Student Health | Mental Health
FOREWORD BY RICHARD STEWART
This month, our writers discuss the state of heightened anxiety, which often leads to a panic attack. As usual, our writers have written from personal experience and have wanted their stories published, to help reduce the stigma of openly discussing emotional wellbeing. We all have mental health, in the same way that we all have physical health. By contributing to this and future editions of Student Life, existing and new writers will help us.
“STAMP OUT STIGMA”
WRITTEN BY LEANNE ARNOLD
As a student mental health nurse, I often come across service users who are extremely anxious and service users who have panic attacks. I have been taught ways to aid others through their panic attacks, however it was not until recently that I had to use these techniques myself. I took a long time to decide whether to open up about my recent experience, but this is what we are trying to stop! Opening up and talking about your experiences enables others to understand, identify with, and feel more comfortable with discussing their own experiences. On top of this, it helps stamp out stigma and it creates awareness.
When I was in university, I became unwell with symptoms that mirrored a stroke, my sense of self and others changed and I felt extremely strange and unwell. I believe this caused me to have a panic attack; I then started to find it difficult to breathe normally, I felt extremely sick, and I had a feeling of impending doom. During the attack I kept trying to remind myself to keep calm and breathe slowly and deeply, but trying to do this when I felt overwhelmed was extremely difficult. The aftermath of my panic attack is difficult to understand as I was unwell alongside this. However, since the neurological episode I have started to suffer with heightened anxiety which is making everyday life difficult. I try and manage this with distraction techniques; I tap in certain orders to help distract myself from the uncomfortable physical symptoms the anxiety causes me. I also use self-help techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy tasks, which I have found in self-help books that are available in mainstream book stores. I have found that breathing techniques such as 7/11 help - the 7/11 technique helps me to ground myself and also enables me to focus on something other than the horrid sensations. I also have started to access help from professionals, as I have recognised that I am not managing the anxiety by myself at the moment. Third party help can be extremely beneficial. It is important to talk about your worries and anxieties, as not only does it provide a sense of relief for you, it can also enable the third party to help you make sense of what it is you are experiencing. I have found that herbal remedies have helped provide me with relief too. I use rescue remedy and Kalms to take the edge off the anxiety when it gets really bad.
It is extremely important to recognise that anxiety and panic attacks are extremely common. Statistics show that 1 in 6 people report that they’ve experienced a mental health problem; you are not alone. It is also important to understand that anxiety and panic attacks are your body’s natural way of responding to what it interprets as a threat. Sometimes knowing that it is a natural response for the body can bring comfort and relief for people. What is that phrase people use? A problem shared is a problem halved.
“FIGHT OR FLIGHT”
WRITTEN BY AYLA BLOOM
Let’s imagine you’re in a room. A small room. There are no windows in this room. Neither is there light. Just four walls. And you, right in the middle. Now close your eyes. Imagine the walls are closing in. You can feel them touching you. How do you react? Your heart thumps; your palms are sweaty; your throat is dry. To the non-sufferer, this might seem like a scene from an action film. However, for someone who has anxiety, this feeling is only too real. What I have just described, is the feeling of a panic attack.
Panic attacks present themselves as a manifestation of anxiety. They are the body’s response to a situation, also referred to as ‘fight-or-flight’, which can trigger a reaction in the individual. For example, imagine you are walking in the woods and you are faced with a dangerous animal. Your first instinct would, most probably, be to run away; the ‘flight’ response. For someone with anxiety, specific situations can trigger the same reaction, sometimes resulting in a panic attack.
Although most individuals can comprehend what causes their anxiety to rise, others cannot. However, what is known is that panic attacks can be caused by prolonged periods of stress. In the case of myself, this is something I have known all too well. At 17-years of age, I had my first panic attack. It was during sixth-form that I was walking to my English Literature class; one of my favourite lessons. I had just re-drafted my coursework for probably the tenth time that week, determined to get an A. But that was part of the problem. I convinced myself it wasn’t good enough. My hand shook over the handle - to the rhythms of my beating heart. My legs felt like lead. I couldn’t go in. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t go in there. Run away, my brain told me. You need to run away. And so, I did.
