection of my personal experience with chronic anxiety and should not be taken as medical advice.
In honour of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign, I feel it’s time to finally open up a bit about my own story involving mental illness. (To be clear, I support the campaign but not a fan of the company itself).
I was 15 turning 16 when I first realized that something was off. It was like my personality pulled a 180 on me and I didn’t understand what was going on. I went from being an extroverted, nerdy, overachieving and dedicated student-athlete to someone who could barely muster up the energy to get out of bed. My grades started slipping, I started missing classes relatively often and I was utterly exhausted all the time. You might think that a teen skipping school is nothing to write home about and maybe that’s true but I loved school. I used to hate taking days off when I was legitimately sick. I wasn’t out being rebellious; I was at home sleeping or watching movies because I didn’t have the energy to do anything else. I was also terrified anyone would find out and did my very best to hide that anything was amiss.
All I remember feeling was pressure. Looking back, I realize that I have only myself to blame for that but at the time, it felt like it was coming at me from all sides. I needed to get top grades. I needed to be a great athlete. I needed to be a social butterfly. I needed to be a great daughter/sister/friend etc. and anything less than my ridiculously high standards wasn’t good enough. I had to be perfect and I wasn’t, not anymore. My first real failure deeply affected me and I didn’t know how to cope. Feeling like I wasn’t good enough was a hard pill to swallow. I was on edge all the time and felt like I was letting everyone down. I felt hopeless, trapped and afraid everyone would think I was a fraud because my life had been going pretty well up until this point.
I struggled silently for years. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I was finally referred to a therapist after an intense panic attack, triggered by an exam. This intervention led to me getting the help I didn’t know I needed to get better.
For those who may not know, panic attacks may involve some or all of the following symptoms:
- Racing heart or palpitations
- Trembling or shaking
- Sweaty palms
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling weak, faint or dizzy
- Tingling or numbness in hands and fingers
- Loss of control
Those are the official symptoms. They don’t do much in the way of explaining what it feels like though. It feels like there’s a buffalo sitting on your chest or a vice is squeezing harder and harder. You feel like you’re fighting for air. Your negative thoughts are racing and spiralling out of control creating even more catastrophic scenarios in your mind. Your heart feels like it may burst from your chest. Your muscles are tense. You feel like you’re going to faint. Hopefully, it peaks quickly and then you’ll just feel a bit weak and confused in the aftermath. Unfortunately, while panic attacks are not supposed to last long, I’ve occasionally had ones that lasted for hours. Those cases usually require pharmaceutical intervention.
In the event that you’re ever with someone that is experiencing a panic attack, just let the person talk it out or help them focus on taking deep breaths. Their thoughts may not make much sense but thinking out loud and having someone as a sounding board has helped me calm myself down many times. For some reason, hearing how illogical my thoughts are helps ground me.
I have chronic anxiety so it is always somewhat present. While there have been some challenges that required some creative problem solving to overcome; my anxiety hasn’t stopped me from achieving my goals. Nor should it stop you.
I was told that I wouldn’t be able to handle working in high-stress environments, yet I’ve worked in the ER of a level 1 trauma centre for almost 10 years. I was told I’d never graduate because I flunked out twice (my anxiety was pretty intense during these periods and I missed a lot of classes) but I did. It took longer than I would have liked but I did. There are many different ways to go about achieving the same end result.
Remember, you are not your illness. You can do anything you set your mind to. It will take some time to adjust to it and having the right support will likely speed up the process but it will work itself out either way. You’ll see that it gets more manageable with time and experience, like most things in life. Take the time you need to focus on getting well and finding what works for you.
Do you or someone you know have anxiety?
What tips have helped you manage through the rough periods?
Let me know in the comments!