Having anxiety is one thing, but being anxious about how other people will react to my anxiety is a whole other monster.
I was about 12 years old when I had my first panic attack. I remember waking up early in the morning with an uneasy feeling, my stomach churning and my heart racing. I got up and paced around my room, going to the window to get some fresh air because I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.
As with all panic attacks it eventually passed, and I was left feeling tired and scared. The rest of my family began to wake up and go about their day, and I didn’t know how to talk about or express what had happened. I thought no one would understand so I kept it to myself.
I knew early on that I had a problem with my mental health, and growing up somewhere along the line I had picked up the idea that having a problem with your mental health was wrong and shameful. My way to cope was to withdraw and I became shy and unsociable. I had a hard time making new friends at school, it seemed like the easiest way to hide my anxiety was to hide myself. People have always commented that I am laid-back and relaxed, but if only they knew how I really felt inside and the struggle I go through to put on that facade.
How my anxiety affects me now
I’m 27 now and starting to realise the ways anxiety has shaped my life, and the thing I realise has been the most impactful is the way I think people will react. In my mind, the two worse case scenarios are that they will think I’m a freak and reject me, or they will do the opposite and become too overbearing and smother me.
If I’m in a situation where having a panic attack or feeling anxious could potentially expose me to the harsh judgement of others, it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy because telling yourself ‘now would be a really bad time to get anxious’ is almost guaranteed to trigger feelings of anxiety.
Here are some of the dysfunctional ways my mind still likes to mess with me:
- Going to the cinema with a friend: “It would be really bad if you got anxious right now and felt sick and had to leave the cinema, your friend would hate you and not want to hang out with you again if you waste their time and money”.
- Travelling far to visit a friend: “You can’t have an episode now, you’ve come all this way and they are expecting a fun day out, if you panic now you’ll ruin the whole day. You can’t go home, it’s too late now, and you’ll let them down”.
- In an important meeting at work: “If you got anxious now and had to leave the room they would all think you were weird and wonder what’s wrong with you, you’d have to explain it to your boss and might lose your job if you’re not even able to sit through meetings”.
Now the reality is a lot less scary than what my mind says, my friends are kind and helpful, but I have been in situations when people have made harsh comments and asked me ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’ or expressed their disappointment that I have not been able to do something because of my anxiety.
I fantasise about a world where everyone is understanding and compassionate when dealing with mental health problems, but unfortunately that’s not the case. When I’m in a situation that causes me anxiety, I wish I was able to express that, and say "excuse me, I just need a few minutes to myself to collect my thoughts and settle down”. But I’m still at a stage where I’m too afraid to say that, and I still don’t feel like society as a whole are ready to hear that.
I am now beginning to be more open about the things I struggle with, because I know if I want that world where people are more understanding and empathetic, I have to work on making the world that way. I use social media have to open discussions on mental health and share my experiences, and I have had messages from the most unlikely people telling me they understand and go
through the same thing.
I wish everyone who struggles the courage to speak up and share their experiences to make it a little less scary for all of us. And I wish for those who encounter people with mental health problems, whether you understand what they are going through or not, to be open and compassionate and be willing to listen and learn about their experiences. With 1 in 4 people having a mental health problem, we really are all in it together.