Be still my anxious heart
Updated: Aug 21, 2018
A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post about my anxiety. More specifically my health anxiety.
I'd sauntered unwittingly down the not-so-mellow brick road of anxiety after an emotional trauma, and after three quick-fire health scares (abnormal smear, boob lump, boob lump) it veered off onto the health anxiety highway, where there are no road signs, no Little Chefs and definitely no exits.
I've been accused of being self-obsessed, 'mental', pathetic, weak and irrational, all because I struggle to manage fears of illness and death.
When I'm in a good space in other aspects of my life, my anxiety settles down. But come a moment of turmoil or trauma and it sneaks up behind me and smacks me around the head with palpitations, tension headaches, chest pains and the darkest of thoughts.
Following Tim's heart attack, it reared its head. A lot. It towered over me. I tried so hard to ignore it and not let on to Tim that I was feeling unutterably terrified, but it cast its horrid dark shadows over everything.
I had known to expect it though. Tim's doctors and nurses warned us that we'd both start to feel strange, possibly depressed and almost certainly anxious, around four weeks after the event. And they were spot on.
I've decided to re-share my original post to give an insight to anyone who may have someone around them who suffers with anxiety, and to those who suffer themselves, link my arm theoretically through theirs and march them to a pub and buy them a beer of support and understanding.
* * *
My legs feel weird, like they don’t belong to me, I think as I uncross them at my desk.
I try again.
Yes, they definitely don’t feel right. It’s like they’re made of rubber. My nerves feel deadened. I am a rubbery mannequin. When did that happen?
I cross and uncross them again and again, rubbing my shins with my hands, desperate for them to feel normal.
My heart begins to thump, the building violence of its pounding making my body shake with each beat.
I am breathing fast. I tune into it, controlling each intake and out-breath. Terrified if I don’t, I won’t be able to draw in oxygen ever again. Is my chest feeling tight? Yes.
The inexplicable, numb feeling spreads to the rest of me. I am inside my body, but it doesn’t belong to me. I’m not in control of it. What if something makes me lash out and do something weird? What if I hurt someone? Disturbing images of randomly punching people, doing sudden and embarrassing things flash through my mind.
My once familiar self has become a weird vessel commandeered by some unseen force. I feel whatever this force is, it wants me to die.
My heart hammers, my vision tunnels, my hands and feet tingle with the stabs of unseen pins, the fear of something imminent and terrible is a physical pain inside me.
I look around. Everyone is still writing stories on their computer screens, still good-naturedly abusing each other, still interviewing and carving out shorthand at speed in lined notebooks.
No one has noticed that I am about to die.
I get up from my swivel chair and walk towards the door, trying to keep my gait normal. I walk a little like ASIMO the robot. No one notices.
I stand in the hall, rub the back of my neck, claw at rational thoughts, desperately trying to reintroduce them to my brain.
You’re not dying, you’re panicking.
You’re not dying, you’re panicking.
You’re not dying, you’re panicking.
My body begrudgingly begins to feel normal. Walking around helps.
My nerve endings wake up.
My heart slows.
I can still feel the flood of adrenaline coursing through me. I could run an ultra marathon. Well, maybe to the coffee shop and back.
I can’t quite let go of controlling each breath.
I walk quietly back into the office, back to my desk. I don’t look at anyone.
My phone rings.
“Hello, Sara speaking,” I trill, trying to sound normal.
If you haven’t already guessed, I suffer with anxiety. I get panic attacks.
You can’t die from panic, but tell that to someone in the middle of mind-explodingly frightening episode.
Anxiety is normal. Everyone on this green earth has suffered worry, fear and panic – before a driving test, or exam, a job interview or appointment with the doctor.
According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, 4.7 per cent of us have experienced anxiety and panic attacks while 2.6 per cent have experienced depression. As many as 9.7 per cent of us have endured both.
That said, it’s widely considered to be underreported, so many people are just quietly trying to deal with it, trying to cope.
I don’t suffer with depression, and I am lucky to say in the grand scheme of things my anxiety is mild.
