Your heart is racing, the walls are closing in and it’s getting harder to breathe – are you having an anxiety attack? CLEO digs deep into the disorder.

“I was out with my crew, and everything was fine, until I felt a lump rising in my throat. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk or socialise – I physically couldn’t. I stammered an excuse and left without even finishing my drink. You know when you’re on a rollercoaster and feel your stomach drop? It felt like that. All I could think about was: what the f **k is happening?”

Jane* was diagnosed with anxiety two years ago, after spending a year suffering horrible bouts like that in silence. She told herself that it was “just a phase” and figured it would pass after recharging over a long weekend.

But it didn’t, and spiralled into something worse. She began to withdraw from her usually thriving social life, choosing to spend more time alone and at home for fear that another attack would be triggered while Instagramming over brunch.

Panic mode?

She had often heard of the famous mid-life crisis, and the even more infamous quarter- life crisis, so she chalked it up to that. “But it got to the point where I thought I should just quit my job and work in the coffee shop I was working at when I was in secondary school,” Jane recounted. “That’s when I snapped out of it – I had to go and see a doctor.” When she was diagnosed with severe anxiety, it was a relief. It meant she wasn’t crazy.

“[The doctor] suggested going for cognitive behavioural therapy and seeing a therapist but after hearing I may not see a difference for eight weeks – that was too long for me, given I couldn’t face day to day life – I said, ‘Give me the meds!’”

The science behind anxiety

Anxiety comes in many forms and can be part of your genetic makeup. Most of the time, it’s not situational and anyone can get it. Studies show that globally, one in 13 suffer from anxiety, while about 10 percent of the population in Singapore suffer from anxiety disorders.

“We talk about ‘anxiety’ but it’s shorthand for ‘anxiety conditions’ [such as] phobias, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder,” says Dr. Stephen Carbone, policy and evaluation research leader with Beyond Blue, an online resource that provides comprehensive help and information on anxiety and depression. “Each has their own symptoms but the classic features are panic attacks, a pounding heart, tenseness, restlessness, shallow and fast breathing, fidgeting, or feeling cold, clammy and shaky.

Reactions include thinking that something bad is going to happen, withdrawing from situations you were once comfortable in and feeling like you can’t cope.”

The important difference between having an anxiety condition and simply feeling anxious is the situation and length of symptoms. Getting nervous or anxious before a job interview is normal. “However, experiencing intense anxiety with symptoms that are unwarranted and grossly disproportionate isn’t. Sometimes, these symptoms persist even when the threat or cause of stress is absent,” says psychiatrist Dr. Gurdeep Grewal. When these feelings are intense, persistent and start to interfere with your daily life, you should seek treatment.

How to get through it

The type of anxiety and the treatment required differs from person to person. But most symptoms can be managed, especially if you seek help early. However, anxiety conditions are lifelong obsessive-compulsive and symptoms can evolve. “Listen to the subtle signs of the body before the attack and take steps to derail the emotional build-up,” says Dr Carbone. If you’re having a panic attack, he advises deep breathing. “You have this surge of adrenaline, so one of the ways to stop [it] is to sit quietly and take slow, deep breaths with your eyes closed.”

I think I have anxiety. What should I do?

While having anxiety can be a harrowing experience, living with it doesn’t have to be. Take a step back if things get too overwhelming, and remember that with treatment, it can be managed.

Call 6389 2200 to make an appointment to see a doctor at the Institute of Mental Health.

If you’re facing an acute anxiety attack, call the 24-hour Mental Health Helpline at 6389 2222, or seek medical help at the 24-hour Emergency Services at the Institute of Mental health.

Avoid food and beverages like caffeinated drinks which can induce symptoms such as tremors and palpitations.

Images: Unsplash
Text: Cheryl Lim

Additional text: Zoe Zeng