The first time I remember having an episode of anxiety was when I was 10 years old. It was more than the usual worry a child feels when faced with something new or something they don’t want to do. I call it an ‘episode’ because it is one of several significant periods of anxiety I’ve experienced. They have come and gone rather than being continuous. When I was 10, I had an allergic reaction to some new earrings which made my ears inflamed and sore. A boy pointed it out in class and laughed. That made me feel upset but I didn’t feel particularly worried at the time. It was the thoughts I had about the event afterwards which triggered my first episode of anxiety because I began worry about the allergic reaction and then my thoughts turned to my overall health. My Grandmother had breast cancer at the time too and had been in and out of hospital alot, so I suppose the two events were linked in terms of why I was worried about my health.
The symptoms of the attack began with that horrible feeling of dread, that something bad was going to happen (although I didn’t have a specific idea of what I felt was going to happen). Then I would begin to shake, feel panicky and start to cry. This all lasted for a few weeks. At the time I didn’t know what the reason for all this was, I was too young to know about anxiety and my mum, understandably, didn’t pick up on it either. My Grandmother eventually died from breast cancer when I was 11 and when I was 14 my Grandfather died from a brain tumour.
When I was 17 I had another episode of anxiety. I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and began to experience symptoms of stress such as chest pains and palpitations. I didn’t know that these symptoms were what happened when you felt stressed so I began to worry about my health again. At this point, my Dad was receiving treatment for bladder cancer. Ruminating about my family history of cancer along with my symptoms fed my anxiety and made it worse. I thought maybe I could have lung cancer or a blood clot. At this point I went to my doctor. He listened to my chest and questioned me about my lifestyle. I told him I was studying for my ‘A’ levels and there was no discussion about my family’s health. He told me I was experiencing symptoms of stress relating to my studies and sent me on my way without any advice on how to manage my symptoms. I then started to get IBS, which I convinced myself was bowel cancer and went back to the doctor. He ‘helpfully’ told me it was another symptom of my stress, recommended some over-the-counter drugs and sent me on my way again. You would hope my doctor would have looked at the notes related to my past visits and put two and two together and thought about how to help me manage my stress. I still had no idea that I had been experiencing anxiety.
After several months the level of the symptoms subsided. I would wake up most mornings feeling that ‘fight or flight’ response kick in the moment I opened my eyes, followed by nausea but it would wear off during the day. I experienced this every morning throughout my teens and into my late twenties. It was almost like it had been programmed into my brain and there didn’t need to be a reason for it. It became normal so I didn’t think too much of it, it was just ‘me’.
When I was 27, I had my worst episode of anxiety. This time it began after a series of changes in my life. I split up with a long term boyfriend, left my job, began living on my own for the first time, started a new job, met someone else and then split up with them too. This time my normal morning routine of waking up feeling panicky and nauseous got worse. I would wake up, feel panicky and vomit. I wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast as it wouldn’t stay down and my appetite became less and less. This time the feeling did not go away over the course of the morning but it stayed with me all day, every day. Eating became a chore as I could barely manage half a sandwich before I felt completely stuffed. I felt embarrassed eating in front of my colleagues in case they thought I had an eating disorder as they could see that I would never eat much and was losing more and more weight. I then began to worry about my health again which fed my anxiety and then I became anxious about being anxious which fed it even more. By this time I knew I had anxiety, I had researched it online but I felt like I was going mad. I didn’t feel like my recent upheavals were a good enough reason to feel so bad so couldn’t link these to my anxiety.
I went to the doctor and told him that I thought was suffering from anxiety. He interviewed me and diagnosed ‘free floating anxiety’ based on my explanation that I didn’t think there was a reason to feel so anxious. He prescribed beater blockers and told me to make another appointment for 6 weeks time to review my symptoms. At the time beater blockers felt like a God-send! It felt as though someone had pressed a ‘pause’ button in my brain and I was able to get a holiday away from my thoughts (probably because I was so sedated) and I no longer felt that sense of dread. Beater blockers also work by blocking the release of adrenaline so I no longer woke up feeling panicky, shaky and nauseous. I got my appetite back and began to return to ‘normal’. I didn’t want to go back to how I felt before so decided to stay on the beater blockers and my doctor didn’t discourage me from doing so. At first the idea of coming off the beater blockers was frightening because I didn’t want to return to how I was before but after three years of being on them and at a more settled point in my life, I decided to bite the bullet and stop. The dose had to be reduced gradually over time but I came off them and felt okay. The morning feeling of waking up feeling panicky and nauseous returned after a while but it was at a level I could cope with and it wore off once I got going with my day.
