Okay this is the BIG one - it is both big in size (sorry!) and subject matter. (It's so big I couldn't even think of a witty title). It is the blog I have been meaning to write since I was diagnosed, as 'Anxiety' is such a big part of my journey. However it's taken me a while to get round to it as I needed to be in a stronger place to write about it.
Anxiety is a word we hear a lot more of now, and it can mean very different things to different people. I will attempt to write what anxiety means to me and what I have done to deal with it, or rather, to live with it alongside my diagnosis.
It is something I have 'lived with' long before my diagnosis, since I was 19. I had a panic attack one day, out of nowhere and as many people will know (who are unfortunate enough to have had a panic attack) once that door in your mind is opened it can never really be closed.
It's very hard to describe a panic attack, it isn't rational, you can't necessarily talk yourself out of it. It might come from a physical sensation, the 'fear' kicks in and your body then takes over. Adrenalin is released into your blood stream but instead of that being put to good use (for example going on stage) your mind has nothing to focus on other than the fear itself.
I have only began to understand what Panic Attack's are in later years, however at the time, my 19 year old self was convinced I was dying. When it eventually passed (hours later) I was terrified of experiencing those sensations again. From that day forward (and to this day) I had an inner monologue in my head, just talking myself through day to day life and assessing how I feel at all times, freaking out every time I felt a twinge or the slightest foreign sensation. Whenever I was tired or hung over I was particularly vulnerable. The strange sensations in my body would send me into a spiral where I was panicking about panic; The fear of going back to that place where I thought I was going to die.
It didn't stop me from living my life, I was a young drama student in pursuit of my dreams, moving away from family for the first time, surrounded by like minded creatives. I was in many ways having the time of my life. However, the anxiety very much remained alongside me and although I hadn't really started to deal with the root cause or to work on getting rid of it, I did learn to live with it. For example I would curb my nights out if I knew I was going to be hung over. I had to make sure I wasn't going to be doing anything 'scary' the next day and could usually curl up on the sofa safely in my flat.
Anxiety is very common among performers, which is interesting as we experience Adrenalin on a regular basis; every time we step on stage or go to an audition. However in these instances, Adrenalin is our friend, we use it to focus our minds on what we are about to do and I'm pretty sure it's what gives us our sparkle on stage. It brings us to life! But in contrast to this we have a very unstructured and insecure lifestyle which doesn't bring much comfort and makes us vulnerable people.
When I was younger I feel like I endured it but as I got older and specifically when I was diagnosed with ARVC I knew I had to face it head on and deal with it. Fortunately the older I got the more sensible (boring to some) I got. I began to manage the anxiety the more I learnt about it and really listened to my body. It became like a familiar friend I lived with but wasn't particularly fond of.
Of course that was challenged when I was diagnosed with a heart condition at 34 and told I would have to have an ICD implanted in my chest to shock me should it need to, as you can imagine it wasn't the most calming news I could have hoped for and I could feel that familiar friend just waiting to rear his ugly head.
I kept telling the doctors that I suffer from anxiety and I remember one of the cardiologists distinctly saying to me "Breathing is going to be key for you". I know that sounds silly as breathing is key for everyone, without it we'd die! But to me it made perfect sense and breathing exercises have been the foundation of my recovery and to my new found peace. Breathing is almost a reset button if you can clear everything out and just focus on that it will bring you back to a calm place. However it took time to get this place.
There was the first time I couldn't get to sleep after the ICD had been fitted, the more tired I became and frustrated at not sleeping the more the panic kicked in. However with the help of deep breathing exercises I eventually calmed down and went to sleep without triggering my device. When I went to my next device check up, they informed me that barely anything beyond a few seconds of fast heart rate activity had been recorded on my device, it put my mind at ease slightly.
I still occasionally struggle to get to sleep at night because when you're lying down you become more conscious of your heart beat. However, I know that sleep is crucial for general health, mental health and heart health so I have been determined to invest some time and money into it. I started a bed time routine; I often had a bath to start winding down, I would avoid using my phone at least an hour before bed, I would use pillow sprays, eye masks, I invested in a brilliant pillow, mattress and duvet. (My mum always said spend money on your mattress and your shoes because if you're not in one you're in the other. Never a truer word spoken). And finally I listen to Headspace Sleepcasts or Insight Timer sleeping meditations and they always put me in such a relaxed state that I eventually fall asleep.
I live in London and travelling is stressful for the best of us at peak times but initially this was an added level of anxiety for me. The fear of something happening whilst travelling terrified me. I didn't know what would happen and if people would know what to do to help me if something did as I certainly didn't.
Likewise when I was on my own at home my mind would start running away from me and I would panic about something happening and no one being there to help, meaning I wouldn't relax until my husband was home. Now over time I am back to enjoying my own company.
OUT OF THE BLUE AGAIN
These are the occasions/places when I knew I would experience anxiety. However with panic attacks they can come out of nowhere, when you're not even in a stressful situation. I was once at my sisters surrounded by my wonderful nieces and nephew - a luxury I don't often get so I always enjoy it. I experienced some strange sensations that triggered Adrenalin in me and despite all my best efforts to breathe and do yoga I could not pull myself out of it. It came in waves on and off for the duration of the day.
After this my confidence was knocked again, I began to worry that it would all unravel and I would drown in it and let it defeat me. So I started researching alternative treatments. That is when I came across EFT. Emotional Freedom Technique. It's an alternative therapy that works on a similar principle to acupuncture. (psychological acupressure). You have to be very open minded about it and It won't be for everyone. It's about setting new pathways in your brain so that you don't resort to panic. I can't really explain the process but when I walked out of a session I just felt lighter. The problem felt further away or out of reach. I worked on the actual fear of my ICD and death and then I worked on my relationship with anxiety itself.
My confidence has grown over time. Learning my limits and not living in fear of dying all the time. (the very fact that I am alive now, almost 3 years later helps me not to fear death so much - I imagine that will only get better and dissipate even further over time).
I know that anxiety manifests itself in all sorts of ways that is different for everyone. Mine appeared to be so physical that I was convinced I was dying when I first experienced it. Then later, when I actually had a near death experience, I was convinced any strange sensations I experienced were my heart. However I think over time I have really understood that it stems from the fear of the unknown. Again the more more you can learn about something, like anxiety or my condition, the less I panicked about it. But it still lies within me so for that I have the tools to deal with it whether that be breathing, water - staying hydrated is crucial, tapping (EFT), meditation, yoga, distraction - focusing the mind on something else like a task or simply talking about it. I encourage everyone to talk about it, do not suffer in silence as it will become all consuming. But I promise there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I hope I have managed to give an insight into what anxiety means to me, reflecting on it, it's not all negative, as a result of living with anxiety I enjoy many calming practices which have enriched my life.