It’s a funny thing, anxiety. Sometimes it can spring from nowhere, other times it’s been building quietly in the background until a series of events, a big event or a seemingly insignificant event sends you over the edge. You want to run away and hide under the duvet. You want to cry until there’s no more tears left. You want to scream until your voice gives out. In my case, it took several deep breaths with tears streaming down my face in an IHOP (of all places to have a meltdown, I ask you) before I could be coherent enough to answer the most basic of questions.
Then almost immediately came the shame. The berating. Everyone is looking at you.
Why couldn’t you just hold it together? Why did you have to be so overdramatic? The list goes on. I’m fortunate that I have learnt to hold these negative emotions at this stage. I allow them to come before I spiral and then try to focus on the positives. I don’t always succeed, and with this particular, let's call it, ‘anxious moment’ I found it a huge challenge to move past.
Perhaps it was that it happened so publicly. We’ve been so schooled and skilled in presenting a facade to the world, only really letting emotions show when we’re in private. However, that is starting to change and thank god, because it’s exhausting. I’m no stranger to bouts of anxiety. It stems from being overly conscientious as a child wanting to do her best at school that transferred to the world of work, dealing with different egos and a feeling of inadequacy among her peers.
I’m learning though. I have mechanisms in place to cope, but what I’ve noticed more recently is that it’s those around me that struggle the most to understand it, and that in itself is enough to make an anxious person more anxious! True to form, almost straight after my panic attack, I was worried about how I would explain it. My default reaction when something like this hits me is to retreat away for a bit, have a hot shower, put on comfortable clothes and try to rest. Phone off. Mind blank. Do not disturb.
Where it gets a bit challenging for me is after I’ve taken this time out, the assumption by those around me is that I should feel better straight away. ‘Are you ok NOW?’ Honestly, no. One afternoon away from the chaos is not going to cut it but trying to explain that to those who don’t have any experience with this or to those from a different generation is hard.
In the end it took a few days to feel more like myself and then I sat down for a chat about nothing in particular, which somehow ended up being much more significant. I found it easier to explain the mounting pressure from different areas of my life that eventually resulted in my panic attack. Perhaps that’s where perspective comes in too. I was in shock initially, too emotional and tired to process what had happened and then be ready to sugar coat it for others.
But, later on, when I wasn’t even thinking about how I should broach the subject, it came out quite naturally, and in that moment, there was understanding. We all have fears, but they come out in different ways for all of us. What is a minor issue for some will be huge for others. It’s how we approach our own anxiety and being kind to others which still needs work.
Since COVID, mental health has finally made it into the mainstream in a big way. Nearly 40% of young people aged 18 to 24 in the Middle East struggled with their mental health last year, according to a global report by The Mental State of The World. Dubai, to my mind at least, has always been ahead of the curve in providing facilities to address this.
I’ve been going on and off to The Lighthouse Arabia since 2018, when at the grand [old] age of 31, I decided I needed professional help. I’m confident that if I had learned more about disorders like anxiety and depression when I was younger, perhaps I would have spoken out sooner. Even at this stage in my life, the stigma back then when I did confide in a few people, particularly in the UK, was that I had serious issues.
Of course, fast forward to 2020 and it was a different story. Mental health and anxiety were no longer whispered about in closed circles, but instead given the platform and attention needed for people to access help on a daily basis. Even now two years on, we’re still dealing with the fallout. Just because we’re not in lockdown, masked up and applying for permits to leave our house anymore does not mean the world has healed. Things have changed irrevocably.
The title of this article serves as a reminder that there is no ‘normal’ today. We’re all different. We all react differently. We all cope differently. Some people are able to bounce back quicker, others may take longer and that’s fine. I honestly don’t know what ‘OK’ looks like from one day to another, but I do know that I’m grateful to be here and able to find out.