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Anna's Story - Social Anxiety & Panic Attacks

For a long time, I have been considering writing a blog post about my mental health ‘Journey’.

Looking back, I think I have always been anxious. Whilst at school and university, I struggled with face to face conversations. I found it difficult to make eye contact and I would feel my face burning and turning red when talking to people, especially people in ‘authority’. I worried constantly about what people thought of me and my behaviour. I struggled to go places alone and if I had to email someone, I would obsess for hours about what to write and then get a friend or housemate to check what I had written before sending it. At the time, mental health was not really something I knew anything about. Mental health issues were something that happened to other people, not me. I assumed my behaviour and the fear of talking to people was just because I was weird and antisocial.

I’m not sure how I made it through my undergraduate degree, in my third year I started to experience what I now know were panic attacks. I didn’t know what these were at the time, and I couldn’t tell anyone about them as I thought people would judge me. I was also living in a very unhappy situation with housemates and my mood really started to deteriorate. I felt so unhappy and isolated that I seriously considered dropping out of University. I was lucky that I had a great tutor who was really approachable and although I still wasn’t able to speak to them about what was going on with my mental health, I did speak to them about dropping out. I will always be grateful for their support and patience and after speaking to them, I decided to stick out the rest of the year.

After graduating, I took a year out and worked abroad and this seemed to help improve my mood and anxiety.

I decided to return to university for a masters, and I had what has so far been the best year of my life. I still struggled with anxiety and talking to people face to face, but I had great housemates and friends and my confidence grew. It was during this year that I decided I wanted to do a PhD. This is when I discovered my kryptonite – Interviews.

I had some disastrous interviews – I remember one where I was so anxious, I couldn’t even remember my degree course. At first, I could see the funny side, I would go home and laugh it off with my friends, but at some point, it stopped being funny. My anxiety before interviews started to increase and I would be physically sick. After completing my masters and having no interview success, I found a research masters that was funded. I thought this would help me improve my chances of being successful in finding a PhD project, so I packed up and moved to the other side of the country.

I lived by myself for the first time and the feelings of isolation crept in. To deal with this, I threw myself into my work, it became the most important thing. I had to get it right and I couldn’t fail. I forgot that there was a life outside of work and by the end of my masters, I was working 12 hours a day to try and get everything done ‘right’. I was broken and exhausted and my anxiety really started to increase. I started to believe I had no prospects in life.

Several months before this, I realised I needed to do something to try and help with my interview anxiety. I still wouldn’t have described myself as someone with a mental health issue, but I had referred myself to the local IAPT service to see if it would help.

Things had deteriorated whilst I was on the waiting list and by the time I reached the top of the list, anxiety had taken over my life. I struggled to leave the house. Even walking to the supermarket (which was five minutes away from where I lived) would make me feel so anxious and panicky that it took hours to leave the house.

I saw a fantastic therapist who seemed to have unwavering patience. They explained to me about anxiety, and this was the first time I realised I might have a mental health condition rather than just being weird. I saw the therapist for quite a long time, and I will forever be grateful for the skills they helped me to learn which I still use now. However, I struggled with

appointments due to anxiety and this made it difficult for me to get the most out of therapy.

The therapist suggested speaking to my GP about medication. I was reluctant at first as I felt ashamed that I

was struggling with my mental health and I didn’t want to be one of ‘those people’ who took medication.

After weighing up the pros and cons, I decided that it might be time to try medication as I didn’t really have any quality of life. Initially I tried citalopram and it didn’t agree with me, I couldn’t handle the side effects. Next, I tried Mirtazapine which helped with my sleep and a little with my anxiety, but I gained over 2 st in two months and this really impacted on my mood and self-esteem. This was one of the lowest times of my life, and even now I find it difficult to talk about. I was suicidal, I was existing rather than living and I decided on a date and started to store up my medication in advance.

There were two things that happened at this point that helped turn things around. When I was really struggling to get out of the house, I had started volunteering for one day a week. This was terrifying, when I first started, I would have panic attacks before leaving home, but as hard as it was, I pushed myself to do it. I had been volunteering for almost a year, then I was offered a job without even having an interview. I was genuinely shocked that someone was willing to give me a chance, I believed I was unemployable, and I nearly turned the job down as I thought I was incapable. It was a temporary job, but I am so grateful that person gave me a chance. I decided that I needed to stick things out until the end of my job as if I ended my life, I would be letting people down.

The other thing that happened was a referral to secondary mental health services. I had an appointment with the psychiatrist, this was terrifying, but the therapist I was working with offered to come with me which was really helpful and I’m not sure I could have managed the appointment alone. Following this appointment, I was prescribed sertraline and things started to gradually improve. It wasn’t a magic cure, but I felt I had a little more energy and motivation to try and put in place some of the skills I had learnt in therapy.

I was also allocated a care coordinator. I don’t want to slate mental health services, I suspect individuals working within secondary mental health services are trying their best, but I think the system is under resourced and overstretched.

The lack of consistency increased my anxiety. I found it frustrating that I didn’t feel involved in MY care. I was told things were being ‘discussed’ but I was never told the outcome. I felt like an inconvenience if I tried to ask what was going on and just never felt I knew what was going on. I’m lucky that things had improved despite their involvement.

By this point, I had a full-time permanent job and the mental health team said this meant I probably didn’t need their involvement. I was genuinely surprised about how difficult I found my time under secondary services. Whilst my experience with primary care mental health services had been excellent (other than the long waiting list), I found working with secondary services difficult. I know people always talk about mental health and ask for help, but I can see why people are put off asking for help when it’s so difficult.

Currently, I am probably the most confident and happy I have ever been. I still take medication, but over the last few months I have reduced the amount. I recently tried to drop the dose further, with the intention of stopping, but things started to decline so it was increased. I was a little disappointed by this, but It’s still half the amount I was taking at the beginning of the year and I’d rather be well and on medication than struggling without it.

I think the main thing I have learnt from my experience is that it’s OK to ask for help. Although I found talking about my mental health difficult, there were a few people I opened up to and spoke to about my anxiety. I was genuinely surprised by the number of people who said they had experienced something similar. Personally, I found it helpful to know that other people also have their struggles and it’s not just me. In reality, most people are just winging it and doing the best they can, and that’s OK. The final thing I’ve learnt is that as difficult as it is, sometimes it’s OK to fail. I still find failure hard and I’ve definitely got a competitive streak, but I am aware that some of my best learning experiences have come from when I have failed at something.

The other thing I have learnt is to not compare myself to others. This is difficult sometimes, it’s easy to look at someone and think that they’ve got their life together and know exactly what they are doing. Social media doesn’t help with this either.

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