My new series, My Journey With…, has been so well received. I’m so pleased to be able to use my platform to encourage people to talk about “taboo” topics and to witness how sharing stories can be cathartic and bring healing!
Today’s “Journey” is with Bea Chan, a fellow blogger over at Mademoiselle Nomad. She is sharing her journey with living with Anxiety & Panic Disorder.
“It’s taken me a long time to open up but I think people love seeing our vulnerable side, it shows we are humans after all, and not just some girl who’s living the dream life of travel and blogging with ZERO issues.”
My Journey With… Anxiety & Panic Disorder
I grew up on paradise island (Mauritius) and yet it often felt like I was going through hell. I always felt something terrible was going to happen at any given time. From a young age, I lived in a state of constant anxiety, mostly during exams.
Now, you might think these are the stages that every child goes through, however the intensity of my heightened state was due to an anxiety and panic disorder. At the age of 11, the psychiatrist reasoned I was too young to be given anti-depressants, so instead, I was given a book about positive thinking.
I didn’t think I was negative in my thinking. For me, the fears and worries were very real. Walking into the classroom during my final exams each year was the most painful thing I ever had to do as a child. Given the choice, I would probably prefer a week at the dentist than exams. My parents did not understand. Nor did my teachers. After all, I was ‘a gifted child’ and had A-grades all the time. Each year, during the final exams, I would be afraid to die while writing my papers. My hands would sweat making the exam paper so wet that I could hardly write on it. I was always well prepared for exams – I had pens, extra pens, and back-up pens of the extra pens. For several days prior to my exams, I would not sleep well nor eat well. As a result, my brain felt foggy, I felt physically sick and I thought I was going crazy. Once, the teacher had to call my parents as I could not breathe and I thought I was going to die. Turns out, this was my first panic attack. For many years during my childhood, I woke up sweating after having panic attacks. My dad was very understanding, having previously experienced a panic attack.
The fear of having a panic attack made me avoid certain places. I developed phobias of public transport, highways, enclosed spaces, lifts, escalators, and cinemas. This made going out with friends difficult. I felt that everyone else around me was normal, because they seemed to be fine with living in the world. I, on the other hand, felt like an alien, wondering why everything felt like such a burden, and why I was so anxious. I pleaded with my dad not to send me on school trips (buses, eating in public, highways – way too many panic triggers!). And when forced to go on these trips, I would be miserable and nauseated the whole day, while my classmates chatted, played, swam, and enjoyed themselves.
I had so much anxiety that I was ill a lot, from not eating well, not sleeping well, and generally being constantly on edge. I was so anxious about my career and my future that when I was 13, I wrote to several universities overseas and got overwhelmed by the costs as well as the entry requirements. I had more trouble sleeping and eating and barely functioned. In the end, I dropped out of school as I could not handle the (self-inflicted) pressure anymore. My parents were incredibly supportive, for they knew what hell I went through day after day, therapy session after therapy session. Instead, we found a vocational school where I studied Tourism and Hospitality for a career in that field.
Living with anxiety and panic disorders have cost me a lot. Money. Studies. Friends. Boyfriends. And I even lost a job once because I declined a trip instructed by my boss because I was petrified at the thought of being on a plane (even though I had flown before).
Ordinary things feel like climbing mountains. I have often paid full price tickets for a show and left halfway, or left a restaurant before finishing my meal when caught in a panic attack. The trouble is, they come without warning and the next thing you know, you’re in “fight or flight” mode.
Despite anxiety and panic, I tried my best to design my dream life. In my early 20s, I made the move to live and work abroad and surprisingly this was the best decision ever. It seems that whenever I face my fears, life gets less overwhelming. And the more I persevered, the stronger I felt. On the bright side, living with anxiety and panic disorders, I was able to see who my true friends were – they are the ones who stuck by me no matter how “weird” I sometimes seemed.
Is there anything you might have done differently before your diagnosis or even now in your day-to-day experience of living with Anxiety & Panic Disorder?
It has taken me a long time to be vulnerable about this. If I could do things differently, I would certainly choose to open up more about my condition. I would have explained to my friend that I could not come to her birthday party because I was terrified, instead of lying and coming up with an excuse. I would speak the truth and let people know how I am feeling.
These days I try to be more open about it. If I am feeling dizzy because of anxiety, I say it. When I am vulnerable, I find that people are more understanding, show more empathy, and let me be.
I value my daily rituals that calm me, help me stay grounded, and help me cope. Some of these include: journaling, colouring, doing creative things, self-care, time alone, reading, writing, a short stroll, breathing techniques (meditation) and time with God.
What, or who, helps you to overcome or push through your Anxiety & Panic Disorder when it gets really tough? A book, a person, therapy, medication etc?
I have tried various things: therapy, hypnosis, some natural form of medication (magnesium, tryptophan), and I think this is a different for everyone. I find that you have to do what makes you feel good, regardless of what other people think. It might look silly to others, but I colour a lot (for example on the plane, on trains), I spend time alone listening to classical music, I nap a lot (it helps!) and I also listen to podcasts that make me feel happy. Ever since I adopted two kittens, my stress has reduced greatly from simply taking care of them and being the best mommy I can be to them.
In addition to all of the above, I ensure my diet is good so that it helps me better cope with stress. I eat foods rich in magnesium, vitamin Bs, cut out caffeine and alcohol, make sure to drink lots of water and eat more vegetables and fruits.
When it gets super tough, then I cancel all my plans for a week and give myself time to recharge and do whatever I feel like. Listening to your body is important, and it’s OK to take a step back and rest, especially in periods of high stress.
Obviously there is not always a reason for going through such hard times in life, but now that you are further down the journey can you share any insights or personal growth that struggling with Anxiety & Panic Disorder has taught you?
Often, we as humans tend to think that if only we had this or that, or if we could do this one change, then everything would be better. But actually it is within us that we must first work deeper. When I had anxiety and panic in my own country, I thought it was because of the environment. Surely, if I were to move abroad, my life would be great. Sadly, it does not usually work that way. We cannot escape from ourselves. The anxiety and the panic disorders have followed me wherever I lived (and as a nomad, I moved a lot).
I also learnt that no matter the circumstances, we are stronger than we think we are. Given the struggle I have with these disorders, I would have been better off locked up in my room with my crayons and colouring book, but what a dull life would that be? I love adventures and I want to live life fully, despite anxiety and panic always poking their nose in my business!
I want to encourage everyone with anxiety and panic disorder that it is possible to reach for your goals and achieve great things. Looking back, I see how far I have come with the grace of God. I braved those plane trips and public transport across different continents as a travel blogger. I lived on my own for several years abroad. It is possible to create a beautiful life, filled with purpose and passion, no matter what you are going through. Don’t let anxiety stop you. Don’t let panic stop you. Learn to leverage them and live your best life!
Where do you find yourself now? Please share an update on your current progress or new space to encourage others who find themselves in the midst of the “tough stuff” right now.
I am fine now, however a month ago, I had a relapse. It was strange because I had no reason to be anxious or to panic (but then again, there often is no valid reason). I was traveling through Spain, enjoying tapas and siestas, and yet, I also had a rough time dealing with anxiety and panic attacks. My body shook so much that I missed a lot of things on my itinerary, and I lost weight (which, for a naturally skinny girl, is problematic!).
However, this time, I embraced it. The best way to conquer anxiety and panic is to surrender, to say OK, bring it on, let’s see what you got! And then wait for the storm to pass. Believe me, it does pass. And when you open up about it, you’ll find that one in three people you know have similar struggles. You are not alone in this.
Text & Images: Bea Chan