Ever walked into a situation where your palms were sweaty, knees weak and head heavy - while you were well? Ever wanted to run away from a situation so badly that it took all your will power to fight that knee-jerk reaction? Does this feeling creep along your body until you feel paralysed, unable to breathe or communicate? If you identify with any of these feelings, you may be suffering from a bout of anxiety.
Remember: You are not alone.
And while it may be just a case of reorganising your life a bit, to get rid of those triggers, it could also be a symptom of underlying unhappiness.
We spoke to three people about what it's like to live with anxiety and to experts for advice on how to identify if you are affected by it too.
‘I was scared of the world’
The world went sideways before it blurred. Age 10. My long affair with social phobia had just begun.
I’ve grown up being told stories of how as I child if I saw more than the four faces I loved – mum, dad, brother and the maid – I would cry and flail hysterically. But it was when I walked into that room with people I did not know - even now I cannot say how many there were – did I seriously think something was wrong.
In India – as I am sure elsewhere – there is no such thing as a people phobia; there are only ‘stubborn people who are not trying hard enough’.
It was especially odd to think of it as a medical anything because out of the four of us, only my father seemed to like people; the others, like me, were reclusive. When it got too bad, they advised me to see a therapist; I saw a few a few times - never went back to the same one.
Quiet. Gloomy. Haughty. Snob. The words would filter through the cobwebs of my ears and settle with hammer-like hits on my ear drums. If I sat with more than one person, thoughts would dissipate. I would not allow myself to be a good student – it may mean speaking up in class. I gave back the prefect badge when it was given to me; why on earth would anyone want that kind of spotlight on them? Mediocrity and I became best friends. Oh and we had our solitude.
Making it to work wasn’t much better. For some reason when you are getting career advice no one tells you about that awful, obnoxious person who will take pleasure in your misery, or the one who likes to hear you stutter. The only thing constant has been the words – I have known I want to write since I was six. But the lack of confidence - a common side-effect I later found out –meant erratic pieces submitted with bone crushing doubt and a sense of general self-loathing that would make wading through a septic tank seem clean.
Years passed in this gloom. Finally, prodded by feelings of depression – at one point I lay in my bed for two days under the blankets not wanting to see light – rage (coupled with some substance abuse) and thoughts of death, I ventured into a doctor’s office. He decided to call me a ‘client’. I suppose an alarm should have gone off in my head, but at this point, I just really needed help. I was making excuses to not talk to people; not eat with people. I was making excuses to not look at people. I had at this point met my future husband – and the thought of losing that anchor was crippling. I could not stand him so much as helping a friend to a drink without my anxiety taking over. I would have out-of-body experiences, watching myself doing things I would hate but seemingly have no control over.
And so I went off to the doctor and became a ‘client’. I was immediately given a pill. A magic dose that suddenly made the world stop shaking just because someone was addressing me. I could write and show my work to people. Everything was good except one teeny little annoyance…the weighing scale kept twitching up, up and away (this apparently is a common side-effect). I put on about 8kgs in two months. Mortified, I asked for a change in prescription. The third time I complained and refused to eat any more of it, I was given another pill. This one made me giddy and zoned out. Not taking it for a day meant withdrawal symptoms such as queasiness and the inability to speak a sentence straight. And a sense of vertigo that was frightening. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a thing to the weighing machine.
It was in the grip of this fear – that without the pill came nothingness, worse than the fear of people - that I decided to go to another doctor. My sentences, looking back, must have astounded him. They came slowly, one syllable at a time and basically added up to this: Help.
He helped me wean off that disaster and get onto another pill. At this point I spoke to my mum –otherwise my best friend – about what I was going through. It took about six months and some hard self-searching to be ok. To just be ok with being me. To even consider that it is ok to not be ok.
I’m still figuring out what comes next. But at least I can walk into a room with my head up now. And smile.
‘I let the people I love give me anxiety’
I am lucky enough not to suffer from anxiety every day. I am lucky that I can go out by myself, meet people at parties. I speak up at work and I give my opinions with family. When I am with friends, I’m usually happy and comfortable. I believe that is when I am the happiest, if I’m being honest. That said my anxiety comes from specific people in my life. People who mean a lot to me.
All it takes is one comment from them, or for them to pull away or become distant, even unintentionally, to turn my entire mood around. For example, one day, I wake up and start my day with a smile, my mood is great, and life is good, one word or comment from those particular people inexplicably messes up my mood. It is not as if they insulted me, or made fun of me, but they said something ... something that triggered a reaction. After reading a book about the science of adult attachment, I learned that I am, what you would call, an ‘anxious attached’ person, which means that I thrive off supportive relationships that are stable and long lasting. And certain people that I love, intensify my worries instead of pacifying them. So when they are in a terrible mood, it becomes contagious and I become affected by their negativity until I myself start to feel down and uncomfortable. What is the one thing that would make me feel better? When they are better again.
