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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Anxiety.

This is a subject very close to my heart and I thought it was about time I wrote about it. For some years now, I've been dealing with anxiety. There's sadly a great deal of taboo still surrounding mental health issues in our society. When I was at my worst, about 18 months ago now, people kept telling me to 'snap out of it' and to 'man up'.  I lost friends because of it - my family didn't understand it - but I eventually got the help I needed. Anxiety is a completely normal human emotion. We all feel anxious and worried at times. Yet for some people, myself included, anxiety can often get out of hand.
Before I continue, I should probably contextualise a bit. I lightly touched on the topic when I first started LydiaLulu - but I always intended to write a fuller post describing my experience with anxiety.  It all came to a head in my final year of school. It's a stressful time for every student, but I simply didn't know how to cope with such pressure. I was studying for life-altering exams and began pushing myself to the absolute limit. How I performed on paper was intricately linked with my own self-worth. I was dangerously invested in my school performance to the extent that I wasn't functioning properly. I was working myself silly in an attempt to get into what I thought was the university of my dreams - I spent six months waiting for their decision and I took the rejection extremely hard. I was crushed... but also more determined to work harder than ever. 
This is also when I became extremely controlling when it came to my diet. About six months before my exams, I started eating healthier and exercising regularly. This started out as a good thing - it gave me more energy which meant I could even more hours into studying. When I received the university rejection, I was heartbroken. As I didn't get into the university I'd spent months dreaming about, I now fixated my attention on achieving the 'perfect' body. I would limit myself to just 400 calories a day and power-walk a two mile walk home from school in just 30 minutes. Like most young girls, I was incredibly self-conscious growing up. Sadly, teenagers nowadays are bombarded with photo-shopped images of supermodels and other celebrities who all conform to our narrow perception of beauty. This affects some girls more than others, but I definitely grew up comparing my body to those perfect magazine girls. 
Because I went to an all-girls school, my problem with food resulted in a lot of gossip. I felt like a walking disaster - people were watching me suffer and I became even more self-conscious. At the same time, this is when I started experiencing anxiety attacks at school. I did three quite demanding subjects for A-Level which required enormous amounts of essay writing. I avoided working in the Sixth Form common room where all the other girls in my year-group would hang out, and isolate myself in the deserted café area. I didn't trust the girls around me and became so desperate to escape in my work. However, my anxiety meant that my work ultimately began to suffer. I discovered this little bit of science much later down the line, but our bodies are programmed with a 'fight or flight mode'. So when I became overwhelmed with anxiety when I sat down to write an essay, this was my body releasing an overload of adrenaline because it would mistake my stress levels for impending physical danger. My heart would start racing, my breathing would quicken, and my entire body would tense up. All the while, my mind would be stressing about a difficult essay question and telling me to get on with it. I physically couldn't work in this state.


At this point, a kind English teacher and my Head of Sixth Form stepped in. They were the first people I truly confided in and gave me the courage to get the help I needed. Going to the Doctor's for a problem that wasn't physical was an incredibly strange experience for me. I immediately broke down in tears when I spoke to my GP and she put me on a waiting list for counselling. This was the one thing I was desperate to avoid but I knew at that point that it was inevitable. I needed the professional help. Despite all my fears, I couldn't have asked for a nicer person to confide in. My therapist helped me using 'Cognitive Behavioural Therapy' - a form of counselling that confronts issues by changing behavioural patterns and negative habits. She made me realise that I have control over anxiety - that I can identify the triggers and can combat detrimental thoughts. I remember her telling me that anxiety is like a powerful whirlwind sufferers get sucked into. For instance, when I would tackle a difficult essay I'd start to panic because it was challenging, then I'd tell myself I was a failure, then I'd start to feel guilty as if I was letting my family and friends down, and then it would continue to pick up momentum. I can't even articulate how difficult it is to escape that mindset once you've been sucked in. But now that I can identify my triggers and understand my thought processes, I have control over this whirlwind. The most important lesson I learnt was that anxiety is a trick the mind plays on itself. It has the power to distort every aspect of your life so that you can't see anything clearly. Once you understand it, however, you stand a fighting chance of conquering this inner demon.
Anxiety isn't something that fades away into the distance. Even now I have my good days and my bad days. Sometimes I fall into bad habits and it takes me a while to break free of them again. But it's comforting to know that the worst is over - because of that experience, I know that I'll never reach that low again. 
However, I do vouch for greater awareness of mental health issues - after all, they affect one in four of us at some point in our lives. I lost a lot of friends because of what I went through. But at the same time, they were probably not friends worth having if they were only there for the good times. I wish that people had seen my anxiety for what it is - because it wasn't a broken arm or leg, I wasn't taken seriously. Telling someone who is suffering in themselves to 'get over themselves' is possibly the worst thing you could do. Yet, anxiety highlighted my true friendships and for that, I'm extremely grateful. It's important to remember that suffering with anxiety doesn't define who you are. If anything it makes you human. Like my incredibly wise grandparents told me at the time, 'life isn't easy for anybody'. We all have our battles, mine was a tough one. But it's taught me so much about myself and made me a stronger person. It's helped me grow in my own life and for that, I wouldn't change a thing.
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