I guess I have long been someone with a nervous disposition and prone to anxiety and anxious thoughts. Stressful situations, however small, had a tendency to result in physical symptoms when I was a small child. For example, I threw up on my first day at school and had to be sent home. In fact, I threw up a lot between the ages of 6-8/9 and we never really found out the reason why.
A specialist suggested it was psychological, which my parents ignored and indeed never told me until I was much older and was diagnosed with mild anxiety and depression. As a child I had cried a lot when my dad went on trips abroad and would, without fail, experience knee pain in the middle of the night, on the day he would leave for Sri Lanka.
Experiences as a child
Despite these symptoms, I was a happy child for the most part at primary school. It was secondary school that really got to me. Bullying by various people across various year groups meant that I became went from being reasonably gregarious to more shy and reserved, hiding (sometimes literally) in shadows and corners so that people wouldn't see me and laugh at me. I was convinced anytime someone laughed, they were laughing about me. And so my anxiety really began.
It took me years to realise something was amiss, though. I was always so focused on my feelings of depression that I didn't realise I was an anxious person until I was about 21 and had left uni. Going to uni had been very stressful due to vast workloads and excruciating pressure. I was bullied at uni also and so my self-esteem hit rock bottom. I spent the whole of my second year of university shaking, having sleeping problems and constantly feeling anxious about the never-ending pieces of work. People suggested to my university tutor that something wasn't right but he struggled to see it for himself. I would have adrenaline rushes where my fight-or-flight instincts would kick in, followed by crashes of feeling very low functioning.
Aged 20, my family decided enough was enough and had various medical tests run in Sri Lanka to find out why I was so ill all the time. I did blood tests, a heart check-up, urine tests and an MRI, all of which revealed nothing. A consultant neurologist referred me to a consultant psychiatrist, who promptly diagnosed me with mild depression and anxiety, as mentioned above. Even then, I was still in denial about my anxiety.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Aged 22, I was offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) at my local mental health hospital, with a trainee psychologist. The fact that she was a trainee turned out to be a huge benefit, as she needed people to work with for her placement and as a result, I saw her nearly every week for 9 months straight, beginning in January 2011. I found CBT really difficult to deal with, largely because it was exposing huge glaring facts that I had been conveniently suppressing all these years. To my surprise, I realised finally that I really did suffer from constant mild general anxiety, social anxiety and anxiety about interpersonal relationships especially. After weeks of gentle prodding, we were able to unveil the reason: I felt inadequate as a person and would put huge pressure to live up to people's supposed (my imagined) perceptions of what I was supposed to be like. I was a perfectionist and consumed with the idea that I was a very bad person and that no one loved me and that I had to work very hard to get people to like me. When things wouldn't work out the way I planned, this would result in huge crippling social anxiety. I would avoid places and people and go out of my way to make myself invisible. Often I'd want the ground to swallow me up whole.
When my therapist and I finally worked all this out, I was absolutely horrified because I felt things would never be able to change. Yes, it was all very well me realising that I'm a huge people-pleaser and that it results in anxiety, but what was I supposed to do about it? This is when my therapist began to teach me about how the brain works and how our thoughts and feelings can often be related to what we have experienced when we were young. Also that thoughts are just that: thoughts. They are not necessarily right, or the be-all-and-end-all. In fact, I have the power to challenge my thoughts and even try and make them go away! This was a huge revelation to me and was the key to solving my anxiety problems. Like most young women, I had that little voice in the back of my head telling me that I would never be good enough, etc. But I didn't have to listen to that voice. With help from my therapist and her CBT techniques and my CBT homework, I was able to learn how to challenge that voice and say "you are wrong; I am not going to take on board or listen to what you are saying".
At first that voice would kick up a lot of fuss and fight back. However the stronger my own voice grew, the weaker that little voice became. These days (aged 25) that little voice is still there but it is something I can dismiss very easily. This is no doubt due to the CBT I was lucky enough to have for so long on the NHS. Most people aren't as lucky as me with how long they can have CBT for but I'd really encourage anyone suffering with anxiety to ask their GP about CBT, or look at the website MoodGym, which is online CBT you can do at your own pace (no substitute for an actual therapist, but good if you are on a waiting list). It really could transform your life for the better, like it has mine.