When I was 20 I experienced my first panic attacks. My first symptoms were shortness of breath and heart palpitations which made me think I was going to have a heart attack.
Over the weeks that followed I visited the hospital twice, had a number of doctors appointments and met with an evil eye curse specialist (thanks Mum and Dad) until I finally found out I had a general anxiety disorder.
At first I was ashamed. I had a trip to Thailand planned with my friends which I later had to cancel because I was in the wrong headspace. I stopped heading out to clubs and parties. I felt like I was doomed to watch life from the sidelines.
By this point I was experiencing panic attacks every day and was also starting to experience other fears I had never had before. I remember being in a lecture room at university one afternoon and needing to sit near to the aisle because I felt claustrophobic.
I would fixate on my breathing and then grow afraid that I was unable to get a full breath of air. On other nights I would lie awake feeling my heartbeat and being fearful I would have a heart attack. I would stay home a lot because I felt frustrated and afraid.
Soon I reached rock bottom. I wasn’t excited about the future anymore. I was just afraid.
After taking a few weeks off to collect myself, I went back to my part-time job at a homewares store.
Each time I worked I would say hello to Jack (name changed for privacy reasons), a salesperson in the kitchen supply store next door. We would exchange pleasantries and have a quick chat about what was happening in each others’ lives.
On my first day back I had to bring some rubbish downstairs to the bins in the loading dock. Jack happened to be going down as well, and he asked me where I had been.
“Oh just at home taking some time off. I wasn’t feeling well, I had some heart palpitations and stuff…” I trailed off embarrassed. I didn’t want to tell anyone what I was really going through, so I tried to play it off as a physical illness.
Jack looked at me for five long seconds.
“Sounds like anxiety to me,” he said.
I was speechless. I was surprised he had guessed correctly after thirty seconds of conversation. Up to this point I had never even met anyone else who had an anxiety disorder, let alone know how to notice the signs in someone else.
“Just know that you’ll be fine. I went through it a few years ago, and it was hard, but you’ll be fine in the end.”
“Really?” I mumbled.
“Spend time with your friends and family and take your mind off it. You’ll be fine,” he said.
Jack talked about his experience as if it were a bad case of the flu from a few years back. It gave me the confidence and optimism to regroup. I started to feel much better already.
You’ll be fine.
Jack said the three words I needed to hear at that time. They came from someone who had actually been there themselves and I’ve been thankful for the conversation ever since.
I’ve thought about that conversation many times since then, particularly when going through difficult periods.
I was recently reminded of it again after talking to one of my own friends who is having a difficult time with anxiety.
A long chat with him at the gym reminded me that while anxiety is no longer a problem for me, others are fighting their own battles. Now it’s my time to pass on the same words Jack said to me, although tempered with my own experience.
Although much fewer and further between, there have been times since then where I’ve felt terrible or have had panic attacks. My mind has taken me to difficult places at times. But I’ve never forgotten what Jack said: “You’ll be fine”.
And you will be fine.
The only reason you can recognise a period of your life as being ‘the worst’ or ‘rock bottom’ is because you have good memories to compare it to. And this means you’re able to experience good times again.
No matter how fixated you are on a particular fear or thought, it inevitably passes. You still need to eat, sleep and work. Just remember that even in your worst period, someone else out there with an even harder experience has come through the other end okay.
Lucky for me my family doctor encouraged me to visit a counsellor.
I would chat to the counsellor and leave feeling great, and the best part about it was that the counsellor suggested strategies and tools which I successfully use to this day.
One strategy she suggested was practising mindfulness meditation. This was challenging at first. At times I was bored, fell asleep or felt it had no effect; or a combination of the three.
But I had no choice: I had to make it work for me or I would be depriving myself of a tool that science has shown works to address anxiety in many different ways.
Over the last four years I have meditated between 5 – 7 times per week for 20 mins per session.
The other tactics the counsellor suggested included eating as healthy as possible, limiting alcohol consumption, staying away from drugs (except caffeine – I’m only human), and surrounding myself with friends and family. I regularly employ all of these tactics and have had gotten value from each of them.
Regular exercise was another suggestion which had tremendous effects on my mood, and I’ve personally noticed that the more cardio-intensive workouts I do each week the less anxious or stressed I feel.
I also read a great book, When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life by David D. Burns M.D. which helped me work through some of my issues in a systematic way. This book helped me ultimately destroy my fear of having a heart attack.
The tools above have minimised my anxiety to a point at which it doesn’t bother me anymore. I rarely even notice it in a regular month, even if I’m very stressed with work.
But this was only possible because of those first words I heard from Jack. These were the first authentic words of encouragement from someone who had actually gone through it.
So now I pass them onto you: No matter how bad it is right now, it’ll pass. And if you try out some of the strategies I’ve mentioned above, you might even feel better than you were before.