With the end of 2021 now fast approaching, a Northern Cape student has been experiencing heightened anxiety and panic attacks. “I’ve been going through a pandemic slump,” admits Sisca Julius (25), who studies at Kimberley’s Sol Plaatje University.
She describes the last two years as “a greyish blur in which everything passes me by like scenery from the inside of a moving train with dirty windows. I don’t know how to stop the train [or] how to get off it.”
Every now and then she randomly snaps out of this panic mode, only to realise she hasn’t take a bath or eaten in two days. “I found myself… watching myself in a panic attack lying paralysed on the floor. I knew I needed help.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Julius transitioned into online learning. For many students across Mzansi, this meant attending classes in their pyjamas in their beds. For others, especially those in towns and informal settlements, it meant walking long distances to find a signal to attend class, and submit assignments.
Julius adds, “We’ve lost so much due to this pandemic, sitting behind laptop screens for hours, being alone, being burnt out and not knowing who to talk to.”
Stress vs anxiety
What Julius is experiencing, can typically be defined as an anxiety disorder. Usually, people who suffer from this respond to certain situations with absolute fear and dread.
You may even experience physical signs such as a pounding heart and sweating, says Pretoria psychiatrist Dr Arnold Lawrence.
“For example, if you are anxious or have a fear of snakes, you will then get panic attacks when you are confronted by snakes. A phobia is also a type of an anxiety disorder.”
Lawrence specialises in addiction and anxiety disorders. He explains to Health For Mzansi that anxiety or panic attacks are just some of the building block for an anxiety disorder.
“Often people who have never had a panic attack assume that panic is just a matter of feeling nervous or anxious. That it is a feeling everyone is familiar with.
“Even though you cannot see a sign of discomfort the feelings they experience are so overwhelming and terrifying that they really believe they are going to die, lose their minds or be totally humiliated.
“I make an example with the snake again. They will see this thing that is as big as a vienna, but in their heads it is as big as a shark. These disastrous consequences don’toccur, but they seem quite likely to the person who is suffering the panic attack.”
Meanwhile clinical psychologist Lumka Mabo, who has a Master’s degree from the University of Zululand, warns that you should not wait for a diagnosis to take your mental health seriously.
What to do when you are under ‘attack’
Disorientation, rapid and irregular breathing, sweating, and cotton mouth. Sound familiar? Panic attacks are as unpredictable as the weather. While the symptoms of a panic attack are not dangerous, they can be very frightening.
“The more you worry, the worse they get,” Lawrence warns. “Anxiety impairs you functionally. It is a fear and there is no reason behind it. Your brain is mixing different outcomes of realities.”
When you are under attack, it is important to remain calm, adds Lawrence.
He believes it is important to not let your fear of panic attacks control you. “Understand that this panic that you feel will not last longer than five minutes.”
Lawrence share four practical tips for riding the anxiety wave:
Breathwork: Change your breathing. “In the old days, our elders would give us a brown paper bag and said you should breath into it.”
Ease tension: Lawrence suggests a hot bath, heat compression or some stretching.
Meditation: Meditation is simply thinking about the here and now, says Lawrence. A mantra or focusing on breathing helps, he says.
Imagery: Simply imagine yourself in a safe space.