Panic attacks and anxiety dictated Emily’s life, causing her to withdraw from the world around her. But when she learnt to control her inner critic, she found the power in her own voice
In 2016, at the age of 15, I experienced a panic attack for the first time. Of course, I didn’t know it was a panic attack then, as I’d never experienced anything like it before!
I was on holiday with my family in France, travelling around in our motorhome, when another vehicle pulled out in front of us and my dad had to do an emergency manoeuvre. Right after this, my body zoned out and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I can’t tell you exactly what initiated the panic attack – whether it was the thought of nearly being in a collision with another car, or the idea of my family being hurt. Either way, I didn’t have enough time to think about it as I couldn’t control my breathing. I also feel claustrophobic in small spaces, so if you put two and two together, you can probably imagine how I felt.
Days went by and nothing more happened, so I imagined it was a one-time thing. Little did I know that I would start to experience that same feeling every time something bad happened. It was then that I realised I may have an anxiety disorder. The common symptoms I would experience included shaking, intense heart rate, nausea, and numbness. I would also have an instinctive reaction to run away whenever something bad happened.
For the first year it was really hard, as I just wanted to avoid the fact that I had anxiety. I would cover it up and not tell anyone, apart from my close family. Sometimes I would feel a lot better, and then something would spark the anxiety again. It was particularly hard when travelling in a vehicle as I began to feel PTSD symptoms from the time I had my first anxiety attack. This led to me postponing learning to drive, and also it meant that I was super cautious whenever I was in a vehicle.
Over the next few years, I started to understand what was happening to my body and why I was feeling the way I did – so I did everything in my power to stop it from happening. Whenever I thought about doing something out of my comfort zone, my body would go into panic mode and cause me to overthink.
Whenever something ‘scary’ was coming up, I would hide away for as long as possible until that particular situation went away.
For the longest time I wanted to be home-schooled so that I didn’t have to put myself through the anxiety and stress. I was always seen as the shy girl who never spoke up, and was a complete pushover. I hid behind other people (literally – I never wanted the teacher to pick on me), and only attended events if I was sure that my close friend was going. Going out for meals with a group of people was hard, so I usually had to cancel. The worst part was that I couldn’t even tell anyone why, because I was too embarrassed and ashamed to say it was because of anxiety. Additionally, being shy led to social anxiety, which ultimately led to imposter syndrome. This meant that in my later school years I didn’t believe I should be there as I wasn’t as clever as the other students. I ended up being in a place where I didn’t speak a word, and because of this, people thought I was being rude – which led to further anxiety and depression.
Whenever I thought about doing something out of my comfort zone, my body would go into panic mode and cause me to overthink
The hardest part of having anxiety in school was that I didn’t know who I could go to, and who I could trust. I felt like there wasn’t enough support given to mental health and for getting through it. I wanted someone to talk with me about my options, and how I could get better. I really wanted to tell my teachers, but I felt too embarrassed to mention anything. I used to cover up my anxiety as best as I could when I was around other people, as I didn’t want to be labelled as ‘the crazy person’. Even though it was only a few years ago, I didn’t realise how many people are constantly affected by anxiety and how it isn’t unusual to experience it.
Looking back, I also believe that my anxiety and self-esteem issues were affected by the people that I surrounded myself with. My friends at school were generally really clever. I wasn’t particularly intelligent, so when I used to get a lower grade, I would instantly feel down. I would jump to the conclusion that I was ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’, even though that wasn’t the case at all. I put myself under a lot of pressure to match their level, but looking back, it just made me more stressed.
However, in 2019 that all changed when I learnt how to control my inner critic. I realised that it’s OK if I have anxiety – I’m going to embrace it. Setting up my blog, ‘wecanconquer’, in January was the first step to overcoming the obstacle that had been holding me back for so long. Finally admitting my struggles with anxiety led me to challenge myself to get better. It felt so rewarding to be in a position where I could talk about what I went through (and still go through), and how to encourage others to speak up about it, too. I felt so lucky to have a voice that people actually listened to, after being on the outside for so long.
In the summer, I finally started to take driving lessons, which was a really big achievement for me. I realised that anxiety doesn’t control my emotions, and I have enough strength and courage to fight through the scary situations. Instead of seeing anxiety as a barrier, I saw it as an opportunity to progress.
I want to encourage those who are still struggling with their anxiety and self-esteem, because it does get better! It’s so hard to see how important you are when you’re struggling, but just take a moment to look at yourself from someone else’s perspective, and you’ll see how loved you are. We’re all unique, so don’t try to be like everyone else. It’s so important that we use our voices to show that we can battle through our mental illnesses. Even though I still struggle with my anxiety, I am now able to look at it as a challenge for me to get better every time.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred), says:
Emily’s panic attack left her struggling with anxiety, and increasingly affected her life as she felt the need to flee stressful situations, and hide her feelings from those around her. She started to avoid going out, and as a result felt vulnerable and isolated. It began to change how she thought about herself. But when Emily learned to challenge her inner critic there came a turning point. Through being open about her anxiety, and challenging it, things started to improve. Emily’s story shows how we can make a significant difference by challenging our anxious thoughts, and being open about our emotions.