Am I anxious or merely under immense pressure or stress?
That is the question I frequently ask myself when I wake up in a sweat at 3am most mornings.
You feel your heart racing, terrified that it might just leap out of your chest.
You feel that knot of despair in the pit of your stomach.
Your mouth has gone dry but that doesn't matter because you can't swallow anything.
Not with your windpipe getting narrower by the second. There's a sudden urge to flee.
You think you are being held captive and feel stuck.
The despair only grows when you realise that there is no running away as you cannot escape the thoughts that occupy your mind and cause your body to have a visceral reaction to them. If you are lucky, the feelings are there for a few minutes but for some unfortunate others, they can last several hours.
The exhausted wreck you feel post attack is a draining one
Your mind is like being on a treadmill going 100km/h can take its toll on you.
But even greater when it happens often.
Before I go any further, I would like to point out that there is a difference between having anxiety as a disorder and experiencing anxiety as a part of life.
Any psychologist worth their money will tell you that it is perfectly normal for human beings to experience anxiety and stress.
However when the anxious behaviour takes on a life of its own: becoming controlling and excessively preventing: you to follow through on daily activities that when it's a problem.
The Anxiety and Depressive Association of America (ADAA) describes anxiety disorder as "the specific psychiatric disorders that involve extreme fear or worry."
Social anxiety, separation anxiety, panic attacks and certain phobias would all fall under this umbrella term.
My issues with anxiety did not occur until sometime in matric, just after writing prelims.
The thought of writing my final exams and the dire consequences or (so I thought!) of not achieving great marks was enough to send me over the edge.
I spent nights bawling my eyes out over textbooks. I wouldn't all even harder when I realised I was wasting precious time crying instead of retaining the work in front of me.
I would eventually convince myself to study in the morning and would probably spend the rest of the night worrying about the studying I did not do, losing sleep and starting the next exhausted. It was a vicious cycle.
This self-destructive behaviour followed me all the way to University where I decided that I needed help. Making an appointment with the campus counsellor seems like a good first step. I remember feeling quite proud that I no longer had to carry the burden by myself.
On the day of the appointment I showed up 10 minutes early, planted myself in front of a sweet looking lady and stumbled the words out. Looking back I realise that perhaps I hadn't quite explained myself properly as she spent the rest of the hour giving me helpful study tips.
I left her office disappointed. There was no bandage to cover the mental wound. I did not make a second appointment. The feeling of being isolated creeped back up on me and I shouldered the weight of my anxiety well into my early twenties. There was no miraculous healing but I knew that I had to gain control of my emotions rein them in.
I began meditating and recently took up yoga.
Nonchalantly at first but now a ritual I go through almost every morning.
I am taking note of the food I put into my body.
The processed fast food I ate frequently did more harm than good.
I also channel my energy into exercise.
I have not eradicated the problem but now I am better equipped on how to handle it when it arises and I hope you can do the same.
Find what works for you and remind yourself that making your mental health a priority is part of self-care.
So be it, see to it.
Seeing a mental health professional did not work out for me but that is not mean it will not work out for you.
Visit the Anxiety Centre website to receive practical and in the moment solutions on what to do during and after an anxious experience.
And you can call the South African Depression and Anxiety group on 011 234 4837 to speak to a trusted counsellor.
Written by: Paulina Mothapo