I had my first panic attack when I was twelve. I was at home alone because my parents were out looking for my sister – then a rebellious teenager with a story that isn’t mine to tell – and I realised I couldn’t breathe. Head spinning, heart racing, body tingling, chest tightening, I froze. I had experienced intermittent anxiety as a child, but this was different. I sat down and cried through it, with our tiny puppy for company. (We still jokingly call him the sanity dog, because he has helped us all through difficult moments.)
The anxiety arrived in waves after that, with my worry particularly focused on doing well at school. I was the smart one. The one who never did anything wrong. The good girl with a lovely group of friends. I worked hard. During my GCSEs, when other people walked over to the exam hall chatting, I took deep breaths and repeated information over and over again in my head, convinced that I would forget it all. I nearly had a panic attack before a Psychology A level exam and then got full marks. I say that not to brag, but because I think that incident reinforced a connection in my mind, an expectation that I would only do well if I worked to my limits and was on the edge of terror by the time exams or deadlines rolled around.
Then came university. As I mentioned in this post, my first year was a big transition, like it is for most people. I preferred nights in with books to nights out with jägerbombs, although I had my fair share of those too. I often felt guilty if I wasn’t working and frequently like I was in competition with myself. The better I did, the more pressure I felt to achieve the same mark or a higher one.
Anxiety, perfectionism and the added complication of undiagnosed coeliac disease manifested themselves in eating difficulties. During my final year, I was always thinking, always doing and not eating or sleeping well. I developed some obsessive habits, repeatedly checking that I’d locked my door and that plug sockets were turned off (sometimes I would do this in sets of 8 or 16, those numbers familiar from years of after-school dance classes). At times I found it hard to leave the house, particularly during dark January days spent at my desk.
Today I’m so far from those very bad months that it feels strange to recall them. When I look back, I don’t tend to think of anxiety because the past four years have also been ones of growth, love and fun. I think about the relationships I’ve built, the things I’ve learned, the words I’ve written, the discussions I’ve had, the people I’ve supported and the projects I’ve led.
I’ve been anxious before most of the interesting and important things in my life – job interviews, meetings I’ve chaired, first dates and the rest – but the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach has served me well so far. In 2012, I was nervous about speaking up in seminars. Last December, I wrote and ran a training session at City Hall in London. I became involved with Student Hubs as a Schools Plus tutor in Southampton and now I manage communications as part of the national team. I suppose a certain level of anxiety is the price we pay for progress. That said, when worried thoughts and related behaviours become dominant, please seek support – whatever that means for you.
I accept that I deal with anxiety and that I’m not alone in this. Some of my favourite people wrestle with similar thoughts and feelings. Mine are duller now, though – more like hazy background noise that I choose to tune out. I’ve found that learning about anxiety (Ruby Wax’s book A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled is interesting) and giving it a name makes me more rational when it starts to show up uninvited. Then I think, ‘Not today, anxiety. You don’t get a say here. I’m doing well and I’m capable of this, so fuck off’. (Sorry for swearing, Mum.) Sometimes I have to use everything in my self-care arsenal to get through it, but I do get through it.
I’m aware that it may become worse when I start studying again, so I’m prepared this time around. Last year, I ended up with a first class degree and two awards for my dissertation, but I wish that working towards those achievements hadn’t affected my mental and physical health so much. Although I know what I’m capable of, I’m not setting impossible standards. I will try to do well whilst also treating myself well.
As I get ready for what lies ahead, I’m finding comfort in Anne Lamott’s advice for tackling big projects and new opportunities:
‘Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird”.’
Remember to take things step by step, bird by bird.