What anxiety is really like

Since it’s World Mental Health day I thought I would write about how wild anxiety is.

I used to have panic attacks that were like a sudden scary feeling, a little “boo”. I thought I knew how to manage them and they didn’t cause me many problems.

A few weeks ago I was lying in bed watching television, completely at peace when something felt very not right.

For months my heart had been racing. I would spend the entire day aware of my heartbeat and I would jokingly get people to feel my pulse, raising my eyebrows and nodding when they agreed it was quite fast, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather.

This time I could see my heart making my chest wobble, but I could also see my entire abdomen pulsing, faster and faster. I had never seen anything like it, and as somebody who often believes they are suddenly dying, words can’t describe how I felt seeing my abdomen rippling. Mexican waving at me. I froze staring at it, sure an alien was about to burst forth.

I called my boyfriend but he didn’t answer so I tried to breathe deeply a few times, with this weird feeling coming over me. My brain was starting to feel icy cold and stabbing pins and needles were making their way up my calves. The realisation that I was alone suddenly hit me like a tonne of bricks, my dog is talented but he cannot perform CPR. What if I was currently dying? My dog can’t even unlock a door.

I called my boyfriend again and tried to stand up but my legs buckled. I was really confused, I felt “on” something. Like when Bradley Cooper takes that pill in Limitless and everything looks high definition and bird-like.

I looked at my Fitbit and it read ‘180bpm’. In the past few weeks that I’d had the Fitbit, the highest it had gone when I was just sitting down, exerting myself in no way whatsoever was 130bpm. I was vaguely aware I had wet myself. My boyfriend was trying to ask me questions but he felt very far away on the phone.

I was starting to get really confused and finding it hard to think of the words I wanted to say, other ones were coming out instead and my brain felt so cold, surely I was dying?

One time I had fainted outside a friend’s house, I was standing in the street waiting on a taxi when my ears started to get really warm and my vision was closing into a little James Bond intro circle. Next thing I know I was on the ground on my hands and knees with a taxi driver shouting, “Hello?'”. This was not like this.

I Googled it (oh no!) and of course Google told me I had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. I knew that was really unlikely since I’d just been lying down watching telly, but what if it wasn’t?

I knew I should just keep breathing, but what if I was dying and I’d never see my mum or dad again? I could feel myself getting really tired and the energy (or air?) just dwindling away out of my body, I kept trying to lie down and close my eyes and stop talking. I called the NHS and I wondered if I should use the last of my energy to unlock my door.

I thought I better get an Uber than an ambulance. I don’t even remember leaving the flat, the next thing I know is I’m in A&E and the girl at the desk doesn’t understand I’m dying. By now my legs have been numb for so long I’m sure they’ll be removed. I’ve watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy.

“I’m dying, right now”, I tell the girl.

“I’m not sure you are”, she says.

I feel like pulling her shoulders through the little hole in the glass partition between us and demanding how she would even know. I just ask her politely instead.

“You’re walking and talking right now, I think you will make it”, she says, unconvincingly.

I’m very confused but I sit down. My mum calls me and suggests it’s a panic attack. I’m baffled. When I’ve had them, it just feels strange in my mind all of a sudden and all I need to say to myself is pheww chill out you’re okay and it leaves.

This was the opposite. This was the most urgent, painful and extreme feeling I’ve ever had in my life. This was scarier than fracturing a part of my spine. Fracturing a part of my spine was a complete laugh compared to this situation.

A while later, a doctor does all the tests on me, and another while after that a different doctor comes in and asks me a few questions about my life, before gently suggesting this was just a really bad panic attack.

At this point I’m still confused. Panic attacks last a few minutes at most. I’ve seen other people have panic attacks where they were hyperventilating and just thought maybe their coping mechanisms were not working that night.

I had ominously stood over them with a glass of water in hand, unsure of how to help. I had never heard of physical panic attacks that lasted hours, I didn’t understand.

Flashback to a couple of weeks before. I’d been having what I now know were baby panic attacks driving my car for about a month and they were starting to affect my freedom. I was starting to get all funny, warm and sick on nights out. The heart palpitations had gone from interesting to uncomfortable and I eventually visited the doctor for something to help.

Betablockers would be the first choice but since they can negatively affect asthma, and I didn’t want to go down the diazepam route, I went for pregabalin. It’s a nerve painkiller used for epilepsy treatment but its currently being used for anxiety.

I triple checked if I could drive on it, that I wouldn’t feel like I was on tramadol etc. because the whole purpose of this adventure to the doctor’s office was so I could leave feeling okay to drive.

I took a pregabalin and cleaned the house for nine hours. I felt like Sara Goldfarb. I was out my dial. I read the label again the next day ‘do not drive, do not drink alcohol‘.

