What It's Like To Live With Chronic Anxiety

Illustrated by Anna Sudit
One day, in a small branch of mumsy high-street retailer Monsoon, I suffered my most extreme case of acute anxiety. Among the too-bright, too-chintzy hair bobbles and key chains, a surge of dread rose up from my feet and through my body, causing me to run out of the shop while elbowing any unfortunate shopper who had the misfortune of standing in my way. How did I get here?

Like many psychological terms popularised by American talk shows, ‘panic attack’ has come a long way from its original definition. Now used as a term of reference for any state of heightened stress or worry, it seems insufficient for a condition as debilitating as chronic and acute anxiety. But any sufferer will tell you that real anxiety – extreme to the point of causing frequent, fully-fledged attacks – is a lot scarier than all that.

Having gone through this phase of chronic anxiety a few years ago, I can only describe panic attacks as being similar to having injected your heart with freebase cocaine. It is a state of dread; a surreal sensation of imminent death coupled with an urge to escape. Some people also experience a tingling sensation in their fingers. Others report a heightened sense of smell and an overwhelming urge to run as far away as possible.

According to Dr. Colette Hirsch of the Kings College Psychology Department, chronic anxiety is more common among people who have unhelpful thinking habits that focus on negative or threatening information. If that’s you, it might be an idea to swat up on the symptoms, to ensure the best chance of staving off a possible attack.

The term chronic anxiety doesn’t just refer to the state of suffering from frequent panic attacks though. In my experience it also describes an altered way of thinking. Of having entered a new reality, composed almost exclusively of potential triggers of an all-consuming fear. Anything from loud noises to errant specks of dust can serve as a potential starting point for spiralling thought patterns, whose impacts can be devastating, and as the world is transformed from a familiar place, into a complex of booby traps that sufferers believe will sooner or later get the better of them.

Anything, from loud noises to errant specks of dust can serve as a potential starting point for spiralling thought patterns, whose impacts can be devastating.

So back to my episode in Monsoon. Was it the music? Was it the assault on my senses coming from all the paisley? Possibly. But then I had been exposed to this and much worse a thousand times before. Was it the fact that I was about to sit some of the most important exams of my life, had just gone through a break-up and didn’t have any idea what I was going to do after graduating? Perhaps. But then most of my friends were in the same position and were instead looking at me with a bemused glare from behind the novelty iPhone cases.

The same friends will tell you that for those months I was not myself. I had been running out of lectures for fear my hands would fall off, and insisting they walk with me between dorms to protect me from ghosts. It was rough. And after the condition had reached such levels that it was beginning to affect my work and had caused my tutor on more than one occasion to recommend I go take a shower, comb my hair and sleep before attending another one of his seminars, I decided to seek help.

Alleviating the symptoms of chronic anxiety can be done one of two ways. The first involving a hip-flask, Valium, an X-Box and a marked-down copy of Assassin’s Creed II. The second, recommended by most trained professionals, involves heading down to your local GP and asking for a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Thankfully, under the supervision of the university where I was studying at the time, I was led to this recourse with only time to dabble temporarily in the former. Others aren’t so lucky. Because chronic anxiety doesn’t reveal itself in the way of other ailments, most sufferers will jump to false conclusions, and are more likely to assume that they are suffering a serious, physical defect, such as a brain tumor or terminal heart condition. In this respect, chronic anxiety is chameleonic. A common psychological condition dressed up in sophisticated camouflage. By its very nature, chronic anxiety is borne out of worry – a complex of negative thought processes that leave sufferers assuming the worst.

This is referred to by doctors as ‘spiralling’ or ‘catastrophising’ and can be triggered by almost anything. Hirsch tells me that the sheer volume of negative information now available online can exacerbate, or trigger, chronic anxiety among sufferers already predisposed to unhelpful thinking habits, which lead them to focus on negative information. Even those who don’t suffer from acute anxiety will agree that the Internet has a tendency to make us selectively pluck information to confirm our worst suspicions about the world.

Hirsch tells me that the sheer volume of negative information now available online can exacerbate, or trigger, chronic anxiety among sufferers already predisposed to unhelpful thinking habits

Cuts to mental health funding in the UK will limit the volume and quality of services delivered to those already diagnosed with mental health problems. It will also prevent millions of undiagnosed sufferers from ever acknowledging or understanding their condition. This is never more crucial than with chronic anxiety, whose slippery nature can force sufferers to self-medicate. Hence why it is thought to be a common cause of alcoholism and other forms of addiction.

Thankfully I was saved from such a fate. There in a mahogany panelled, musty-smelling room of the university psychology department, I was quickly explained the mechanisms of my thinking and shown ways of changing. It involved a lot of extracurricular practise. Sessions didn’t end when I left the therapist’s room, but formed part of an on-going process of self-improvement and awareness. It took six weeks in total. Six weeks to transform patterns of thinking that had been formed in childhood. Even the twelve-week standard prescription isn’t so bad when you think about it – three months out of a whole life, which thereafter will be improved beyond recognition.

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