When someone has a little bit of power over your emotions, it’s easy for their words to influence your state of mind. I always tried so hard to change people’s actions, so that I wouldn’t get upset. It didn’t exactly work out. Do you know how hard it is to change someone? Quite hard. I learned it the difficult way.
It’s not like I let every single person that I know affect me. Just the ones I love. On the contrary, the people you don’t love are the ones that don’t affect you, because you simply don’t care enough about them. For years, I have allowed myself to go through life dwelling and letting these people ruin my mood and give me anxiety. If someone still does not realise that behaving a certain way with you, upsets you, then you simply have to change your perception. Start caring less about things that they have to say. Sounds a little extreme, I know. But you have to work on a plan to detach yourself.
Because my mood influencers are still an important part of my life, I can’t actually completely pull away. I just distract myself with work and think about doing something new. Engaging in new activities sends feel-good hormones to your brain that make you feel happier. So I would give that a try. In those moments of annoyance and upset, I try to live and breathe positivity. “Be positive” it sounds so lame, I know, but it actually works. Forcing yourself to think about the good things actually makes you feel happier and a bit distracted from the upsetting comments.
Finally, treat yourself the way you want to be treated. If you believe you deserve loving friendships and relationships without, then stop taking it. Don’t bring yourself down, walk away from disrespect and think of yourself as the most important person in your life. True love is peace of mind. If only I would take my own advice.
"It’s just simmering away"
This bubbling pile in me is just there; not as part of a particular situation or event, or connected to an incident or relationship. It’s just simmering away, not at the brim, but not a tickle either. Sometimes it’s that feeling you used to get in school when you didn’t finish your homework – a feeling of some fear and trepidation. At other times it is this dam of sadness that threatens to break out if I let loose, a second away.
Anxiety to me has always been a novel concept to attach to something I feel – it’s always sounded like an extreme thing to have, something for the "loonies" and something you don’t say out loud. However, at 27, I know that anxiety – like many other regular mental health issues – constitutes a spectrum, of which I am a part of too.
Who triggers it, you may ask. Who wouldn’t – I would reply.
As I have grown older, life has become fuller and definitely harder – the cycle of life is that way. I have also noticed that as we grow older, it’s harder to deal with people. It has also become difficult to get understanding and meaningful deep friendships – most of us are usually reduced to one strong relationship. I had a friend in every face I saw regularly when I was 22 – 5 years later, I have none that I want to see regularly.
So what is the trigger? It’s from the few I have let in to my life.
Stress: Each person handles stress a different way and for me, while I handle my own stress very well, I am a sponge for other people’s stress. If an important person in my life is stressed out, I get anxious and can’t sleep – even if said person is sound asleep and dealing with it. I don’t bring it up because I am one of those people who don’t want to add to stress – so it festers and builds in me, while I keep the calmest façade. I am quite an expert at it if I may say so myself.
How I deal with it: When this happens, the only way I can handle it is by trying from my side for a solution to the other person's issue. I have noticed that even if that solution is rejected by the person, the fact that I tried my level best to change something helps me calm down and let go.
Acceptance: From a very young age, I have been given a set of… guidelines, if you will.
All of them start with “You are a girl and so…” As someone from India, raised by traditional parents, there was a lot of pressure on me to do the right things, to say the right things, to be extremely diplomatic, to hide my emotions and more. All of this conditioning has in some ways left me incapable of saying exactly what I mean or forces me to apologise for things I shouldn’t have to.
The anxiety builds when someone important to me refuses to make things right, or refuses my views – but I still have to be the diplomatic one, the one who behaves well and the one who lets it rest. I do let it rest but it doesn’t rest in my mind – it goes to the back of mind and sits there waiting for the next time and the next one.
How I deal with it: I do forget things and forgive things – I just can’t forget the way I felt which is what builds into anxiety over time. Sometimes I save conversations or write things down on my phone because I want to deal with it and not let my mind forget while my heart remembers. I then bring it back up when I am feeling down and ask myself if that incident has gone away – a game of omission until I get to the root of why I feel the way I feel. Processes of introspection like these help me a lot and help me gain confidence in myself
Another fact I have found is that to me, I am my best confidant, supporter and critic. I have built up my list of strengths and flaws – I know exactly who I am. Unapologetically I pick at myself because when these periods of introspection come in I am not confused about who I am and what I stand for. That gives me courage to say the things I need to and let go of the things I have to.
How to know you have anxiety
Gulf News spoke to Dr Mrabet Jihene, Assistant professor and Director of the Office of counselling and disability at the American University in Emirates; Shorouk Nafie, Counselor at German Neuroscience Center; and Dr Valeria Risoli, Clinical Psychologist, Dubai Physiotherapy & Family Medicine Clinic for some expert advice.
