I had my first panic attack the day I finished my A Levels. I should have been excited for the adventures ahead: I had an internship in the House of Commons, and a five month trip booked for my gap year where I would be exploring Russia, Vietnam, and China – all the places I had become fascinated by during my exams. Instead of leaping into the unknown like my peers, my entire world quickly began to unravel. Even as a child I always had been stubbornly adverse to change. Leaving the cocoon of school shook my foundations in ways that I could never have anticipated. I began to have daily panic attacks. The world would spin; I couldn’t catch my breath and, despite being desperate for comfort, I could not let anyone near me. These experiences were so alien compared to the confident person I thought I was becoming; I felt like I was living in a body that wasn’t mine.
I had no idea what was happening to me and spent most days genuinely scared that I was dying. As I felt the future I had spent the last two years planning slipping through my fingers, I decided it was time to seek help. Upon visiting the GP, I was quickly put on a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor to help control the panic attacks and my generalised anxiety. I was told that these were really my only chance if I wanted to attend University and regain some control over my life. The first night I swallowed that pill, I cried. I felt like I had failed and was entirely hopeless that I would never find a way out of the fog. I stayed on these pills in varying doses for 11 years.
Despite the doctors telling me that they were supposed to help me feel more balanced and connected, I never lost that feeling that my body and I were two separate entities fighting every day. For the next few years I simply muddled through life. I got my degree, I dated, I worked but I never felt that I was living in any real sense that I had previously understood and certainly not the future I had seen for myself when I was 17. I convinced myself I was working within my limitations, but in reality, I had drawn a very small circle around my feet and did not dare to step outside of it for fear that even this limited life would collapse like everything before it.
I knew that I needed to find something else that would help me regain some control over my life. I had read quite a bit about the proven effects exercise could have on your mental health, so one morning, I put on a faded pair of Adidas tracksuit bottoms I used to sleep in and typed HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) into YouTube. What followed was the most painful yet amazing 20 minutes I had experienced in years. I spent the next day waddling around like a penguin but I also felt something else I hadn’t for a long time: I felt connected to my body, felt alive.
Exercise has given me strength. Not just the physical but the emotional tenacity to take even the smallest step forward on the days where I felt it was impossible. Anxiety leaves you with nothing but doubt; that you are incapable of getting better. Exercise has taught me this is not the case; it rewards me with victories every single day. If I can deadlift double my bodyweight then I can step onto a tube train or greet a stranger. If I can push my body to its limits and feel amazing afterwards then I know that the sickness, shaking limbs, and dizzy spells of a panic attack does not meant that my body is weak and they too will pass. Exercise has helped me build consistent tangible successes which I have used to start to heal the damage that anxiety did to my self-worth.
Am I completely cured? No. I still suffer from anxiety, sometimes cripplingly so, but I know myself now, know what I am capable of and how much I have achieved. I feel proud of my body and can now listen to what it tells me without feeling like I am at war with myself. I know that there will be bad days, but there also can be good and that thought has got me through some very difficult moments. I see a future now.
Small but mighty, Sabrina is a writer, burpee lover, and mental health advocate. Through her blog Anxiously Active, she shares her experiences of anxiety, depression and finding solace in fitness. Sabrina can usually be found either in the gym or watching Gilmore Girls with a jar of peanut butter and her cat.