Crippling - disorientating - Restless.
Just a few adjectives amongst what feels like a never ending list of descriptors for Anxiety and its related disorders.
Anxiety can manifest in different ways but ultimately boils down to a situation triggering our flight or flight response. How we react to these situations is completely personal to ourselves and i'm going to discuss how it affects me, as someone who lives with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Like the other blogs I have posted, please only see this as an account of someone who lives with an anxiety disorder and what i have learned through my own experiences and research. It is not a guide which will mimic what you will go through. Everyone's mental health journey is always personal to themselves so there may be things you encounter both which I did and still do; but there may be things which I didn't.
Before I go into anxiety disorders in general, I do just want to touch base on something which is commonly forgotten about - something I was guilty of forgetting, and arguably still am at times.
Anxiety is a perfectly natural, safe and healthy response for a person to go through. It's an evolved reaction where our mind is trying to decide what could harm us (which often presents as worry and feeling on edge) and then a series of emotional and physical responses that our body triggers to force us out of harm's way (physically and mentally.) It can be immensely helpful in situations where we really are in danger; however, when it starts to takeover our lives and is triggered (like a false alarm) in everyday situations, this is where we enter the realms of Anxiety Disorders such as GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder)
Whats the difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder?
Without boring you with a big old piece of text, I found this which I personally think is spot on:
The Fight or Flight Response.
When our brain perceives danger (physical or emotional) and anxiety hits, it causes your body to enter a sort of survival mode called the fight or flight response. This is where your body makes a rapid decision as to how you will respond to the threat: whether you will avoid it or leave (flight), face the threat or act against it (fight) or sometimes, do nothing (freeze).
We have evolved to be hard wired to have this response whenever our brain detects anything which could harm us. What specifically we become anxious about depends on a number of things, it could be things we've had a bad experience of, things which are unknown or unexpected or even things which we have seen others be afraid of. Often our brain can't tell what's out to hurt us, and what's more of a gentle giant (scary looking but harmless).
For example, you could have a fear of snakes because of what you have heard or seen in the media, through friends, or our best friend - our own imagination. Although there are potential risks around snakes, some of them are deadly, often fears of snakes extend far beyond the actual risk. I.e a person afraid of snakes would generally be afraid of all snakes, and sometimes even just pictures of snakes, not just the things that will actually harm us, since unless we're a snake expert we have no way of telling which ones are fine and which are deadly, so our brain plays it safe and triggers the fight/flight response to keep us away from all of them.
In this way we can see how that threat response we have can overreact quite easily. It's basically like a smoke alarm that goes off when you burn toast thinking it's the next fire of London.
One of the most common ways of treating this kind of fear response is to gradually expose yourself to the thing you fear. This builds your tolerance to anxiety in general, reduces the sense of threat around the feared thing and builds your resilience so that next time the trigger doesn't feel quite so difficult to face (so using this example, perhaps you might start to feel more comfortable seeing images of snakes or the nice harmless ones, and learn to have a more balanced threat response.) (I'll touch base on this idea of resilience again in a little while.)
The way our body reacts to a real or perceived threat is by changing our body's physiology through flooding it with a variety of hormones/chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol, getting us ready to take whichever action your brain decides is best in a given situation (fight, flight, freeze.)
This creates a series of commonly experienced physical symptoms:
FUN FACTS! 1) When you are anxious your body diverts blood and oxygen away from non-essential systems within your body and towards the vital bits, like your heart and legs. This includes slowing down your digestive system resulting in those unpleasant bowel/bladder issues. The wanting to empty your bladder and bowels is believed to also be so that the body can shed weight so you can move faster if it is required to run away. Some theories also say that being sick or dedicating yourself makes you less appetising to potential predators. If people wee or poo themselves suddenly when startled or shocked, this is what's happening.
2) People will often feel like they're going to faint during a panic attack and can develop panic disorder due to this. Although it is technically possible to pass out in an anxiety/panic attack, this is extremely rare (Remember, this adrenaline response was originally designed to keep you safe from predictors like bears, the last thing your body is going to want to do when faced with a bear is send you unconscious. Plus, biologically, your blood pressure increases during an anxiety/panic attack, the exact opposite to what would need to happen for you to faint.
