Kelly Eaton - Fast Stream Talent Manager, Year 4 Generalists
The first time I had a panic attack I was in an exam. I couldn't breathe. I couldn’t move. I was terrified. I tried to get up, but fell to the floor. That was the end of that exam, but the beginning of a struggle with anxiety.
I've always been a worrier, but anxiety is something different. In the lead up to exam time panic would surge over me. I could rationalise it, but I couldn't control the emotional and physical response. My GP prescribed medication, and I joked with my house mates about my ‘happy pills’. But in all seriousness, the medication really helped make the anxiety less extreme. With the unwavering support of my parents, and my boyfriend who helped me revise and waited outside exam halls, I completed my second year exams (I write that with a soppy tear in my eye as I now have a family with that same boyfriend, and he helped me to manage my anxiety when becoming a mum).
Having people to confide in without fearing judgement is so important. There is no shame in asking for help, and actually, people struggling with their mental health should feel pride in overcoming the vulnerability that comes with saying "I'm not well and I need support".
I was fortunate to get access to a counsellor. Through this I understood what was behind my anxiety and the pressure I put on myself, trying to live up to standards that meant I became unwell. It was tough, but a turning point to identify that I needed to change the way I think about myself.
I often found that well-meaning friends and family would say "try not to worry". If it was that easy to control then I wouldn't have been in the situation I was in. I tried to explain what it felt like and how it wasn't the same as an everyday worry. I'd really recommend talking about it. It helped me to feel less alone. I also found that the more I spoke about anxiety, the more other people were open about similar experiences.
I learnt to recognise the early signs of a panic attack. I then took myself mentally 'away' by focusing my breathing. Most of the time it worked. I sat all my finals without having any major attacks. I graduated with an upper second class degree. I was relieved to have passed with my mental health relatively intact. Sure, I would have liked a first class degree, but I didn't put quite so much weight on academic achievement and realised there was more to me than being a 'straight A' student.
Since then I’ve had other periods of anxiety and have had panic attacks at work. The kindness my colleagues have shown has been overwhelming. If you can explain what is going on for you then people are always willing to listen and may even become your cheerleaders, celebrating your successes and helping prop you up on a bad day.