If you knew me before my accident you would know that I’m not one to easily panic. I’m “cool out” as my dad would say. Yes, I would over-think some situations, but never to the point where I was genuinely worried or anxious about anything. But after my accident this all changed. I would worry about and fear the smallest things, which would lead to an over-whelming feeling of anxiety and, in some cases, full on panic.
I found myself worrying all of the time. I would worry that I wasn’t doing the right things to help my recovery. I would worry about my parents. I would worry that I would never get back to work full-time. I would worry before bed that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, or that I’d wake up tomorrow feeling worse than I felt today. All of these worries would make me so anxious.
As I progressed throughout my journey I had established a daily routine of what I felt was working for me. And I would worry that any small change to this routine would cause me to take a step backwards in my recovery. And my biggest worry of all was “ What if I would never get better?”
I began to fear social situations; just about everything and anything that could potentially make my symptoms worse or cause another ‘Episode‘. I wanted to go out and socialise with my friends, go shopping, go to the gym in the evening – but they would all be chaotic situations for me. What if they made me worse? The anxiety would build up inside of me and I would end up staying home and avoiding the situation all together.
Sometimes I even feared Rehab. I didn’t want to go and be told that I still wasn’t getting any better, or worse; hear that something else was wrong with me! These thoughts would swirl around in my head before an appointment. Most of the time I still went, but other times I would let the fear and anxiety build to such a point that I would completely freeze and I couldn’t leave the house. I’d stay at home alone and cry. Then my fear would turn to one of two things: guilt or relief.
Guilt (yes back to guilt again!) because I wasn’t doing all I could to get better and I was letting everyone down by not going to Rehab; family, friends, colleagues.
Relief because I didn’t have to face the outside world. I could hide away in the safety of my house.
Then there was the panic; the complete and utter anguish that would build up inside of me when the worry, fear and anxiety all became too much for me to handle. It didn’t happen too often thank god, but it would usually stem from a lack of sleep, a break in routine, or a change to a plan I had made.
“Things weren’t going exactly how I had planned them to, so how could I possibly survive this without a set back? How am I going to think on my feet? Will I make the right decision? How long will it take me to come to the right conclusion?”
Sometimes it could be something as small as: “I thought we were going for coffee, but now we’re going for lunch an hour earlier…. Now what do I do? That’s not what I had planned!! My brain won’t be able to manage this!”
Yes, something this small, and seemingly insignificant, could lead to a panic attack for me. My mind would start to race a mile-a-minute with worry, fear and anxiety. My head would pound uncontrollably. I’d get dizzy. I’d feel nauseous. My throat would start to close up. I’d find it hard to breathe.
Depending on the severity, these symptoms could last for anything from 5 minutes to half an hour. Then, when I was through the panic and had caught my breath tears would come flooding down my face. Uncontrollably.
An Unforgettable Wedding
One of the worst panic attacks that I ever had was almost 2 years after my accident, the day before a wedding I was attending in Roscommon. I was really looking forward to it. I was looking forward to catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while and I was excited to attend a full-day social event.
I felt ready for it. My boyfriend Noel and I (Yeah, remember that personal trainer I told you about? That’s Noel. He’s now my boyfriend!) were going to stay at his family home in Longford the night before and then go down to Roscommon the next day.
I knew I would need a definite plan in my head to get through this weekend. So once Noel finished work we would drive down to Longford, I would go for a nap, then get up, do my tan and relax for the evening. The next morning I would get up, shower, get my hair done and then come home and relax for a couple of hours before we had to leave. Unfortunately, that’s not how things ended up panning out, thus leading to my biggest panic attack to date.
When we arrived down to Longford I was told we were going to meet some family for a drink down at the local pub. Noel promised we’d only go for a short while and be back early, which to be fair is exactly what happened. But, that didn’t stop me from over-thinking EVERYTHING in my head while we were there. Not only was the noise in the pub getting to me, but so too was the concentration required to hold a conversation in a group.
