Vicky Smith – Laughing My Way Through Anxiety
Hi, I’m Vicky! I take care of content and SEO here at ULU. And this week I’ve been asked to write about my own mental health and experience with anxiety for the ULU community: ULU Nation. I don’t tend to open up much about suffering from anxiety. So, writing about it is a bit scary. But I think talking about mental health de-stigmatises it. And the more that people read about mental health issues, the more they’ll understand them.
So, if you literally have no idea what anxiety is like, or if you have experienced feeling anxious and want to see what it’s like for somebody else, then look no further! Here are my answers to some questions I’ve been asked by my team:
How long have you had anxiety?
I guess you could say I’ve always been highly-strung. Even from an early age I was a worrier and an over-thinker.
I had my first nosebleed from stress at age 8 – what can possibly even be that stressful when you’re 8? (I think that one was about a dodgy Pokémon card trade I made and then regretted in the playground.) So really, I’ve just always taken things too seriously.
But I don’t think I started using the term ‘anxiety’ until I was officially diagnosed with an anxiety disorder during my second year of university – about 7 years ago.
What does anxiety feel like?
Anxiety feels truly awful. I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemy!
I have lots of people ask me what anxiety feels like. And of course, everyone is likely to experience symptoms of anxiety slightly differently. But for me, I always explain it like this: think of a time in your life when you were really, truly nervous or afraid. Maybe it was how you felt when you were standing outside of your high school exam hall, waiting to take an exam you were entirely unprepared for. Perhaps it was the feeling you felt before you had to give an important speech or presentation. Or maybe it’s the feeling of being up really high when you’re afraid of heights.
That’s what my anxiety disorder feels – except in all of the examples I gave, there’s a reason why you might be feeling anxious or afraid. For me, there’s not necessarily any reason to feel anxious. Often, the feeling is just with me all the time, from the moment I wake up in the morning. Some days are better than others – occasionally I’ll go a few days without feeling it. But in general, anxiety is a regular part of my life.
What about anxiety attacks?
Ah, the dreaded anxiety attack!
Sometimes everything just gets a bit too much. If I don’t catch the warning signs or I don’t take some time to de-stress or relax, then I’ll have an anxiety attack. This usually involves not being able to breathe, having chest pains and lots of ugly crying – there’s a reason that anxiety episodes often cause people to end up in A&E thinking they’re having a heart attack!
And for me personally, I always have dissociative episodes when I get really anxious. (I feel like nobody ever talks about this! But it’s such a common symptom of anxiety.) I’ll start to forget where I am or not recognise my surroundings – even if I’m at home in my apartment! And sometimes I don’t remember large chunks of my day due to this. (It’s called ‘dissociative amnesia‘ in case you’re interested.)
How does anxiety affect your life?
You might think ‘oh, that’s not so bad, you can learn to deal with unpleasant feelings!’ – and yes, to an extent this is true.
But anxiety has a wider effect that people don’t always think about! I once had a therapist tell me that when your brain is anxious, it goes into a primal ‘fight or flight’ mode. This means that an anxious brain is always on alert, always looking out for something it can perceive as a threat. It’s like your brain thinks ‘I’m feeling afraid! There must be a reason I’m feeling this way! Better be on high alert!’
And when your brain is in this state, it can affect your concentration, focus, creative thinking, sleep – and so much more!
How do you deal with anxiety?
I have a few coping mechanisms I use to deal with anxiety.
In the last 4 months or so, I’ve taken up swimming regularly. Swimming is literally the only form of exercise that I can stand. You’ll never find me in the gym or (heaven forbid) going for a run. But I find that doing some kind of exercise helps train my brain to deal with feeling uncomfortable. I feel like swimming is making my brain more resilient – if I can push past feeling tired to finish my swim, then I can push past feeling anxious or upset.
I also use an app called ‘Quirk’ every day. It’s a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) app that helps me track my anxious thoughts and train my brain to look at them another way. It’s a literal lifesaver!
Is there a positive side to anxiety?
It’s not all doom and gloom – I promise! In recent years, I’ve learnt to look at things in a different way. I’m a believer in ‘reframing’ things – looking at negativity from another angle to see if there’s another more positive side.
And I think being anxious makes me a more caring person. – Hear me out!
Because I know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in my surroundings, or to feel socially anxious, I always try to make sure that nobody else has to feel that way. So, I always try my best to make other people feel as comfortable and at ease as possible. And I always check in on people if I know they’re having a hard time to offer a friendly ear and a cuppa! Really, I think this is quite a common trait for people who have anxiety disorders. I know a lot of anxiety sufferers who are the most caring and wonderful people I’ve ever met!
(That realisation cost me thousands of pounds in therapy. So, if you’re an anxious person, there you go – I’m giving you this one for free!)
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for reading my anxious ramblings! I hope I haven’t made myself sound too crazy.
But if you have someone in your life who suffers from anxiety, make sure to check in on them from time to time to see how they’re doing! You never know when someone might be in need of a friendly face!
For more content from the ULU community: ULU Nation, read Anthony Peacock’s insights on what we can learn about human behaviour from the airport.
For more content related to anxiety, read ‘Anxious Times’ – a blog from ULU founder, Paul Hembery.