The world we live in is undeniably fast-paced. Constant streams of messages and social media updates make it harder to escape from this claustrophobic environment. There seems no way to escape virtual entrapment, and taking time out seems an evermore Sisyphean task.
In lockdown, where mental health can deteriorate rapidly, the questions of how you are and what you’ve been up to became harder and harder to answer. An almost insurmountable task, when the answer was always going to be some absurd version of an increasingly stressful groundhog day. I would wake up in the morning with dread in my stomach at having to face yet another day within lockdown. Friendships have had to shift and adapt and overcome these situations, while families are forced together for unnatural amounts of time.
What’s more, for the first time in a long time, health has become the number one priority. The strangest thing is the irrational fear about going into ‘the new normal’: questions of whether I’ll be able to socialise normally, or how long it may be until we can hug the ones closest to us, become increasingly troubling for the overthinker. As we are able to reconnect with more friends and socialise once more, I have reflected on what has been some of the most challenging few months of my life.
There have been some real highs as I have learnt how to cope with things I never thought I’d have to deal with, but there have also been some terrifying lows, when I’ve felt the most unhappy and lonely I have ever felt in my entire life. It was these days that I was unsure whether things would get better again.
I have dealt with panic attacks and, what can be debilitating, anxiety for many years. During term-time in Oxford, I had some weeks when work and socialising wasn’t manageable and life would feel overwhelming. What I find hardest is the fact that a panic attack seems ineffable to those who have not experienced them. For those who have, experiences are never the same: they are utterly and totally isolating. If you ask your friend ‘what does panic feel like to you?’, physiologically there may be some similarities, but, as with any feeling that we emote, there will be differences.
Perhaps this extreme gulf between understanding is what makes anxiety and panic attacks feel so lonely: no man is an island, but within a panic attack, it certainly feels like you are one. There is no way to explain to someone the utterly overwhelming feeling of a tightening and clamping in your chest, the feeling of impending doom and quite possibly the feeling that this panic attack will not end. When we experience a panic attack, our body goes into the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response in which we consider the best way to survive. Sometimes I experience disassociation, another way in which the body tries to escape: it is the ultimate actualisation of the flight mechanism. Strangely, the mantra ‘this too shall pass,’ repeated makes it easy to accept the panic attack: fighting it only ever seems to make it more overwhelming.
However, I am also one of the more optimistic people I know, and I am truly happy. I count my blessings every day, and there is so much good to be found. I have taught myself that within the light, it is okay for there to be some darkness. I’ve learnt to live in the moment, to take it one day at a time and to realise that there will come a time when I won’t get so overwhelmed that I feel life is collapsing on me. Through my experiences, I have learnt that it is always best to give people the benefit of the doubt; try not to stress if they don’t reply instantaneously, check in on people regularly but without being pressurising, and remember that we are all fallible humans. It is always important to understand you often have no idea what someone else is going through.