And there began my first experience with anxiety. Imbued in the academic perfectionism I had placed on myself. Nonetheless, it was one of the most awful things to have experienced, but it made me realise that I wasn’t myself. It made me want to talk to someone about how I felt, a brave step in itself! With the school counselling service, I learnt that anxiety and panic attacks aren’t anything to be ashamed of. Instead, the most important thing is to accept the situation at hand. Rather than fighting against the feeling, one can learn how to manage anxiety through coping mechanisms.
There is no doubt that everyone is different, but one of the ways I have managed my anxiety is through accessing CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) through the counselling service at University. As they say, a problem shared is a problem halved! And getting things off your chest to someone you can trust is a great way of reducing your anxiety. Another method I have been introduced to is compassionate mind therapy. Devised by Paul Gilbert, this method encourages the individual to imagine that they are a friend going through the same thing. On reflection, if you were the friend you would not discourage them, but would want to come up with a solution to help. The advice you would give your friend, you should give to yourself. This can be a fantastic way of rationalising your own thoughts - by imagining them through a different perspective or angle.
Remember: A step-back doesn’t equate to a defeat. Keep going. Keep striving. And be brilliant.
“PRONE TO PANIC?”
WRITTEN BY 17 yr old 6th Former
I had my first panic attack when I was 16. I was at school. I suddenly felt very anxious at lunch time and I started to feel dizzy due to my rapid breathing and lack of oxygen. I was with my friends at the time and they had to get the medical lady at school to come and see to me. By this point I couldn’t feel my hands or my legs so she had to grab me a wheelchair. I was also slightly zoned-out but I was fully aware that the rest of the school were looking at me which happened to make me more anxious, so, I was wheeled to the medical room to get out of everyone’s sight. A few teachers were aware by now and all tried to recover my breathing back to a normal state. As this was my first panic attack it didn’t really work because I was so scared; I didn’t exactly know what was going on and thought I was going to die due to not being able to breathe! Eventually an ambulance was rung (which attracted even more attention!) but the paramedics were so helpful. I was at a point where I almost fainted, but I quickly recovered from that state and my breathing went back to normal.
There can be many reasons that trigger a panic attack. Mine was about my job I had the next day. The previous weekend I was told I looked unhappy and I needed to stand up ‘straighter’ & look happier. Even though this was not the case at all, around customers I obviously came across differently to how I was acting in the kitchen (where the public couldn’t see me). For me to hear that I looked unhappy, did knock my self-esteem because I was worried about how everyone else viewed me. Therefore, the day before my next shift, I was so worried that I got in such a state. But other reasons behind panic attacks could be general stress, perhaps about family/friends, school/university/work and/or financial reasons.
What I didn’t do, which I would encourage everyone to do, is tell people why you are anxious. I bottled it up so much it eventually came out through a panic attack. This doesn’t happen all the time, of course, but at least try to prevent one by speaking out about your feelings. I’m sure if I did, I wouldn’t have got to the point of a panic attack.
I recommend that if you have anxiety and/or are prone to panic attacks, you regularly practice breathing techniques. You can find several ideas online - but it’s handy to know roughly how to control your breathing when you feel heightened anxiety.
A general way of getting your breathing under control is by the following steps:
- Relax your shoulders.
- Sit/stand up straight with both feet flat on the floor.
- Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
- As you breathe in, your stomach should move outward.
- Breathe in gently and regularly – some people find counting helpful (e.g. in for 4, out for 7)
- Do this for as long as you need. It shouldn’t take too long to return to steady breathing.
The idea of practicing your breathing can seem quite tedious, but if you just take a few minutes out of your day it can really help your anxiety. It can help with dealing with day-to-day stress and any worries you may have. I do a couple a day and I am starting to do some more with my current therapist. At the moment, I have two apps I find really useful, one is called Headspace and the other, Calm. They both have a variety of breathing and meditation exercises, but what’s particularly good about Calm is that you can listen to very relaxing sounds, such as, ‘fireplace’ or ‘rain on leaves’. I listen to these when I need a time out for a while. I really encourage you, whether you have help or not, to visit one of these apps, try an exercise and see how it goes!