My brain was racing a-mile-a-minute “I was already tired, how was I going to get enough time to nap now? Even if I did nap, would that be enough sleep to help me recover from being in the pub now too? Would I be able for tomorrow? Am I better off going straight to sleep when I go home and not doing my tan? I’m exhausted. I’ll skip the tan. But then what do I do in the morning? Will I do it in the morning instead? Yes, I’ll get up early and do it then. But then when do I shower and get my hair done?
There’s no way I’ll be able for the wedding now. Not if I’m missing out on some of my planned relaxation tonight, plus going to have to get up earlier tomorrow and potentially miss my relaxing time before the wedding tomorrow too. And the noise! Why is it so loud in here? I feel nauseous.”
This isn’t going to end well….
Together We're Better
I managed to hold it together (on the outside anyway) until I got in the front door. But immediately the tears started and I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t explain to Noel what was wrong with me. Seeing the worry on this face made me worse. Why couldn’t I tell him what’s wrong and reassure him that I’m ok?
I needed to calm down and catch my breath but I couldn’t. It was getting worse and worse. I was struggling to breathe; I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. I couldn’t see properly. I was so dizzy. I knew Noel was talking to me, but I couldn’t process what he was saying. He was trying to get me to focus on my breathing and to calm down.
I put my head between my legs and blocked out the world, even Noel. I thought of my mindfulness and began to focus on my breathing. Eventually, I came back into the room. There were tears pouring down my face. There were tears pouring down Noel’s face too. I couldn’t speak. But Noel knew what to expect now. I was exhausted. My head was pounding. It is physically and mentally exhausting going through a panic attack. He held me until I recovered enough to speak and then I drifted off to sleep.
Poor Noel. I hated seeing him like that. Seeing how worried he was. Seeing him trying so hard to help me, but not being able to. But it was out of both of our control, we just had to let it happen and wait for it to pass.
Later, I went downstairs to him and his family. It was the first time that I had experienced an ‘Episode‘ or ‘Panic Attack’ around his family, so I was embarrassed. (Obviously I had absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about and it’s really important to remember that!) Noel made me some food and I ate it. Not because I was hungry, but because we knew I needed to eat. I needed to refuel my body so that it could recover.
We ended up not going to the wedding ceremony, instead only going to the reception. Noel rescheduled my hair appointment and made sure I had time to relax and get ready in as stress-free an environment as possible. I was tired, my head hurt and I felt nauseous most of the day, but I made it to the wedding. I caught up with old friends, I pretended all was fine and I kept smiling all evening.
I lasted about 5 hours in total before giving up and going home (the band playing was my tipping point). But I did it. We did it. With Noel by my side I knew I’d be ok. He always looks after me. He always knows what to do. I know I can always rely on him. I am so lucky to have in my life.
Positivity & Patience
It took me a while to recover from that weekend. It was quite a set back for me…. 2 years on and I was still experiencing such severe symptoms. It was hard to accept. But then, I remembered how far I had come. I stayed positive and remained patient. I reassured myself that it was a minor set back and that I’d be back to where I was in a few weeks (which I was).
The whole event was a reminder of how important sleep was for my recovery. How important it was that I stick to my plans. How important it was to have people around me who love me and understand what’s going on – because I talk to them and tell them what’s going on!
It’s now been almost 6 months since my last panic attack (which was brought on by an ‘Episode‘). Yes, they still occur, but they pass much quicker and my recovery time can be as short as 24-48 hours. I’m not perfect yet, but I can live a normal life. It was back to ‘business as usual’ the next day. I’ve come so far in the last 3 and a half years. So, I am not going to let my anxiety control my life and neither should you.
Anxiety is only one element of your mental health that can be affected by a brain injury. But remember, everyone’s journey is different so some people may never encounter these issues, or some people may encounter issues far worse than I did. However, it is so important to look after your mental health regardless, especially when you have suffered a brain injury! Here’s a link to my Top Tips on Mental Health.
Disclaimer: It’s important to note that this was my experience with anxiety, but this isn’t the same for everyone. This is my journey and how I dealt with it. Everybody’s journey is different. What worked for me may not work for others. But remaining positive and patient really helped me. Hopefully it will help you too!