Is it ever really true when we say that „everything changed“ after a certain event? In my mind, there’s very few situations in life to which this phrase actually applies and I don’t think I’ve ever lived through one. So when I first experienced panic and anxiety as a clueless teenager, did that change everything in my life? Well… no.
But, fuck, it got close.
After the “incident” in history class, I buried the red shirt with the white collar I’d been wearing that day at the very back of my closet and never wore it again. As if somehow this shirt that I never really liked were to blame for what had happened, I told myself I would be fine if only I didn’t wear that anxiety-infested outfit again. Funny, isn’t it? Well, I was up for a real surprise, I’ll tell you that.
Although I probably wouldn’t have admitted it at that time, I’d somehow always loved school. I had good grades, I had friends – ok, I sucked at sports, but what the hell. School had never been tough for me. But all of a sudden, it was.
From that day on, classes were no longer evaluated by interest of topic, but by endurability. That strange and personal rating system my brain came up with was unknown to everyone else and honestly, I’ve only come to fully understand the criteria of it years after – and weirdly, they still apply today.
English and philosophy were taught in that same history classroom where I’d first experienced the panic, so that killed two more of my favourites.
Biology could have been fine because there was an emergency door at the back of the classroom where I was seated, but the teacher was a horribly mean old lady and very strict about letting students go to the loo, which gave me extra stress in her class.
Funnily enough, I was doing alright during math class which I’d never liked much – and that’s despite my very door-distant seat. I think it had a lot to do with the young teacher who didn’t have things quite figured out yet, allowing for a lot of chatter and chill atmosphere (thanks Mr. B!). Also sitting next to someone I had a crush on probably helped with temporarily disregarding the agonies created by an upset brain chemistry.
In all classes, I felt at least uncomfortable, if not panicky and nauseous – but history class remained the uttermost horrifying nightmare for me. The bare thought of that chair where I’d first felt the panic take over made me physically sick. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand five more minutes right in the middle of that classroom and I desperately wanted to switch seats and sit somewhere by the door, but here’s a thing:
As someone just on the verge of developing an anxiety disorder that has a lot to do with fear of drawing unwanted attention to yourself and being judged for not acting appropriately – the last thing you want to do is switch seats in the middle of school term because (surprise!) you don’t want to draw attention to yourself and be judged. Sigh.
For the rest of my school years, I came up with a pretty good coping strategy. First days of term were the most important ones, because that’s when you pick your seat for the whole year. I would find excuses to get there super early and as soon as the teacher turned the key and opened the door, would rush inside while trying to keep it cool on the outside, scan the room in a split second and suggest a seat to my friends in what I hoped to be a I-don’t-give-crap kind of tone, like yeah let’s just sit here whatever it’s just school who cares anyway not me nope I’m cool I haven’t changed at all.
I went pretty well with that strategy. There were certain things that helped: open doors and windows when it was really hot, noisy group between students, the occasional movie watched in class. And things that made my life miserable: presentations, exams, long periods of silence when the teacher had asked a question no one wanted to answer.
How I got through the final exams that lasted five hours, had minimum bathroom breaks and were also rather important on an over-all scheme of, you know, life – I don’t remember.
But there I was, two and a half years later: 19 years old, freshly graduated, free as a bird.
Instead of heading straight to university and/or adult life, my best friend and I hit the airport to travel the world for almost a year. I know that many people say you can’t run away from your problems, you can’t leave something like anxiety behind because it’s a part of you and you take it wherever you go.
Well, I don’t think that’s true. I think you can leave your anxiety behind – and I did.
And it was only when I came back home one year later that I found out what a bad idea that had been.
Feeling any of this? Some tipps for… coping strategies:
- Coping strategies can save your life in difficult times when you don’t know what the hell is going on with you. They helped me through the rest of high school (and a lot of my adult life so far). If little changes in your surroundings make you feel better, like sitting close to the exit in class, go for them.
- Be reflective of what scares you and how you can possibly affect that. Do you maybe get less anxious when you had a good nights sleep? Do certain people, topics, maybe even smells or sounds set you off? Does a full stomach make you feel more uncomfortable? I used to not eat food before classes or other events that scared me (like church services) because the feeling of hunger gave me a fake sense of control over my body and whether I would feel sick. I say fake because it is fake – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t help. Now I don’t advise anyone to skip meals or whatever (anyone who knows me will confirm that I’m constantly shoving food in my face) – I’m just giving an example of something that works for me when I’m really unwell.
- I know it’s hard but if you need to make an adjustment that requires you explain yourself to someone, don’t back out. I had to talk to my scary-ass history teacher about switching seats because I knew it would help me cope. It wasn’t a nice thing to talk about, but you don’t have to go into great detail about it. Just say you’re uncomfortable and propose a change. You’ll find that people are actually way less judgy than you fear they are, because frankly, they don’t give a shit.
- Coping strategies can work magic for you, but THEY ARE ONLY A TEMPORARY SOLUTION. I can’t stress this enough. If you find yourself permanently incapable of dealing with certain aspects of life, if you become more and more limited in the activities and situations you’re comfortable with, if you’re making excuses to stay at home and play it safe time and time again, please get help. Talk to someone and find a psychologist. There is help. Don’t hide behind your safety precautions forever.
This post is part of series I am writing about anxiety and the many ways it has interacted with my life so far. Anything I write here is my personal experience and thus just one little dot in the whole picture that can be painted about mental health issues. If you have any questions, concerns or personal experiences you would like to share, feel free to leave me a comment below.