This week’s post is a Q&A with my younger brother Louis, who went through a period of intense anxiety about three years ago. This is just a short chat we had about Louis’ experiences and we weren’t able to cover everything (it’s already a longer post than usual!). However, Louis is always very happy to talk about his experience of anxiety and answer any questions, etc., so please do get in touch with me if you’d like to ask him about any of the below!
When did you first start experiencing anxiety?
Probably around October/November 2014? I was in my final year at boarding school.
Do you remember the exact point it started?
Yes. It happened on a Saturday, and it had been building during that week, during the morning chapel services at school. Each morning, for reasons I still don’t really know, I’d start feeling nauseous during the chapel services. Through deep breathing and perseverance I could sit it out and it would just disappear…but then on this Saturday morning, I felt more unwell than usual, had to leave the (completely full) chapel, walk out down the middle of the aisle and was sick in one of the bathrooms. From that point on, I couldn’t really go into chapel without feeling ill. I went to the medical centre, said “I feel nauseous”, they couldn’t really work out what it was – and, after a while, after trying loads of different solutions – and I don’t know if it’s something I worked out myself, or if someone said to me “this is the case” – I realised it was anxiety.
After a family trip to the theatre during the Christmas holidays that year, when I had to get up and leave the auditorium just as the show was starting, this nauseous/anxious feeling spread to other areas of my life (before it had just been chapel). Lessons at school, stuff I’d done thousands of times, I just couldn’t really do any more, for fear of being sick in front of everyone. I remember the point when I knew it was bad: I was standing in a queue in a shop in Cranbrook (our then nearest town) and I started having a major panic attack. At this point, I wasn’t clear about what I was actually scared of. Towards the end, it became “fear of fear” but I guess initially it was a fear of being sick in public, of having to hurry away but not being able to escape. Either way, at that point I knew it was something very real.
I started to skip meals, my logic being: if you don’t have anything in your stomach, you can’t be sick. I would typically just pick at meals – at school it was compulsory to go to every meal – but I didn’t really eat the meals that were there.
After a while, I started to work out coping mechanisms and began going to lessons again. I’d take plastic bags with me, for instance, in case I was ill, and I’d sit close to the door. I’d try to arrive early so I could make my teacher aware. Bit by bit, it started to filter away so it didn’t affect my lessons too much. I still couldn’t go to chapel, but I think that was because I’d just built up too much of a stigma about it.
So would you say the anxiety was generalised, or more of a social anxiety?
Depends on the social event. I think the reason chapel was so bad was because it was just boring. I had nothing to do except just sit in my own head, and then my thoughts could just run wild. With lessons, it wasn’t so bad after a while because you can just get stuck into taking down notes, or whatever. With parties, etc. – the anxiety didn’t make those kinds of events unbearable, I just often had to step outside a few times. When I felt the anxiety coming on, being inside just wasn’t really an option, and I had to take a break.
So – this was all a good three years ago, if not longer. You haven’t really suffered from anxiety since; what do you think made it go away?
I’ve accumulated a lot of different coping mechanisms, for example breathing exercises. So if I’m sitting idly in a situation and I start to panic, I find it helpful to do “7/11s” – when you breathe in and count to seven, and breathe out counting to eleven. When I went to uni, I tried to work out the worst case scenario for a given situation. If you work this out, you can plan. If I’ve planned for the worst case scenario, then I don’t really have a problem. Being prepared for the worst before I got to that point sort of mentally prepared me, and often all I’d actually have to do, in this hypothetical worst-case scenario, would be to just calmly stand up and walk out of the room.
Did you say this out loud to anyone, or did you work it out for yourself?
I started sort of subconsciously working it out by myself, but then at uni I was helping out a couple of friends who were going through similar issues. The more I talked about it out loud, the more I realised it just didn’t make sense to be worrying about the things I was worrying about. Talking out loud put things in perspective, and after a while my fears just stopped being so scary. It helps to know that other people are going through the same thing you’re going through, because it makes you think: if other people have gone through this and have come out the other side, then I can too. Now, I can’t remember the last time I had a severe panic attack.
So how did you find going to uni?
Home was the safe spot – but I knew that the more I could endure leaving the safe spot, the easier it would become. That was sort of my reasoning for going to uni – I decided to just go for it, give it a go, etc. I still had anxiety when I went to uni and it was bad on the first day – but I was lucky in that I had quite a small flat, only about seven people, so it wasn’t too overwhelming.
Lectures were tricky at first. I’d try to sit at the back of the room, close to the door, on the end of aisles, etc. There were times when I didn’t want to talk about this to anyone…I thought asking to sit on the end of a row would be seen as a bit of a weird request, and sometimes I’d walk in to the lecture hall with someone, they’d say “shall we sit there” and I’d think “Oh god that’s the middle of the row”…but then I’d just say to myself: in the worst-case scenario I can ask to leave if I really have to, but in the meantime I’m just going to focus on the lecture. And that really worked. The moment my mind can think about something else, I’m absolutely fine.
Once, I actually heard someone in a lecture voicing the exact thoughts that were going through my head. They were asking to sit on the end of a row because they had anxiety, and I just thought: “Wow, that’s a complete stranger who’s going through the exact same thing I am”. This helped me realise that I didn’t have some rare condition that was entirely unique to me.
So to sum up: what do you think helped the most, when your anxiety was at its worst?
Overall – talking about it helped. The more people that knew, the better I felt. The breathing tactic was always very useful, and trying to rationalise the situation, preparing for the worst, was always really helpful.
Then: when Louis was revising for his A-Levels, he didn’t think he’d even be able to leave the house. He was struggling to bring himself to attend school lessons and at the lowest point he couldn’t see a way out of the never-ending cycle of panic attacks.
Now: Louis’ life is no longer controlled by anxiety. He has just graduated with a 2:1 in Ancient History from The University of Royal Holloway, where he held down a uni job for two years. He has a wonderful girlfriend, a close circle of friends, and is incredibly excited to begin the next stage of his life.