How I Overcame Anxiety
Anxiety is not an easy subject to discuss, and it is especially hard to explain to those who have not experienced it. We have all felt nervous over an interview, or a performance, or working up the courage to talk to someone you like, but diagnosed anxiety is a different creature. Mental illnesses are easily overlooked in the day-to-day. They are not as obvious as a broken arm, and sometimes it’s not noticeable at all. They can be quiet, they can persist, and they can be lonely. For how can you explain an ever-present unease, causing one to be afraid to even sit at the dinner table with their family? How do you explain that standing outside and feeling the gaping maw of space above your head is too overwhelming for you? How do you explain that idly listening to someone leaves too much time for poisonous thoughts, which forces you to excuse yourself and calm down, isolated from everyone else because you know they can’t help you? Indeed, isolation was perhaps the worst culprit for my continued anxiety in the early months of last year. When I had a panic attack on the Underground in London my first instinct was to get out. I needed to get out of that situation immediately, so I could compose myself and relax. Unfortunately, I was stuck in transit, and remained in a terrified state of mind for the next few minutes before I could leave at the next station. There was nobody there to help me in that moment.
For the next few months it got progressively worse. I stopped taking public transport almost entirely for fear of being trapped again. My sleeping pattern became erratic and I would rarely fall asleep without taking pills. I always kept a box of ibuprofen on me in case the headaches became too much, and I needed to dull them. The headaches persisted so much that I would take them regularly, that my senses could be dulled, and I could pretend I was healthy again. That habit was perhaps the most dangerous, and it wasn’t long after that that I decided this could not continue.
In my experience, mental health issues like anxiety can only be cured if the sufferer wants to be cured. At the end of the day, you are the only person who understands the specific of your illness, and only you can take the steps towards curing it. Nobody else can cure your anxiety for you. It was around three months after the incident on the tube. I was lying in bed, my heart and mind were racing as usual, and I was staring at the ceiling. It was coming up to 7pm on a Thursday night. I hated how terrified I was of everything, and how ridiculous I was being. I looked over the train tracks outside my window at a train pulling in. Suddenly, I had an idea. This had to stop. I couldn’t avoid planes, trains, and automobiles for the rest of my life, and how dare they make me so scared of them in the first place.
So, I decided. I was going to ride the Underground. It didn’t matter where, only that I was facing my fear, the source of my anxiety. The headache was constant and front-loaded, my heart felt like it was going to leap out of my chest, and adrenaline heightened my senses, but I wasn’t focused on any of them. ‘Fear is the mind-killer, and I am not afraid.’ I repeated this in my head for the entire trip. It drowned out the poisonous thoughts. I was playing loud, aggressive music on my phone, carrying me through on the momentum. About halfway through however, it became tiring. How can you stay angry at an inanimate object? You can’t spite a table; it’s just a table. Just so, I found my anger had no clear target, no direction. I changed the music to something gentler. The whole trip took about twenty minutes. Although I was by no means cured (and wouldn’t be healthy again for the next few months) it marked a noticeable change for me; I had taken the first step.
If you ever receive, as I did, an anxiety help book from your doctor, it will contain a plethora of activities and techniques to help you combat it. For me, it was challenging the negative thoughts and internalising that ‘fear is the mind-killer’ adage. Music, as ever, was a stalwart friend during this period, and I found comfort in the sentiments of several songs (I Believe by Christina Perri was written explicitly for sufferers of mental illness, and the lyrics provide an uplifting and optimistic message for its audience). For others, friends of mine who have suffered worse for longer, their answer is either undiscovered or the effort needed to overcome is too great. It is not easy to challenge yourself, to reject your own thoughts as falsities, because how can you? Your thoughts are who you are; if they were wrong then who is left to confide in?
Except they aren’t who you are. You are not a string of defeatist, intrusive hypotheses waiting to
be played out. You are only defined by your mental illness if you let it obstruct you. It can be difficult to convey via the written word, but you must get out of the way of yourself when you have anxiety. If you don’t then you become a shadow, as I nearly did. You stop attending social events because you know you’ll be far away from the safety of your bedroom. You stop sitting on the sofa because you get headaches. You avoid any kind of transport because what if? What if it happens again? It’s going to happen again. It’s happening again. Oh god it’s happening again.
Since then I am more or less myself again. When it does threaten to rear its head again, I’m able to separate myself from the negativity. Sometimes I have a dialogue in my head between the two, and by the time it’s finished I’m at my destination anyway. Fear wins if it remains unchallenged; and the individual is the sole agent of their own liberty from fear. Anxiety is something you cannot imagine what is like to experience, but when you have anxiety it can seem impossible to experience anything resembling normality again. You forget yourself after a while, how to be yourself. It cannot be solved overnight, and persistent challenging can be exhausting, but it must be done to stop it from taking over your life. It got easier, but I had to face my anxiety every day, until one day I didn’t have to face it at all.