The fear of fear: overcoming anxiety

Words by Louise Thompson, Senior Communications Manager at NABS

“This is it.” I thought. “Twenty-five years old and I’m going to die of a heart attack.”

After a very stressful year, watching my beloved and eccentric grandad die from cancer, leaving a job with a bully boss, alongside other personal issues, this really would be the final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun.) Just as I thought things were looking up, a new job, doing something I was interested in, at adland charity NABS, and feeling like life was finally normalising, my heart decides to pack in on me.

An embarrassing trip to UCH in a colleague’s car after attending my first industry conference, left me sitting wired up to an electrocardiogram, terrified that I was about to drop dead. The doctor calmly told me that an irregular heartbeat had appeared on my ECG, not usually something to worry about, but they’d like to do some blood tests. Paralysed by fear of both needles and the results, I refused, and went home.

In the coming days and weeks, I was overwhelmed by the physical sensations I was experiencing. Heart palpitations, chest pain, numbness, shooting pains in my limbs, sweating, feeling as though I was either about to faint or vomit. What was wrong with me? Thoughts whirred around my head and concentrating became difficult. I thought “I have a blood clot, a stroke, heart failure, appendicitis… cancer? I have all the symptoms of all of these illnesses, so what could it be?”

The impending sense of doom hanging over me became unbearable. Public transport became a daily nightmare – would I drop dead on Jubilee Line? I could see the headlines – my face splashed all over the front cover of The Metro. What a great way to start a new job, right? And every night when I would finally make it home, I was so tired, tired of my own thoughts, tired of the pains in my body, but unable to sleep through fear of not waking up again. Crying for hours on end with fear and foreboding.

I couldn’t take the worry anymore and finally went to the GP. They checked me over, sent me for blood tests, even hooked me up to a 24-hour heart monitor – they were so patient and kind, and I was so worried of wasting their time. All the tests came back fine, there was nothing wrong with my heart, nothing showing up in my blood tests. I was relieved. But this relief only lasts so long when you’re suffering from health anxiety and panic attacks.

Health anxiety, also known (and often derided) as hypochondria, means that however much reassurance you receive from people, health professionals or otherwise, your negative thought spiral will bring you back to the cycle of worry and physical symptoms. I actually had an obsession with illness. I was caught in a vicious circle that exists within anxiety where you are constantly in fear of the possibility of feeling fear, triggering the stress response and causing the physical symptoms you were so afraid of.

I was stressed and I didn’t understand. Stressed about what? All the things that were going wrong in my life before were better now. I was a solid person who didn’t suffer from “panic attacks” or “anxiety”, were those things even real anyway? What I was feeling was real so I must have some kind of illness.

Stress for me at the time felt like a weakness, and I did not consider myself weak, I didn’t even feel stressed. NABS were excellent throughout, from day one, my line managers have been really empathetic and it was after chatting to a member of the Support team they recommended I go for cognitive behavioural therapy to see if this could help.

Through CBT I learnt that by not being kind to myself, by trying so hard to be strong, I had weakened myself – and  what use would I be to others if I couldn’t hold it together myself? I understood how intrinsically linked my mind and my body were – the physical sensations, manifestations of what was going on in my mind, telling me to stop, slow down and allow myself to ask for help. I finally understood that stress was not a personality trait, but a real feeling you experience when life’s pressures get a little too much. I learnt that I could change who I was and how I reacted to situations; that with a little practise, I could change those unhelpful and negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I could be a better version of me instead of how I perceived myself to be.

Stress is a biological response to a perceived threat, it dates back to our hunter-gatherer instincts where threats were often a risk to mortality. Stress causes the body to produce cortisol and adrenaline, hormones to help you escape said threat by maintaining blood sugar levels, increasing heartbeat, expelling whatever is inside you to make you as light and agile as you can be to either deal with the threat or escape it (so that explains the need to vomit!) Most people will know this experience as ‘fight, flight or freeze’.

Big life changes cause stress and in the space of six months I had a grandparent die and a change of job, and although the latter was a happy change, I didn’t realise the impact of these things on my mind. At the time of my grandad’s death, I held it together, I wanted to for the rest of my family who were in so much pain, but this meant I didn’t really deal with my own feelings. I also wanted to make sure I was working hard and making a good impression in my new job, so grateful that I’d managed to escape my previous job and end up in such a wonderful organisation. I felt like at that time the universe was throwing everything it could at me, but that I could take it because I could ignore it. But I was wrong.

Now a few years on, I’ve got my anxiety under control, no more symptom checking online, no more constantly checking my pulse, no more fear of dying on the Jubilee line, no more impending doom. I now recognise what makes me stressed and have learnt techniques to tackle this when I’m feeling it. I’m more open with others and understand that no one can or should attempt to take everything on alone.

If you are experiencing any of these things, however small, you’re not alone. Don’t be too proud to ask for help, whether friends and family or coming to us here at NABS. To quote an ad of old, as Bob Hoskins once said, it’s good to talk.

NABS is here to help improve and champion the wellbeing of everyone in advertising and media.  We run a Resilience Programme specifically created to help combat the pressures of everyday life, manage stress and live life feeling you are the best version of yourself. Contact us to talk through any issues you’re experiencing, ask about our CBT service or attend one of our practical workshops on building resilience, mental toughness or utilising the methods of mindfulness.

Our Advice Line team are on hand to talk you through any pressures you may be experiencing, at work or at home, and can offer emotional support or refer you to our cognitive behavioural therapy and stress coaching services. Our coaches can work with you in one-to-one sessions to help you find solutions for tackling stress and approaching life in a more positive, solutions-focused way. Visit our website or call us on 0800 707 6607 to see how we can help.


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