However, there are TWO instances where you can pass out during a panic/anxiety attack. The first is when a person with blood phobia sees blood. The body essentially panics thinking it's bleeding out and reacts by slowing your heart rate down and lowering blood pressure to protect its self from loosing too much blood. The second is when a person with needle phobia sees needles; which creates the same response called vasovagal syncope (aka reflex fainting).
How does this affect me?
I'm diagnosed with Social Anxiety disorder, and it mostly relates to my childhood. My childhood wasn't brilliant if i'm being completely honest. Well, I suppose that's a bit of a half truth, at home it was amazing, i have great parents and two amazing brothers but it was like as soon as i was away from the safety of home, life would take huge metaphorical dump on me.
I was the "fat kid" in school, that easy target which everyone just had to make fun of. I was even beat up on a daily basis pretty much all of the way through to year 10 when I finally stood up for myself. Needless to say school and social situations were, for me, a crap place to be.
I was given valentines cards as a joke, I was made to feel accepted when I had a girlfriend, it must have been year 6? but it even turned out that was a dare.
During one lunch time, again in primary school so i was about 10 years old, a group of the kids who bullied me asked if i wanted to play football. So, given this group was bullying me i thought I was finally being accepted. Turns out, by the time I got to the place they were playing football which was the farthest part of the playing field, i was actually in danger. They started to push me around, give punches to my gut to get me to the floor and in a massive huddled circle they decided to fire abuse, the odd kick, and relentlessly torment me.
So, you can see how easily for me, my level of resilience in social situations plummeted, I became conditioned to not only fear them, but also to constantly question whether people genuinely liked me, whether people were judging me, and what people were thinking about me. This feeling would be felt throughout my psychosis and essentially never leave, stuck to me like a limpet. Because of this, and everything leading up to roughly year 10 (14 years old) I would later struggle drastically once I could no longer avoid these situations. (This was just one example, but lucky me, there was plenty more trauma which will be discussed in a later blog entry). Looking forwards now then to the present day. If I enter into a room with friends, or even just a room in general, I have to be either the first or one of the first people there. Whenever I enter into a room with 4 or more people that's when I start to get affected the most. I have this feeling, like a blanket of hate fall on me where I believe everyone hates me. I feel like I'm being judged by the group and that I'm not accepted for fear of the torment form years ago happening again. It affects work too; If i'm late for a meeting by even a few seconds, it can be crippling to even contemplate being there and walking in. It would usually cause me to stand outside the room, talking to my self to sort of hype myself up and enter. I mean, its not all doom and gloom though because of this wanting to be early, I'm rarely late anyway! This doesn't just apply to work, it could be going to the cinema for example - Walking into the packed room just as the trailers roll, or even before the curtain opens and hearing the voices of the audience; my heart picks up its pace, I look at the floor and I become very introverted to the point i just want to be swallowed into a void.
I get stuck in a cycle of mentally rehearsing and picking apart social situations long before they happen, already predicting what embarrassing things will happen. Then, I'm caught up in my thoughts during the interaction, focusing on my anxiety and hypervigilent to any signs of judgement by the people I'm with. And finally, I replay situations over and over, picking them apart, convinced that an insignificant look meant that the person noticed a tiny imperfection and was judging me for it. Its so easy to be trapped in your own thoughts and it starts the chain reaction of the negative spiral - Where I feel like if I enter the meeting late and everyone going to hate me, then someone makes a passing remark that your late and that actively reinforces your emotions... this then gets worse and you get lower and lower into the negative spiral.
Its crippling and interferes with your daily life; What do you do about it?!
First of all I wanted, no NEEDED, to understand it. I needed to know why this was happening and what the hell was going on to begin with - This is essentially the driving force behind the blog in its entirety! I want to help people who may be going through what I did, and still do, to understand it that its something we can tame and understand. For me, it makes sense that having such traumatic social interactions in the last has led to an overreaction to these situations now. My brain recognises how damaging those situations were and wants to stop them from happening again. It's learnt that social situations=bullying. (Essentially 2+2=5).