Day-to-day, you would never know I suffered with it. I’m not trapped by fear inside my house, I am not devoid of rational thought at every moment, I am not continuously floored by the symptoms so physical you are convinced you have only moments to live.
Some people are and my heart reaches for them. They are normal, healthy, sensible people, but for some reason their bodies let them down, and fear takes over. They are not weak.
My first panic attack happened in a restaurant while I was out for a meal with friends. The symptoms hit me so suddenly and were so unfamiliar, I truly believed I was having a stroke.
I had to leave. One of my friends, oblivious to what was happening, was thrilled he could finish my meal for me.
I worried for a long time they thought I was ‘completely mental’, to use a common, and inherently wrong turn of phrase. I am normally sociable, up for fun, and easy going. I don’t normally dash from restaurants without so much as a by-your-leave.
Looking back, I now recognise that foray into anxiety was triggered by an emotional trauma I had endured not too long before.
After some research, I self-diagnosed and got a handle on it – rubbing my neck when I felt peculiar, distracting myself from controlling my breath and walking around – or so I thought.
My anxiety today is quite specific, and again phenomenally common. To many people it’s just ‘hypochondria’, to doctors it’s health anxiety and to me it’s a very real fear that I will get contract a terrible disease and die, leaving my beloved ones behind and never fulfilling my life’s potential.
It’s a bit of a bind when you’re a health reporter and have an unwavering knack of convincing yourself you have the symptoms of every single disease you write about. Including Alzheimer’s. Yes, for one day, I believed I had really early onset dementia.
It all began when I had back-to-back health scares, beginning with a highly abnormal smear test. I spent weeks believing I had cervical cancer and it was punishment for being lax in getting it booked in. The middle of the night was the hardest time to cope.
An astonishingly simple, if a little undignified, procedure later and the affected part was cut away. A test six months on was clear.
Next I found a lump in my boob. I hoped the GP would tell me it was nothing to worry about. She didn’t. She quietly checked it and referred me to the breast clinic at the hospital. Cue fears I had breast cancer.
An ultrasound later, I had cysts. Quite a few of them actually.
Then my dad had a skin cancer scare. Then I found another lump, again a cyst, but a big one.
No more health scares to date (even writing this I’m conscious I could be tempting fate) so panic over. Or so you’d think.
This cluster of terror had given me post-traumatic stress disorder and kick-started my anxiety in a new direction, one from which it was far harder to talk myself down.
We all get sick, we all die. What was stopping me getting cancer? Luck.
I was terrified and it began to consume every day.
My fears began to extend to those I loved. I worried they would be taken from me and I wouldn’t cope. What would life be without them?
All this time however, I was living as normal, partying, working hard and you wouldn’t know I was washed over by a crippling sense of fear at least three times a day – every time I spotted a new bruise (leukaemia), had a slight headache (brain tumour), my contact lenses went blurry (blindness), or irregular heartbeat caused by a panic attack (imminent heart attack).
I was good at distracting myself. If I was having fun with my friends, I could suppress it. If I was relaxed at home, I would hardly think about it.
But I realised it was a part of every day and something had to be done.
After an oddly emotional meeting with a mental health practitioner – she didn’t think I was bonkers – I was referred to a stress group.
Learning the crippling physical symptoms are normal and created by the fight-or-flight response was amazing. I can now, for the most part, give myself a mental slap round the chops, tell myself I’m being daft, and while it still takes time to pass, I feel I’m more in charge.
I now see someone once a week for a good old chat and some cognitive behavioural therapy (I’m getting therapy, how chic, how L.A.) to re-teach my brain about rational thought.
Now listen to me goo-inside-Sara’s-head, just because that man on TV had a stroke, doesn’t mean you’re about to have one.
Anxiety is brutal. It is fear to such a degree that your body raids the archives for the old fight-or-flight, filling you with chemicals that are hard to dispel, unless you are genuinely running like hell from a sabre-toothed tiger.
Anxiety is brutal, it is all-consuming, but it is normal. Whatever that may be.