Imagine the worst fear of your life and multiply it by ten.
It’s 2am in the morning and I’m bolt upright in bed, shaking uncontrollably.
It feels as if someone is sitting on my chest. I can’t breathe. There’s a sharp pain jolting through my heart.
The fear is crippling. I’m overwhelmed with a crushing sense of impending doom, the out-of-body type of terror I imagine you’d experience staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. My nervous system is in overdrive, sending prickly bursts of electricity surging through my body. My lungs moan and tighten. The ceiling droops and churns into a pinwheel. Everything is narrowing into darkness, like an aperture closing on a camera. This is it. This is how my life will end – in a strained heave from a knot of sweaty sheets at the end of my bed.
This, is actually an anxiety attack. An often inexplicable occurrence medical professionals have spent the better part of four decades trying to articulate.
First recognized in 1980 by the American Psychiatric Association, anxiety disorders can take many forms, but are usually characterized by anxiety-related symptoms such as persistent worrying, panic attacks, intense phobias and obsessive behaviors that interfere with a person’s ability to enjoy a regular life. Incredibly, prior to 1980, if you went to the doctor complaining of the above cluster of symptoms, you were typically sent home with a diagnosis of general ‘stress’ or ‘nerves’ and a recommendation to ‘lighten up’.
However, thanks to outspoken celebrities suffering from anxiety, these disorders have become more widely recognized and accepted in the past two decades.
In 2012, country singer Leann Rimes had a highly publicized check-in to a treatment facility for severe anxiety and stress, during which times Rimes’s spokesperson told concerned fans, “Ms. Rimes simply needs to re-learn coping tools for the significant anxiety that comes with being a celebrity.”
Actor Emma Stone has been vocal about her struggle with panic attacks from a young age, recently telling the Wall Street Journal, “It was really bad…The first time I had a panic attack I was sitting in my friend’s house, and I thought the house was burning down…For the next three years it just would not stop. I would go to the nurse at lunch most days and just wring my hands…I just needed to know that no one was going to die and nothing was going to change.”
It’s believed approximately 25 per cent of the population suffers from some sort of an anxiety disorder, and most people who live with it are born with a genetic vulnerability to anxiety, or a set of personality traits that make them particularly susceptible to stress, but the jury’s still out on what exactly causes a predisposition in the first place.
Anxiety disorders include agoraphobia, a crippling fear that prevents a person from being able to leave their house; obsessive compulsive disorder, characterized by repetitive compulsive behaviors like hand wringing; social anxiety disorder, in which a person typically avoids social situations due to intense anxiety around negative public scrutiny; and panic disorder, a condition in which a person suffers from panic attacks.
Panic or anxiety attacks are thought to be triggered by stress, but can often occur completely randomly in non-stressful moments, such as during sleep, like my episode in the middle of the night. And because of that, they come with the bonus feature of causing additional feelings of embarrassment for the person going through one in the middle of a meeting or birthday party.
I’ve personally had to duck into work bathrooms, dark alleys and the closest discreet location (which is often not as private as I’d like) to have an anxiety attack. Not just because I’m not keen to explain to my colleagues why I’m hyperventilating in the foetal position, but because the best way to ride one out is in a place you can feel – at least somewhat – safe, which for me, is always preferably somewhere I can be isolated and away from bright lights. Often that’s been achieved by crouching down in a corner, hugging my arms around myself and pulling my jacket over my head, a bizarre act most people would understandably find a little disconcerting.
The good news is, the worst symptoms of an anxiety attack are typically over within minutes, with most episodes peaking at the 10 minute mark, then rapidly declining. The bad news is, the physical side effects of pure exhaustion and nausea tend to last much longer, often taking days to fully subside. I usually pass my comedowns off as being ‘burnt out’, a concise way of explaining my ability to deal with the world is limited for the time being, without having my capacity to perform my job or be at a friend’s special event brought under interrogation.
I’ve personally been privileged to have managers who’ve understood the severity of the condition and supported me without question when I needed a break, but the unfortunate fact is most workplaces aren’t likely to question your ability to perform your job competently if you show up with a broken leg (provided you’re not in a physical role), but will scrutinize your competence if you admit to sporadically suffering from a broken brain, or worse still, brand you a hypochondriac.
The truth however, is some of the world’s most talented and creative minds have wrestled with anxiety, among which include personalities like Abraham Lincoln, Barbra Streisand, John Steinbeck and Edvard Munch. And while the symptoms of panic attacks can be particularly distressing, both to deal with and to witness, like all disorders, they can be easily controlled and needn’t interfere with a person’s ability to have fulfilling relationships, lead a successful career and enjoy a high quality of life.
If you suffer from anxiety, it’s important to surround yourself with people that support you; and if you know someone who lives with it, it’s important to remember they don’t want to be any more singled out for being different than you do. Though panic attacks can be frightening to witness, you need to allow the person going through them to ride them out. Never raise your voice, indicate you’re flustered or make them feel there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing. Instead, speak slowly and calmly, remind them they’re safe (the words ‘You’re safe’ can not be repeated enough to someone undergoing a panic attack) and that it will be over soon, always asking first if you can touch them.
Like all people, sufferers of anxiety just want to know that they’re not alone.
Images via shutterstock and emgn.com