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  • Writer's pictureKevin Humphreys

Let's talk about your Anxiety

Helicopter rescue - Kevin Humpreys

To be fair, you might not be the one with anxiety. Truth be known, you’re three times more likely not to have anxiety than to have it. But the fact remains on average one in four people suffer from anxiety in their lifetime and if you’re that one, there’ll be times when you feel that the whole world is looking at (and judging) you.

For those (like me) who happen to be the one in four, the symptoms and sensations of anxiety can seem overwhelming at times, at their worst, they can be debilitating. At times you'll have warning your anxiety is building, but there will also be times when you don't.

There are many different types of anxieties. Ranging from agoraphobia to social anxiety, generalised anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders. Some people with anxiety also suffer from anxiety attacks. I'm one of those people too.

For some, their anxiety attacks become a panic disorder. Although first considered to be a type of anxiety (and there are many similarities), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is actually considered to be in a separate category to anxiety in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM 5-TR).

I’ve always been uncomfortable in social situations but never thought to connect it to anxiety. My first conscious experience of anxiety was a full-blown panic attack. I had just returned home from my first operational deployment. I had been in East Timor (Timor Leste as it is now known) for a few months but returned to Australia just long enough to undertake a Black Hawk refresher course before re-deploying immediately afterwards.

One weekend I walked into a shopping centre to get a loaf of bread and as I walked through the entrance doors what seemed like a flood of people stormed towards me. Next thing I knew I’d thrown myself against a shop window to get out of the way. I flattened myself against that window so much I felt that I couldn’t be any flatter if I was the plastic film of a sign on the glass. Sweating like crazy I remember a level of detachment, almost looking at myself, asking ‘what the hell are you doing?’.

Throwing myself against the shop front was not a conscious decision, it was an involuntary physiological response. But why? ‘What the hell are you doing? What’s this about?’ ‘Where’s this coming from?’ I wondered and berated myself.

I didn’t have any answers, only more questions that started swirling around. As the flood of people fell to a trickle, I managed to peel myself off the glass, race into the shop, buy the loaf of bread and get out of there. I was as confused as I was embarrassed. I didn't have a clue why that just happened, so I didn't tell a soul about it. Not my wife, not my family, not my mates and certainly not anybody at work.

To this day I still don’t know what my brain sensed to cause that fight/flight/freeze response. Nothing happened in East Timor that caused me any concern and I’m not aware of any other reason to have been triggered. I also don’t know if plucking up the courage to ask for help after that first attack 22 years ago would have saved me from the years of turmoil I’ve gone through since.

Unfortunately, my first panic attack wasn’t my last. I’ve had a few over the years including ones that present as a heart attack with debilitating chest pain or others when my mind is just completely blank, I’m unable to make a decision and just stand there ‘lost’.

However, the latest one presented like a stroke or seizure with incapacitation. Although I was able to hear and had limited visibility through tunnel vision, I couldn’t speak or move. It only lasted about 15 seconds but scared me like none of the others. I headed straight to the emergency department (ED) where a full set of scans, tests and bloods all came back clear. In the words of the ED doctor (who also happened to be a pilot and aviation medical examiner) “the good news is we didn’t find anything; the bad news is we didn’t find anything. It’s almost certainly psychological or at a long shot, neurological.” Well, it wasn’t neurological either.

Thankfully, I’ve never had any issues in the cockpit and although I’ve been grounded due to an attack, I’ve returned to flying. The one difference between my first panic attack and all of them since is that I had no idea what caused the first one, but I’ve known the triggers that led to the subsequent ones. Disappointingly, even though I knew to prioritise self-care, I attempted to continue ‘pushing through’ because I ‘had to keep going’. Eventually though, my body took control and stopped me in my tracks regardless if ‘now’ was a good time…

There are many symptoms of anxiety. In addition to the examples described above, some common ones include:

  • Anger / Irritability

  • Excessive nerves / Distress in social settings

  • Pounding heart / Blushing

  • Shortness of breath / Shallow breathing

  • Stomach pain / Diarrhoea

  • Excessive fear or worry

  • Tremors / Shaking

  • Avoidance

  • Poor sleep

There are a number of treatment options available for anxiety. Ranging from psychological therapies with a clinically qualified mental health professional (always the recommended best course of action) to pharmacological and complimentary or alternative therapies.

Psychological therapies fall into two main camps: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Exposure Therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) involves education to develop an awareness of our patterns of thinking and the resultant associated behaviours. It also looks at the reverse – our behaviours and the resultant thoughts we have about those behaviours. Exposure Therapy, as the name suggests, involves exposing the person (either through imagination or real scenario) to situations that provoke anxiety in order to learn new methods of understanding and dealing with that situation.

Complimentary therapies include relaxation techniques (such as breathing, grounding and muscle tensing), self-help education to increase knowledge and self-awareness and also, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). EFT has an excellent record of success reducing the symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. Also known as ‘tapping’ and even ‘psychological acupuncture’, it involves tapping certain parts of your face and upper body with your hand/fingers. It’s a favourite of mine and can be done anywhere.

If you are the one with anxiety, you’re definitely not alone. There are highly effective treatments available to reduce and possibly eliminate the symptoms. Of course, it’s always best to treat the cause not just the symptoms and the sooner you get professional help the smoother your ride called ‘life’ will be.

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