Anxiety and agoraphobia
Posted on Monday, 4th Jul 2022
This piece was written by one of my male clients, who kindly agreed to share his experience through his writing, in the hope that it would help others, like himself, who experience the debilitating condition known as anxiety. Here is his brave story.
His name has been omitted in order to preserve his anonymity.
Anxiety means many different things to many different people. To some it means taking the stairs to avoid elevators, cancelling plans to avoid crowds or even just random bursts of fear and panic, that seem unrelated to anything. To nearly all of those who suffer from anxiety, it means having a much smaller and controlled comfort zone than those around us. This can be incredibly difficult to expand, and even harder to live with.
My own troubles with anxiety have led to me avoiding any situation that I couldn’t deem safe or had no control over. This would go for things like dinner with my family, to days out with my friends. I started to latch on to the idea that my home was safe, and everywhere else was dangerous. The further away from my safe space, the more dangerous a place became in my mind.
My anxiety started when I was about 15, for reasons I still don’t know. All I do know is I became afraid to leave my house for long periods of time, and I began avoiding situations that I thought might trigger an anxiety attack. Not only was this embarrassing, and emasculating, but also frightening. I didn’t know what was happening, why it was happening or how it would end.
At the mere mention or possibility of plans, my mind would begin running through scenarios that could go wrong and disasters that could happen. But the more my mind did this, the more realistic those possibilities became to me. To the point that in the days and weeks leading up to something, I would find my chest tight, my mind running and jumping from every little stress that occurred.
I ended up becoming home schooled, as I wasn’t getting the support and understanding from my school that I felt I needed. Despite what anyone may think, mental health deserves equal if not more care than a physical ailment, I knew what I needed and knew that I wasn’t getting it from my school.
My parents were very understanding with my decision, I think they were more concerned with me as a person than with me as a student. I taught myself my GCSE and A level curriculum and when going in for exams, had to be heavily medicated.
I didn’t go to university, and stayed near home, constantly avoiding situations that could bring about panic or anxiety attacks. Over time I began taking necessary steps on my journey to recover. This included working out, trying different medications, but most importantly it included exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy refers to constantly exposing yourself to situations you find anxiety provoking. (An incredibly hard thing to do). I had done a lot of my own research into mental health, but if you do the same, please be careful to shift through the clickbait and false promises some online sources peddle. Only do things that feel right for you, and if they don’t work then move on to the next. If you have a therapist, GP or counsellor that you trust, then run any ideas you have past them. Friends can also be a great source of information as they may be further ahead or behind on their own mental health journeys, so please speak to them and find out what has helped/hindered them if you feel comfortable doing so.
Despite using exposure therapy, my anxiety, and therefore my mind would scream at me that a situation was dangerous, that bad things would happen. If you are in that situation, the strength to ignore those warning bells and to do things anyway is rare, but finding it was the best thing I did for myself. I fell a lot more than I succeeded and stumbled a lot more than I ran. But even stumbling, you are still moving forward.
I started with going to my local shops for short periods of time. These outings were difficult at first, I felt trapped and slightly foolish for struggling, but my breathing would become shallow, then I would feel sick and nauseous, which is when I would leave. I quickly found that leaving as soon as I felt anxious would only validate those feelings, so instead I set myself a rule. If I felt anxious, I would wait 5 minutes. If I still felt anxious then I was allowed to go, but I congratulated myself for staying just that extra five minutes. Soon I realised that if I waited 5 minutes, most of the time, then the feelings would have passed.
I started going on more trips out. Then to a friend's house for a “flying visit”, where I would establish that I was only staying briefly, this helped me have an alibi, and feel much less trapped. These trips were difficult to start with, and I would always beat myself up when I saw the people around me doing these ‘easy’ things with no trouble, which just made my anxiety worse, but by continuing to do these short trips, my fear of them dimmed over time.