To challenge the stigma, is to learn about the truth of it.
After learning about my own negative spiral, I had to somehow stop it. The main construct of this tornado of anxiety was the negative reinforcement, so to combat this I needed to positively reinforce my own behaviour to stop it in its tracks - Stir this storm in a tea cup the opposite direction to make the water still. Every reaction has, or in this case, needs an opposite and equal reaction.
When I mention positive reinforcement, this is to challenge what you may be feeling and the behaviours around it. So, for example:
There was an incident at work where i was suspended after being assaulted. When I was off work and stuck at home, I couldn't leave the house - not because of like a house arrest or anything like that - I felt imprisoned by social anxiety. I took one step outside the front door and I remember feeling like "everyone knows what happened" and "they think it was your fault".
Boom. Front door slammed shut and I was fully prepared to live like a hermit. Now to challenge this, I needed to perform baby steps - Like with most things in mental health, the smallest steps are usually the biggest you will take to your recovery.
I started with 5 minuets in my yard - moved onto taking Amber to work - then came a big challenge, i needed to get something from town. Yes, I know amazon is a thing and I could have easily just gone on my phone to order it for delivery, but I was in a war with anxiety, I'm not about to take it laying down and expose the soft underbelly of my mind.
I remember walking through the doors of a popular coffee shop and begging for the experience to end - this place was packed!! I got my coffee to go and almost like the cartoon roadrunner sprinting off, I had left a Tom shaped cloud where I had stood, shaking moments before.
I. Was. Gone.
Walking down the packed high street, I stuck to the walls of the shops like a limpet to a rock; hiding in the shadows like an anxiety drenched ninja and finally reaching my destination of Argos for what I actually needed to buy.
I took one step through the double sliding doors and like a huge dense fog not only did I feel anxiety envelop me, but my auditory hallucinations started to kick in. "They know what you did". I ignored it and took a few more steps into the store. Greeted by a member of staff I heard "she knows". They're going to lock you up"
Everything started to speed up - Heart beating fast, I started to sweat and the shakes were hitting me like my own personal tectonic plate. I just completely broke down, I ran out the store, probably looking as if i had got my self a five finger discount. I sprinted back to the car and i cried.
I bawled my eyes out because I couldn't escape it. I felt like this was me now, I'm not going back to work; everyone hates me and whats the point of even being here. I phoned Amber and she said one sentence which has stuck with me since that day:
"You took the biggest step, possibly too far but you did it. Go home, calm down and try again another day, I'm proud of you."
And just like that - The cyclone of the negative spiral slowed and that is what I wanted. I could hold my head up proud to know that I did what I could at the time and I was one step closer to recovery and mastering my own issues.
What about today? Do you still struggle?
I wouldn't say I struggle now to be honest. It's still there, I know it is, but I know from experience that I have to do this "positive reinforcement" to help get myself out of the pit of anxiety. It's so easy to submit to the feelings of social anxiety and avoid my triggers but that just negatively reinforces it and becomes so much easier to do that the next time - I've come too far for that to happen! I'm a man with Social Anxiety who gives talks to large groups of people. By facing the things that make me feel the most anxious, I build by resilience and tolerance to them and over time, they become much easier.
And that my friends is Social Anxiety disorder, how it affects me, what it is and how i still live with it today. Did you notice that I've not said I struggle with social anxiety, but i live with it? That's because for me to say I struggle is to acknowledge that it still has a hold on me. Although this is true, I say I live with it because although I know its there, it's something I am determined will not control me anymore. I can face it head on, and I suppose if nothing else, it makes my days interesting when it rears its ugly head.
This is just a brief detail of how it affects me, but I will be writing more on the subject in a few weeks/months as there is a lot more I can say about this BUT if you want to know more about how its affected me ahead of time, mine and Amber's Autobiography is available on Amazon and Waterstones in paperback, OR it is available on kindle :D
Stay Strong, Stay Safe MentalHealthRunner xxx