Signs and symptoms:
Changes in body: Trembling , muscle tension ,headaches, sweating, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, abdominal pain
Panic attack: dizziness. Rapid or irregular heart rate and breathing
Bladder and stool issues: Frequent diarrhea or need to urinate
Mood: Generalized upset, irritability
Sleeping difficulties: Insomnia, nightmares
Focus level: low. Sometimes, with adults, it extends [to] sexual problems
Why you may be affected by it
Genetics: It could be an inherited trait. Or the gene associated with Serotonin, which is responsible for the regulation of moods, is not working properly.
Circumstances: Past riddled with trauma, childhood abuse, insecurity. Stress.
Low self-esteem/poor-coping skills/Insecure attachment with caregiver.
Drugs: Anxiety can be a side effect of a medicine.
Organic disease: If you have a tumour, especially of the adrenal gland.
What happens to my body?
Here’s what happens when you are faced with a trigger. The thalamus will receive stimulus – visual or auditory - and send it to amygdala and hippocampus. Then the amygdala will register the danger and will trigger fast response. The hippocampus attaches emotional baggage to oncoming data. So that it can be filed under ‘threat’ and you can have an automatic response the next time you are faced with the same stimulus.
The Pituitary gland release acetylcholine – a neurotransmitter- that will release corticosteroid. These will provoke arousal and fear reactions.
Then the sympathetic nervous system will trigger also the adrenal medulla [the inner part of an adrenal gland] and will release endorphin, provoking fear or fight responses.
Older and wiser - or just more spooked?
Worse. Health, family, losses can stress out an older person more than a younger person. Also, there is the fear of one’s mortality.
Trigger target areas
Professional sphere: relates to the fear of job loss, which may mean leaving the country.
Identity: Careers and relationships have also become a crucial in how we define ourselves.
Relationships: These are becoming more and more complex, which can trigger uncertainty. We assume the worst about ourselves, our partners and the future.
Is my kid in trouble?
If your child is exhibiting signs of anxiety, it’s important to intervene as quickly as possible. “It is always better to intervene in the early stages, equipping children with the tools and resources to cope with challenges, emotions, and life in general. .
Anxiety and depression often come together. While the order may be unique to the individual, they are usually trapped in the vicious circle.
“When people are anxious they constantly worry about something so they have difficulty [in] enjoying life and be happy. It is very common to feel depressed when we have these views. People will inevitably lose interest and motivation for what they do and will feel easily trapped in a state of depression,” says Dr Valeria Risoli, Clinical Psychologist, Dubai Physiotherapy & Family Medicine Clinic.
Most common complaints in UAE?
Anxiety and stress.
What can I do to feel better?
Pills and therapy: Dr Risoli explains, “It is proven that the combination of medication and psychotherapy such as CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] approach can be very effective for anxiety disorders.
Talk and re-prioritize: Sometimes it can be handled easily by just reorganising your life and learning to deal with your triggers, says Dr Jihene.
Alternative line: Acupuncture. Relaxation techniques, sport, yoga, listening to music, practicing activities and hobbies that we enjoy, spending time with family and friends, being active, eating healthy.
Can you die from anxiety?
Panic attacks might give you the sensation of having a heart attack but you will not die from it.
It can affect the well-being of an individual and his immune system might get weaker, causing physical problems. Associated disorders such as severe depression can also be a factor that might affect the quality of life to the point of being a cause of death (extreme cases of suicide).
Dr Valeria Risoli, Clinical Psychologist at Dubai Physiotherapy & Family Medicine Clinic, explains other common phobias
Generalized anxiety disorder: Constant fear of something, anything. The individual is unable to control these worries and his life is severely affected on several level of functioning: occupational, social or emotional
Social anxiety disorder: The main fear is related to the individual’s performance in social situations and others’ judgement. They try to limit their interactions with others.
Panic disorder: Specific physical and physiological symptoms such as hyperventilation creep up on sufferers. Panic attacks have no clear cause or trigger and they can start out of nowhere.
Agoraphobia: Typical symptom is the fear of being in places or situations where the individual might feel trapped or helpless. This disorder usually but not always occurs as a result of a panic attack.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: (This disorder is not considered as an anxiety disorder by some professionals as it is classified under a different category in the dsm V. However it is treated as an anxiety disorder as it causes an intense level of anxiety in the person.)
The main symptom of this disorder is the present of recurrent uncontrollable and unpleasant thoughts (obsessions) and (not always) the need of displaying repetitive behaviors (compulsions) in order to If the person cannot complete his compulsions the level of anxiety increases causing the typical symptoms of anxiety described above.
Specific phobia: This causes the person to fear places, situations, object, people...anything that is seen as threatening.