I have lived with my anxiety disorder for most of my life, but it really started at aged 15, when I was so acutely anxious I had to take six weeks off school during my GCSE year. I was suffering from an agitated depression, an episode that left me reeling. I was so young and so unwell. It was partly triggered by stressful life events but what I didn’t know at that time was that my anxiety and depression was part of a wider illness- bipolar disorder.
After several episodes of depression and mania, I was hospitalised at aged 16 at the Priory North London and diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder. Bipolar is a mood disorder where you fluctuate between episodes of depression, hypomania (a lesser manic state) or mania. It can run in families and can be triggered by life events. I am now 29, so have lived with this for almost 14 years.
I was hospitalised due to a severe depression that featured psychosis, where your mind loses touch with reality and can cause bad anxiety. I had delusions- false beliefs about the world and a lot of fear. Luckily, I recovered after four months of treatment, left and started taking regular medication which began to help, however, the anxiety seemed to be ever present.
As I had been so ill as a teenager with a whole host of symptoms due to my bipolar, I developed social anxiety and panic attacks. I was desperate to fit in and appear ‘normal’ as most teenagers are. I felt different, I was facing life with a chronic illness. There was so much uncertainty, they couldn’t just scan my brain to see what was going on. Taking medication was trial and error for me, some worked and some didn’t. The same with therapies.
The social anxiety was about feeling judged by other people, because I was judging myself wrongly for what had happened during my episodes. It impacted my self esteem- I felt low about myself and didn’t know why I had been given this illness and why it caused me so much embarrassment and shame at the time. There was a stigma back in 2004, that has lessened today
My social anxiety manifested a few years after I had left hospital. I began to fear attending parties, dates and social events with friends, in case I was judged negatively. As a teenager, there was a lot of stigma from other teenagers about my illness. This made me feel depleted, sad and angry. I didn’t choose my brain chemistry- so why were they spreading false rumours about me and making me feel worthless? It was a difficult time for me. I did also have a lot of love and support.
However, my heart would race and the event eg a birthday party in a club or bar, would trigger an absolute state of panic. What if I looked awful/ wore the wrong clothes? What if everyone was judging me when I got there and thinking badly of me? I often would cancel on friends and not attend, for fear of having to show up, however I felt. I felt so vulnerable and I didn’t want anyone to see it.
Part of the anxiety was because when you have bipolar episodes of mania and depression (particularly mania) it leaves you feeling ashamed of your behaviour. For me there was a certain sense of shame, especially with the manic episodes. However, I knew it wasn’t my true personality and I could not control my brain chemistry at the time it happened. Yet, my subconscious mind continued to trigger panic in social situations.
I was lucky and am still lucky to have a group of very supportive friends (and family) who helped me to get out more, through exposure therapy. My Mum or Dad would take me out in the car, or friends would come to the house and coax me slowly out into the world again. Exposure therapy, moving slowly to expose myself to the feared situations is so helpful to me, even today.
Aged 20, I began my first course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for the anxiety. I worked out with my therapist what the limiting beliefs holding me back were- fear of judgement, fear of being exposed negatively (as my illness made me feel so out of control) and I was asked to keep thought records of my negative thoughts at the time of a panic attack.
For me, panic attacks manifested themselves as feeling clammy, sick, tight chest, overwhelming negative thoughts about a situation and the fight or flight desire to run away and cancel the arrangement, removing myself from the feared trigger. Although the CBT did not stop the anxiety and panic, it gave me some tools at the time to understand it.
Over the years, I have completed three courses of CBT with a psychologist and another therapist, until I gave up on it, because my anxiety was so emotionally rooted and based in the subconscious that the cognitive approach was not working. For me a combination of the following helps.
Firstly, talking therapy about any past traumas (psychodynamic) with my current therapist is so helpful and makes me feel so grounded and safe. Secondly, when very stressed, I find meditation, particularly the Yoga Nidra meditation or apps like Headspace so helpful for breathing. Taking deep breaths can help relieve stress. Thirdly, exposure therapy is key to recovery. I find the more I go out accompanied, the more I feel able to do- it’s a slow process but helpful.
In 2014, after ten years out of hospital, I was hospitalised for a severe manic episode with psychosis. This hospitalisation caused a lot of trauma and anxiety and in hospital, I found art therapy incredibly helpful. Making a picture, collage or painting focused and calmed my mind. Even colouring in a book helped me to filter out the stress of being in hospital and kept my mind calm. I suppose this is a form of mindfulness too and I still love art today.
I very much support the work of No Panic and am so thrilled to write here. Since 2016, I have made a really good recovery from my bipolar and am now stable on medication. My anxiety is still there but I now have a career writing freelance for Metro Online, Happiful Magazine, Glamour and mental health charities such as Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and Time to Change. I have also written my mental health blog www.beurownlight.com, which is about my journey with bipolar and anxiety and those of others. It is currently nominated for a UK Blog Award.
Just know that if you currently experience anxiety and panic attacks, whatever triggers it- there will be something out there to help you- whether its therapy, medication, mindfulness, exercise, meditation, art or exposure to the feared situation in small does. You are not alone.