I started doing more things that involved others, but I hated the idea of people thinking I was strange, or weak if I had to leave without reason. My concern over what other people think, was certainly one of the biggest hindrances to my recovery. That’s not to say you should tell everyone in your life every detail, as it is a personal thing, but the people that deserve to know... They can make all the difference. My friend knowing that if I walk in and leave after five minutes it had nothing to do with him as a person, lifted such a weight off my shoulders. I could work with him and go to things that didn’t require commitment, easily leaving when I felt I needed to.
I slowly began pushing the boat out and attending more things. I managed to attend school for my A levels (even if a little infrequently) and sit my exams. I completed school, deciding against university. I didn’t know what I wanted to be and didn’t think I had the mental capacity for it at the time. I worked an easy retail job for a year, spending my free time working and pushing myself to improve my mental health. I then went onto a job in design. I had to travel about 45 minutes a day for work and this was incredibly difficult at first, but I realised it made everything else easier around me. The small stuff became a lot smaller. I was going to parties, visiting friend’s and doing everything I wanted to.
After spending much of my teenage life convincing myself that the outside was safe, and I wasn’t in any danger, suddenly the world turned upside down. Every day, all the news and social media centred around was how dangerous it was to go outside. I now couldn’t push myself to experience new things, I couldn’t re expose myself to situations. By the end of the 2 years in lockdown, I had almost completely started again mentally. I was having panic attacks when I saw my friends, and I couldn’t go into work. This took a lot of effort to overcome, repeatedly going into anxiety inducing situations and dealing with panic attacks. I slowly began progressing again, but thought it was about time I got some help.
I decided to go into therapy again. I had tried it when I was younger, but struggled to find anyone I clicked with, or felt safe and comfortable around. After spending weeks looking for someone suitable in my area (Distance still being an issue for me), I came across Lindsay George! After a brief intro call to make sure we were on the same page, I finally decided to commit. We started working together, and it felt very natural. The conversation wasn’t centred around my struggles straight away, it was more about getting to know each other, and what I needed from therapy.
My preconceptions had been of breathing exercises and other tools I didn’t really believe in... But I quickly realised this wasn’t the theme. We discussed my past, the key issues in my life and how they impacted me, how they made me feel day to day. It wasn’t until a few sessions in that we directly approached the issues I needed help with, but this approach made it so we both had a solid understanding of each other and were at the same stage. This really helped me feel seen and understood.
The two of us began approaching which scenarios made me anxious, and how I usually dealt with them. We then looked at the reasons why they might be occurring and what could be done to better manage my emotions and reactions towards them. I found that the more I understood the root of my anxiety, the more I understood how to battle it.
Getting into therapy can be very hard. A lot of people, especially men, want to believe they can do it themselves. But for me, my mental health journey has been very much like going to the gym to me. I understood where I wanted to be but knew one or two ‘gym sessions’ wouldn’t get me there.
Working with a therapist is very much like working with a personal trainer. They know the steps you need to take, but they can’t do the work for you. On the days you don’t want to do the work, when you don’t feel strong enough to take the next step, a therapist is a partner along the way to support and guide you. A few wins won’t get you to the end, but each win is one inch closer to the goal. I would advise a therapist to anyone struggling, and even if you aren’t struggling, there is no harm in checking in, similar to a doctor’s check-up. I would suggest doing your own research into therapists that specialise in your issues, read reviews from previous clients. Find one you feel comfortable with, and work together towards your goals.
Where I am now!
At the time of writing this, I have progressed well on my mental health journey. I am managing to overcome my anxiety most days, not letting it stop me from doing the things I want to do. Some things still feel insurmountable, but I try to focus on the small steps every day rather than the end goal. Lindsay and I agreed that I should cut my sessions from once every couple of weeks, to once a month as more of a top up session, just to keep myself feeling supported. It ensures I have a place to safely discuss any issues I am facing, which is vital.
Through therapy I have been given the tools and understanding to try and manage my own mental health issues, it is a route which I would recommend to any of those who are struggling with their own issues. I hope that by reading my own personal experience it will help others in similar situations like myself find the courage to seek help and support for themselves.