Christmas is the time of year for… Anxiety, stress and panic. Well it use to be for me. I’ve always loved Christmas. I’m not a religious person, more of a Muppet Christmas Carol person. The feelings of good will, present giving and general cheer are enough to make me smile for a few days.
But it wasn’t always that way. I use to suffer severe panic attacks that would come out of nowhere. The panic attacks started happening because I was panicking about the last time I had a panic attack and each time that made me panic even more.
On one occasion, I was driving in the outside lane of the M25, south towards Dartford Tunnel when I felt the sudden hit of adrenaline rise up my body. Before I knew it, I felt sick and was desperate for the toilet. Sweat begun pouring down my face, then the shaking started.
My wife was in the car with me and I’m sure she would tell you how hopeless it made her feel. The priority at that moment for me was getting out of the traffic as quick as possible. I indicated left and managed to cross the three lanes and pull onto the hard shoulder. It took me 15 minutes to try and gain control, but the rest of the journey I dreaded having the same feeling again. We reached our destination and I was so tired I think I fell asleep instantly.
The reason I started having panic attacks was insignificant as eventually I was having an attack because I was panicking about having another attack, about becoming ill. Being trapped somewhere if I needed to be sick or lay down. Looking weak and foolish in front of family or complete strangers.
Christmas became the ultimate test due to confined space, warm homes, family, friends and food. In my mind this translated to being trapped, feeling hot and unwell, looking silly in front of people, too much food leading to feeling ill. All added up to the feeling of having a heart attack.
So this maybe news to all, but I didn’t die. I’m still here. Despite 100’s of panic attacks, countless feelings of anxiety I survived. Most of the thanks for this needs to go to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that helped me understand what my body was doing and why. This led to my chosen coping mechanisms which work for me. One is taking a deep breath and holding it in as long as possible, then letting the air back out. Continue this a few times but be cautious not to make yourself dizzy or give yourself an Asthma attack (if you are a sufferer like me). The other method I used is to flex as many muscles as you can, for as long as you can, then release. This can be repeated until you begin to feel better or until someone sees you doing it. This generally leads to giggling and trying to make out you were about to stand up or do a jiggly dance. Either way, it helped me. Coping with panic attacks is not a quick fix, but involving others to help you is a must.
So why is Christmas still a conundrum for me? Simply put, for me panic attacks were one part of my illness. At the time I had not been diagnosed with Cyclothymia or OCD. So while I treated the panic attacks, I still had not started my journey of discovery into who I was and how these illnesses would impact me.
My brain works a little differently to others and a coping mechanism for social situations built up over years. This is a natural reaction, everyone has a wall they develop to protect themselves due to emotional experience throughout their lives. But mine is a little different in that during a manic state, people are amazing. Lets dance, play games and drink the night away (I gave up drinking when I was 21 as I was using it in an unhealthy way). But when I’m down, people just need to go away, far away. Add to this the OCD, obsessing over what people might think, what will happen, work, next week, next year all spinning around my head.
I guess in truth the struggle is, I love my friends and family but I also hate my friends and family. Or maybe its that I’m indifferent. Christmas movies make it much simpler and logical for me. All emotions, songs and reactions are in the script. Everything meets up at the right time in the right place. But life is not like that. Maybe if everyone suffered from the same illness or if I begun to view everyone else as suffering a mental health problem and I was the healthy one it would be easier.
So, to embrace Christmas with all its irritants, boring pauses and pointless conversations that only irritate my metal health it is. It is only once a year. And there are always parts I do enjoy, its not all doom and gloom, while I’m busy, my mind doesn’t have time to acknowledge my symptoms.
I see it like this, my illness is part of me but it does not decide what I do and when. It can’t rule my life. Sometimes I need to give in and let myself embrace the symptoms so I can recover from the constant battle of suppressing them. But not at Christmas, not at my work Christmas party or on Christmas day with family.
Have a good Christmas and I hope you have a mentally stable New Year!