Towards the end of this (academic) year, I went through a difficult time. Some bad things happened, and I made some very difficult decisions, and I fell. Hard. I wasn't sure how to get back up. My self esteem was at an all time low. I couldn't see a way out of the pain I was experiencing, but I had to. Life at Oxford doesn't stop for mental illness. Over the course of a term, after I got up the courage to ask for help, with support from friends and understanding tutors I slowly managed to find my way through it. But at that time, for the first time in my life, I suffered from quite severe anxiety.
Before my experience with anxiety this year, I had always had a tendency towards it - I found moving out of my comfort zone, specifically in social situations at school, really scary. In the process of coming out of my shell, and trying to overcome my shyness, in my last couple of years at school, I felt fear and discomfort and self doubt often, but I pushed through it. I learned to ignore the thoughts telling me I would fail. I learned to breathe through the anxiety I felt before entering into social situations with people I didn't know very well.
But this year my comfort zone suddenly became extremely small (often the size of my room), and the thoughts harder to ignore, the anxiety harder to breathe through. The first time I realised I was having a panic attack I was in a library, trying to do an essay. Not exactly a terrifying social situation. But something in my brain short circuited, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming need to be outside. I could feel that my eyes were wide, and I was alert - my vision was heightened, I sensed my surroundings with a clarity beyond anything I'd felt before. My heart was racing - I could feel the adrenaline running through my veins - and my knees felt a bit wobbly. More than anything else I felt trapped inside my own head. My thoughts were swirling, incoherent, irrational, inescapable. I could not quiet them. I sat on the steps outside and called my friend, who also suffers from anxiety, and said 'I think I'm having a panic attack'. The words seemed not to belong to my voice. I never imagined I'd say them. After she came and found me I sat and held her hand until, slowly, it passed. My heart stopped racing, the knots in my stomach loosened, and I was able to look at my surroundings rationally. Where before I'd only seen threat after threat, now I saw people, grass, trees, the walls of my college. Everything was as it should be again.
After this episode it began happening more frequently, sometimes triggered by things like social situations, sometimes triggered by a particularly difficult counselling session, sometimes triggered by nothing at all. I'd wake up some days and struggle to get out of bed, overwhelmed by the feeling that something awful would happen if I left my room. Something as simple as dinner with a few friends became absolutely terrifying. I'd often talk myself out of things by putting thoughts in other peoples' heads - 'she doesn't like me', 'he thinks I'm boring', 'they're only hanging out with me to be nice'. On days like that I'd be so frustrated with myself. I'd try desperately to rationalise, and I'd always force myself to leave my room eventually, but the feelings would not be rationalised, they would not go away. One such day I went out for coffee with a friend and tried to describe to him how I was feeling. 'Imagine a burning building' I said. 'Flames, smoke, chaos. That's what I think you'd see if you looked inside my head'. He took me to buy a cactus to make me feel better. I named it Patrick.
On those days when I woke up with it I'd at least know what I was dealing with, but sometimes it would come out of nowhere at the most inconvenient times. One particularly awful experience I had was at a dinner party. I play tennis at university, and was at dinner with most of the male tennis team, and a few of the girls. I was surrounded by boys laughing and joking and drinking, and was sat at the end of the table, by the window, opposite another girl on my team. Last year I would've been in my element - I love the social side of tennis, and I am friendly with most of the guys and girls. But suddenly, out of nowhere, I was gripped by an overwhelming fear that everyone there wanted to hurt me. I knew it was irrational, I desperately tried to make it go away, but my body had already gone into fight or flight mode. I felt trapped and unsafe. Luckily the meal was winding down by that point so I made my excuses and left, desperate not to let on how I was feeling. I made it as far as the tesco on the high street before I broke down sobbing and called my friend (the same one that took me cactus shopping). He cycled from the other side of town to meet me (Bonbon if you're reading this you're the best). I felt much better in his company, but at the same time I was devastated - the tennis socials were such a huge part of my life, and now I was terrified that if I went to another one it would happen again. Its situations like that - when having anxiety begins to take control of your life - which are the most demoralising.
It started to affect my sport as well. Tennis is a game which happens mostly inside your head - tactics, technique, mental strength if you're losing or playing badly. If I ever went to a session feeling anxious, one bad forehand could send me into turmoil. I'd be unable to rationalise it or pick myself up from it, and my game would fall apart. Instead of trying to be positive, and applying the technique I knew I had, my head would fill with thoughts like: 'you can't do anything right' or 'you're going to get dropped from the team'. Tennis was something I loved, an activity to help keep me sane during the stressful Oxford terms, and I nearly quit the team because of my anxiety. It was so frustrating - I felt like I had two people inside my head: one telling me I was worthless, and making me afraid of everything, and the other desperately trying to shut the other one up. The captain of my tennis team was incredibly understanding, and over the course of a few weeks, as my mental health improved, so did my tennis. And other things improved, too. The days when I'd wake up feeling anxious became fewer and further between, and I managed to get through social situations without having a panic attack, and I started to feel my comfort zone widening again, slowly but surely.
Before this experience, without meaning to, I'd sometimes been dismissive of anxiety. I had friends who suffered from it, but I'd never really understood it, or tried to. I didn't know what to do if someone had a panic attack, I found it difficult to comprehend if there wasn't a rational trigger for it (which, as I now know, there often isn't), and I generally thought of myself as removed from it - it was something that happened to other people, but not to me. I've been very lucky throughout this experience that I have wonderful friends who I could call whenever I was feeling low, who would help me out of my room with invitations to coffee dates, who would pick me up sobbing outside tesco or take me to buy a cactus, or be waiting outside my building when I got there because I'd just texted them to say I'd had a panic attack on my way home and would be late to meet them. I've learned what to do now for someone with anxiety - be there. Be constant. Be someone who cares. Hold their hand while they're having a panic attack, or listen on the other side of the phone, or give them a reason to leave their room if they're having a bad day. I've also been very lucky that my anxiety has subsided a lot over the summer, and while I'm cautious of assuming that it's gone, I know that I have it much better than people who have to deal with it every day. Although it has been at times demoralising, frustrating and generally awful, and I have wished more than anything that it would just go away, this experience has allowed me to have some understanding of what people with anxiety go through. And I am grateful for that.