During my second year of university, the pressure of exams was looming and I found myself in a place I had never previously been – one filled with anxiety, feelings of failure and a constant fear that I would never be good enough to embark upon the career that I had worked so hard for.
At the time that my journey with anxiety began, I was putting in 14 hour stints at the library – that seemed like normality for the majority of students at my university. I thought that I was fine - I had always prided myself on my emotional strength. That was, until the day of one of my exams, when I had a panic attack in the library.
Having my first panic attack
It had taken me two hours to read one page and it was clear that something was wrong. I didn’t want to have a panic attack, but I couldn’t stop it and, honestly, I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know what a panic attack was, but I was left shaking and crying uncontrollably on the quiet floor of the library, 2 hours before what was, in my mind, the most important exam of my life. Of course, it wasn’t - that was the anxiety talking.
I had been revising for two months. I was ready for my exams, but my brain would not let me pass this wall of panic in front of me.
Funnily enough, I actually had no idea that there was a problem with my mental health until the day that I had that first panic attack. Following that, things started to click in to place and I realised that, for the two months prior to that panic attack, revision had taken over my life and I was rarely eating and barely sleeping. My room was a mess (which was very unlike me) and, in all honesty, I was too.
I sought help from my GP, and was referred to the Improving Access to Psychological Treatments service. I was given medication to help to control my anxiety and attended cognitive behavioural therapy, which taught me to change the way I thought. Apparently, doing this means that I am in a minority: a 2014 survey found that one fifth of people who have experienced anxiety do nothing to cope with it. Indeed, fewer than one in ten people have sought help from their GP to deal with anxiety.
It’s hard to explain anxiety to people who haven’t experienced it
At first, admitting that I had a problem made me feel that I was weak. Once I had come to terms with my anxiety disorder and felt that I could tell those closest to me about it, I found that most people’s instant reaction would be to ask ‘Well, what are you anxious about?’ There was absolutely no malicious intent behind that question, but it was a question that simply could not be answered. I found a quote from Hugh Critchley helpful in explaining what it was like: “If fear is fearful of something particular and determinate, then anxiety is anxious about nothing in particular and is indeterminate.” It can be difficult to come to terms with the fact that you have anxiety whilst at the same time having absolutely no idea why.
Now that my anxiety disorder is behind me and I have learnt to cope with any feelings of anxiety that I may experience, I feel slightly angry when I look back at that time of my life, that I didn’t know that I had a problem until it was too late. If only more people spoke out about mental health issues, and the help available were promoted further, people may not have to wait for their mental health issues to become serious before they are able to receive help.
Talking about mental health breaks down barriers to treatment
People simply do not talk enough about mental health issues and, even whilst writing this, I feel a sense of worry that people may look down upon me because of my experience with anxiety. That is wrong. In the UK, one in four people will experience some kind of mental health illness in the course of a year. That’s a lot of people, and I imagine many of those people are frightened to speak about their experiences, for fear of discrimination and stigma.
We need to raise awareness of mental health issues and let people know that it is ok to speak out about their experiences. While I found the prospect of speaking out about my experience daunting initially, it has actually been incredibly refreshing. You never know, you could be the difference between someone staying silent, or attending their GP and getting the help that they need.
Mental health is no longer something that should only be spoken about behind closed doors and I hope that we, as a society, are now moving in the right direction towards a better understanding of mental health issues and a more accepting approach to those who experience them. Only by talking about mental health issues can we raise awareness, and awareness is crucial in enabling those experiencing mental illness to get the help that they need.