Wednesday 5th July 2017
I suffered with anxiety for years. It wouldn’t stop me doing things and I would later identify this as high-functioning anxiety. It would mostly manifest itself in worries that would just build and build into massive panic attacks.
I’m not sure when they first started. It might have been when I was unemployed and had no money to my name when I’d lay awake all hours stressing how I would afford to live, but I’ve always been a worrier and it’s held me back from taking risks.
Tornadoes largely cured me. Seriously, there’s nothing like being in a genuine dangerous situation to fry your worries. Seeing the wrath of nature helped put a lot of worries into focus and quieten the noise in my head. I’m not suggesting this is the cure for everyone with anxiety issues, but it worked for me. I came back from that first stormchasing trip and bought a house in a town I knew no-one in. I would never have done that before.
But I still get panic attacks from time to time. I hate them because they are not obvious and to anyone else it comes across as me being a bit of a dick. I never realise I’m having an attack until afterwards when I feel mentally drained. And the problem is that they now happen so infrequent that building up my own data set of what the triggers are takes time.
But I had an attack tonight and have been able to pull it apart a little. First I need to be under some mental stress. By this, I mean that I need to be doing something outside my comfort zone that has sent my brain into organisation mode. I’m not sure if it’s linked to a fight or flight response but it feels a bit like that: “I have a problem and it has to have a solution”.
It needs to be a big enough of a worry that I will create multiple scenarios. At this stage I wouldn’t say I’m suffering anxiety, I’m just trying to cover all my bases and am enjoying the fact that my brain is engaged, firing on all cylinders and coming up with solutions for various scenarios.
I think the fact that I come up with multiple solutions is indicative that there’s a general level of worry there. The problem doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, or even something I’m particularly worried about the outcome of. I think it’s more about being in control of a situation.
So what happens is that I come up with a gazillion different solutions to the problem based on every conceivable scenario. If things happen within those scenarios, everything is fine. I’ve thought about that eventuality and got it covered.
But then there are times when things will happen. I don’t believe that a random event triggers it. I say that because I usually have so many different solutions that I have it covered. Instead, I think what happens is that someone changes the problem on me.
Now, this isn’t because someone is being nasty. In many cases there’s a good reason why the parameters have changed. And I think for people who don’t have anxiety (and perhaps for people who do) a change of parameters isn’t a big deal. It’s just a different scenario.
But to me, it feels like I have spent my time building a house of cards, where each card is a scenario, and the stack is my solutions. And someone coming in and changing the parameters is like someone opening a door and blowing over my stack of cards.
Internally I go into meltdown, I can feel my brain start to speed up. It needs to recalculate ALL the scenarios. Now the solution to the revised problem may be relatively simple, but that’s just one scenario.
Outwardly this may manifest itself in me being reluctant to the change of parameters. I’ll sometimes obsess over one single point, and it may be a point that seems trivial. But in my head trying to rebuild the stack of cards on the fly, you just cannot put the jack of hearts there! Sometimes I can’t even explain why. My brain is going so fast I’m not aware of what it’s doing. It’s like when your computer is doing some background task and all you notice is that it suddenly goes slow. In my case it speeds up out of control.
I don’t believe I break into a sweat, but it feels like my heart rate goes up as well.
Even if the change of parameters of the problem has an easy solution and it’s quickly realised, my back brain does not slow down… it’s gone critical now, it’s still going at one hundred miles an hour. And whilst I can function normally and get on with stuff, it’s still running in the background.
And so I only really notice when it starts to calm down. I feel exhausted. I also feel a bit emotionally flat. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m down due to realising I’ve had a panic attack, or whether the actual attack drains me so much that my brain just doesn’t have the energy to lift itself up.
I find myself wanting to hide away from the world, to just sleep for a couple of days and shut the world out. I don’t want stimulous, I just want to be left alone, given time to recover.
I hate it. I wish I could spot it as it’s happening so I could stop the person and say “you’re giving me a panic attack”. At least that way, we could approach the change in parameters a little differently that doesn’t send my brain into overdrive.
As I say, they are rare. I think I get a couple a year at most, although it feels more like one every couple of years. They still leave me feeling terrible though and I suspect I’ll have to fight the urge to shut myself away from people for a few days.
This is all a work in progress. I’d eventually be able to spot the signs before an attack happens but I’m a long way from that at the moment.
If you want to follow more of my journey, then be sure to check me on my social channels. Likewise, if you’d like me to expand on any point mentioned above, please say so in the comments.
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