It was seven years from my first panic attack to a diagnosis of anxiety. Seven years without any help. Seven years of thinking I needed to get a grip. Seven years of beating myself up for not being able to stay in control.
Before my diagnosis I didn’t think I was ill and I didn’t think I suffered with anxiety. What even was that?
I thought I was a freak. And weak.
A weak freak.
I didn’t know anyone who had struggled with their mental health (or maybe truer to say, I didn’t know anyone who had ever talked about it). I had no context for understanding, no frame of reference.
The public conversation is louder now, more common place and accessible, but still, getting a diagnosis – or putting yourself in a place where a diagnosis is possible – is fraught with difficulty.
It is for this reason I am here writing a list of the symptoms, signs and side effects of my anxiety. I am going to be specific. Because it is hard to ask for help when you don’t realise you are suffering with a real thing.
If I can shorten this time where you are floundering in the unknown, unaware that what you are suffering with can be helped, if I can prevent or limit the inevitable bottoming out of your self-esteem as you blame yourself for not coping, I want to do that.
So, here is my completely unscientific, purely based on my own experience, in no particular order, list of symptoms that might point to the fact that you are suffering from anxiety:
1. You have panic attacks.
Maybe you think this would be obvious, but it took about 7 or 8 years for me to recognise and name these moments of terrifying paralysis and abject terror.
What a panic attack looks like for me:
Initially, excess saliva. Some people experience a dry mouth with the onset of a panic attack, but for me it has always been a realisation I am swallowing more saliva than usual. (Warning: symptoms can be physical and unpleasant, and you may find out more about me than you really want to know.)
Hot on the heels of this is an increased awareness of my heart beating in my chest, of my blood pulsing around my body. This is the first of the ‘normal’ activities of the body that I become super-sensitive to.
When I was at university studying drama we often started a practical session or rehearsal with a process I now know as body-scanning: a mindfully increased awareness of how your body is feeling. We would lie on the floor and our lecturer would say Listen to the sounds outside the body, and we would tune into the cars we could hear outside, the sound of water in the pipes and other students moving about the building. She would then say, Now turn your concentration inside, listen to the sounds inside your body, and we would become aware of our internal symphonies; the beating of our hearts, the clicking or popping sound in our inner ears as we swallowed, the sound of our breath. We were choosing to quieten our minds to hear the inner soundscape as a way to heighten our physical awareness in performance.
When I have a panic attack this awareness goes into hyperdrive. Everything else fades away and I can only hear the sounds inside my body. These sounds are not relaxing, they are of a body out of control, breathing that is quickening, a heart that is beating louder and faster.
As these sounds become louder and all consuming, I lose my connection with the outside world and feel myself one step removed, retreating into my own personal hell where no one can reach me. This feeling of not being able to escape both causes and exacerbates the downward spiral. As this occurs I move outside of my own mind, I am observing myself, I have no control.
I begin to sweat, I feel myself getting hotter, my cheeks go red. I have a strong desire to be in the fresh air.
My mind pings about, rushing from one thing to another, catastrophising and finding the worst possible outcome for any situation I am in.
My stomach will start to swirl as my body kicks into fight or flight mode, and I feel sick often needing to find the nearest bathroom as my body empties itself in preparation for the combat that will never happen. (I know this may seem a bit TMI – as my kids would say – but I am including all the gory details because these are the things no one tells you.)
Usually the panic attack doesn’t last long and in half an hour I can be feeling myself again, however on a couple of occasions when I have suffered the Mother of all panic attacks I have had no choice but to go to sleep to reset whatever has gone off the boil in my brain. Sleep acts as the complete re-start, the hard re-boot for my brain.
Panic attacks are scary, the pinnacle of anxiety suffering.
Now the more everyday symptoms:
2. Reading is difficult.
I hadn’t read much for many years before I was officially diagnosed. It was a relief when my therapist told me this was a common side effect of suffering with depression and anxiety. I had thought it was just me: I had been exhausted, it was the baby years. I thought maybe I just wasn’t really a reader anymore (despite loving reading in my youth) maybe this was just another element of myself I had sacrificed at the altar of Motherhood. The words would (and sometimes still do) swim on the page and I found myself buying magazines to look at the pictures, somehow thinking turning pages (even though I wasn’t reading any words) would reassure me I was still myself. When you are suffering with anxiety it is difficult to concentrate.
