I am what you could call an anxiety disorder veteran; I am literally the most generally scared person I know. When I was 12, I experienced two very traumatic panic attacks, which *blossomed* into daily problems with anxiety during my adolescence. At some point, all of the following have been true of me: I can find it difficult to leave the house by myself, or at all. My nervous system misfires on a regular basis, leaving me feeling hot, breathless, and scared. And I live absolutely fucking terrified of experiencing another panic attack.
Luckily, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, anxiety, and depression in my early teens. I was referred to a very old and wise psychiatrist who has a habit of caging his fingers together, staring at me intently over his huge mahogany desk, and explaining that this isn’t my fault and that anxiety is just my body’s natural response not quite coping properly in the modern world. Apparently my body has decided that things that aren’t actually dangerous, like going to the shops on my own, are pretty much the same as being confronted by a pack of hungry hyenas—i.e., experiences from which I may never emerge.
Seeing a psychiatrist has been a huge help to me, and if you are finding anxiety hard to cope with alone, or think you may need medication, speak to your doctor or to someone you trust who can put you in touch with people who can help you. When you’re choosing a therapist, take a look at this guide to finding who’ll be most helpful to you.
I started tackling my anxiety pretty recently, following a period of depression from which I emerged thinking, Nope, can’t deal with any of this shit any more! I was incensed that anxiety had become a part of me that had defined my life for so long, that it had denied me a social life and opportunities and experiences. I was sick of it and wasn’t willing to let it define me anymore, or to stop me from living. Once I could layer up the thoughts that were telling me that I was fine and I wasn’t in danger they grew taller, until I was standing above the fear and could begin wrestling it back into its box. Getting angry at the anxiety really helped kickstart this process. My mother refers to my fight as slaying dragons, this is how I sharpen my sword.
The notion of leaving the house by myself terrified me which, unfortunately, was exactly why I needed to risk it. To prepare for what I was about to do, I began using a free app called Calm to do a guided meditation morning and evening for just five minutes. It makes me far more aware of my thoughts, which means I can catch anxious ones, suck them into the old dusty jars in my mind, and label them. I place them on a shelf where I can see them so they can’t melt away back into my subconscious. This gives me space to listen out for the thoughts that want me to beat the fear, and to remember why I am pushing myself.
Next, I prepare what I’m going to take with me on my trip into the world. I have a little backpack that I like to use. In it I usually keep my phone, in case I want to call and talk to somebody if I have a moment of panic; some headphones, if I want to use music or a podcast for distraction; an umbrella, because I live in England; a cereal bar and water for sustenance; a paper bag to blow into if I reach a point of real panic; and my house keys, because then I am in control of reentering my safe place whenever I want to. Sometimes I pack a book to read—especially if I’m going to sit somewhere that scares me—to take my mind off the situation until my insides stop freaking out. Having my emergency pack with me can be enormously helpful: it gives me so much confidence. I have noticed that I become reliant on it over time, so I try to take fewer and fewer items with me each time I go out, to teach myself that I don’t actually need them and can cope on my own.
Whether I’m heading into the world, or just doing one of the many other things that scares me, I like to write important words, phrases, and quotes on my arm where I know I am going to see them, to provide moral support and to remind myself of the person I am—somebody brave. Sometimes, I’ll have someone I love write something encouraging on there for me. I also practice breathing exercises taught to me by my psychologist specifically for panic disorder, rather than generalized anxiety disorder. I expose myself to my feelings of panic so that eventually they don’t bother me, it helps me practise how to calm myself down—it’s what I call fear training.
Once I have meditated, prepared my bag of emergency supplies, written inspirational phrases on my arm, and done my exercises it’s time to face the big, scary world by myself. I had to figure out where my comfort zone was: I struggled to even walk down my street alone so I tried just walking 10 or 15 meters before going back to my house (my safe place). I did this for a few days, two or three times a day. Trying to walk slowly and calmly was important as it meant I wasn’t rushing the process. I gently increased how far I walked as time progressed.
I struggle to talk to strangers or go into shops, so I chose a few shops near my house and challenged myself to visit them and maybe engage the shopkeeper in conversation, reminding myself they are just people, not evil monsters out to harm me. (I mean, some are but you can generally tell if you think someone is a danger to you, and not in that anxiety-disorder-brain way where literally everyone is out to get you.) I can feel my confidence increasing, and I’m on my way to meeting my goals: walking to my art class and going on a train by myself. My longer term goal: going on an airplane.
Facing my dragons has been extraordinarily hard to do, but on days when I get knocked back, or feel less confident, I just decrease my exposure to anxiety-inducing situations for a bit before building my way back again. I finally decided that I deserve to be the person I am underneath all the fear and worry. I deserve to live my life as that person, even though my illness attempts to convince me otherwise. ♦
Tiger is a writer, artist, aspiring explorer, and a Londoner.