I was approaching my 20th birthday when I had my first full-blown anxiety attack. It was the Easter holidays and I was revising for some tough law exams when I suffered what I thought at first must be a heart attack or a seizure. It began with a sensation similar to that when you expect your foot to land firmly on a step, but instead find empty space. It intensified to the point where I nearly collapsed.
It is difficult without sounding melodramatic to describe how it feels to have an acute anxiety attack. The heart beats increasingly faster as adrenalin pumps into the blood. There is a loss of peripheral vision and hearing becomes distorted – as though listening to the world’s sounds from inside an echo chamber. Palpitations make it impossible to speak, the skin feels numb to the touch and, finally, the victim is fighting for every breath. The immediate assumption is that this is life-threatening.
I managed to convince myself that this first attack, which passed after several minutes (although it left me with an ongoing, low-level anxiety and several phobias), was caused by a virus. It was the late Eighties, the time of “yuppy flu”, and several students at my Oxford college had been struck down by this mysterious debilitating illness. I had never heard of anxiety attacks and had no reason to believe I was suffering a mental health problem.