I had stuff to do! Places to be! Drinks to drink! It was my best friend’s 25th birthday soon. I was going to need to find a way around that. I wasn’t supposed to drink on tramadol but sometimes I would, even though it made me violently sick. I reckoned I could do it again. (A week later I had two cans of Kopparberg and proved myself very, very wrong).

“Hello, I’m just wondering about my medication, the doctor said I could drive I just want to double check that?”

“Hi, I’ll ask a doctor for you now… Yes they said drive if you feel like you can.”

………….Brilliant. Ok, very helpful. Glad I called.

After the hospital visit and the realisation the panic attacks had mutated, they were growing stronger and preying upon my helpless body, I stayed at my mums. I went home the next day but the same thing happened again.

I was with a friend and we tried this comprehensive list –

  • sitting upside down
  • running cold water on my wrists
  • splashing my face with cold water
  • drinking cold water
  • lying on the cold floor
  • patting my dog
  • taking my fitbit the fuck off my body (which btw I would advise to anybody having a panic attack and wearing one of those things)
  • breathing exercises
  • meditating
  • a shrine to my boyfriend including a picture, teddy and shirt

None of it worked and I had to be returned to my mum and given diazepam. It done literally nothing. I tried breathing into a bag and I suppose that was the best contender of the evening.

And over the next week or two, or three (I have no idea how much time has passed) I’ve had plenty of ups and downs. I’m having a panic attack as I type this now. It feels like the same one that started at dinner time last night.

A night where I’m getting more than 6 hours sleep is impossible even when I was eating like a bat out of hell to combat the ’empty tummy anxiety’ I keep being warned about, I lost a stone in one week just from the stress. I will never get that back to my boobs, ever.

But here’s what has helped me so far

  • breathing into a bag (I accidentally bought 300 on ebay, I was scrutinising the order thinking ‘£6.00 for three paper bags, you’re joking?’)
  • warming eye masks
  • a giant almost human sized stuffed toy (ikea)
  • green smoothies with magnesium rich food like oat milk and flax seeds bleugh
  • using the Headspace app !!!!!
  • watching the ‘Anxiety’ and ‘Mindfulness’ episodes of Your Mind, Explained on Netflix (especially this guy which I’ll post below)

And not avoiding stressors. It’s so easy to become full blown agoraphobic but it’s like bomb-proofing a horse, you just have to expose yourself to it and realise it’s not the end of the world. The grass will keep growing and the sun will keep coming up so why not go outside?!

I went to my friend’s 25th birthday party. I managed half of a drink and two pints of water before I had another crippling panic attack and felt like too many people were talking to me too fast. At that point in the experiment I had to be subdued and returned to my mums house. But I still went out!

I went to see the Joker movie and had a sustained panic attack for the entire duration of the movie, where I convinced myself of at least three solid medical reasons why I was dying.

At points I turned to my friend and mouthed, “I need to fucking leave” and “I’m freaking out”, and they just nodded back like ‘yeah it’s a good movie huh’. I had to alternate between climbing the walls and meditating, but I survived!

And God damnit I paid to see that movie and what a great movie. Even if I watched half of it behind my hands, and gave up on my popcorn within the first five minutes in case the salt increased the heart attack I was sure I was experiencing. (Popcorn during a movie means so much to me… I kept mindlessly eating bits and re-instating the panic.)

There have been days where I’m great and I’ve had fun and a lot of belly laughs, and days where I’ve had to stay in my bedroom wondering how to cancel plans, because ‘anxiety’ just doesn’t seem severe enough for how I feel at times. I know I didn’t understand how serious and debilitating it was before. I thought anxiety was your mind feeling anxious, I didn’t realise it was your body doing it for you, in very extreme ways.

Nobody told me growing up that at some point you might go through a phase where your body is urgently telling you it’s dying, and it’s very good at persuading you. It lights fires in different locations across your body to get a response. And it’s hard not to respond!

But now that I’ve been talking about it, a lot of people I know told me they’ve felt that way too – they’ve carried a packet of diazepam around in their purse like a shield (Valley of the Dolls makes so much more sense to me now), they’ve lay in bed afraid to go to sleep in case they don’t wake up, convinced they’re having a heart attack, or that some strange incurable disease has taken root in their guts.

You can’t imagine how many times I’ve done the F.A.S.T thing in the mirror.

It’s not just feeling nervous, sweaty palms and a dry mouth. It’s mind blowing stabbing pains and chills and the inability to speak. It’s a weird feeling underneath your tongue and a squeezing pain in your chest.

It’s heart palpitations that take your breath away and stun you like a defibrillator shock when you’re just innocently sitting on your bed, or driving your car. It’s like spending hours stuck in that horrible moment your chair tips back too forth, or you have the dream where your falling. It feels out of your hands and terrifying.

If you’re reading this and you’re in the same boat or have any advice, feel free to let me know what helps you.

And if you’re still looking for the thing that works for you, I’ll help you try to find it.

Take care!

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