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Living with panic attacks: my story

WEBKirsty1 (cropped)

It can be really hard to explain to someone what it's like dealing with a mental health issue and trying to work at the same time.

Take a minute to imagine something that really scares you - sky diving, a big spider - and how that makes you feel. Chances are you feel fear, nausea, dizziness, that feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Now imagine getting ready for a meeting or preparing to go into the office, and feeling all those things - mixed with despair, disgust and shame because you feel like that and you think no-one else does.

Think about having to take your kids to school, a minute's walk away, but being unable to make it out of the door. Or being stuck in a traffic jam, desperate to get out but knowing there's nowhere to go.   

These have all been regular occurrences for me for many years, on and off. Sometimes I'm clear of panic attacks for a couple of years, sometimes I feel it building up, and sometimes it comes out of nowhere.

Before, I was a normal (whatever that means) student, enjoying university life with no real worries.

I remember my first panic attack. I got on the train to work one morning and started to feel light-headed and sweaty, with stomach cramps. My hands tingled, my legs were like jelly, and I began to see stars. When I got to the station I rang in sick, putting it down to a virus, and went home, feeling exhausted for the rest of the day.

This happened on a few occasions so eventually I saw the doctor, who diagnosed panic attacks.

The problem is that although they are very physical in how they affect you, they come from your brain. You worry desperately about the next one, so you begin to avoid those situations and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more it happens, the more you withdraw until you can completely isolate yourself.

In my case, anxiety then set in as well.

In 1997, I was virtually housebound for a year, socially at least. The only thing I could do was keep going to work, because I knew otherwise I may become reclusive. I cut out most social occasions, rarely going out, even to see friends.

At work, I carried on as normal (to those around me) but on a daily basis it would cause me problems and could be quite exhausting.

For me, the triggers were:

  • Public transport
  • Conferences or meetings
  • Social events
  • Traffic jams

Pretty much the life of a surveyor, really! 

They were all situations I felt I had to put on a front of being ok, when in fact I wasn't. I withdraw into myself to deal with the anxiety, which means I may come across as antisocial or aloof at times.

Luckily I had a very flexible career, so where possible I organised meetings somewhere I felt comfortable and tried to avoid early mornings, and using public transport.

I worked for some great companies and work was what kept me going. But after a prolonged period with an excessively heavy workload and feeling my requests for help were ignored, I developed depression and ended up having to take time off work. Before then, I could never understand how people could end up in that situation. I thought I was strong, not weak.

The problem was, I'd tried to be strong on my own for too long, until my brain said 'Enough'. Just like when you get a cold, and your body is saying it needs a rest.

I was off work for a few months, returning gradually occupational health assessments and some counselling. Eventually though, I knew it wasn't working so I resigned and ended up setting up on my own, which gives me much more freedom.

Five years on, and although at the moment I feel fairly strong, I know my mental health issues will never go away. It's part of me, like having brown hair and eyes - but it doesn't mean I can't be a good surveyor as well.

I do feel there is a change in understanding and openness surrounding mental health, and the more people talk about it becomes less of a stigma. I hope my personal story may make other people who are struggling realise they are not alone, and that they can ask for support.

If you have not had any experience of these issues yourself, I hope it may give some small insight into the impact mental health issues can have. Talking and listening is key.

Kirsty Harvey MRICS is director at KTD Surveying and is a LionHeart mental health ambassador. She shared her story at two of the recent John O'Halloran Symposium events. 

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