3. Making and subsequently cancelling plans.
This is an element of anxiety that can be very difficult for friends and family to understand. In a good moment I can find myself excitedly making plans, looking forward to a day out, or going out for dinner. However as time passes and the occasion draws nearer, my excitement turns to dread. It all feels too much and I can start obsessing about all the things that could go wrong (for me generally that I would humiliate myself or in some way be exposed as weak or stupid). My anxiety fuelled premonitions can be utterly absurd but still be enough to make me want to cancel, which I have often had to.
My very favourite people are those who get it, who say don’t worry if it is too much, or who reassure me when I have had to cancel telling me it is fine and there will be another opportunity when you are feeling better. (Never underestimate the comfort of a friend who gets it. They are worth their weight in gold).
4. A need for information.
If I do find myself in a position when an outing is inevitable or necessary I need the details: where we are going? who is coming? how we are travelling there? when we will get back? what we will be eating? This is my way of assessing for potential danger, but it is very tiresome for me and those I am with. I cannot go with the flow, I need to have the information locked down to feel safe. It all becomes a bit control-freaky.
When you are working twice as hard as everyone else just to get through the day by being hyper-vigilant to make sure that nothing is going to throw you off course, you end up exhausted. One way for me to stay well is to regularly have a good amount of sleep. A few nights of bad sleep in a row can make me feel shaky and more sensitive – more likely to feel my anxiety present. A week of broken nights and I need to be on red alert. Some would see this is a sign of a limited capacity, as though I am not as strong or capable as the next person.
But as Brene Brown would say (my paraphrase), exhaustion should not be worn as a status symbol. It is a sign of great strength to know your limits and be organised and pro-active to make sure that your body gets what it needs to function well.
6. A fixation with one particular thing.
My anxiety is always around health. I might be worrying about something else that has nothing to do with illness, but my anxiety will always bring it back to fear of sickness. I cannot pinpoint why this makes me so anxious, but I have been down that rabbit warren so many times now the path is well-worn and familiar. For some it is fear of death or anxiety about children, for others separation or crowded spaces, but for most sufferers anxiety seems to focus around one area in particular. Even though I can tell myself the facts about being ill – how often it will probably happen and the truth that my kids are rarely ill and we rarely get the bugs that go round school – I still fixate on it. The reality bounces off and makes little impression on the fiction my anxiety has created.
7. A sensitivity to alcohol and caffeine.
When I am in a bad patch I know that increasing the amount of caffeine or alcohol I consume can be disastrous. The side effects which on a calm day I would be unaware of can, on a bad day, send me down a black hole. The journey of anxiety through my body can happen two ways: from my thoughts which then creates a reaction physically, or, physically symptoms ie. shakiness or increased adrenaline from caffeine or alcohol consumption, triggering a wave of anxious thoughts. (Either from the inside out or the outside in). The side effects of more than usual caffeine or alcohol can make me feel out of control and the physical symptoms pattern match to the those that occur in a panic attack sometimes causing one to occur.
8. An inability to relax or switch off.
It is hard to unwind when you are on high alert 24/7. Activities that I would normally find relaxing cease to be a way to rest. When I am feeling particularly anxious I find myself vaccilating between two extremes: hyper-energetic, working at 100 miles an hour, fidgeting and unable to sit still – the busyness a way of not having to think about the state my mind -, and an almost comatose state: either asleep, or zoned out from the rest of the world watching mindless television, non-communicative. These two extremes are not conducive to happy relationships. It is difficult to connect to others in a relaxed and fun way when you are anxious, as all your energy is used up on surviving.
This is not a complete list but if you are feeling at all like I have, or if this list seems to describe a loved one, maybe it is time to make an appointment, to be brave and head to see the doctor or a therapist.
The situation may feel hopeless but I assure you, it is not. There are strategies you can put in place that will improve your situation, and quickly. Even if you are not sure, but are wondering if you might need some help, don’t let the voice of accusation that says everyone else can cope you just need to try harder, win out. You can only begin to get better once you first acknowledge there is something wrong.
I’m with you. You can do this.