Wednesday, 1 January 2014

12 Days of Mental Health : Day 7 - Anxiety

Happy New Year! I hope you all enjoyed your last night of 2013, whether you spent it partying hard or like us, on the sofa with a cuppa, trying to calm down a slightly erratic cat. I do genuinely love married life!

Today's post is something quite close to my heart, having lived with anxiety for a good few years now. It's sometimes made me achieve a heck of a lot, but other times it has completely debilitated me.

Anyway, enough about me! Today's guest blogger is Ben, who shares his personal experience of living with anxiety. As usual, first here's some information.

Please note some readers may find this post triggering. It's important to always look after yourself as a priority.

What is anxiety?

Some anxiety, or short-live anxiety, is actually good for us. It allows us to use the "fight or flight" response, and remain focused, for things like job interviews and exams. This anxiety in most people will then eventually pass, but for some, this level of anxiety doesn't leave them. They might find they are overly anxious in a certain situation, or they become anxious for no apparent reason.

Anxiety is an umbrella term for many other conditions. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (or GAD) is when you are anxious on most days, and you might not even know what you're anxious about or realise that what you're getting anxious over is actually quite minor. Sufferers can often feel as though they are out of control, or in some cases, they may fear they are dying in the midst of a panic attack.

Other anxiety disorders include OCD, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, or PTSD for example.

Some people may also experience panic or anxiety attacks, which, according to the NHS Choices website, can be defined as a "rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms." For those experience the symptoms of a panic attack, it can often mimic symptoms very similar to a heart attack, and sufferers sometimes explain such attacks as feeling like they're going to die.

There are many reasons why an anxiety disorder can start, with the exact cause being unknown. Some research suggests it could be do with a chemical imbalance, genetics, or environmental causes. And don't feel alone if you're living with an anxiety disorder - Anxiety UK suggests that more than 1 in 10 are likely to have a disabling anxiety disorder at some point in their life, and that at present, 40% of worldwide disability is due to depression and anxiety.

What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety?

Depending on the severity of the condition, your symptoms may differ. But in general, those with some form of an anxiety disorder experience psychological symptoms such as:

  • Continuously feeling "on the edge" or constantly worried, sometimes for no apparent reason
  • Often feeling tense and/or restless
  • Becoming easily distracted and/or irritable
  • Catastrophic thinking 
  • An overwhelming fear of losing control
  • Avoiding certain situations, and in some cases, your anxiety may mean you feel unable to work or socialise
  • Constantly seeking reassurance from others
  • An inability to concentrate 
  • Difficulties with relaxing
  • Sleeping difficulties

There are also the physical effects of anxiety, some of them being intensified or only rearing when you experience an anxiety or panic attack:

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilating (I've also experience pins and needles plus parts of my body going blue because of this)
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Digestive problems, and sometimes an urgent need to go to the loo
  • Pounding heart
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Dizziness/feeling light headed
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Muscle tension

Please ensure you always visit a GP in the first instance to rule out other illnesses. 

What treatments are available?

Anxiety is unique in each person, and therefore, what works for you might not work for someone else. Your GP might be able to refer you to have CBT, which helps challenge negative thoughts, with many sufferers finding this helpful, alongside other talking therapies. 

In some circumstances, medication may be prescribed. Some people find that just taking something as and when anxiety strikes is all that is needed, such as a beta-blocker, while others require something more long term. This may help if your anxiety has also caused some form of depression.

There are lots and lots of self-help options available to those living with anxiety. Just search for books on Amazon, and you'll have so many to pick from! I've even managed to get a couple for free on the Kindle app I have for my iPad. Your GP might be able to tell you about a "books on prescription" scheme where you can borrow self-help books from the library for an extended period of time. 

There are also alternative "remedies" such as mindfulness, which I highly recommend, or other meditation. Try exercising as well to release some anxious energy. 

Ben's Story

If you're reading this online you likely won't know me, but if you did, there's high chance you would be shocked to discover I have mental health problems. I know so many people on Twitter who understand what this is like, and it's helped me to meet those people and hear their story. So here is mine. 

My name is Ben, and I’m 28. It was in sixth form at school when I first was diagnosed with depression - suddenly I couldn't cope with life and I was crippled with panic and an inability to get beyond a sense of 'doom'. I’d lost all interest in studying after previously being accepted to study at St Andrews University, a total dream of mine, but subsequently I lost focus and didn't  the grades I needed. I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, basically life stopped and it just happened so quickly. I remember being so scared and asking my mum if I was going to be like this for the rest of my life.

I began antidepressants and almost a year later, was well enough to start university closer to home. Fast forward two years into my course, and after muddling through several depressive episodes and having been on medication throughout, I reached a point where I couldn't cope at all and I pulled out of my course. Later, I went back to a college course and finished a qualification in a creative subject that I loved, and got a job. 

After some years of my depression and anxiety being well controlled, it all exploded again. I had anxiety like I'd never known- I couldn't breathe, couldn't rise above the dread of everything and without any apparent reason, I'd lost the ability to function normally. After seeing many doctors and consultants over the year, I know now I had a complete breakdown and I'm still trying to get back from it. I'm nowhere near 'normal', but I've started part time work again this autumn.

I've tried many different types of medication, I've now found one that works but at the cost of my ability to sleep. I've been having therapy for most of the year, and whilst I was sceptical, I now see that therapy has possibly saved my life. It's helped me understand better what is happening to me, and perhaps most valuably, that NONE OF THIS IS MY FAULT!

Through therapy, I’ve seen how long I tortured and blamed myself for the intrusive thoughts that are now very clearly part of OCD.  To find that my battle with my thoughts were a part of my OCD has been a relief in many ways, and has helped me to stop blaming myself for the state of my mind.

What I want to say is that there is no shame in needing help, or needing to step away from something. If I've learnt anything in the past 10 years, it's that only you really know how you're feeling and I’ve learnt to know when it's best to just pull away when things are too much.  I've learnt to manage things a bit better, but it's so true that 'recovery is not linear' - good days mixed with bad days... Mental illness is still so misunderstood, but I owe a lot to others who have experienced it and who have shared their story with me! Big love to you all!

You can follow Ben on Twitter by clicking here.

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