On World Mental Health Day (Tuesday 10 October), programme administrator at the Academy, Lyle Anderson, shares his own personal journey, and offers advice for others who experience anxiety.
The first time I experienced a panic attack I was eighteen and in the middle of my A-Levels. I remember at the time the pressures of university applications and the tumultuous end of my first relationship; at the time I was on the bus to Bramham to see my boyfriend. A short time into the hour-long journey I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath, that I wasn’t getting any oxygen into my lungs. My hands and arms started to go numb and tingly, I felt faint, disorientated and scared. I felt like I was going to die there on the bus, clutching onto the railing. I remember feeling the jolts of terror rushing through my body as I started shaking from chills that caused me to sweat profusely. My eyes became extremely sore as I experienced the most intense terror I’ve ever felt in my life. Through some strength of will I managed to stay on the bus for the rest of the journey, when I was then taken to A&E. It was confirmed that there was nothing wrong and the doctor began to explain the physiology of a panic attack. I started to feel the symptoms dissipate almost immediately.
For some time, I managed to keep any further attacks at bay and they, by and large, disappeared. Unfortunately, they came back during my final year of university. The attacks gradually increased in frequency and severity until I’d become unable to go a day without at least one severe one, perpetuating my mindset that my life was over and that I had nothing to offer. I spent almost the entire year holed up in my room, beside the occasional trip to buy food or, very rarely, to visit a friend. My room was a barrier and I shut myself off from everyone for a period of about six months. It wasn’t until a few years later that I came to understand this as agoraphobia…
I left university with no confidence and in a very poor state of mental health. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting a job; putting myself in a situation where I’d feel physically trapped for hours at a time. I eventually started doing voluntary work for Orb Community Arts to fill my days, meeting some great people and slowly pushing my anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia down until I could manage them on a day to day basis, for the most part. After a year of volunteering I was given the opportunity to relocate and was able to get a job in the NHS as a domestic assistant.
Over a number of years I’ve gradually progressed in the NHS, building up my capabilities and confidence. At the same time, I’ve experienced the same persistent flare-ups with my panic attacks that have perpetuated a lot of self-doubt – “How can I do this job effectively when there are times I’m experiencing so much anxiety I can’t concentrate?”. In turn, daily actions such as team meetings, one to ones and other scenarios become incredibly challenging as I feel anxiety and panic building below the surface. The most debilitating thing with anxiety and panic attacks becomes the fear, anxiety and panic attacks around the thought of having them in the first place.
I still experience anxiety daily with the occasional panic attack, but having had multiple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions I now find it easier to manage.
Currently, my eyes are sore and my fingers are numb and tingling as I’m typing. Although I still struggle with a lot of the physiological symptoms of panic and anxiety, there’s been a positive shift in my mindset and attitude. This is in no small part due to the wonderful NHS; the care received during my first panic attack from Leeds General Infirmary, the CBT sessions at Fieldhead Hospital and a wealth of supportive colleagues across my different roles in three NHS organisations. Thanks all!
My advice to anyone experiencing panic attacks is to speak to your doctor about your options as there’s support available, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and anti-anxiety medication. Confiding in someone you trust and asking for help is not a weakness and we should all be talking about mental health to eliminate the stigma surrounding it.