My Anxiety — The Origins
[EDIT: This post was originally written in 2016 and posted on Medium. I’ve re-uploaded it here.]
I’ve been dealing with episodes of anxiety for two years now. Thus far, I’ve had three episodes of prolonged anxiety, lasting for up to three months. I’m currently at what I hope will be the end of the third episode and I want to share with you the things I’ve learned about anxiety, and hopefully provide others with the same feelings some comfort. You are not alone in this!
On re-reading this paragraph, I realised that words like ‘thus far’ and ‘hope’ carry some inevitability with them, as if I am not in control. Be aware of this, don’t be a victim of your own thoughts.
My anxiety started when I had my first panic attack. This was on a plane, probably not the most ideal location for your first panic attack, but then again, is there any? I was on my way to Turkey with one of my closest friends. Our plan was to have a seven-day work vacation. We are both IT entrepreneurs, so all we needed were our laptops and an internet connection. But our plans changed drastically when I was sure I was going to die of a heart attack. I was twenty-three and heart conditions are not common in my family, but somehow logic doesn’t apply during a panic attack.
So here I was, sitting in an airplane with a heart beating faster than the airplane flew. I had no history with mental problems whatsoever, so I was sure it had to be something physical. I only had two hours of sleep the night before and I just returned from a weekend in Germany, so I knew my body was weak. I tried to keep my mind busy by playing games, so I wouldn’t keep thinking about how I felt. Surely, when we would touch ground in Turkey, everything would be alright. Right?
Well, no. When we arrived at the resort, I wanted to sleep for a little bit. But as soon as I hit the bed, my heartbeat kept rising again, up till a point at which I couldn’t handle it anymore. While my heart apparently wanted to escape my chest, I rushed over to the doctor’s office at the resort. The doctor was having a break, but his assistant wasn’t. She measured my blood pressure and heart rate, and started making a phone call. Meanwhile, I was mentally already saying goodbye to everyone I loved, because I was sure I was going to die, right there in that tiny office. As the nurse was calling, I heard her say ‘ambulans’, which happens to be the Turkish word for ambulance. Can you imagine how I felt by then?
The ‘ambulans’ drove me to a clinic, where I was subjected to different kinds of tests. The doctor told me that I had to spend the night at the hospital, so they could monitor me. It was one of the worst nights ever, everything felt like a nightmare from which I needed to wake up. I couldn’t even leave the room without feeling afraid. I just wanted to be with my family and my girlfriend, but thinking about them only made me feel more afraid.
The next day the doctor told me that what I felt wasn’t something physical, but it was in my head. He gave me a subscription for antidepressants and told me that I needed to visit a psychologist when I returned to Holland. Alright, I thought, this is great; just give me the pills and everything will return to normal. We will have a great holiday and I will return home like nothing ever happened. Let’s go!
Back at the resort, I called my mother. She, as well as my younger sister, are both all too familiar with anxiety and depression, something that I would often use to make fun of them. Because, how bad can it be if it’s just all in your head right? My mother told me that I shouldn’t take the antidepressants, because before they help, they first make it worse. And I felt my mental state spiralling down again. If I couldn’t take the pills, how would I survive the remaining days in Turkey without my family and my girlfriend? I needed a solid ground beneath my feet and somehow, with the lack of family or girlfriend, I thought the antidepressants could function as one. But without solid ground, I felt myself slipping again.
During the remaining days, all I did was trying not to focus on negative thoughts, which was a hard thing to do. All kinds of thoughts rushed through my mind. I was afraid of all unfamiliar faces, which was about everyone I saw except for my friend. I was afraid that my girlfriend and parents were only speaking kindly to me on the phone, but that as soon as I was in Holland again, they would send me to a madhouse. I was afraid my life as I knew it was over, that this was the end of my sane life and that everything had changed and would never ever return to normal again. One day, my friend and I wanted to visit a nearby market but I couldn’t leave the resort because I was too afraid and almost panicked again. How the hell was I supposed to leave the resort altogether and fly back to Holland?
The day of our departure finally came and I somehow managed to get on the plane. The thought of seeing my parents and girlfriend again was stronger than my fear, and surely once I saw them, everything would be A-OK.
Think twice muchacho.
Back in Holland, I had two more panic attacks within four weeks after returning. I suffered from severe headaches and daily anxiety. I was afraid I would turn mad. Sometimes I didn’t even know what was real; reality felt far, far away. I learned, from searching online, that I suffered from generalised anxiety, which is basically the fear of either dying or turning mad.
Pro tip: do not, I repeat, do not try to find anything about mental illnesses online when you are in an unstable mental state. It will only f*ck you up more.
At one moment, I actually thought I wanted to die. I just couldn’t take these continuous feelings of anxiety anymore. But guilt overtook me. I couldn’t just leave my loved ones behind, now could I?
Fortunately, the people around me offered their support and helped me trough tough times. I talked a lot with my family, friends and girlfriend about my feelings and they tried to keep me focused on the positive things in life. With the passing of the months, my anxiousness and negative thoughts began to decay, making room for the positive again. My trip to Turkey was mid-April and by the time of begin July, I was feeling more like the old me again. Take that, anxiety!
Pro tip: think of a panic attack as an injury to your mental state; some time is needed to heal the injury, but it will heal!
What I learned from my first episode of anxiety, is that although at moments you are completely sure that you are either going to die, lose your mind or never return to ‘normal’ again, a blue sky is always waiting for you. You just need to hang in tight. Talk about what you are feeling, surround yourself with the people that you love and that show support. Find people who have experienced the same. Sometimes, I was sure that no one had ever felt this way, only to find that my mother/my sister/a friend of a friend had also experienced the same feelings. Try not to give in to the negative feelings, try not to make them live your life. And definitely start meditating. It will help you get a grip on the seemingly unstoppable train of thoughts in your head. I used the app Headspace for meditating, which really helped me a lot. If you think meditation is woolly, think again. Scientific research has repeatedly shown that meditation has a positive effect on feeling good, so just try it! Lastly, I want to recommend a book which really helped me to understand anxiety a little bit better: The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam. The book’s about OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), but anxiety is like the O in OCD; it is obsessive thinking that causes anxious feelings to arise. The fact that anxiety is nothing more than a (very persistent, very annoying, very reoccurring) obsessive thought, really helped me to put my thoughts in perspective.
So that’s that. This is the first public post I’ve ever written about my anxiety. I hope that those of you who recognise these feelings find some comfort in knowing that they are not alone. If you ever find yourself wanting someone to talk to, I’m here and so are a lot of others with the same feelings!
Everything always turns out OK!