It didn’t take long though before I faced my next upheaval. I became a primary school teacher when I was 31. I managed my first year as an NQT well but in my second year it became clear that my head teacher and I were not going to see eye to eye. Our values as teachers were at polar opposites and she wasn’t happy that while I worked in accordance with her policies, I didn’t agree that they were the best for all the children I taught. I found myself on the receiving end of treatment from my head teacher that wasn’t particularly professional or ethical and my symptoms of anxiety began to return. I was constantly anxious of what she would say or do next, and I would ruminate over it. My own predictions about what ‘might’ happen made me feel even worse.
This time I thought about going back on the beater blockers again to ‘get me though it’ but I decided not to. They hadn’t cured me of my anxiety, they had only treated the symptoms. I wanted to fight back against my anxiety, I felt angry now and wasn’t going to let it get the better of me. I felt I had to do something more decisive to prevent it coming back again in the future. I did my research and decided that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might help.
The theory behind CBT is that it’s not events or other peoples actions that make us feel bad (which is was most of us believe) but the thoughts we have about them that make us feel bad; we essentially disturb ourselves with the irrational thoughts that we have about things. The problem is, that without someone else drawing our attention to our irrational thoughts, we don’t see them as irrational; we think they’re completely normal. For me, when I was 10, it wasn’t the allergic reaction which caused my anxiety or my Grandmother dying; it was my own irrational thoughts about my health in response to events that caused my anxiety. As my anxiety was never picked up on and dealt with, I continued my way of unhealthy thinking. CBT teaches you how to analyse a situation you feel causes your anxiety so that you can uncover your irrational thoughts yourself. You learn how to re-word your thoughts so they become rational instead of irrational. After a while your new thinking process becomes automatic and you’re able to do it pretty much instantly. CBT takes effort and commitment and you have to practise what you learn. If you’re hoping to be ‘cured’ by someone who sits there at talks at you, you’ll be disappointed.
I haven’t had an ‘episode’ of anxiety since then. I haven’t ruled out it happening again because it might but what I know now is that I can cope with it and keep it at a level where I can control it, rather than the other way around. Also, with the problem solving skills CBT has taught me, I find myself applying it to other emotions such as anger and hurt. I felt very angry and hurt about how my head teacher treated me but now I’m fine about it. I would love it if everyone in the world had morals that match mine but there’s now law which says they have to and you can see from the news this will never be the case so I accept it.
Now I’m a very passionate advocate of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. I choose not to be a ‘why me’ person. I’m grateful for all my experiences, especially the negative ones. Now I know that I don’t have to worry about the future because, while an experience might not be enjoyable, I know I can cope with it. If it’s something I have limited control over, for example a serious illness, then I have no other choice but to accept it; the only other choice would be to not accept it and experience further misery which is a choice I’m not willing to make. I’ve also decided to use my experiences to help others by training as a cognitive behavioural coach. I’m not qualified to treat people with anxiety or depression, but I use the skills that CBT uses to help people through other difficulties such as transitions in their home life, personal life or career.
My advice to others in my situation would be that there is no shame in talking to someone; showing vulnerability shows strength, not weakness. There is no shame in taking medication; beater blockers gave me the peace I needed to feel ‘normal’ again and get myself to a place where I could think more rationally. CBT doesn’t work for everyone, in the research I’ve done, there are plenty of people who haven’t found it beneficial. However, I do advise some sort of talking therapy such as CBT to complement the use of medication; it may get you to a place where you feel you might not need medicine. If it doesn’t, then make the best choices for you and not what you feel pressured into by others.
There are some wonderful charities that will go out of their way to support you and give you advice. I have listed the websites of some of them below.