To overcome anxiety and panic, come to understand it. Anxiety is there for a reason – to protect us from danger. The aim is not to completely get rid of anxiety, but turn the volume down on it when it gets out of hand. Anxious feelings themselves are not dangerous, and cannot lead to any serious harm.
And do not worry – you will not have panic attacks forever! They are going to go. Mine have gone from bad to bearable in four or five months.
Here is a description of my lived experience of anxiety and agoraphobia.
Sometimes when I go out, it feels like something is pulling the hair right at the back of my skull. I can describe it as a constant tugging. I know it is a false warning, but it is nonetheless powerfully there. Describing it seems to rob it of its power. Imitating this feeling at home, literally tugging the back of my hair, makes me realize that sensations are just that – sensations. What they mean depends on the importance we give them. Nonetheless, they are frightening at first. Gradually, you kind-of just get used to them.
When I fear that I am exerting myself too much or someone walking down the street could be a threat, my heart feels like it is not there! I can only describe it like that. It is like my heart moves up and right across my chest, vanishing into a portal. This is certainly the most bizarre feeling. A tenseness in the diaphragm often comes up when I go out walking alone. The chest area has a strong significance for me. At the moment I am experiencing shortness of breath, especially in closed spaces outside. I know it is not dangerous (perhaps light hyperventilation) and it is kept at a low level. But it is uncomfortable, and makes me more prone to stress.
Another lived experience is like feeling a nebula softly exploding and dissipating in my frontal lobes. It could also be described as someone pressing down again my forehead. I don’t know why this one comes up – it hasn’t for a while.
My least favourite experience at the moment is the lightness in the knees, as if the ground is pulling away from me. My head simultaneously feels a dizziness, like a spiralling. I get thoughts like ‘I’m going to fall’ or ‘Have I gone too far’? Often this experience Is caused by anticipating it, leading to a self-fulfilling spiral. But it never gets too bad. I am on top of the dizziness, because I know that when we are in fight or flight mode, the last thing we are going to do is be clumsy and fall. Also, by imitating this feeling at home by deliberately spinning round (not too much!) I am robbing dizziness of its fear-association.
One thing I do at the moment is to have safety behaviours and items. For instance, I am conscious when I leave the house that I should have my keys, meds or phone in my pockets. When walking along the street alone I tend to hold on to these things in my pockets. When I let go of them and walk more ‘normally’, it decreases my sense of anxiety. In short, I am aware that these safety items and behaviours reinforce anxiety – I only need to remember all the times I used to go out without them! I am experimenting with going out without having my phone, or meds. So far, nothing catastrophic has happened as a result. Gradual exposure to anxiety is the way to gradually reduce it, and for me it is working.
Generally my sense of dread is felt in the knees and chest. It feels like something really bad is going to happen, and that I have strayed too far from home. I only real feel a major fear in my head on a particularly bad day. After a particularly bad mood, or conflict, or any gushing of volatile emotion, I can feel quite a lot of dread and anxiety on my first venture outside.
My anxiety is also linked to the weather – dark and cold and dreary makes it worse, sunlight and softness and warmth can almost completely nullify it at times. This is why it is important to warm up before going, and not to push yourself too far at first! I am slowly getting used to colder and harsher weather, although going out at night alone I have not much experimented with. I have had strong anxieties about going out at night for at least a decade. Now is the time to deal with that fear.
These are all uncomfortable experiences. There are also positive and encouraging experiences on my journeys. Sudden bursts of strength, energy and confidence usually follow my realization that ‘I am actually at peak speed and strength! Anxiety is only uncomfortable now because it is not the right time for fight or flight.’ These confidences are sometimes linked to specific areas (crossing at a certain traffic light for instance, or going up a certain part of a hill). I try to remember that even positive associations are based the subconscious. When I really delve into the causes of anxiety, and sometimes get angry inside myself for injustices I have suffered, I feel stronger and less anxious. Expression of something hitherto unexpressed seems to lower my anxiety. But the rules of society and masculinity are still strong even in my ‘rebellious’ mind. They force me into the ‘psyche’ of citizen, and so I have not yet learnt to transcend these expectations and thus greatly lower my anxiety levels.
These are some of my lived experiences of anxiety and how I strive to overcome them. What is your lived experience of anxiety?